One of the most irritating things about a trilogy is that it can take forever for the last chapter to come out—so in that spirit, I’ve finally gotten off my keister, assembled the original cast and crew, and cranked out the final installment of our epic journey comparing perhaps the greatest pop culture icons of the last half century. And just in case you need to go back and revisit our previous installments, you can find them here and here.
So are you ready? Cue that John Williams score!
Dah-dah-dah-DAY. Dah-dah-dah. Dah-dah-dah-DAAY. Dah-dah-DAH-DAH-DAH!
Okay, maybe that’s just a cheesy knockoff like those K-Tel records from the 70s that featured unknown artists doing hack versions of your favorite disco hits—but if you don’t recognize the fanfare from the Indiana Jones films, then you should probably go back to that rock you’ve been hiding under for the last thirty-odd years.
It’s difficult to overstate how much of an impact Raiders of the Lost Ark had on the national consciousness when it first hit theaters back in 1981. In an era when so many great movies embodied what it was like to be a kid in that era, Raiders was definitive. It broke box office records. It made fedoras cool again. It snagged an Oscar nomination for Best Picture, an honor almost never bestowed on an action film. And it cemented Harrison Ford—fresh off of bringing the inimitable Han Solo to life in Star Wars—as the leading man of his age.
Raiders was the brain child of George Lucas, who by that time had made a pile of money from his other franchise and was looking to do something with it. Lucas had always been a big fan of those movie serials from the 1930s—the ones theaters would put on before the regular movie, usually featuring some intrepid adventurer getting into the kind of trouble that always ended on a cliffhanger, so kids would be forced to come back the next week to see what happened. Bringing that kind of spirit into a modern film seemed like a great idea, and so Lucas dusted off an old script he had previously shelved called The Adventures of Indiana Smith. He then brought the idea to his pal and fellow film geek Steven Spielberg, who was finishing up work on Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
Holed up with writer Lawrence Kasdan and producer Frank Marshall, Lucas and Spielberg spitballed ideas over the course of a few days while Kasdan took notes, which he later cobbled together into a screenplay. At Spielberg’s insistence, Indiana Smith became Indiana Jones, but who should play the character remained the biggest question. Spielberg wanted Harrison Ford, as did Marshall—but Lucas was hesitant to have Ford be seen as his go-to guy after working with him in Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back. They eventually offered the role to Tom Selleck, who in one of those Hollywood “what if” stories ended up passing on Indy because of a conflict with his new television show Magnum, P.I.—which, interestingly enough, turned into a monster hit in its own right.
So with no leading man, and only three weeks to go before filming started, Lucas relented and gave the job to Ford—a decision that proves yet again that when Lucas surrounds himself with good people, he makes good decisions. Left to his own devices, however, he tends more toward laying eggs like Howard the Duck.
Fortunately for audiences, though, we got Raiders instead—and what a big, bold, beautiful piece of popcorn entertainment it is. Kasdan’s screenplay is a master class in pacing, story and spectacle—which is amazing, especially when it could have just as easily been a mishmash of all the set pieces Spielberg and Lucas dreamed up. In his direction of the film, you can also see that Spielberg took to heart Orson Welles’ observation that making movies is “the biggest electric train set any boy ever had.” With all the joy, magic and wonder up on the screen, you can just tell he was having a ball. And in spite of all the hardships endured by the crew while filming in 100+ degree heat in the middle of a godforsaken desert, I’d imagine from the camaraderie that they partied as hard as they worked. Whatever else you can say about Spielberg, it’s obvious that the man knows how to run a set.
And that cast of characters! So much has been written about Ford’s performance, I won’t rehash any of that here—but he is Indiana Jones, with that perfect blend of smarm and charm, always at the ready with a whip, a pistol and a wisecrack to spare. Then there’s Karen Allen, who brings sass and savvy to her portrayal of Marion Ravenwood, a formidable woman who can duke it out with the boys, drink them under the table and be a romantic foil for Indy all at the same time. That’s a hell of a balancing act for any actor, and Allen pulls it off flawlessly.
The supporting characters are also top notch. Denholm Elliott makes a brief but highly effective appearance as Marcus Brody, while John Rhys-Davies is so damn likeable as the trusty Sallah that the only thing comparable to it is Brian Blessed’s turn as Prince Vultan in Flash Gordon. On the villain side, Ronald Lacey’s Toht is as ruthless and nasty as any Bond henchman—and quite the contrast to Paul Freeman as the silky René Belloq, who describes himself as a “shadowy reflection” of our hero, which comes a lot closer to the truth than Indy would like.
In short, Raiders is a great film in every sense of the word. It’s an adventure. It’s a romance. It’s got an epic story, a hero for all time, villains you love to hate and action that eclipses even the CGI-laden blockbusters of today. You couldn’t ask for a better time at the movies.
So how do you follow up something like that? By not trying to imitate it—or at least that’s what I think Spielberg and Lucas had in mind when they conceived Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Whether or not they succeeded—well, that’s in the eye of the beholder, I guess.
I’ll confess I’m not the biggest fan of the film. The problems with it are rather significant, starting with the fact that it’s a prequel—and given the constraints that shackle prequels, it probably wasn’t the best direction to go. We already know that Indy will survive to see Raiders, so there’s less tension. We already know the character pretty well from Raiders, so there’s no arc. Everything has to basically reset at the end, so nothing of any real import happens. So what we end up with is what Raiders studiously managed to avoid, which is basically hanging a bunch of action sequences on the thin reed of a plot. That, plus the overall darker tone—a mistake Spielberg would later repeat with The Lost World, his phone-it-in sequel to the wonderful Jurassic Park—pretty much makes the film walk a fine line between meh and okay.
Then there are the supporting characters. Kate Capshaw as Willie Scott is okay, I suppose—a sentiment with which Spielberg obviously agreed, as he ended up marrying her later—but she’s hardly memorable for anything other than her looks. Then there’s Short Round, Indy’s young sidekick—who seems jarringly out of place in a movie that is a lot more graphically violent than its predecessor. He’s also supposed to be precocious, but really comes off as more of a pain in the ass. I don’t know what George Lucas was thinking by putting him in there, but I’d venture it had something to do with marketing the movie to kids.
What results is something of a mess, but at least it’s never boring. Plus, after watching Indy and his cohorts being served chilled money brains for dessert, I never again complained about my mom’s tuna casserole.
But if Temple of Doom didn’t quite measure up to audience expectations, then the film that came next made them forget all about their disappointment. Sure, it took five years to come together—but at the end of that wait, when Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade finally hit theaters, fans had the sequel that they had always wanted. Not only that, it was one that stood up to the original in almost every way.
Lots of people love this move because it has Sean Connery in it—and, let’s face it, the man does tend to elevate almost anything he’s in. Never Say Never Again? Terrible, except for Sean Connery. Entrapment? I’ve seen a lot worse—but Connery is great. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen? I’d fast forward through most of that movie but stop at the Sean Connery parts. Like Bruce Campbell, he makes everything more watchable.
When you pair him with a great script and an even greater cast, however, he’s unstoppable—and that’s what makes Last Crusade such a joy to watch. Yeah, sure, Indy and the gang set out on a quest to find the Holy Grail, blah blah blah, but what we’re really here for is to watch Connery and Ford, two great actors in their own rights, do their thing as father and son. And boy, does it work. You’d think there would be a danger of Ford being overshadowed by his legendary co-thespian, but the two play off each other brilliantly—and with Marcus Brody and Sallah back in the saddle with them, all the boys are back in town and looking to have some fun. Luckily, we get to ride along with them.
Of all the sequels ever made, Last Crusade easily ranks up there with Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan as one of the greatest.
Unfortunately, George Lucas didn’t stop there.
Maybe he wanted to tempt fate. Or maybe he just couldn’t stand the idea of going out a winner. Whatever the reason, though, nothing will ever answer probably the most vexing question of all: Why in the hell did it take nineteen years to make a movie as crappy as Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull?
That title. Those aliens. The nuclear bomb and the fridge. Maybe we could have taken all that and kept on smiling—but giving us Shia LaBeouf? They might as well have given us all the finger, which is what it felt like when I went to see this Porta-Potty of a film.
There isn’t much to say about Crystal Skull that hasn’t already been said, and so little hate that hasn’t already been hated. Other than a mostly lavish production, there isn’t a single thing about this movie that actually works. Harrison Ford and Karen Allen are back, but both just seem to be going through the motions. Cate Blanchett as the Russian baddie seems to be practicing for her later role as Hela in Thor: Ragnarok. And Shia—oh, Shia. Did Lucas really think that he could hand the Indy franchise off to a character named Mutt? Ay, Chihuahua.
What’s really infuriating, though, is that the script went through probably a million drafts, and this was the version that they liked. Or settled on. Or found at the bottom of an old stack of Playboys. I guess that goes to show you that “development hell” isn’t just a figure of speech.
So let’s tally up the results, shall we?
- Raiders of the Lost Ark: Great, great, great! And did I mention it’s great? Timeless fun, unparalleled action, unforgettable characters. Ranks up there with the best Hollywood has ever given us.
- Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom: Not good, not bad. If you’ve never seen it before, maybe worth a look, but chances are good you won’t feel the need to watch it again.
- Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade: A near-perfect sequel and a classic in its own right. It’s just too bad George Lucas didn’t take his cue from the title and end it there.
- Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull: I envied the aliens in the movie because they were comatose throughout. I’d say this would be better with booze, but there’s no hooch that will help. To add insult to injury, you have to buy this one if you want the other movies on iTunes.
By my figures, that’s a 2.5/4.
AND NOW THE PART YOU’VE ALL BEEN WAITING FOR
By comparison, Star Trek rates a 3.5/6, for a .583 average. Star Wars, on the other hand, came in 4/9, which gives that franchise a .444 average. And, as we see above, Indy rates a .625.
So Indy wins!
Rest assured, though, that even if Captain Kirk, Luke Skywalker and Indiana Jones got in a fight, they’d patch things up and then go for a beer afterward. Now that’s a guy’s night out I want in on!