Indiana Jones and the Geeky Blog Entry
This weekend I’ve mostly been cursing the gods of technology as I waged all out war against a posse of brutal Trojans hiding on my computer. After 48 hours of Spyware Checks, Antivirus Runs and Registry Clean Ups, I’ve managed to remove the blasted things (ironically it only took me 20 minutes to sort everything after being sensible and googling some instructions on how to clear a specific virus which had burrowed itself deep into my system archive).Subsequently I was left with large blocks of time in-between the routine of switching to safe mode, spyware/malware checking, rebooting, weeping, and switching back to safe mode. I intended to use this Mobius Strip to catch up on my DVD viewing, but instead opted to watch the Indiana Jones trilogy for the first time in four years. Here are some vague essays and ruminations on each of the films and my thoughts on the trailer for new film The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.
If you ever get a chance to read The Art of Bond you’ll quickly find out that Steven Spielberg has always been desperate to make a James Bond film, even asking series producer Cubby Broccoli twice if he could have the privilege of helming a Bond film. It was this passion for Bond which most likely persuaded him to undertake the collaboration with George Lucas that would become Indiana Jones. Although Indiana Jones is influenced more by old Republic Serials than anything else there are certain elements which make the films seem like an American James Bond. In fact movie folklore suggests that Raiders of the Lost Ark was fleshed out in Hawaii during a conversation between Lucas and Spielberg after Spielberg had confessed of his wish to direct a James Bond film.
Raiders of the Lost Ark
Its sequel Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom would usher in an entirely new rating for American cinema distribution, but on rewatching the trilogy it is Raiders of the Lost Ark which seems the most adult and brutal of the films. Whilst Temple of Doom is more of an overt horror film than Raiders it is also a lot more fantastical, Raiders has a certain grittiness to it which makes the fights a lot more scrappy and brutish. There’s a scene where Indiana is shot in the arm by a Nazi soldier and then has the gunshot wound repeatedly pounded on, his attackers knuckles becoming increasingly bloody with each visceral blow. It’s a scene that is all the more nasty due to Harrison Ford who yelps and screams his way through Raiders and in doing so adds a lot more humanity to the film
Harrison Ford holds Raiders of the Lost Ark together, providing a consistent presence in a film that is at times utterly disparate. If you took five minutes from the beginning, five minutes from the middle and five minutes and showed them next to each other you’d swear they were different films. Even the film stock seems to change, which does tie in with the idea of an updated serial. The problem of this disparity is that the quality of the film is constantly changing as well. It may be sacrilegious but I actually think that the start of Raiders isn’t all that great. It only really finds it feet when the action switches to Marion’s bar in Nepal (Indy’s silhouette on the bar wall is also a far more effective introduction to the character than the jungle opening).
The opening in the jungle just serves as a statement of intent; it’s defining what sort of character Indy is and what type of world he lives in. The problem is that it’s all a little inorganic and it immediately distances us from Indiana by having the action be seen from the viewpoint of his traitorous assistant. The opening traps may be iconic, but they’re defining the world
The conversation with the US government agents and his subsequent interactions with Marion are what shape the character. The following hour is probably the greatest action movie ever made, the search and subsequent chase for the Ark of the Covenant presented almost perfectly. It helps that this hour has four absolutely fantastic set pieces. The bar fight in Nepal, the extended chase around the streets of Cairo, the fight in and around a flying wing and the classic truck chase are all examples of fantastically exciting and character driven action sequences. The truck chase in particular is still incredible even 27 years after it was made.
Having the second act loaded with action leaves a problem for the third act, a director either has to come up with an even more impressive spectacle or have a more downbeat denouement. The ending of Raiders sidesteps this by having the climax be predicated on self destruction; Indiana does absolutely nothing at the end. He just follows his instincts and is spared, his intellect finally getting a chance to shine over his determined physicality. Having the film be resolved with a literal interpretation of ‘deus ex machina’ is probably the only way an ending could have been satisfying, it is also kinda hard to argue with a ‘deus ex machina’ ending when it allows graphic portrayals of melting Nazis and exploding French archaeologists.
What’s amazing is that the films which tried to ape Raiders of the Lost Ark always paid more attention to the opening tomb raiding scenes and didn’t look at the bits that audiences actually responded to. What makes Raiders work are the extended scenes where Indiana is playing off against other people, whether it be verbally sparring with his rival Belloq, bickering with Sallah or feeding Nazi’s into the rotary mechanism of a flying wing. It’s these moments of humanity which make Indiana Jones so loved, people don’t associate the character with superhuman feats of daring, they associate the character with shooting a swordsman, or struggling to hold onto a truck, or getting constantly outmanoeuvred. It’s this innate failure, the inability to take control of a situation that makes him so relatable to audiences.
Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom
Temple of Doom continues this policy of humanity through strife, with an opening that has Indiana getting poisoned, shot at, and making his escape on a plane scheduled to crash in India. From the moment the film starts you realise it’s a different beast to Raiders. For one thing it looks far glossier and it generally just seems a lot slicker. Opening with a dance number, which segues into a club fight, which segues into a motor chase, which segues into a plane crash the film never lets up pace in its first act. Bizarrely set a year before the events of Raiders of the Lost Ark the film seems to operate in a completely different reality to the rest of the trilogy and the result is that it feels like a diversion more than anything else.
In fact Temple of Doom‘s opening seems more like a Bond film than anything else, the world weary archaeologist of Raiders replaced with a charming, highly skilled, and well connected adventurer. It’s a subtle difference, but it’s a difference that is apparent when watching the films back to back. Certainly you wouldn’t expect the Indiana of Raiders of the Lost Ark to be trading in valuable relics for what appears to be a run of the mill (if spectacularly huge) diamond.
The opening in Club Obi-Wan sets the tone for Temple of Doom, with a peculiar mixture of horrific violence, Indy plunging a flaming kebab into a villain’s chest, and broad slapstick, the ensuing balloon fight and scramble for antidote. Temple of Doom is a far more comedic film than Raiders of the Lost Ark but it’s also a film that prides itself on the horrific. It’s a film with a wisecracking kid sidekick that happens to feature people getting their hearts ripped out by demented Indian priests.
Despite being the film which would usher in the PG-13 rating,due to its mature content, it’s actually the Indiana Jones
film which seems to be aimed squarely at children. The child centric cast and the films utter delight in the gross and grotesque makes it seem like a children’s movie with a few throwaway elements for parents to appreciate. Elements like the food gags (which essentially boils down to the fact that foreign people ate gross food) just reinforce this notion.
That’s not to say that Temple of Doom is a bad film, it’s a fantastic piece of escapist entertainment and once again it shows a level of imagination and technical skill which has yet to be really challenged. But compared to its compatriots it just feels too light and from a geeky point of view just seems wrong. Its chronology just seems really arbitrary, especially when you have gags which reference the original film.
But Doom also has some truly great moments, the aforementioned mine cart chase truly is something to behold and Molar Ram is a truly terrifying foe, despite his lack of screen time. It’s just that it all ends up feeling like a more splattery Chris Columbus movie and you expect more from an Indiana Jones film.
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade
Whereas Temple of Doom seemed like a diversion for the trilogy, Last Crusade acts like a direct thematic sequel to Raiders. Like the earlier film Crusade is a globe trotting race against the Nazi’s to claim a godly artefact.
When I was growing up Last Crusade was always my favourite film, even with the prospect of melting Toht, in the trilogy. Even today I recognise that Raiders is probably the better made film, but for about two thirds of its running time The Last Crusade is one of my all time favourite films. Whilst I’m particularly fond of the ‘Young Indiana Jones’ segment at the start, everything after until the climatic battle on the tank is just fantastic. Of course there’s the problem of nostalgia with a film like this, especially because it’s one of the first films I ever saw in a cinema.
This of course makes it hard to write about in an objective sense, I mean it’s hardly fair to try and analyse something which has the weight of childhood warmth maintaining an illusion of quality. What Last Crusade does is create a middle ground between the ‘serious business’ of Raiders and the broad comedic spectacle of Doom. It’s funnier than Raiders, but it’s also got the thrust and momentum that Doom lacked at points.
By thrust and momentum I’m talking more about pacing than content, and pacing is the thing that Last Crusade utterly nails. It’s constantly showing off new stuff, new stunts, new gags, new set pieces, new puzzles, it never really stops for breath and as such it’s easy to get swept up in the films momentum and not notice that at times it seems like an obvious retread of Raiders.
The defining quality of the film is the central relationship between Indiana and his father Henry Jones (played by Sean Connery) who are forced to work together to stop the Nazi’s obtaining the Holy Grail. Henry and Indiana are not on the best of terms; with Indiana trying to constantly win his fathers respect and generally shocking him with his recklessness. There’s a great deal of fun to be had from the conflicting personalities and having Indy fearing constant disapproval from his father adds yet more humanity to the character.
This relationship distracts from what is a rather weak overall story, which borrows the plot progression of Raiders wholesale. The minutiae save the film in a lot of ways, with fantastic set pieces at every juncture. The obvious standouts are the motorcycle chase and the battle in and around a tank, but Last Crusade has a wealth of great little moments. Compared to Raiders it’s still decidedly light and the ending once again takes the resolution out of Indiana Jones hands, which while effective once just seems to be stretching on a second go around.
Like Raiders the main set piece of the film occurs way before the end, in this case the ten minute long tank segment. This segment is probably one of my all time favourite action set pieces, just because there’s so much going on. But it’s the little moments amid the chaos which really sell the scene, like Indiana using his whip to stop Henry Jones from being crushed under the tank tracks. Amidst all the destruction, the explosions, fights and bloodshed it’s that moment that sticks in my mind when I think of Indiana Jones in general. What makes Indiana Jones isn’t the stunt work, it’s the heart, and that’s why nothing has really come close to it.
Indiana Jones and The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
It’s nice to know what there’s a new Indiana Jones film being made; the feeling is amplified after seeing the trilogy over the weekend. Born in 1985, the Indiana Jones films were key elements of my childhood and so I’m genuinely excited about a new film.
The knives are already out (go to any message board and you’ll see maddeningly dull threads complaining about Jones quipping and the CGIing of Ray Winstone’s trousers) for the production, largely because the collective geek intelligence wants George Lucas to fail. Making average to mediocre films is a crime for which he will never be forgiven and if Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is anything less than perfect then a lot more childhoods are going to be raped.
I don’t particularly have a problem with Lucas, I think he’s a great conceptualist, but then I never viewed the original Star Wars films as anything but frothy kids films. Ideas wise the guy is great and partnered up with Spielberg he’s never delivered a bad film. So here’s to hoping for some more Indiana Jones greatness come May.