Children of Bond - The Indiana Jones Series

The stalwart hero of the Indiana Jones series is a man of both thought and action. An archeology professor who dons spectacles and a bow tie in the classroom but a leather flight jacket, fedora, whip and revolver when he sets off on grand globetrotting adventures to search for rare and mysterious artefacts. The franchise was a tribute to cheap and cheerful Saturday matinee serials of the 1930s and 1940s (we have to give James Bond, Allan Quatermain, Gunga Din, Doc Savage, and Tintin some credit too) where impossible cliffhangers abounded with dizzying alacrity. The bargain basement serials had been shot cheaply on studio backlots with use of stock footage from more elaborate productions and the ingenious idea behind Indiana Jones was to make an entire film in the spirit of those cliffhanger serials but on a much grander scale. Raiders of the Lost Ark in particular distills the memories of those old pictures and adds a rich sense of detail. The character began life in a vague treatment George Lucas had first drafted in the early seventies. He eventually went off to do Star Wars instead but the project resurfaced again several years later when his friend Steven Spielberg was snubbed by United Artists and Cubby Broccoli after he asked if he could direct a James Bond film. Lucas told him he had something that was like James Bond but even better. George Lucas saw Indiana Jones as a James Bondish playboy adventurer but Spielberg wanted the hero more rough around the edges and down to earth. The compromise worked out well enough and Jones emerged as a very American almost blue collar fusion of Bond and Alan Quatermain. As ever with famous films, the inspired casting was luck as much as anything. Tim (Animal House) Matheson and John (Smallville) Shea both tested to play Indiana Jones alongside Jeff Bridges before the producers settled on Tom Selleck. However, Selleck had to leave the production because his Magnum PI pilot proved popular and was turned into a series. A (strangely) reluctant Lucas finally gave in at the last minute to Spielberg's frequent suggestion that his Star Wars actor Harrison Ford would make a perfect Indiana Jones and Ford was cast three weeks before shooting began. It's hard to imagine anyone else playing the part when you watch these films now.
Raiders of the Lost Ark was released in 1981 and written by Lawrence Kasdan. It is of course the best film in the series by some considerable distance and one of the most famous and celebrated pictures of all time. Does anyone not know the plot of Raiders of the Lost Ark by now? It's 1936 and archaeologist  adventurer Dr Indiana Jones - "obtainer of rare antiquities" - is asked by the US government to find the Lost Ark of the Covenant before those pesky Nazis do. An object said to confer mystical and magical powers on its possessor and make his dark armies invincible can't possibly be allowed to fall into the hands of Adolf Hitler. "You see, for the last two years, the Nazis have had teams of archaeologists running around the world looking for all sorts of religious artefacts. Hitler's a nut on the subject. He's crazy. He's obsessed with the occult. And right now, apparently, there is some kind of German archaeological dig going on in the desert outside Cairo." Our dry witted devil may care hero travels from the Andes to Egypt over the course of the film, stopping off in Nepal where Hawksian heroine and old flame Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen) runs a chilly snow bound gin joint and may be invaluable in locating the Ark. The action soon shifts to North Africa where Jones is aided by his old friend Sallah (John Rhys-Davies) as he goes head to head with a suavely oleaginous rival French archaeologist named Dr René Belloq (Paul Freeman) who has been tasked to secure the Ark for the Nazis and Gestapo interrogator Major Arnold Toht (Ronald Lacey channeling Peter Lorre). Indiana Jones is soon up to his neck in all sorts of trouble as the race for the Ark becomes increasingly frantic and dangerous.
One of the great strengths of Raiders of the Lost Ark is that it was made very quickly (73 days) with few takes done for each scene in order to keep the costs under control. Studios had baulked at spending tens of millions of dollars on a risky period set action film inspired by vintage Republic serials and golden boy Spielberg wasn't considered a sure thing in Hollywood anymore after his overblown comedy 1941 had failed to replicate the success of Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. With a relatively modest budget for a mainstream film of this kind, a dusty, down to earth look captured the spirit of the source materials while the beautiful matte paintings and inventive action sequences and sets imbued it with a sense of magic, freshness and perfection that the sequels could never really hope to emulate. The film has a wonderful sense of energy and economy through the breakneck speed at which it was made and many of the most famous moments were improvised in this same spirit of brisk invention. Harrison Ford contributed the famous "It's not the years it's the mileage..." line himself and the legendary (and brief) Indy v Swordsman scene was also suggested by the lead actor when a gastric complaint that day left him in no mood to film an elaborate fight sequence in searing heat. I'm not a huge fan of serious/worthy Steven Spielberg desperately trying to win Oscars with 3 hour films but the Spielberg of Jaws, Duel and Raiders of the Lost Ark was fantastic. The Indy sequels sometimes feel too long and more convoluted than they need to be but Raiders of the Lost Ark is sleek and precise and doesn't outstay its welcome, throwing a fresh cliffhanger sequence at the screen every fifteen minutes or so. Indy and Marion are trapped in a cavernous tomb full of snakes, Indy fighting Nazis in caravan trucks on precarious mountain roads, Indy infiltrating a Nazi U-Boat base etc. One of my favourites is Indy's violent fight with a hulking German (played by the late Pat Roach) on an airfield, the whirling propeller blades of a circling bomber perilously close as they punch it out.
The McGuffin here supplies a memorably spooky climax and the African locations are beautifully framed with chase scenes through the busy streets and the sun drenched dusty evacuation sites deploying hundreds of extras. A big part of the charm derives from period atmosphere and absence of technology and elaborate special effects. Many stunts evoke old westerns and Ford was game enough to do much himself so the use of doubles is never jarringly obvious. The sardonic actor makes a very likeable central hero and Karen Allen is a suitably feisty and strong sparring partner and love interest for Indy. Marion can throw a believable punch and drink men under the table and it helps of course that Allen can at least act a bit. She was greatly missed in the second film and there is a Margot Kidder/Lois Lane quality to Marion that I like. Paul Freeman as Belloq is an excellent rival/villain for Indiana Jones too. They have a history together and the urbane and ruthless Belloq clearly enjoys having such a worthy adversary - although he will still try to kill Indy at the drop of a fedora if he has to. The difference between them is that Belloq is in it for the treasure and will exploit others to accomplish his goals while Indy prefers artifacts in museums and has to do most of his dirty work himself. The film's most famous sequence is of course the legendary opening. Indy attempts to take a rare golden artifact from a ruined jungle temple that turns out to be booby trapped. Blow darts, skeletons and the iconic rumbling stone boulder that he has to outrace. Raiders of the Lost Ark has an enjoyable sense of the macabre. The supporting cast are excellent (Denholm Elliott as Marcus Brody, the Dean of Indy's College, is a nice addition too) and the stirring music by John Williams is every bit as recognisable or famous as the Superman or Bond themes. This is a great film.
1984's Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom is easily the strangest and most divisive out of the three films. I always have fun watching it but it does have some problems. Steven Spielberg all but disowned the picture in later interviews and said there was not a shred of his own sensibility in Temple of Doom and that he didn't really care for it much. George Lucas had decided early on that the sequel should be very different and not merely a rehash/remake of Raiders. He felt the film should be darker and scarier - the Empire Strikes Back of the Indy trilogy if you will. While Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom is much darker than the other Indy films it's certainly no The Empire Strikes Back. Lucas was in a foul and depressed frame of mind at the time because of his divorce and his bitter mood seemed to seep over into the much anticipated sequel. After seriously toying with the idea of Indiana Jones in China discovering a lost valley of dinosaurs (only George Lucas could come up with that!), Lucas wrote a treatment entitled Indiana Jones and the Temple of Death (later changed to "Doom" when Spielberg complained it was too depressing a title) that landed the whip cracking adventurer in India where he ended up helping some humble villagers recover a precious lost stone. Lucas chose not to use any of the supporting characters from Raiders and fashioned a rather grim and subterranean story with a sinister cult group, human sacrifice, child slavery, and a large portion of the film taking place in an underground mine that looked like Dante's Inferno. The infamous heart plucking scene and other delights inspired the PG-13 MPAA rating in the United States after parents who had taken their children to see the film were mortified by the violence and unexpectedly dark tone. Lawrence Kasdan, who did such a sterling job with the first film, actually refused to write the Temple of Doom screenplay because he found the Lucas treatment mean-spirited and charmless (Willard Huyck & Gloria Katz were enlisted instead).

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom is (rather pointlessly) a prequel set one year before Raiders of the Lost Ark and begins in Shanghai in 1935. At the beginning of the film Indiana Jones falls foul of crime boss Lao Che (Roy Chiao) in a swanky nightclub and Lao Che tries to cheat him out of his fee (a glittering diamond) for a job he has done. Poisoned drink shenanigans and a comic action set-piece in the nightclub with frenzied attempts to retrieve the diamond and antidote ensue before Indy makes a run for it with his 11-year-old sidekick Short Round (Jonathan Ke Quan) and ditsy blonde bimbo night club singer Willie Scott (kate Capshaw). The plane they charter though (look for a brief Dan Akroyd cameo here) is sabotaged by Lao Che and ends up crashing in the Himalayas - eventually washing them up in northern India after improbable wild rafting capers. Some kind villagers then give them food and assume they been dropped out of the sky by the Hindu god Shiva. It turns out that children are vanishing from the village and their sacred Sivalinga stone has been stolen. Indy, Short Round and Willie, soon pitch up at the majestic Pankot Palace where Jones begins to suspect dark forces are at work - an ancient Thuggee cult who are up to no good at all. He becomes the only hope for the villagers get their children and precious stone back.
Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom starts promisingly enough with a glitter strewn Busby Berkely style musical number and Harrison Ford on good form in a white tuxedo in the nightclub, bantering with a baddie with his dry wit. "Is it my imagination or are you trying to develop a sense of humour?" Spielberg seems to be indulging two of his great cinematic fantasies in one sequence - making a musical and a James Bond film! It's fun too when the plane they escape on has the propellers conk out one by one and pilot surreptitiously bail out on them. "Can you fly a plane?" "No," replies Indy. "Can you?" Good stuff even if their escape is way over the top even for Indiana Jones. The film however stacks its action at the beginning and end and the long sequences in the gloomy underground mine go on for far too long. Temple of Doom doesn't have the brisk pace and invention of Raiders of the Lost Ark and we never really care about Short Round and Willie in the way we cared about Marion and Sallah. Kate Capshaw is another person who criticised the film in later interviews and admitted her character didn't have much to do except scream at the top of her lungs and whine about their various predicaments. She's a wimpy and tiresome heroine after the excellent Karen Allen. The film is somewhat schizophrenic too with some laboured comedy like Willie beset by animals and snakes in the jungle while Indy and Short Round obliviously play cards, elements of bedroom farce, and then human sacrifice capers and child slaves being whipped in underground mines! There are a lot of deliberate gross out moments in the film too - Willie covered in huge insects and having to endure a most unusual dinner ("Chilled monkey brains?") at the Palace. I quite like some of these icky bits myself but Temple of Doom - despite the 1935 setting - does feel more contemporary and charmless than Raiders, the 30s nostalgia replaced by eighties violence.
One of the major problems with the film is that options are understandably limited after you've made Raiders of the Lost Ark. You either do the same thing again or something different. Here they tried to do something different and it wasn't entirely successful. No Nazis here either and it never feels like a true Indiana Jones film without Nazis. Amrish Puri as demonic Thuggee priest Mola Ram is imposing enough but like all the red lit subterranean scenes becomes somewhat dull in the end. The final third wheels out the action and is often great (love the matte painting when Indy escapes from a flood of water!) with mine cart chases and a collapsing bridge but the cliffhanger roller coaster spirit of Raiders is too often absent. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom is grand fun at times and Ford is terrific again as Indy but it's certainly a sequel that could have been better.
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade was unveiled in 1989 and written by Jeffrey Boam. Spielberg dubbed Last Crusade his apology for Temple of Doom and the film plays like a rehash of Raiders with much more humour. Perhaps too much humour at times, the levity sometimes negating the suspense of the numerous cliffhanger situations. The McGuffin this time is the Holy Grail, essentially replacing the Ark of the Covenant (Steven Spielberg apparently took some convincing about using the Holy Grail though because of its comic association with Monty Python). Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade begins with a prologue set in 1912 that is Steven Spielberg at his best. Thirteen-year-old Indiana Jones (played very well by the doomed River Phoenix) is riding on horseback with his Boy Scout troop in arid sun baked Utah and discovers some crooks in a cave who have stolen a valuable ornamental cross. Young Indy steals the cross (which he of course believes should be in a museum) and a dashing and amusing chase ensues that ends up on a speeding circus train full of animals. We learn how Indy got his scar, his fondness for whips, his fedora and - most importantly of all - his great fear of snakes. It's a wonderful opening to the film. The story then moves to 1938 and Ford is Indy again, having a scrap on a ship being lashed by a violent storm, his goal to get back the cross he had to give back as a boy in 1912. Spielberg pulls out all the stops to make sure The Last Crusade begins in stirring fashion. After returning the cross to Brody's museum, Jones is informed by Walter Donovan (Julian Glover) that his father Professor Henry Jones (Sean Connery) has gone missing while on a search for the Holy Grail. Henry left meticulous Grail notes in a diary which is then sent to his son. Indy deduces that his father would only have posted the diary to him if he was in some sort of trouble and sets off with Brody to Venice where they meet his colleague Elsa Schneider (Alyson Doody). The search for Henry Jones and the Holy Grail begins.
If Temple of Doom was just a bit too dark for its own good at times then The Last Crusade is a maybe just a bit too jovial. It is though a more likeable film than its immediate predecessor even it it does inevitably feel like a pale imitation of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Sean Connery's character is far too gormless to ever really believe in but his chemistry with Ford is good and they have many amusing moments together. Funnily enough, Connery is only twelve years older than Harrison Ford despite playing his father! Denholm Elliot and John Rhys-Davies make welcome returns as Brody and Sallah respectively although it's sort of unforgivable the way the way they turn Brody into a complete idiot here. In the first film he comments to Indy that he if he were a slightly younger man he'd go and look for the Ark himself and we believe him. He seemed quite a serious character. Now, Brody is played for laughs and is apparently a doddering imbecile who once "got lost in his own museum." It's symbolic of the film as a whole. Almost as if overcompensating for the various criticisms of Temple of Doom, Spielberg seems determined to wring humour from absolutely everything and keep it all very light and brim full of action. If it was snakes in the first film and insects in the second, it's hordes of rats in a sewer here for the gross out and the action centrepiece of the film is a chase in the desert involving a German tank and Indy on horseback - eventually jumping aboard the tank for fisticuffs. It's a superb sequence with some great moments but maybe does go on for too long. Raiders breezes past but this sometimes feels like a film that is longer than it really needed to be.

Sadly there is no Karen Allen again and you have to make do with A View To A Kill Bond girl Alyson Doody as the love interest. She looks great in period clobber but she's pretty wooden and doesn't have much spark with Ford. There is a lot of action in the film and while the special effects during the flying sequences in particular are rather dated now and the film is frequently prone to go for a gag rather than heighten suspense, you get plenty of good stuff. Young Indy on the circus train, a boat chase in Venice, the tank sequence, plenty of fights, motorbike capers, Zeppelin capers. Best of all is the fact that the Nazis are back as the villains. Indy even briefly meets Hitler and gets his autograph! While the film often feels overlong and too light hearted there is much to enjoy here and it's nice to see a real globetrotting adventure again after the constrictive dankly subterranean Temple of Doom. And Harrison Ford, who I often find deadly dull in other films, is a delight again as Indy, slipping back into the fedora as if he's never been away. He looks great and throws himself into the action again as if no time has passed at all since Raiders of the Lost Ark. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade is far from perfect but it is lavish and and undoubtedly a fun ride. One could argue that this might have been the best place to say farewell to Indiana Jones rather than Crystal Skull or a yet to be made fifth adventure.
From the early nineties onwards there was constant speculation about one more adventure with stories of several scripts being rejected or further tweaked by new writers. Odds were probably always against the film happening but 2008 finally saw a new Indy adventure released in the form of Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull. Was it any good? I have to say from the outset that this film has a very clumsy plot device that can only have sprung from George Lucas. The year is 1957 and Indy eventually finds himself chasing a mystical 'crystal skull' with the dreaded Russkies having replaced the Nazis as villains in hot pursuit. The crystal skull has far out origins and consequences but to be honest I was never that sure exactly what it was or even that interested. It's just a plot device to get Indy and friends into the jungle for an adventure. This Macguffin just about does its job but requires some slighlty strained plot exposition in the film that slows down the pace. One other problem that the film has is that it starts so well. We hear Elvis on the soundtrack to signify that we are in a new era for Indy and Spielberg has fun with a race in the desert between some Hot Rods and military vehicles. There is then a great atmospheric series of action sequences that leads to an explosive situation for Indy (taken from an unused situation from the original Back To The Future script). Indy has an iconic introduction in the film that is very nicely done and sure to bring a warm glow to any big Indy fan. It's pleasant wonderful to see him swinging around and kicking baddies through glass windows again. There is also a wonderful bike chase through Indy's college campus in which Spielberg shows the flashes of the magic that he can bring to a film or sequence like this. Jim Broadbent for all intents and purposes is playing the Marcus Brody character here and has a couple of nice poignant lines in his scenes with Indy about the passing of time. I really liked these opening scenes. There is a diner that could be straight out of Back To The Future and the film has a distinct sense of atmosphere and time like the original Superman film did during the Smallville sections.
The film becomes slightly less surprising and fresh when Indy and friends head to the jungle. These sections were obviously less novel for understandable reasons. Especially the rooting around in caves and underground temples stuff because it's just been done so often now. Indy clones were all the rage in the eighties (Richard Chamberlain in King Solomon's Mines anyone?) and since the last Indy film in 1989 we've had National Treasure, Tomb Raider, Sahara, The Mummy films and so on. There is perhaps a tad too much CGI in a film that is part of a series that was spawned from the old fashioned stuntwork in Republic Serials. The jungle has the palpable feeling of a studio at times. The overall effect is a little synthetic compared to the real location work and matte paintings of the originals in the eighties. That said there is some decent stuff too in this part of the film. A long chase sequence with vehicles and a bloody punch-up between Indy and a Soviet soldier surrounded by deadly (CG) ants. Ford still takes a beating better than any actor.
The middle section of the film is a bit draggy it has to be said. There are some silly moments but it's all part of the Indy experience. The films were always far out with improbable situations like the b-films they were inspired by. The ending is far out but then so was the ending to Raiders and The Last Crusade. Indy is not to be taken too seriously. Actors like John Hurt and Ray Winstone are rather wasted with vague roles in this film. Jim Broadbent, as I mentioned, was a nice addition though. I thought Shia LaBeouf was ok at best as Mutt Williams - Indy's long lost son. His character wasn't the syrupy comedy sidekick or annoying brat that some feared and he played it fairly straight. It was a nice of course to see Karen Allen back as Marion Ravenwood but she didn't quite have enough to do in the end, almost as if her addition was an afterthought. She did add a bit of spark and humour to the exchanges when she joined the film though. Cate Blanchett as the villain was sort of interesting because she was so weird and not your obvious adventure film baddie but ultimately didn't really work. As for Harrison Ford, he slipped back into the iconic role nicely with his dry charisma and humour. Once the mayhem began you forgot that he was 65 years old and just rejoiced that Indy was back. He's an old-fashioned star and it was great to see him back in a big film again.
The Indiana Jones series - the first three in particular - remains grand fun and managed to create a character almost as iconic as James Bond. While it may have been partly inspired by Bond one can see the influence of Raiders of the Lost Ark on Octopussy in particular. It's a shame really that Spielberg never got a crack at a Bond film in his younger days when he barely seemed to put a foot wrong. Duel, Jaws, Raiders, Sugarland Express, Close Encounters, E.T. It could have been very special indeed.
- Jake

c 2012 Alternative 007