It doesn’t matter when you discover this series, it doesn’t even truly matter which film of the original trilogy delivers your first exposure. However you get there, whether it be childhood and the awe of a roguish hero or later in life searching for an appreciation of a cultural icon, you arrive at the same place: we all kind of want to be Indiana Jones.
Organized in the fashion of the movie serials of the period in which they are set, these films deliver episodic bursts of action throughout the narratives, essentially creating a non-stop ride from start to finish. Steven Spielberg’s direction is tight, focusing on visually framing the shots to convey adventure in a concise and informative manner not unlike illustrations in a book. His shots are not merely documenting the stories, but creating the world in which they transpire and encouraging the viewer to be transported there. Combined with John William’s emotionally illustrative score and what turns out to be an amazing cast of supporting characters (Karen Allen as Marion Ravenwood is a personal hero), the films are deserving of their place in history.
Raiders of the Lost Ark
From the moment the Paramount logo slowly fades revealing the mountainous and exotic view of Peru, the stage is set. The viewer spends the first ten minutes or so without properly being introduced to the main character. We see a back, legs, a shadow falling across the jungle scenery as he puzzles his way from one clue to the next. The anticipation we feel in wondering who this mysterious figure is only elevated by the respect and fear shown by his companions. By the time Indiana Jones steps from the shadows and the crack of his whip disarms the first of many enemies, we are hooked. Doesn’t hurt that he’s played by Harrison Ford.
After such an introduction, we are immediately ready to follow Indy on whatever adventure comes next and pure excitement is felt by the viewer while watching Indy travel the globe to thwart the rising Nazi regime before they can harness the power of God himself. Yes, Army Intelligence might have asked Dr. Jones to help with the problem, but Indy doesn’t agree for his country. He agrees because it is the right thing to do and it needs to be done. Using his intellect, spirit and quick thinking, Indy trudges his way from one obstacle and exotic locale to the next. Literally one man against an army, earning victory through righteousness and hard fought battles. It doesn’t get much more romantic and heroic than that.
Temple of Doom
Set primarily in India, (where our hero goes up against a violent cult that practices black magic, child slavery and ritual sacrifice) Temple of Doom is by far the darkest of the Indiana Jones movies. While there are many moments of humor, often due to Short Round and Willie Scott, Indy’s companions on this adventure, the storyline and amount of graphic violence are what tend to make the greater impression upon viewers. Not only does the subject matter go dark in this film, but Indy himself does as well. The audience gets a glimpse at Indy as a man with flaws and weaknesses. In the end, it is the moments of humor and exciting action sequences such as the over the top mine cart chase that save the film from going too heavy to still be considered an adventure for the whole family.
This second of Indy’s adventures actually occurs prior to Raiders of the Lost Ark chronologically, something I was unaware of until early teens. Believe it or not, I put a lot of thought then into why it is essentially a prequel when the specific storylines are not connected in any way. Part of me wanted to believe that it was an attempt to leave intact the epic love story that was Indy and Marion (or so my young and romantically obsessive mind hoped), but it was clear even then that the purpose was to allow for a new enemy completely unassociated with the Nazis. In setting Temple of Doom before the Third Reich was even a piece on the chessboard, we can see Indy develop as a character in his own right and not just as a personification of ‘America’ during the World War era.
Quite possibly the best aspect of this film is that we get to see Indiana Jones the man versus Indiana Jones the myth. There is nothing that eliminates all masks and cuts right to the quick of a person quite like interacting with family. Opening with a glimpse of Indy as a young teen, we witness the impetus for his life’s pursuits and the beginnings of the man he is to become. Throughout the narrative and his interactions with his father, played by Sean Connery (Who else could be Indy’s dad but James Bond himself?), Indiana Jones is revealed as an even more deserving hero than we had realized.
This third film in the original trilogy once again pits Indy against the Nazi forces that are now rising to great power. Once again, our hero is integral in foiling their nefarious plans. I admit that a good portion of what I knew about the Nazis up until the age of twelve came from watching Indiana Jones. I knew those guys sucked and were up to no good. Later on when social studies class caught up to my education via pop culture, I realized that Indy was right and I am not ashamed to admit that more than once the images seared in my mind from one or more of these films assisted in my studies. Transcribing all of the dialog (using my old VHS copy) into a spiral notebook while at my grandparents’ house for the summer probably didn’t hurt my German any either.
It is important to note that Indiana Jones, while arguably the most famous archaeologist in all of pop-culture, is absolutely horrible at his job. He traverses the globe in search of treasures while aiding in the destruction of pretty much every archaeological site he discovers. He works fast, with very little note taking and pays no heed to local laws, selling artifacts to fund his next adventure. That said: let’s just agree that ‘archaeology’ is a cool new word for ‘treasure hunting badass who also tweeds it up to teach university’.
Honestly, as far as role models in popular fiction go, we could do a lot worse. Contained in this enigmatic persona is the academic, the outlaw, the fighter, the lover, the explorer and the sage all wrapped up in a relatable ‘regular guy’. The character was conceived by George Lucas, who seems to have tried to smash all of Jospeh Campbell’s character archetypes into one ultimate hero. It’s easy to see how we can all recognize a bit of ourselves and latch onto in Indy. He is the man we all hope to be, motivated not by fortune and glory, but by what is honorable and just.
Is the character pretty much unbelievable? Sure. Are these films formulaic? Yes. Do we want to go along for the ride anyway? Of course.