Home Video Reviews
The first film in the series, Raiders of the Lost Ark, was released in May of 1981, shortly after executive producer George Lucas' sublime The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and director Steven Spielberg's titanic misfire, 1941 (1979). While basking in the radiant glow of their recent respective successes, Star Wars (1977) and Jaws (1975), Lucas and Spielberg dreamed up the Indiana Jones character, while vacationing in Hawaii.
For those who have never seen Mr. Jones' tales of wonder, Raiders of the Lost Ark introduces Indiana Jones (named Indiana Smith in earlier drafts of the script) as a renowned archaeologist, college professor, and adventurer who is more adept at plunging into ancient, snake-infested tombs than in reacting to a smitten student's clever come-on. Indy is a nostalgic throwback to the hero of the Republic Studios serials that Lucas and Spielberg grew up on, as well as a postmodern statement on movie heroism. Indy is sort of an "anti-James Bond": rugged, rough and ready, but exasperated, professorial, and prone to groan and bleed when hurt. Raiders finds Indy squaring off against the old-standby of cinematic heavies, the Nazis, in a relentless game of "keep-away" with God's long-lost box, the Ark of the Covenant. Indy is convinced the Ark belongs in a museum where it can be studied and marveled over, while the Nazis are bent on opening the thing and turning it into a Hopelessness Chest for the free world. The film has it all: Unbelievable stunt sequences that still have not been equaled for their sheer fun and inventiveness; a legendary, majestic score by John Williams that is still stuck in many moviegoers' heads; and superb performances that really have no business being in a popcorn escapist film. All of this, plus God showing the Nazis who's boss. In this era of advanced CGI, the simple effect used to wipe away the Nazis in a maelstrom of Yahweh anger is still truly frightening. Small children and the squeamish should avert their eyes.
The worldwide success of Raiders in dollars and critical accolades, including the winning of several Academy Awards and even a nomination for Best Picture, pressure-cooked the demand for a sequel, a demand that Spielberg and Lucas were already prepared for, having planned on making a trilogy anyway. But they still needed a story on which to hang their first sequel. Screenwriting team Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz were called in to develop a story set in India, since the twosome were familiar with the country and its culture. Using several set pieces that were carried over from Raiders (including the river rafting and the mine car sequences), they came up with Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984), a dark tale of the intrepid adventurer coming to the rescue of an impoverished Indian village that has suffered twin debilitating losses: their children and three sacred, life-giving rocks, all stolen by the Thugee killer cult that is spiritually poisoning the region under the legitimizing front of the Maharaja. Note the ingenuous way in which Indy gets out of a pickle on a suspension bridge in the film's thrilling climax. It's a potent, gutsy, and shocking solution that you don't see much in action adventure films.
Lucas and Spielberg meant for the second Indy adventure to be darker in tone, a horror movie even, but it turned out to be much darker than either one of them thought. Lucas opines in the documentary on the making of the film that perhaps the darker tone had to do with the divorce he was going through at the time of production. This darker tone was practically pitch black, thanks to gruesome scenes of a character having his beating heart taken out of his chest, slave children put under the whip of Thugee henchmen, and a over-the-top gross-out dinner scene, consisting of all sorts of macabre munchies. But perhaps the most disturbing plot point has Indy turning into a mindless Thugee zombie. It could be argued that many a serial's hero was temporarily placed under the spell of the villain, but in a film already surrounded by so much ugliness, this plot point is wholly unnecessary. It's no wonder that this film and the malevolent, Spielberg-produced Gremlins (1984) were responsible for the motion picture rating, PG-13.
Less offensive than the darker tone is Kate Capshaw's character, Willie Scott (named after Spielberg's dog--Indy was named after Lucas' dog), who is nearly as annoying as Jar-Jar Binks in Lucas' Star Wars, Episode I: The Phantom Menace (1998). But to Capshaw's credit, she portrayed the whining, selfish, vain, screaming Willie as written. So blame Willie Scott on screenwriters Huyck and Katz, who also floated for us Howard the Duck in 1986. The documentary gamely addresses the screaming criticism, as well as the gripe that Willie Scott is just another stereotypical woman. That is all true, but her character is at least consistent. A bigger negative of the first and third films are the inconsistent characters. When we first meet the heroine Marion Ravenwood in Raiders, she is literally drinking a heavy oaf of a man under the table, portraying a gutsy femininity that would be a help to globe-trotting Indy, rather than an hindrance. And yet, when she is chased through the streets of Cairo by Nazi stooges, she's reduced to wielding a frying pan when not protesting loudly, "You can't do this to me. I'm an American!" And Denholm Elliot's Marcus Brody in Raiders is almost a totally different character in The Last Crusade. He acts as a grounding agent for Indy in Raiders, reminding him of the dangers involved and what finding the lost Ark of Covenant means to humanity and to Indy. No one can gravely say "Wiped clean by the wrath of God" quite like the Denholm Elliot and mean it. But in The Last Crusade, Brody is simply comic relief, which is fine, but instead of an intellectual-fish-out-of-water trying to keep up with the Joneses, Brody's a doddering fool in the Jerry Lewis tradition.
Stinging slightly from the criticism incurred from The Temple of Doom, Spielberg and Lucas came home again with the third film in the series, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989). Originally intended to be a haunted castle adventure, the creators wisely got Indy back out in the open, hoping across the globe in places like Venice, instead of being cooped up in one setting, like the Thugee temple in the last film. Spielberg and Lucas came up with a quest for the Holy Grail, even though that search had been the basis of a legendary search by some guy named Arthur and a gang of knights. The filmmaking duo reasoned that the search for the Holy Grail would really be a metaphor for Indy's search for redemption and reconciliation with his estranged father, Professor Henry Jones, Sr., played by a welcome Sean Connery. Back again were the Nazis, this time led by duplicitous American Walter Donovan (Julian Glover), a entrepreneur more interested in the Grail rather than Nazis ideology. Donovan is much like Belloq from Raiders, only without the Frenchman's worldly sex appeal. The Last Crusade was unfairly criticized for being too much like Raiders. Admittedly, Crusade's well-done tank chase does seem derivative of Raider's truck chase, but the development of Indy's character through the lens of his troubled relationship with the Senior Jones makes for a compelling and entirely fresh Indiana Jones chapter.
All three segments of The Adventures of Indiana Jones are steeped in a wink-wink-nudge-nudge game of cinematic "allusionism." Aside from the obvious nods to the Republic serials that inspired the film series in the first place, homage to and inspiration from the films that made up Spielberg and Lucas' movie-going heritage are replete. The government bureaucrats who hire Indy to find the Ark in Raiders bear a suspicious resemblance to Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, while the ignominy of the Ark's fate quotes the famous ending to Citizen Kane (1941). Indiana's adversaries in The Temple of Doom are the Thugee cult, a malevolent tribe of religious zealots who also served as bloodthirsty villains for British soldiers Cary Grant, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., and Victor McLaglen in the classic Gunga Din (1939). The throwbacks to old Hollywood were especially helpful when it came time for Spielberg and Lucas to fill their cast. Karen Allen brought to the role of Marion Ravenwood a saltiness that Carole Lombard possessed, while Spielberg insisted that Ford instill Humphrey Bogart into his characterization of Indy. The lead villain, Frenchman Belloq (played by the fine Paul Freeman), may be a humorous nod to one of Spielberg's mentors, Francois Truffaut, while sniveling, sadistic SS agent Toht (Ronald Lacey) was creepy in the Peter Lorre tradition. As numerous as the allusions to old classics, there are just as many to Lucas' Star Wars (1977), which shares many of the same crew members with Raiders. The excellent documentary shows the detail of an engraving of R2-D2 and C-3PO on a column in the Well of the Souls from Raiders. And let us not forget Club Obi-Wan in The Temple of Doom.
The documentary, which can be divided up into three chapters, each covering one film, is a treasure trove of interviews. Aside from Lucas, Spielberg, and Ford, cast members from all three films are represented. Karen Allen, Kate Capshaw and Alison Doody all share their experiences of being put through the Indy wringer, while John Rhys-Davies, Alfred Molina (soon to star as Dr. Octopus in another sure-fire winner, Spider-Man 2, set for Summer 2004), Paul Freeman, Ke Huy Quan, Roshan Seth and Sean Connery all voice their take on their supporting characters and the films. Interviews with late co-stars Denholm Elliot and River Phoenix are welcome and insightful. Behind-the-scenes participants are given their due, from cinematographer Douglas Slocombe and producer Robert Watts to screenwriters Lawrence Kasdan (Raiders), Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz (The Temple of Doom) and stunt coordinator Glen Randall. Unfortunately, the documentary makes no mention of Jeffrey Boam, screenwriter of The Last Crusade, who died in 2000.
The documentary takes into account the development of all three films, from conceptual pow-wows, through scriptwriting, production, casting and release. The quality of the documentaries, written, directed and produced by frequent Spielberg DVD collaborator Laurent Bouzereau, are top-notch. They utilize concept drawings, full-scale models, and original screen tests to tell the painstaking story of each film's evolution. More valuable is the abundance of on-set footage. Cast and crew work through tricky production problems, such as the realization that 2,000 snakes for the Well of the Souls scene in Raiders were woefully inadequate. Solution: producer Frank Marshall wrangles 7,000 more slithering reptiles for the sequence. (And speaking of snakes, the famous gaffe, that of the cobra's visible reflection in the glass that protected Harrison Ford, has been digitally erased for the DVD.) The footage is also a fun window into the filmmakers clowning around, rehearsing scenes, and a rare peek into deleted scenes, included one where Sallah is about to be executed by a German soldier.
Rarer still is the documentary's coverage of the casting process. Peter Coyote, Tim Matheson, and Tom Selleck all tested for Indiana Jones, even though Spielberg initially wanted Harrison Ford. Lucas was reluctant to cast Ford, since Ford had already been in three of Lucas' film. He didn't want Ford to be his "Bobby DeNiro," a reference to the frequent partnership between actor Robert DeNiro and director Martin Scorsese. But after Tom Selleck had to turn down the offered part due to commitments with his new television series, Magnum, P.I., Ford was cast. Similarly, Spielberg really wanted Danny DeVito to play Sallah, but DeVito couldn't do it because of his role on the television series Taxi. Sean Young tested for Marion Ravenwood, but Karen Allen was the overwhelming favorite for Spielberg and Lucas. Screen tests of Selleck and Young, Matheson and Allen, and Kate Capshaw can all be seen in the documentaries.
In addition to the truly excellent documentary, there are several featurettes which delve into the more nuanced areas of production. "The Stunts of Indiana Jones" is a fine crash course in the efforts to bring Indiana's derring-do to the screen. Vic Armstrong, who doubled Ford in I>Raiders, and served as Stunt Arranger for studio shooting in The Temple of Doom and as Stunt Coordinator for The Last Crusade, discusses how a stuntman prepares for a trick and how he or she contributes to the overall production. Stuntman Terry Leonard took the bumpy ride for Indy underneath the moving truck in Raiders, a stunt that was based on a maneuver pioneered by legendary stuntman Yakima Canutt, performed for director John Ford's Stagecoach (1939). Leonard notes that ever since he unsuccessfully attempted the stunt for the The Legend of the Lone Ranger (1981), he had been itching to try it again. With fellow stuntman Glen Randall at the wheel of the truck, Leonard was confidant the stunt would work.
Other featurettes include the marvelous "The Sound of Indiana Jones," featuring the unique and Oscar-winning talents of Ben Burtt (who came up with, among many other things, the lightsaber sounds in the Star Wars pictures), The Music of Indiana Jones," and "The Light and Magic of Indiana Jones," which discusses how Industrial Light and Magic created the films' special effects.
The Adventures of Indiana Jones is a near-perfect presentation of three grand entertainments. It is annoying that Paramount has re-named the first film Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark, but that is a small quibble with a fine boxed set. Now the only question is whether or not Paramount will release a whole different Indiana Jones set when and if the fourth Indy movie is released. But for now, this Golden Fleece set is a grand addition to your DVD museum.
To order The Adventures of Indiana Jones - The Complete DVD Movie Collection (Letterboxed Edition), go to TCM Shopping.
by Scott McGee