RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK (1981)
****/**** Image A Sound A+ Extras B-
starring Harrison Ford, Karen Allen, Paul Freeman, Ronald Lacey
screenplay by Lawrence Kasdan
directed by Steven Spielberg
INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM (1984)
***½/**** Image A+ Sound A+ Extras C+
starring Harrison Ford, Kate Capshaw, Ke Huy Quan, Amrish Puri
screenplay by Willard Huyck & Gloria Katz
directed by Steven Spielberg
INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE (1989)
**½/**** Image A+ Sound A+ Extras C
starring Harrison Ford, Sean Connery, Denholm Elliot, Alison Doody
screenplay by Jeffrey Boam
directed by Steven Spielberg
INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL (2008)
**½/**** Image A Sound A+ Extras C-
starring Harrison Ford, Cate Blanchett, Karen Allen, Shia LaBeouf
screenplay by David Koepp
directed by Steven Spielberg
by Walter Chaw Let's talk about hats--fedoras, in particular, and how they evolved from the image of the hard-boiled detective in the American noir cycle into the chapeau-of-choice for Coppola's gangsters in the anti-hero '70s. How Harrison Ford's Deckard from Blade Runner was originally conceived with one of the hats to go with his trench coat before Raiders of the Lost Ark made an American icon out of Ford's swashbuckling archaeologist Indiana Jones, and how that didn't stop child-killing child-molester Freddy Krueger from getting a fedora (singed and blood-stained, but so was Indy's) in 1984--the same year, as it happens, that Steven Spielberg and George Lucas turned their American icon into the star of his own horror movie with Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. The relationship between Americans and the hats their heroes wear is a complicated one. A Freudian would offer that hats are tumescent--the loci of masculine power, a metaphor for the penis/head--and that losing a hat is the equivalent of castration. My favourite example of that theory in practice is Joel McCrea losing his in a field of windmills to the trilling, mocking laughter of ladylove Laraine Day in Foreign Correspondent. The Coen Brothers make it a throughline in Miller's Crossing, too, as Tom loses and reclaims his hat in cycles of power and powerlessness. I think it means something in the fourth Indiana Jones flick that evil Russkie Spalko tips Indy's hat up on his head in an attempt to read his mind instead of knocking it off entirely.
Here in 1981, when fedoras were mainly still just popular shorthand that a film was a period piece, comes self-centred, glory-hungry, mostly-irresponsible, philandering, unpleasant, probably-colonial beefstick Indiana Jones, striding off the pages of pulp adventure comics and Saturday-afternoon matinee serials square into the first Reagan administration. He was the first time-traveler in a decade of them, and his popularity and the reasons for it are in lockstep with Reagan's in hindsight: We like these guys because even though they're assholes, they're our assholes. We created them. We are in tune with the purity and simplicity of their bellicosity. They are the perfect avatars for the kingdom of halcyon boyhood that has within its borders the city on the hill, shining there in the middle of that Morning in America. The only tragedy of Indiana Jones is that rather than continue to reflect the waxing and waning of the brutal felicity of our national identity, it only came to reflect the softening and equivocation of Lucas and Spielberg, the most fiscally successful of the Film Brat generation, swallowed whole by the lie of their responsibility to the audiences they created. By the myth of themselves, metastasizing the frustrated invention of the outsider into the onanistic call-outs that mar most of Stephen King's work from the last twenty years. (Yes, we know you invented a couple of cities in Maine; get an editor.) It's often said, and it's more true than not true, that Spielberg has been making and remaking Jaws and E.T. since 1982.
The greatest irony, of course, is that that popular audience was reared on the diet of despair and darkness fed them by their blockbusters: Luke losing his hand and discovering that daddy is Hitler; Brody getting slapped by "that Kintner boy"'s grieving mother; Roy abandoning his young family to go fly around with aliens. How about a Nazi, a Frog, and another Nazi getting their faces melted off by a Jewish WMD while Indy and his girlfriend avert its gaze? The run up to the unbearable slightness of summer movies was, in fact, the tailings of the New American Cinema, the paranoid cinema of the American 1970s. Whatever made Spielberg think he needed to impose happy endings and framing stories on his films is, at the end, a larger tragedy than whatever it was that made Lucas a simpering, anti-intellectual douchebag (my guess is it has everything to do with his 1983 divorce from Marcia Griffin: his brain, courage, and heart). Spielberg was the real deal--and the only movie he's done since E.T. with any balls is the chilly Catch Me If You Can. He has a million-dollar arm, though I have a good idea about that ten-cent head of his. But in 1981, fresh off his first real disaster (1941) and united with buddy Lucas, Spielberg had something to prove. And so, he proved it with the impossibly good Raiders of the Lost Ark.
Indiana Jones (Ford) is an archaeology professor who moonlights as a tomb-raider, scouring the planet for artifacts buried in jungles and deserts where they're watched over by deadly boobytraps, unpopular religions, and deadlier brown men. He's armed with a whip, a pistol, and his two fists; accompanied always by a fedora that, by the third film, gains a kind of anthropomorphic half-life (it's like a movie where the hero's penis is addressed as a person); and in this one, he's joined by a girl, Marion (Karen Allen), he abandoned ten years earlier but with whom he reunites now that he needs an artifact in her possession. He's a cad, and she treats him like one when, after a thrilling opening sequence that is among the most imitated and excerpted in film history, he shows up at her Nepalese bar one wintry night, demanding it as a favour for the greater good. It seems Marion's doodad is also wanted by the Nazis as a piece of the puzzle to the last resting place of the Ark of the Covenant--the vessel that supposedly holds the original tablets inscribed with the Ten Commandments. The Nazis want to use it as an occult weapon of mass destruction; Indy just wants to put it in a museum. The compromise is that the faceless U.S. government buries it deep in Xanadu. Raiders of the Lost Ark is Spielberg's homage/fare-thee-well to unequivocal filmmaking when he's finally earned the right, once and for all, to make whatever he damn well pleases into eternity. Why (how?) does one "sell out" when one is writing the rules of the game as he goes along?
At its heart, the Indiana Jones saga is about the excavation and cultivation of nostalgia. It's about curating found objects and the essential, primal power of the past to affect the present. It posits film as the ultimate repository of mythology, single-handedly, through its agency, giving tactility to The Bible (Old Testament in this one, New in The Last Crusade), pagan religions (Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom), and, finally, America's own well of souls in the unapologetically fantastic first forty American minutes of Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. The first film also has the audacity to give its hero a job as a tenured professor in some stuffy new world University--one of the last holdovers from the '70s, placing Raiders of the Lost Ark as, along with the previous year's The Empire Strikes Back, a transitional film between an era interested in Clark Kent and one mostly interested in Superman.
Arrayed against Jones are rival archaeologist Belloq (Paul Freeman) and Nazi stooge Major Toht (Ronald Lacey), the one in the employ of the other and, like Jones, more interested in the historical importance of the prize than in its military application. Jones and Belloq (as Belloq says in the preamble) are essentially the same creature, and by the last film, Indy's long lost, recently-unearthed son Mutt (Shia LaBeouf) will refer to him, repeatedly and accurately, as a grave-robber. The harsh irony of Raiders is that after all the dust settles, the United States government puts the Ark deep in storage in an endless warehouse; the harsh irony of the quadrilogy is that, after four films, the series agrees that wisdom is dangerous and brings no profit to the wise. Still trailing the last noble vestiges of the '70s behind it, Raiders of the Lost Ark remains about uncovering, exposing, and discovering that best efforts come to naught in the face of our ever-expanding, faceless, monolithic government. Presented as a re-creation of Golden Age serials, it's a model of not just '70s paranoia and the veneration of the anti-hero, but also the idea that Weapons of Mass Destruction are holy objects that don't injure the righteous and, fascinatingly, are perhaps even punishments for unbelievers1. The entire series will eventually equate The Bomb with God. It was the perfect movie for the 1980s, and it made the society of humans living underground and worshipping an atomic bomb in 1970's Beneath the Planet of the Apes more prophecy than science-fiction.
There's surprisingly little action in Raiders of the Lost Ark, but it cooks like the proverbial motherfucker. In addition to the opening temple-run with giant boulder and duplicitous aide/lackey Sapito (Alfred Molina), there's a confrontation in Marion's bar, a fight in an Egyptian bazaar (Tunisia subbing), a fistfight with a giant bald German guy, and then an amazing truck chase. The rest rotates between what is basically a romantic triangle between Belloq, Marion, and Jones and the basics of an adventure plot that leads Jones to, eventually, the back of a U-Boat and a deserted island chosen as a test site for the opening of the Ark.2 Both elements--the action and the exposition--are wondrously devoted to character development, and, more importantly, the film as a whole is frighteningly attuned to the wave as it was turning back to shore in 1981. The secret to Lucas and Spielberg's eternity is that they were surfing in the sweet spot of the zeitgeist tube, whether or not they had any idea what the hell they were doing. Watching Spielberg come up with gags for the film--even accidental ones like Ford contracting dysentery or something and being too sick to shoot an elaborate swordfight sequence, leading to his pulling a pistol in the film's second-best joke--are acts of creation akin to what I imagine Rilke was acting like when he wrote his Sonnets to Orpheus. I think of Belloq describing the Ark as a means through which to directly speak with God when I consider that Raiders of the Lost Ark is more or less evidence of Spielberg doing exactly that. Consider that scene where Toht pulls out a torture device to reveal, after a perfectly calibrated, perfectly weighted beat, that it's...a coat-hanger. It's a moment that speaks to not just Toht's menace, but to his vanity as well--and it reminds at a crucial juncture that the film is wry and aware of itself. Like that moment where Marion flips a mirror in a steamship stateroom and Spielberg does the old bit of a long-shot where you can hear Indy's scream, then the dusty, almost Vaudevillian punchline of Marion asking if he's said something. Like that moment where Belloq eats a fly while waxing messianic about the Ark. The picture is unpredictable, dazzlingly so, and only partly because it walks the line between farce and horror with unconscious grace. No wonder it's not only one of the most fiscally successful films of all time, but one of the most critically-respected, too.
George Lucas finishes his first Star Wars trilogy two years later with the comparatively weak and crowd-pleasing Return of the Jedi--the clues to the conspicuous softening of his middle coming first when he changed the key word of that title from "revenge," next when he decided to go to a planet of teddy bears rather than Wookiees, and lastly when he decided to let Lando live. For all the reasons to divorce George Lucas in the early-Eighties, Marcia probably left him because his scrotum fell off and/or as a result of which he stopped listening to her. Just as Lucas followed his greatest artistic success (The Empire Strikes Back) with Raiders, he again collaborated with Spielberg on the heels of Jedi with what was then called Raiders 2: Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.
Hotly-anticipated, as would become de rigueur in the blockbuster '80s, this sequel finds Lucas in a sour mood and Spielberg, too, who frankly would have probably made a film like Temple of Doom whatever his mood given that his gratefulness to Lucas for limiting his losing streak to one film seems to mean he'll do anything Lucas wants him to do. For many, Exhibit A in that contention is Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. But to the matter at hand, Temple of Doom is an unbelievably crass, unpleasant, horrific picture that trades as its currency the exact sensibilities it purported to import from 1930s Republic serials. Sledgehammer racist, gleefully misogynistic, unapologetically crude, ignorant, vile in almost every respect, it's also machine-tooled in its efficiency as an action-delivery system, and it uses its abominations as the means by which we're kept, for the duration, completely uncomfortable. Notoriously the main reason the MPAA created the PG-13 rating (as a sop to masters of the universe Spielberg/Lucas, who apparently wanted to fuck up as many children as possible), the violence and the gore don't begin to describe the all-consuming atmosphere of wrong the film exudes. It is every bit the movie it would have been pre-Code; the only thing missing, really, is an African-American Stepin Fetchit butler/nanny archetype for uncomfortable comic relief. Lucas would circle back around to take care of that with Episode I. It's relentless, dada almost; to an eleven-year-old me, Temple of Doom and the novelization of it I devoured the day and night before its release were my first exposure to the cold reality that movies didn't owe me a breast to suckle, just a reflection of how wrong the world is. In that way if no other, it's a quintessential film maudit, mis-categorized because it occurred there in bright and shiny 1984 and not in 1949 when Jean Cocteau curated a series of outré pictures, nor in the Sixties and Seventies counter-programming, when censorship rules were in retreat before the rage of the undertow.
A prequel set in 1935, one year prior to the events of Raiders of the Lost Ark, Doom opens in Shanghai with a performance by Willie Scott (Kate Capshaw) in Mandarin of Cole Porter's "Anything Goes." It's fair warning, thematically and stylistically, as Spielberg expands the prologue into a full-blown Busby Berkeley production number with a chorale of dancing girls. Cut to dapper Jones in white jacket, trading the ashes of an old Chinese emperor for a big fat diamond that captures gold-digger Willie's eye. It's the first joke of the movie, that grave-robber Jones would be paired with a chiseller and opportunist of another stripe. The scene sets up the Chinese as venal and corrupt, and there was a time I took this as affront--but no longer. Watching it as a man of almost forty, I see it as a precise snapshot of Oriental representations in Yellow Peril pictures (featuring Fu Manchu, Mr. Moto, and Charlie Chan)--representations that, in truth, we're still not free of in modern cinema. I'm not offended anymore, I'm resigned. An elaborate action sequence commences in which Jones does his best to recover a vial of antidote to a poison he's tricked into drinking while Willie does her best to recover the diamond, knocked to the floor during the scuffle. It bears mentioning that Jones's doomed sidekick this time, a Chinese guy (billed as Wu Han but nameless in the film, just like the Ewoks were in Return; he's played by David Yip), takes a bullet for the Great White Hunter. I should also mention that the picture is deeply colonialist and that this, too, is in tune with those old Republic serials and the attitudes of that--and every, if we're honest--age. Temple of Doom, if it's anything, is honest. All insects are honest. They can't be anything else.
When I saw this movie as a child, I was, above the ripped-out, still-beating hearts, the institutional child abuse, and the near-constant revulsion and terror, particularly dismayed by the character of Short Round (Ke Huy Quan), who was about a year-and-a-half older than me. I see now what I didn't then, that the character is probably the only noble one in the film, certainly the only one worth rooting for and the only one who made me wonder about his fate once the movie was over. If it's only a year before Raiders of the Lost Ark, after all, what has Jones done with this war orphan he's adopted and turned into his personal driver? In fact, a scene in the original screenplay for Kingdom of the Crystal Skull would have returned Short Round to the cinematic canon (and given Quan one of his rare roles since hitting puberty) as the, yes, guy who drives Indy to his wedding. Now, see, that's racist. What Short Round is in Temple of Doom is an indicator of a culture in which there's absolutely no counter-measure to the Short Round archetype--none. There's no balance for a kid speaking pidgin-English in an accent that decades of American programming have made ridiculous and servile. Short Round isn't servile--not like Wu Han, anyway. Short Round is actually courageous, smart, resourceful, and the hero of the piece. It's not his fault he's the comic relief, it's the fault of every single asshole watching it who thinks he's an adorable chink monkey because they've never had the opportunity to see a substantially different representation of an Asian of any age in a Hollywood production. Short Round isn't racist; the culture that produced him is. When I saw this movie as a child, I could almost predict what was coming: Indeed, all my buddies the next Monday were calling me "Shorty" and asking me to do the accent. For a kid wanting to "fit in," Temple of Doom illustrated for me and for all my friends my absolute difference.
Anyway, Short Round accompanies Willie and Indy to deepest, darkest India and Pankot Palace in search of a mystical Sankara Stone, without which a pathetic little village, robbed of its children, will suffer and perish from famine and grief. This is racist, the idea that bwana from the sky will lead the backwards, Zippo-worshipping brown people to glory, and this early sequence that sets the story in motion offers the first of two times Spielberg and company will engage in the "ethnic food is gross" gag as Indy forces Willie to eat the meagre repast offered them by a council of elders. Part of that "company" involves, crucially, the loss of Lawrence Kasdan as screenwriter, replaced by the infernal dyad of Gloria Katz and Willard Huyck. The duo, who made the promising Messiah of Evil in another life, would go on to pen Best Defense and, for Lucas, the notorious Howard the Duck. In other words, fuck them.
It seems this benign corner of paradise has been overrun by the brutal Thuggee cult, led by charismatic Mola Ram (Amrish Puri, just awesome), who has the ability to rip hearts out of people's bodies without also immediately killing them. He demonstrates this once with a guy they drop into a lava pit; fails to demonstrate it on Willie before trying to drop her into a lava pit (doesn't even try, really); and fails again to do it to Jones, though, admittedly, not without giving it a good effort. It's a grisly, nay, ghoulish effect, and the first time we see it, our heroes are framed by a couple of human skins flapping behind them in their hiding spot. Testing boundaries? Temple of Doom is completely shameless in its testing of boundaries, channelling Lucas's unchallenged attitudes towards women and minorities without anything like a filter. Consider the Willie character, who spends the entire film screaming, whining, or in a state of estrous--and how she's rhymed with Short Round as a child in Indy's care, always needing back-of-the-hand discipline, guidance and instruction, cajoling, threatening. Among the throng of children liberated by our white hero at the end, count Shorty and Willie as the most visible of them, making Jones's obvious desire to fuck Willie one of those unsavoury things and reminding us that Marion in Raiders of the Lost Ark was "just a child" when Indiana did things to her, then left her.
The saving grace is that Spielberg is a genius. His timing is impeccable; a brawl between Indy and a hulking Thuggee on a rock-crusher conveyor belt, paralleled with Short Round battling a zombified kid Maharaja (Raj Singh)--who, mixing genres and racial intolerance, has constructed a voodoo doll of our good Dr. Jones--is beautifully- choreographed and executed. The mine cart finale? Likewise, brilliant. Equal parts hilarious and horrible, Temple of Doom is the '80s L'age d'or--another film, surreal and unpleasant, about a romantic pair in a constant state of sexual frustration, forced to endure the banalities of a corrupt ruling class, forced in both films at some point to fondle/fellate a stone statue. Plus, there are bugs. Whatever the intent of Temple of Doom, the impact of it is derangement and frustration and how those phenomena combine to create an appalling affront to civilization, and, ultimately, to provide a wealth of insight into the attitudes of a particular time and place.
Seen in this way, Temple of Doom is something like a surrealist masterpiece: provocative, profound, the blueprint for every blockbuster like it that would follow in its hatred and suspicion of the Other. It's a foundational film, lawless and fundamentally inexcusable, and it says all there needs to be said that it instantly became one of the top-grossing films in the land--that an entire industry adjusted itself to facilitate the creation of more like it. Its fascination for me is that I'm entirely incapable of not respecting it, even admiring it, while recognizing it for what it is. It's my relationship exactly to a scorpion. After Temple of Doom and the whipping of children, the violence against Short Round by an intoxicated Indy (the series' bleakest moment), the crocodiles ripping apart the bad guys in the ugly vengeance lurking right underneath the sparkle and wonder of Spielberg's veneers--after this, Spielberg forever loses the muscle necessary to deliver appropriately hopeless endings to films like Minority Report, War of the Worlds, even Schindler's List and Saving Private Ryan. This movie broke him. The terminal station for the filmmaker who did Duel, The Sugarland Express, Jaws, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, it is his most complicated and stickiest film.
Small wonder, then, that the third entry is almost entirely free of controversy despite its thoroughly Christian conceit--handled, perversely, by a thoroughly Jewish director. Where it works isn't in the refined slickness of its action or the perfunctory sexiness of its "Bond girl," Dr. Elsa Schneider (Alison Doody), but in its attempts, feeble though they may be, to address father-son issues between the obviously deranged Indiana Jones and his distant, doddering papa Henry (Sean Connery). Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade opens with young Indiana Jones (River Phoenix) engaged in his first evangelical crusade on behalf of the necessity of interring other cultures' artifacts in Western archives and, along the way, acquiring his whip, his chin scar, his fear of snakes, his fedora (in a scene that plays like a Bar Mitzvah), and, eventually, even his name. It's also about, in its evasive, roundabout way, how Indy acquires his hatred of women and his disrespect for other human beings. I love the part where all of the students in the class he teaches mob him during office hours because Professor Jones is obviously chronically absent. (This mob, by the fourth film, is reduced to trying to learn something from the old guy by stealing a question when he crashes a motorcycle into the library.) When The Last Crusade works, in other words, it works by literalizing Jones's psychological devastation at being abandoned by his father and forced to carry the burden of a legacy he appears to bear grudgingly. It's chilling--and it should be--when it's revealed that Elsa has fucked both Jones boys. "I was the next guy, Dad." This is Spielberg at his most Freudian.
In this one, Indy teams with his father to find the final resting place of the literal Holy Grail. He will go to Venice, where he defiles a library and discovers an impossible catacomb beneath the sunken city; then to Berlin, where Hitler (Michael Sheard) signs his journal; then to the Holy Land and the "Canyon of the Crescent Moon," where Jones "chooses wisely" before riding off into the sunset. Like a triumphal march, old pals Sallah (John Rhys-Davies) and Marcus (Denholm Elliott) are aboard, and, indicative of the direction Spielberg has taken despite his forays into the lands of "serious" and "prestigious" entertainment at this point, everything's treated like benign slapstick. Even the father/son issues are handled in a broad, eye-rolling fashion, with a fraught conversation in which Indy is entirely incapable of conveying the extent of the betrayal he's felt from his father painfully, cruelly brushed to the curb. That this film is remembered as the lightest of the series goes a long way towards telling of Spielberg's perverse desperation in burying this filial conflict. There's not so much as an attempt to relate Indy's divorce from Henry with mankind's divorce from a remote concept of God--not unless a tossed-off reference to Henry as "Attila the Professor" by his bitter boy counts. Maybe it's in a moment where Henry slaps his son clean across the face for "blasphemy" but not for suggesting that their absent, presumed-dead mother resented Henry's obsessions as deeply as her son did.
Still, there's ugly, roiling subtext in The Last Crusade (not the least of which for its title) in the treatment of the noble Arab guardians of the Grail, in the erectile-dysfunction punchline that at the end of all the struggles is an old guy who can't lift his sword over his head, and in a final punishment that results in the rapid aging of another lacking Jones's purity. The idea of aging is handled decently here if extra-textually, as Connery plays against his life's work as a Scottish Y-chromosome, but like the father/son theme, it's underplayed, leaving the film to jump from slick action sequence to slick action sequence, none especially memorable (no rolling boulders in this one; no heart extractions or mine carts, either). If there's substance in this one, it's in the excavation that Spielberg is now actively indulging buddy Lucas's weaknesses--perhaps playing patsy to his unfinished ideas and undeveloped substrates in order to win the prize of being allowed to direct one of the films in Lucas's upcoming Star Wars prequel trilogy. It's interesting that even after that ship sailed, Spielberg's disavowal of Kingdom of the Crystal Skull included his famous shrug and a "I just do what George tells me" grin. The Last Crusade is Spielberg paying off a favour while trying to earn another one. By the time we reach the next go-round, nineteen years later, he doesn't have an excuse.
There's a tableau in the first thirty minutes of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull that is so iconic, so breathtaking in its construction and implication within and without the text, that I was frankly glad to be alive at this moment in our cinematic history. Indiana Jones silhouetted in foreground-right against a mushroom cloud is something people like Baudrillard would/should worry over for entire volumes of critical theory. As Indy is permanently, pregnantly implanted on the collective psyche of the blockbuster generation, I do wonder if I'll ever see a depiction of a nuclear blast again without looking at it through the prism of this avatar's eyes. It's like picturing Marty McFly jumping into the Holocaust, or Forrest Gump at Dealey Plaza--I won't be able to help myself. And in this most derided of sequels, it's by itself worth the price of admission. At this point in cinema's history, it is the absolute encapsulation of entire volumes of critical theory about self-reflective works of art--of post-modernism, of the eruption of "new" archetypes with new mediums, of the importance and potency of film as the prime artifactor of new images in the last century-plus. It is, in one flashpoint, the reason no one experiences calamity anymore without comparing it to a movie image. Not a specific image, something from "a movie"--something from the only creator of image and experience with any currency in the modern conversation. In the shadow of no towers, no one compared the calamity to something from an opera, or a movement in a ballet.
For forty minutes, Crystal Skull is genius. Exhilarating, imaginative, a comfortable marriage of George Lucas's stunted puerility and Spielberg's gifted puerility as the Paramount logo morphs into a gopher mound run over by a 1957 roadster we follow as it cuts through a military procession that...well, that would be telling. The worst-kept secret was that the picture was somehow about "Saucer Men from Mars," and sure enough, the evil Reds, led by a Natasha-warbling Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett), coerce our archaeologist into helping them locate certain artifacts unearthed at Roswell, NM. The implicit promise is that the film will deal with McCarthyism and the Red Scare in the United States, with Indy losing his job to the finger-pointers and forced to deal with Hoover's goons impugning his patriotism. Consider the arc from the first film when Indy's mentor, the lost Ravenwood, is called out as a Nazi sympathizer to this one where our Jones hissownself is accused of sympathizing with the sneaky Russkies. The opportunity for an Invasion of the Body Snatchers foray into small-town America (indeed, Indy's buddy Mac (Ray Winstone) turns out to be a pod) is so ripe for the plucking here, so tantalizing given Spielberg's gift for romanticizing Americana, that it points simultaneously to a better film and to an adaptation of "Mars is Heaven" that would, at last, be the perfect sci-fi vehicle for the boy wonder.
Here's a chance to understand that which drove Cold War paranoia--to find Indy in the United States for his last adventure, adrift in the nuclear, post-war age and demonstrating that Raiders of the Lost Ark wasn't the fluke in the series for its smart, razor-sharp script and remarkable pop-insight into what it meant to be a Nazi appeaser in the form of Paul Freeman's French baddie Belloq. Raiders of the Lost Ark is a seminal picture for a lot of reasons--many of them having to do with its absolute understanding of how the West viewed this period in history and how we view it still in all its glorious simplicity today. But what's astonishing about the first part of this third sequel, up to and including the introduction of young sidekick Mutt (Shia LaBeouf, who makes his entrance as the spitting image of Marlon Brando in The Wild One) and a motorcycle chase featuring a disappointingly obvious stunt double for Ford, is abandoned remorselessly in its second half as Lucas decides to go to Peru--the sentimental old fool retreating back into the utterly, dishearteningly familiar. I'm not asking for a master's course on the prevailing sociology of the late-1950s, I'm asking for the pop treatment of a shameful era in American history in exactly the same way as Raiders tackled the wartime interzone (it's Casablanca but better, no?) or, hell, like Crystal Skull itself does in that one mind-blowing tableau of Indy against the Apocalypse.
Almost as good are moments where it's revealed, wordlessly, that Prof. Jones's class, once the province of moony-eyed girls with "Love You" printed on their eyelids, is now at least half young men; how Prof. Jones is probably detested by his students given how they go out of their way to try to get office time with him only to have him tell them to drop out and find some nice ruins to pillage. But the second hour is merely another jungle serial full of the same old waterfalls and riddles as Indy, reunited with Marion (Karen Allen, just terrible), traipses around, dodges Commies, and opens heavy stone doors with the clever manipulation of levers and cracker-jack deciphering of hieroglyphs. Its resolution is near-identical to the first film's climax when it would have been more apt to emulate its epilogue. Why not, for instance, have Spalko's fate be her carving the secrets to cold fusion and light-speed travel into the walls of the cell of her Peruvian madhouse oubliette as a sad-faced nun shuts her forever from the world? Maybe have her writing dates on the wall (9/11/2001, 11/22/1963) while begging to speak to a nun. Wouldn't such be the better price paid for her Mephistophelean act of knowledge-brokering than a broken-bank's worth of special effects that make her explode into digital sparks? The whole second half of the film is both smug and timid: It rehashes most of the major sequences from the first three films, while a nifty field of piranha-like ants is resolved in a way that doesn't make a lick of sense.
The most disappointing misstep, though, isn't the script's second-half pandering, the desperation of Allen's overwrought perkiness, the not-subtle suggestion that Mutt is to be Jones's heir-apparent in Lucas's inevitable spin-off sequels, nor the anticlimactic final third that doesn't know how to end itself, much less the series. No, the most disappointing misstep is that it doesn't properly use John Williams's score to rousing effect. Though I'm not much a fan of Williams's later work, his stuff from the Raiders period is as much a part of my generation's core identity (and the bane of several generations of synchronized swimmer) as any single character; when Crystal Skull fails to even once introduce the obligatory trumpets where they would actually frenzy the desperate-to-be-frenzied, that's the cruellest blow of all. It becomes clear from the music that everyone involved has lost interest. Aside from that first forty minutes, Crystal Skull is the first film of the four that's actually poorly constructed. Consider that I wanted so much to be enthralled by this picture despite a gnawing realization that there was only ever one genuinely good film out of the original trilogy that I fought against its first half's light's long gutter and eventual wink-out. Say it ain't so, Joe. Still, I'd go back to watch the forty minutes set in the United States again in a heartbeat, if only to imagine a rest of the film after the midway that had the balls to be something great instead of a little love note to itself and the die-hards.
Raiders of the Lost Ark is like a primer on how to be an American boy. For a while, going to the movies was like this; if you grew up in the early-Eighties, popular film was fraught, reactionary, often insane. There weren't guardrails. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom is case in point. The fact that Last Crusade and Crystal Skull both made smug reference to the first film (in a cave painting in the third film, in the titular artifact in the fourth) handily undermines the freshness of the first two pictures--it archives them, makes them museum objects from a distant time and place and presents as good an explanation as any as to why so many, born too late, believe the third film is the best one when the real race is between the perfection of the first and the perfect lunacy of the second. In this way, the last two films make the first two films feel like jokes from a different era, and that's the real tragedy of them--a tragedy that Lucas's endless revisions to his pictures (the first Star Wars trilogy, sure, but also his earnest THX-1138) and Spielberg's own "softening" of E.T. and, frankly, the endings to all his post-Doom films except, let's say, Catch Me If You Can, maybe Munich, only underscore. They've become evangelists in the church of self-importance. Say what you will about Raiders of the Lost Ark and Temple of Doom--neither were trying to change the world and neither, certainly, gave much of a damn what you thought of them. If we talk about what's changed in our culture in the last thirty years, it's that the mainstream has become puritanical. I'm not sure how it would fly anymore if Marty's mom were to try to rape Marty in a parked car. It's caused the ugliness to go into the subtext of things like Transformers: Asshole, resulting in a film culture that pretends its white-bread American heroes are blameless instead of obviously, conspicuously part of the colonial, grave-robbing problem. When the good colonials come in bearing rifles to subdue the aboriginal Thuggees to Willie's "well, it's about time," what other message could there be? The plan in the later films is to make Raiders quaint and Temple of Doom a rumour; all they succeed in doing is magnifying that the first is a masterpiece and the second indelible. They don't belong in a museum--they belong in a zoo.
THE ORIGINAL DVD EXTRAS: RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK; INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM; INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE
Find on the fifth disc a trio of progressively shorter retrospectives for each of the films that, when combined, total 126 minutes--coincidentally the duration of the third and longest Indiana Jones feature. By the Last Crusade portion, it's clear that all involved are tapped out: Without warning, the participants go from doling out information to summarizing the plot--and lazily, at that. In print interviews, Spielberg has said he thought doing Last Crusade would help him to exorcise lingering demons about his relationship with his own father, but the production is portrayed as neither a cathartic nor an especially joyful experience by supplementals producer Laurent Bouzereau, who gets the most mileage out of his Raiders material. At last, Tom Selleck's screen test for the role of Indy sees the light of day (he's not awful, just Magnum-like), and Lucas hangs himself with statements like "I'm lazy" and the admission that he didn't want to cast Ford, lest the actor be perceived as his "Bobby De Niro." (Good thinking--it's not like the Scorsese/De Niro collaboration had yielded any lasting results.) The Temple of Doom piece is almost as intriguing thanks to Spielberg's eagerness to snitch on Lucas for pretending that Indiana Jones stories subsequent to Raiders were as good as written in order to extract a verbal commitment for a trilogy, as well as Capshaw's defense of her regressive female character and the account of Ford's herniated spine, an impairment that forced Spielberg to shoot with a double for several weeks as the actor recuperated from a controversial surgical treatment. I learned a lot from these segments, though I didn't feel exceptionally nourished.
Also on board are must-see featurettes--replete with archival footage--specific to the "Stunts" (11 mins.), "Sound" (13 mins.), "Music" (12 mins.), and "Light and Magic" (12 mins.) of Indiana Jones. Stunt coordinator Vic Armstrong's explanation of how the rolling-ball was achieved without the use of opticals is a lesson in ingenuity, and an amusing tribute to recurring bit player Pat Roach offers a surprise or two. It's also nice to finally check in with composer John Williams (whose Indiana Jones theme is the heart-and-soul of the trilogy), who's not so much as mentioned in the omnibus documentary, while Ben Burtt's work on Raiders is justly honoured with revelatory and enthusiastic recollections ("This jungle is gonna be so friggin' alien," was Spielberg's reaction to the animal noises that Burtt had fabricated for the beginning of the movie). And it is, of course, refreshing to hear Lucas extol the virtues of cheaply-accomplished, pre-CGI special effects.
THE BLU-RAY DISCS
I've seen Raiders of the Lost Ark, conservatively, about a hundred times. I saw it the first time through my fingers as a terrified eight-year-old, then begged to see it three times more before it left town. It was the first movie we rented on our new VCR, the first movie I pirated VCR-to-VCR when blank cassettes cost over ten bucks apiece, and every day after school, I'd bake a plate of French fries and watch the damned thing. I know every beat, every skip. The apocryphal tales you hear of audiophiles internalizing the pops on their Coltrane vinyl? That was me and my EP-dubbed, pan-and-scan copy of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Watching it on DVD years later, I was shocked that the sound didn't drop out when Marion clears her bar upon winning her drinking contest as it did on my stretched, abused VHS tape, and delighted to see more Nazis fried in proper widescreen, though it did make it harder to pick out the one who gets the lightning right in the eyes. Now it's on Blu-ray...and they say there's no such thing as a time machine. Viewing Raiders of the Lost Ark in HiDef on my gigantic elevision made me feel like that eight-year-old kid again, sandwiched between my parents, vowing that this would be the time I looked at what the Jewish ghosts did to that vaguely Asian guy with the coat-hanger. The 2.35:1, 1080p image is, in other words, glorious. The detail? This goes for each of the transfers: stupendous. The colours? Rich, saturated, utterly filmic. Being able to see every wrinkle on the date that poisons the monkey is enough to have me returning again whenever my kids want to test themselves and their gorge against the face-melting. For what it's worth, Temple of Doom is the most attractive of the original three in HD, perhaps by default of being the most colourful and brightly-lit. Raiders looks very satisfyingly like a film print while Crystal Skull looks completely undiminished from what it was on the big screen. (If it has a shortcoming, it's that it brings the CGI into glaring relief.) These THX-certified presentations are incredible.
The 5.1 DTS-HD MA tracks are, across the board, logical, loud, surprising, and revelatory. As to Raiders, the gunshots are like cannons, and the hiss of Toht's palm burning on Marion's trinket erupts like a basket of snakes. Best, John Williams's triumphant theme erupts with life from every channel--this is what it felt like to sit engulfed in the movie as a child. Anything could happen, and did. Listen to the way that space changes in the soundtrack as we go from college halls to the stone auditorium unleashing the face of Jewish vengeance on a gaggle of Nazi stooges. Brilliant. If possible, the lossless resurrection of Temple of Doom is even more remarkable, from the slurp of the "snake surprise" to the full-field scuttling of insects to the roar of the inferno that Indy subjects Willie to when he, for the second time in the film, has a bit too much to drink. Last Crusade continues the technical excellence--the scene in Berlin is monstrous and enveloping, while the echo in the antechamber before the three labours of God is realistic-feeling as well. Then there's the obvious excellence of Crystal Skull, which ditches the Dolby TrueHD track of the previous release at no expense to the mix. I liked the rustling of the ants a great deal as they emerged from the rear discretes, and the booms and grunts of the opening fight/flight sequence are genuinely powerful. Subtler moments like the release of sand in the key mechanism fill the soundstage no less impressively.
HiDef trailers for each of the four films join their respective platters. All of the supplementary material's been ported over from the 2003 "Adentures of Indiana Jones" DVD box set (see Bill's sidebar), shucked here to a fifth disc that also includes a more recent "Making of" (51 mins., HD) for Raiders of the Lost Ark that delves a bit deeper into Lucas's mythology of having imagined a series before Star Wars. Other topics broached: working with Kasdan (but, inexplicably, never working with him again post-Jedi); hand-aging Indy's bomber jacket with steel wool and want-to; and how Danny DeVito was the first choice for Sallah but couldn't get out of his "Taxi" obligation. I like Allen's admission that the finished product was nothing like she imagined from the shoot, and I like that there's extensive footage of the bazaar battle between Indy and the swordsman from before it became Indy shooting the swordsman. It's better the way it lands in the film. The casting decisions, the deleted scenes, the glimpses into what might have been...all point to Spielberg having then, and maintaining now, an unerring sense of what is cinematic. Whether he still has a sense of what is honourable is the better question. A separate "Making of" (29 mins., HD) for Crystal Skull joins the conversation, containing all-too-revealing moments of Spielberg speaking of appeasing fan-lust and doing what George tells him. When a fifth Indiana Jones film was announced, Spielberg spewed the same line: "We're just waiting on George to come up with an idea." There are better strategies for success, but it's clear--he says it--that he doesn't really give a shit.
A parade of SD featurettes begins with "The Melting Face!" (8 mins.), everything you ever needed to know about how the melting-face effects were achieved. "The Creepy Crawlies" (12 mins.) acquaints us with the bug and reptile wranglers who populated the series with beasties (trivia: Ford doesn't actually fear snakes! Capshaw does!), and "Locations" (10 mins.) is a travelogue with pop-ups. "Indy's Women" (9 mins.) is an American Film Institute fluffer, abridged from what must have been an insufferable evening, that allows the ladies an extra strut and fret, while "Friends and Enemies" (10 mins.) devotes time to the various sidekicks of the series. In 1080p, we have an "Iconic Props" (10 mins.) piece that is fourth-film centric--stuff like the corpse-head cup from the second film goes unmentioned. "Effects" (22 mins.) features ILM guy Paul Huston discussing the heavy use of CGI in Crystal Skull. Finally, "Adventures in Post-Production" (13 mins.) provides a brief overview of editing, scoring, and so on, again for the last film. Gone is the lengthy behind-the-scenes doc from Crystal Skull's 2008 BD, in addition to that disc's interactive timeline. They are not missed. I would, however, have appreciated commentary tracks, new documentaries, etc., but be careful what you wish for. Listening to Spielberg/Lucas go on for ten hours about films they don't understand would be a unique torture.
1. This idea is paid off in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom with the sacred Sankara stones, which, over a prayer, glow white-hot, but only seem to burn the blasphemer Mola Ram. return
2. There’s an interesting parallel, of course, between this film and Kingdom of the Crystal Skull when Jones finds himself at ground zero of a literal atomic blast. return