[26 May 2008]
Just because a DVD set release just so happens to be primed to the release of the next installment in the series of films contained in said set, doesn’t mean that it’s not a perfectly fine idea: occasionally commerce can actually work towards the consumer’s advantage. Case in point being Paramount’s release of Indiana Jones: The Adventure Collection, timed to the blowout opening of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, the film that now seems to make the title of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade redundant.
On the one hand, this is another example of the Lucas-ian entertainment complex squeezing yet more eggs out of the golden goose, as all three of the Indiana Jones have been available together on DVD for years (they were originally restored and remastered back in 2003, and still look and sound great). But on the other hand, it’s an admirable show of restraint—particularly given Lucas’ Star Wars record as an incessant tinkerer—that the films are presented here the same as when they were in theaters. Ultimately what it comes down to is the fact that these are films that should be owned, and now is as good a time as any.
The biggest reason why now is a good time to revisit the Indiana Jones is not necessarily that the new set is anything so impressive. Sure, there are a few updated extras in which cast and crew natter on in a sunny press kit-friendly manner about the films’ making (apparently everybody had a great time), and the new slim cases make the whole thing fit better on your bookshelf.
But the real reason is ultimately that the half-decade since the series first appeared on DVD have been particularly abominable for adventure cinema. A look at the special effects behemoths that have come stomping through theaters each summer produces a dispiriting listing of heartless sound and fury. The Lord of the Rings, Chronicles of Narnia, Pirates of the Caribbean, and various comic-book-inspired crash derbies; all films that get tossed into the “thrilling” or “adventure” category, and there’s hardly a recognizable human being to be seen in any of them. (Only the National Treasure films have made a serious attempt at glomming onto Indiana Jones’ penchant for history and derring-do, and nobody would argue that those films will be much remembered 20years from now.)
Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom
Because somehow, even with the vast repository of historical and linguistic lore Indiana keeps at his fingertips, not to mention his preternatural ability to survive relentless beatings, he is kept relentlessly human by a pair of filmmakers who found in this trilogy a rhythm that proved impossible for others to replicate. Even though when Lucas and Spielberg first concocted the character on a Hawaii beach as dashing James Bond type (and might have gotten that with their first casting choice, Tom Selleck), the Indiana who shows up is a cocksure and punchy type who’s tripping over his own good luck when not getting his face pounded in. That tuxedo he wears ever so briefly in Temple of Doom fits about as well as a spacesuit.
The sublime first installment, 1981’s Raiders of the Lost Ark, remains a gem today in many ways not necessarily because of what Indiana Jones is able to accomplish (rescuing the ark of the covenant before it falls into Hitler’s hands) but that he does it in spite of himself. The opening segment contains its share of instant iconography—the Paramount mountain dissolving into a real mountain, Indiana’s whip cracking at an assailant in the instant before we first view the hero’s face—but few more memorable than Indiana’s run for the plane.
Having crept with inestimable care through the tunnels leading into the buried South American temple and avoiding one deadly snare after another, he sets off the final booby trap only after griningly cocking his hat back and smirking after securing the golden idol. One treacherous Nazi-stooge later, Indiana is racing for his seaplane (sans idol) with angry tribesmen in tow, Harrison Ford’s pell-mell and panicky tearing along saying just as much as his more professorial demeanor in the following scenes will.
He’s a smart but lucky blunderer; Han Solo with a Ph.D. The closest one can come these days to such a clumsy hero is Pirates’ Jack Sparrow, who layers a louche tipsiness onto Indiana’s foolhardy cockiness, but still can’t quite measure up as he doesn’t seem to have cracked a book in his life.
For this and many other reasons, 1984’s Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom still feels today like a wholly unworthy sequel to the original. Looking beyond the oppressively subterranean setting and Fangoria-friendly gore-factor, the film most importantly seems to forget Indiana’s vulnerability. In Raiders , Indiana had an arrogant tomboy love interest who greeted him with a sock to the jaw, and a contingent of knowledgeable adult sidekicks who helped however they could and then politely stood out of the way when Indiana started thrashing Nazis.
The Gunga Din-esque Temple , set a year or so earlier in China and India, gives Indiana no real help but a surrogate family, instead. First, there’s the primping showgirl Willie (future Mrs. Spielberg Kate Capshaw), saddled with stale gags and worse flirtatious badinage. Then there’s Indiana’s kid assistant, the infamous Short Round, a diminutive Kato whose cuteness seems tailor-made to compensate for all the heart-gouging human sacrifice and ethnic stereotypes on display. (Raiders certainly had its share of Western superiority as it traipsed through Latin America and the Middle East, but it’s nothing in comparison to Temple‘s fear and mockery of Asians and Indians, culminating with a last-minute rescue by British troops that reeks of early-20th century imperialist concerns.) Neither character is close to being Indiana’s equal, which ramps his heroism—normally of the accidental variety—into a more cookie-cutter cinematic mythology.
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade
Though there are several worthy moments in Temple, the film’s ultra-violence and weak sense of humor make it seem now just another forgettable episode in Spielberg’s mid-‘80s period where he shepherded somewhat pandering and adolescent-skewing pulp like The Goonies and Young Sherlock Holmes. (For Lucas’ part, this was the time when he was producing the likes of Howard the Duck and the Ewoks TV series, and so clearly didn’t seem to know better.) By the time 1989’s Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Spielberg appeared to have loosened up, exploring different creative avenues in Empire of the Sun and willing to bring back the light-touch of the original Raiders.
This light touch is apparent right away in Last Crusade‘s opening segment, where Indiana’s origin story is established via a Western-styled carnival romp where in short order River Phoenix (as the teenaged Dr. Jones) gets his scar, learns how to use a bullwhip, develops a fear of snakes, and even gets his signature hat. Not long after, Indiana is chasing after yet another Biblical artifact, outwitting Nazis, stumbling onto clues, being outwitted, and getting regular beatings.
It’s hard for the whole affair to not feel like a retread (people like the second movie? Let’s redo the first one!), but yet somehow it all still brings a smile to your face, due in large part to Sean Connery’s deft comedic timing as Indiana’s dad. The rare appearance of an authority figure who Indiana actually listens to (when they first meet up, he snaps to attention with a well-trained shout of “Sir!”) puts him solidly back in the position of not being the smartest or most accomplished guy on screen at any given time; in other words, right where he needs to be.
All considerations of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull aside, the original trilogy still easily stands on its own well after filmmakers beyond number have tried and failed to copy its addictive template. To return to a gross overgeneralization ventured into earlier, the heroes of current Hollywood don’t ever seem at a loss for words or deeds, and we’re all the less for it. From the supremely gifted children in the Harry Potter films to the breezy action-film calisthenics witnessed in the Narnia series, there’s little that today’s matinee stars don’t seem able to do, and just about nothing they can do seems worthy of breaking a sweat.
Indiana Jones may have been able to decipher ancient languages and handle an entire Wehrmacht column single-handedly, but it never looked easy, and often not even planned out. There should be room in our collective imagination for a hero who makes mistakes, lots of them, and still saves the day.