Indiana Jones is one of the iconic figures of contemporary Western cinema, and as such he has taken a place alongside the heroes of folklore and legend. Perhaps the genius in the imagining of the character, and part of the explanation for his lasting appeal, was the decision to make him both an adventurer and a scientist, a man of action and a thinker. This combination of wits and brawn, an all too unfamiliar formula in most action films, gave Indiana Jones extra dimensionality, a richness of character made all the more enjoyable by the skillful underplaying of Harrison Ford’s performance. Ford is one of the last of the classic movie stars, having the kind of screen presence and popular image that recalls the almost mythic outlines of a Cary Grant, a Cagney or a Bogart, and the role of the roguish archeologist, epically courageous and flamboyantly indestructible as it is, is the perfect conduit for Ford’s particular heroic charm. The trilogy as a whole holds up remarkably well, still the finest template for cinematic adventure. Whatever the ups and downs of the specific films themselves, there is nevertheless a joy in their invocation of the spirit of the serials of the 1930s that unifies them beyond any individual limitations.
Raiders of the Lost Ark
By far the best film in the trilogy and one of the greatest adventure films ever made, Raiders of the Lost Ark is a masterful synthesis of action, comedy and romance all wrapped up in a gloriously pulpy package. Indiana Jones is a mysterious, and even slightly dangerous figure, retaining the faintest traces of the anti-hero as he makes his way through South American jungles, frozen Tibetan wastelands and Egyptian deserts in a race to find the bibilical Ark of the Covenant. Yet one of the most endearing things about the character is that despite his confident aura, he is often in well over his head, constantly being battered, bruised and menaced by snakes, boulders, power-mad Nazis and renegade French archeologists. This would seem to be more than enough for our hero to deal with, but Jones must also contend with the determined presence of scorned girlfriend Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen). In a film filled with many fine supporting performances—John Rhys-Davies’s ever-faithful Sallah, Ronald Lacey’s silkily evil agent Toht and Paul Freeman’s villainous Belloc—Karen Allen more than holds her own as the feisty Marion. She recalls the wisecracking, resourceful “dames” of the cinema of the period in which the film is ostensibly set, the Rosalind Russell of His Girl Friday or the Ginger Rodgers of Gold Diggers of 1933. Allen totally outshines the later “Jones” girls, and one of the most disappointing things learned in the film’s bonus documentary was that the filmmakers made a conscious decision not to bring her back.
Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom
The much maligned sequel to Raiders is not, all things considered, the worst movie ever made, but it’s not without its missteps and poor choices. This time our hero is called upon to discover the location of some sacred stones being guarded by an evil cult in “darkest” India. Unfortunately, he is accompanied by two uninspiring companions, the gratingly “cute” Short Round (Ke Huy Quan) and the heroically annoying Willie Scott (Kate Capshaw). In fact, one of the most amusing things in the bonus material on Temple of Doom is watching Capshaw defending herself against the various charges which have been leveled at her over the years for portraying Willie as such a whining twit, shifting the blame onto Lucas and Spielberg. Temple of Doom is a film where a lot of blame is redirected. A chink in the seemingly impenetrable armor of the Lucas-Spielberg machine, it has to be explained away, and while Lucas takes the higher road of linking its narrative and formal darkness to both a conscious choice and personal problems during production, Spielberg, thanks to his needy populism and desire to never offend the public, now claims that he had reservations all along. If the film’s “racism” is really more a combination of an ignorant Hollywood in search of thrills and laughs—the same thing led Spielberg to show a crowd of Japanese people running from the T-Rex in Jurassic Park 2 as a stupid gag about Godzilla—and an adherence to the world of the old serials with their false exoticism, there is still something slightly uncomfortable in the narrative’s almost Manichean portrait of an entire culture split into the good (suffering, saintly villagers) and the bad (a ferocious, bloodletting cult of human monsters). After a rather silly first half, hardly more than a series of stunts and gags with little of the characterization of Raiders, the film comes somewhat into its own once the cult is discovered, and the resulting dark tone, much criticized during the initial release, is ultimately quite effective. By far the weakest film in the trilogy, Temple of Doom is nonetheless diverting enough to be carried the rest of the way by another strong performance from Harrison Ford.
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade
The “final” installment in the Indiana Jones saga, at least until the eagerly
anticipated fourth chapter is released sometime in 2005, is perhaps most memorable for the introduction of Indy’s father (Sean Connery) and for an overall tone that revels in nostalgia for the franchise itself. A significant improvement over Temple of Doom, Last Crusade saw a return to more of the balance between cheerful mayhem and character development of Raiders. Connery and Ford have a wonderful chemistry, and the cheeky fun they share is infectious. Father and son are joined once again by Marcus Brody and Sallah in searching for the Holy Grail and, perhaps shaken by the response to the second film, Lucas and Spielberg stick to the original formula by bringing back the Nazis as well for another round. Last Crusade is a fun movie that’s also very well made, and that’s all one can really ask for from this now legendary franchise.
The image of all three films was perfected by digitally "cleaning" each frame, and the end result is certainly startling but the most impressive feat is the sound of all three. There is a surprising amount of nuance to the sound design, and the films benefit from the full DVD treatment. The Indiana Jones films always featured cartoonishly exaggerated ADR, and now each of those thunderous punches and echoing gunshots are crystal clear.
Included along with the set is a bonus disc filled with featurettes on various aspects of the trilogy's production, such as special effects and sound design, trailers and a newly recorded documentary on each film. These documentaries are the most rewarding things to be found on the disc, although they grow noticeably less informative as the trilogy progresses, with the piece on Last Crusade being hardly more than a glorified commercial. One might begin to feel that there could have been a lot more included on this disc, particularly commentary tracks, if not from the apparently reluctant Ford, Lucas or Spielberg then at least they could have tried to dig up Lawrence Kasdan or some bit players (or anybody for that matter). The enthusiasm to finally have the films on DVD will probably initially fill the cracks left by the ultimate slightness of the extras, but repeated viewings might very well leave fans with a vaguely dissatisfied feeling.
Just to have the films on DVD is enough to give the set an overall positive rating.