By Jonathan Decker (Family therapist, film critic)
Note: This was written in 2008 in anticipation of Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.
May 22 is only ten days away, marking the glorious return of, arguably, the silver screen's greatest action hero. I've already got my ticket to Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, and this past week I re-watched the original three to get myself psyched (it worked: the “Raiders March” has been stuck in my head for days, and I'm just fine with that). The following is my take on each of the original three (including why I've changed my mind about Temple of Doom). As the fourth movie may have some returning characters and plot elements, I've also included a brief plot summary for each movie for those who won't be able to re-watch the trilogy before the 22nd (spoiler alert, obviously). Here we go!
Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
PLOT SUMMARY (SPOILERS): The year is 1936. Indiana Jones, treasure hunter and professor of archaeology, is recruited by the U.S. government to find the biblical Ark of the Covenant before the Nazis do. Hitler is obsessed with finding religious artifacts with real or symbolic power as he builds steam toward world domination, and the Ark (which contained the Ten Commandments) is recorded in The Bible as parting rivers, leveling mountains, and laying waste to opposing armies. As Indy races the Nazis to the Ark, he is joined by his friend Sallah (an excavator in Egypt) and barkeep Marion Ravenwood, with whom he rekindles an old romance.
The Ark is found, but when the Nazis attempt to use it they are destroyed by the wrath of God. Indiana brings the Ark to the U.S. government but is denied in his request to study it. At the end of the film, the Ark is loaded into a crate marked “Top Secret” and is stored in a vast U.S. government warehouse of similar crates, ending the film with a conspiracy theory (“what else is the government hiding?”) that would do The X-Files proud.
REVIEW: What can one say about Raiders that hasn't been said? This is, in my opinion, one of the five best action movies ever made (the others? Die Hard, Terminator 2, The Matrix, and the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy). This movie has it all: a smart story (Hitler actually was looking for the Ark in the 1930's), rich characters, memorable villains, scares, amazing sets, iconic music, solid comedy, a likable and unsentimental romance, fascinating mythology, and some of the greatest stunt/action sequences ever filmed (the opening and the truck chase stand out in particular).
Raiders also benefits from the best leading lady in the series. As Marion Ravenwood, Karen Allen displays a tomboyish charm, spunk, and an unwillingness to simply be a damsel-in-distress. Case in point: when locked in the cockpit of a grounded bomber, she calls for Indiana's help for a few seconds, then decides to kill some time and some Nazis by manning the machine gun! The scene where she kisses Indy's wounds, which in another movie would be sexualized, is here very tender. Marion is resourceful, smart, and tough, making her the only love interest in the series who is Indy's perfect match.
As Indiana Jones, Harrison Ford completely inhabits the character, creating a man who is both an academic and an adventurer. He's a bit of a scoundrel but also cares about people. Most importantly, he was an action hero who was self-deprecating and imperfect. Up until that point the James Bonds, the John Waynes, and the Clint Eastwoods were all extremely macho “men's men,” more prone to giving beatings than taking them. Even though Indiana Jones is tough and intelligent, he's constantly being outsmarted and out-punched. You know he'll win in the end, but usually he'll have to dig deep and use all of his ingenuity, physicality, and luck to to pull it out at the last second. Though John McClane and other heroes have followed the same template, Dr. Jones is the original and the best. * * * * * (out of five)
Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984)
PLOT SUMMARY: The year is 1935. Indiana Jones has recovered a valuable artifact for a Chinese gangster. When the exchange at the gangster's Shanghai night club turns into a double-cross, Indiana takes hostage one of the female performers, Willie Scott. They narrowly escape with the help of Short Round, a Chinese orphan/pickpocket who Indy has taken under his wing. A series of unfortunate events lands the trio in India, where they happen upon a village whose children have been abducted by a vicious cult. To make matters worse, the cult has stolen a sacred Sankara stone from the village, a stone which incurs the favor of the gods and causes the village to prosper. Without it, the crops have dried up and the people are starving to death. The village views the arrival of Indy and company as an answer to prayer.
The trio agree to help out, but only out of selfish desire for “fortune and glory,” which the recovery of the stone will presumably bring. Their motives change, however, when they encounter the cult and see with their own eyes its practices of human sacrifice and child slavery. The quest for riches and fame becomes a rescue mission to save the children, destroy the evil cult, and restore the dying village to prosperity. Basically, the good guys win, and the cult is wiped out by Indiana Jones, British soldiers, and the power of the Hindu god Shiva. There's a big, fat, happy ending when the children and the stone are returned to the village: families are together, the kids are safe, the land is fertile again, Indy gets the girl, Short Round gets an elephant, etc.
REVIEW: For many, Temple of Doom is such a radical departure from the other two movies that it doesn't sit well. For them, the comedy is too broad, the tone too dark, the action too over the top, and Kate Capshaw too…screamy. Many cite it as their least favorite and some downright hate the movie. I was one of those people for many years. But, just as certain foods are an acquired taste, Temple of Doom‘s charms have grown on me. I've done a complete 180 on my opinion of it. That's why I'm calling this review “Give It Another Chance, OR: Why I LOVE Temple of Doom!” and formatting it almost as a legal defense. I will address the regular complaints against the film and show why these perceived weaknesses are actually strengths.
COMPLAINT #1: “The film is too violent and dark.” WHY THIS IS A STRENGTH: While Raiders and Last Crusade (with discretion) can be enjoyed by the whole family, Temple of Doom is much more scary and intense. This is part of why I didn't like it as a child but do now that I'm older. I've always thought that heroes are so much more heroic when they're facing greater menace (like the Aragorn facing the horrific Uru-Kai in Fellowship of the Ring). True, in the other movies Indy is fighting the Nazis (officially as evil as it gets) but those “movie Nazis” didn't possess the menace of the real ones. We never see them do anything truly terrible. The Thuggee cult, however, is shown engaging in human sacrifice, enslaving and whipping children (this isn't dwelt on, but it happens), using voodoo dolls, and other creepy things. Some say this is too dark, but I say that darkness, when used to contrast the light, makes the light shine brighter. Plus, the dark and harsh portion of the movie only lasts 20 minutes of the films' 120 minute running time!
For the first hour, before entering the temple of doom, there's action, fun, creepy critters, booby traps, close escapes… everything you want in an Indy film. Then the humor and sense of fun disappears for 20 minutes as the film descends into hell. It never loses its sense of compassion for the enslaved children, or its notion that the cults' practices are horrific and wrong, but for 20 minutes the audience is treated to a nightmare that led to the creation of the PG-13 rating. Why is this a good thing? Because it sets up what is, in my opinion, Indy's finest hour.
Remember, this is a prequel that takes place before Raiders of the Lost Ark. At the beginning of this film Indiana Jones is a self-serving treasure hunter. “Fortune and glory!” is the motto he specifically lives by. It is the horrors of the Temple of Doom and the suffering of the kids that awaken Indy's compassion, altruism, and heroism. The audience feels for the enslaved children, and so may get the chills at this exchange:
Willie: “Indy, let's get out of here.”
Indiana Jones: “Right…all of us!”
The next shot is of a slave-master throwing a child to the ground, about to raise the whip, then looking up to see the silhouette of JUSTICE!
In that moment you know that the terror is over, and Indiana Jones is going to be kicking a** and taking names for the wrongs done deep underground. It's a truly fist-pumping moment, earned because of the 20 minutes of terror that precede it. This kicks off one of the great stretches of nonstop action in the history of cinema, as Indy fights to free the children and escape with Short Round and Willie. It's a breathtaking 30 minute crescendo of one amazing set piece on top of another. Cap that off with a happy ending, and you have a literal thrill ride that has successfully taken you from exhilaration to terror and back to the top again.
COMPLAINT 2: “It's too radically different from the other movies, and the action is over the top.” WHY THIS IS A STRENGTH: As I get older I realize that, in terms of plot, Last Crusade is merely a rehash of Raiders, with a twist. Temple of Doom is bold, trying something radically new. If Raiders‘ tone is a tribute to the cliffhanger serials of the 1930's, Temple of Doom is a tribute to the horror films of the same era (Frankenstein, Dracula), where the evil villains are over the top and do that crazy villain laugh which is only parodied these days. While Raiders is a smart, plot-driven movie, Temple of Doom was only ever meant to be a roller-coaster. It's dumb fun, but that's what it's going for. The action is over-the-top, but that's part of the fantasy. Plus, while the other Indy movies are all about him preventing world domination and traveling across the globe, this has him engaged in a rescue mission, stopping an evil that is already occurring, and takes place mostly in the same location. It's a fun departure from formula.
COMPLAINT 3: “The comedy is too broad, and Kate Capshaw is too…screamy.” WHY THIS IS A STRENGTH: If you look at the film as a self-aware, campy horror movie with an action hero dropped into the mix, Kate Capshaw's screaming actually fits right in. Some find it annoying when comparing it to Marion's toughness in the first movie, but if you take Temple of Doom on its own terms (as a tongue-in-cheek homage to classic horror, not a tonal sequel to Raiders), it works fine. Also, now that I'm older, I find Kate Capeshaw's performance to be quite funny. She seems to be channeling Lucille Ball a bit. And yes, the comedy is not as witty as Raiders or Last Crusade. It's a bit more campy and silly, but that plays to the film's tone. Like Tremors or Brendan Fraser's The Mummy, Temple of Doom has a charming, self-aware, tongue-in-cheek silliness to it. As was the case of those two movies, it's a type of humor that seemed cheesy when I was younger, but is now funny because I realize that the camp is intentional. Plus, the comedic style helps to balance out the scares because it suggests to the audience that none of this is to be taken too seriously.
In short, Temple of Doom is daring, inventive, and the most thrilling in the series. A movie that opens with a Rogers and Hammerstein-style musical number called “Anything Goes” lives up to that motto, as the film is enjoyably unpredictable. Like a good roller-coaster, you never know what's just around the corner. It successfully mixes romance, tender friendship, horror, broad comedy, and truly crazy stuntwork. While the other Indy films are popcorn movies with smarts and substance, this is proudly just a popcorn movie, through and through. But what a ride! * * * * (out of five).
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)
PLOT SUMMARY: The year is 1938. Indiana Jones sets out to find his estranged father (played by Sean Connery) who has gone missing in a search for the Holy Grail (the cup used by Jesus Christ in the Last Supper and which caught His blood at the crucifixion). Legend holds that the Holy Grail gives immortality to whoever drinks from it. Indy is accompanied by friend and museum curator Marcus Brody and by Sallah (both returning from ‘Raiders'), as well as by beautiful female archaeologist Elsa Schneider, who was the last person to see Indy's dad alive. Indy finds his cantankerous father, and the decades-old bickering resumes as they search for the Grail, outrun Nazis and work out the issues that have kept them apart for so many years. They find the Grail and both Indy and father drink from it, saving the dad's life and granting them both immortality.
However, Elsa greedily takes the Grail past a forbidden seal, rendering the Jones family mortal again and causing the whole area to collapse in an earthquake. She falls to her death. Indiana risks the same fate as he tries to recover the Grail, presumably for his father, whose life's work (and reason for parental neglect) has been the quest to acquire it. In a truly touching moment, Indy's father tells him gently to “let it go,” suggesting that he cares more about his son's life than the Grail. Their relationship healed (though the comedic bickering, thankfully, remains) father, son, and friends ride into the sunset.
REVIEW: Though the story is similar in many respects to Raiders (Indy races the Nazis to an artifact which Hitler wants for world domination), Last Crusade is less about plot and more about character, relationships, and comedy. If Raiders is the smartest film in the trilogy and Temple of Doom is the most exciting, Last Crusade is by far both the funniest and the most emotionally involving, rendering it many fans' favorite film of the three (including mine).
The film has the all of the excellent action sequences, creepy-crawly moments, mysticism, exotic locales, and booby traps that one expects from an Indiana Jones movie. It's a nonstop pursuit: in this case, vehicular chases are the norm, with all sorts of stunt-filled highlights involving trains, boats, motorcycles, planes, and tanks.
What truly sets it apart is a script that, beginning with the intro of Sean Connery's character 45 minutes in, is loaded with almost nonstop comedy, with a finale is both truly touching and thrilling. What's more, it's not just comedy for the sake of laughter; the humor establishes the characters' relationships and moves the story along. While both Harrison Ford and Sean Connery are absolutely iconic actors, neither of them has ever, before or since, displayed such comedic prowess, and it's obvious that both of them are having the time of their life.
One of the neat things about the Indiana Jones movies is that each film reveals something new about our hero's character. There are different virtues and flaws on display each time. Raiders gave us a taste of his romantic side, his academic mind, and his tenacity against obstacles. Temple of Doom highlights his capacity for both greed and compassion, as well as a paternal side in his relationship with Short Round. Last Crusade, without laying it on too thick, shows a man who is still aching from a lonely childhood.
This larger-than-life hero, who smirks at Nazis and courageously challenges a tank while on horseback (armed with just a pistol!), is vulnerable only to his father's disapproval. He resents the man who “taught him self-reliance” but discovers that he respects and loves that man as well. Of course the movie handles it in a way that is more subtle and less sappy than I've made it sound, but it's there nonetheless. Connery, on the other hand, plays gloriously against type as a bookish old man, unaccustomed to danger, but still with hidden strength. He and Ford have a glowing chemistry here, and it's their interplay that elevates this from “very good” to “truly great.” * * * * 1/2 (out of five).
COMING MAY 22, 2008: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.
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Jonathan Decker is the clinical director of Your Family Expert. He is a licensed marriage and family therapist, husband, and father of five. Jonathan earned a masters degree in family therapy from Auburn University as well as a bachelor's degree in clinical psychology from Brigham Young University. He is an actor, author, and television personality.