“I don’t know, I’m making this up as I go!” Forty Years of Indiana Jones

 Last week was the 40th anniversary of the initial theatrical release of Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Raiders arrived in the summer that my family uprooted from Hillsboro, OR, for Allegany, NY, all the way across the country. I was still three months shy of turning ten, and this would be my sixth cross-country move in that time. (Fortunately it was the final such move.) Raiders was the big movie that summer, and when it came out I knew nothing about it at all, save for that it starred my favorite actor at the time, Harrison Ford. I also knew from the ads that the creative team behind it was Steven Spielberg, the director of Jaws (which I hadn’t seen) and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (which I had), and George Lucas, with whom I was quite familiar indeed. Ford’s presence was the bigger factor in my wanting to see Raiders, after the previous summer’s The Empire Strikes Back had left his onscreen fate unresolved, frozen in that block of carbonite.

I’m not sure when in the course of all our moving and unpacking Raiders arrived, but we didn’t see it until we got to our new town. The theater where we saw it, the Palace Theater in downtown Olean, NY, was probably a wonderful place back in the day, but by 1981, it was…very much not. It was a rundown dump, to be honest, and it would close sometime in the next ten years before being finally demolished in 1998 so a cookie-cutter Rite-Aid could be built on the lot. Oh well. The Palace had a giant marquee and an enormous auditorium with a big screen and a balcony, and it must have been something to see years ago. By the time we were there, the chairs were beat up and torn and uncomfortable, the “concessions” consisted of a coin-operated popcorn machine, the sound was lousy, and it was just a terrible place to see a movie. I think that Raiders hadn’t been out that long when we got there, because the theater was mostly empty. The movie got a lot bigger as the summer went on, and it eventually screened at each of Olean’s three (at the time) movie places.

As the lights went down and the movie started, I still had no idea what this thing was about. What was the “Lost Ark”? Was this a movie about looking for Noah’s boat? It opened in…South America? In 1936? Who were these people tromping around a jungle? Why was that one guy going to shoot the leader? Wait—the guy with the leather jacket and the hat just defeated a guy with a gun with a bullwhip? And they’re searching a trap-filled old tomb for some golden statue? Betrayals? Bottomless pits? Guys getting impaled on spikes? Giant boulders?

And then our hero (I guess this is our hero) gets through all that only to have some clean-cut French asshole steal the treasure from him? But he escapes in a waiting seaplane? And he’s afraid of snakes?

What the hell was I watching?!

Just as with Star Wars four years earlier, I had no frame of reference for this movie, but by the time that plane disappeared into the sky, whisking our hero Indiana Jones away (albeit having failed), I was settling in for what was clearly going to be a thrill ride of a movie. Thankfully by this time I had some movie-going under my belt, and I was able to come to Raiders on its own terms. Poor Star Wars, four years before, had been sufficiently alien to me that I didn’t even like it at first and it took my sister’s raging enthusiasm to bring me over to it.

Raiders was the first time I ever heard of the Ark of the Covenant, and the film’s Egyptology content was appealing. There were hissable villains (some open and some skulking about in the shadows), a plucky heroine who apparently could outdrink fat Sherpas, and there was even a cool twist on the treasure map idea: the map wasn’t one you could fold up and carry around with you. It was a scale model and you could only make “X” mark the spot if you had an amulet with a crystal in the middle of it that rested atop a stick of a certain height, so that the morning sun would make a beam that would tell you where the secret vault was located that apparently contained the Ark.

(In a surprising moment of opportunity, I would much later recreate this moment at work.)

There was also a wonderful device to show our hero’s globetrotting in pursuit of the magical ark, in which footage of his plane is superimposed over a map with a red line showing his progress:

And the action sequences! Fistfights in Nepalese taverns! Chases through the Cairo marketplace! A fight atop and below a cargo plane whose propellers were whirling! And, most spectacularly, a chase through the desert roads of Egypt in which our hero is on a horse and he’s chasing after a Nazi convoy of various vehicles including a big truck.

Raiders of the Lost Ark rocked my world in 1981, just as surely as Star Wars had in 1977, Superman and the animated The Hobbit had in 1978, and Moonraker did in 1979. In terms of the big formative influences on my inner world as a story lover and a storyteller, it’s probably the case that by the time Raiders was out, I only had one more world-rocking encounter in store (which would be the middle-grade Gothic horror novels of John Bellairs). I love stories about quests for ancient artifacts, and mysterious treasure maps and sinister traps laid for those who do the questing. I love that in each Indiana Jones movie, the villain is ultimately undone by his or her own terrible failure to actually understand the nature of the thing of power they are pursuing. And I love when the hero is just plugging along, refusing to give up, and sometimes surviving just by sheer luck and escaping bad situations not through pure brawn or might or fighting skill, but by being observant and instantly sizing up an opportunity to gain just a second or two of advantage.

Next time you watch Raiders, or really any of the Indiana Jones movies, pay attention in the chases or the fight scenes, and you’ll see Indy looking around, processing what’s going on around him, noting other developments in the periphery. You’ll see him about to get skewered by a guy with a sword, so he ducks aside just as the guy starts plunging the sword forward so it’s the bad guy behind Indy who gets run through. Or you’ll see him realize that the airplane’s propeller is about to do his dirty work for him. Or that…well, you get the picture.

Ten years or so ago–probably more, actually–we watched Raiders for the first time with our daughter, and it was a delight watching her reactions as the movie drew her in as it had me. She tensed up in all the right places, including a fun tease-moment when the torture-minded Nazi goon shows up and pulls out a chain-and-rod thing that initially looks like a torture gizmo, but then turns out to just be a hangar for his coat; she laughed at all the right moments, like when a dazzling swordsman is dazzlingly brandishing his deadly cutlass in front of Indy, clearly intending to dazzlingly cut Indy into pieces with the deadly cutlass–until Indy just casually shoots him with his deadly pistol. (One of the two great moments of improvisatory movie magic by Harrison Ford, who suggested just shooting the guy instead of doing the big fight scene that was planned for that spot in the movie, because Ford was suffering from dysentery that day; Ford’s other iconic bit of improv was suggesting “I know” as Han Solo’s response to Leia’s “I love you” in The Empire Strikes Back.)

Is Raiders perfect? Of course not! The logic of the whole basket chase doesn’t hold up (Why would the bad guys have switched the baskets? How would they have planned for that?), and the movie’s climax simply doesn’t quite work, an opinion I’ve always had, though it took me many years to figure out just why. For one thing, how Indy knows not to look on the magic of the Ark comes out of the blue; in the novel there’s a line or two in the scene where the wise man is translating the inscription on the Headpiece, which says something like “The power of the Ark will destroy any who look upon it”. I don’t know is that was in the script and cut, or if it was just an addition by the novelist who thought the film’s ending lacked proper set-up. And in all honesty, there really is something just slightly unsatisfying about watching a movie in which the hero fights, chases, escapes, his way through everything, only to be a passive observer in the climax.

Not one bit of that is remotely damaging to the movie, though. Raiders of the Lost Ark remains a thrilling experience to behold, each time I watch it, and Indiana Jones remains one of the great recurring movie heroes. He was clearly intended to be a kind of James Bond character, having lots of completely different adventures from one unrelated movie to the next, and while I’m glad that Indy never became as ubiquitous as Bond (with a movie ever two years for a long time), I do wish we’d had more than the small number of adventures that we had. We had Raiders and Temple in the first three years, but then it took five years before Last Crusade arrived, and then Indy sat on the back burner for almost two decades before Kingdom of the Crystal Skull showed up, with mixed results. And as I write this, a fifth film (whose title is as yet unrevealed) is in production, now that Harrison Ford is in his late 70s. I’m not sure how I feel about this.

The tone of the serials that Indiana Jones was originally intended to reflect is from a time in storytelling when certain tropes were less cringeworthy than they are seen now. Temple of Doom especially suffers in this regard; it requires a lot of mental calibration to watch it without getting that feeling of “Geez, we really did, and in many ways still do, think that we white Westerners are the civilized beings bringing wisdom to the brown heathen savages of the world, don’t we?” (And as I watched Temple just last night, I’m pretty up-to-the-minute in this realization.) Crystal Skull was partially intended to bring Indy into the realm of Cold War-influenced 50s sci-fi, which was a great idea that wasn’t totally executed well in that movie. Maybe Indiana Jones never should have become a franchise at all. Movie producers in 1939 were perfectly happy to let Errol Flynn be done with Robin Hood, after all. Raiders is an adventure classic; Temple might be as well, with reservations. Last Crusade doesn’t hold up for me as well as its two predecessors, and Crystal Skull is just OK. We’ll see what happens with this fifth movie in a franchise that is somehow going to extend longer than 40 years with the same guy playing the same adventuring character.

Meanwhile, we’ll always have Raiders of the Lost Ark. Like Star Wars four years earlier, Raiders ended up being an enormous temporary influence on pop culture, as Hollywood suddenly figured that the film’s success indicated an unknown appetite in audiences for period adventures. Thus came a bunch of copycat kinds of movies, like two featuring Richard Chamberlain as H. Rider Haggard’s adventurer Allan Quatermain and a forgettable pirate movie called Nate and Hayes. Tom Selleck, who was originally to have played Indiana Jones in Raiders until his teevee contract for Magnum PI forced him to drop out of the project, got a consolation prize in a somewhat sleepy adventure flick about a biplane pilot called High Road to China (and Selleck would eventually get to actually dress up as an Indiana Jones look-alike in a Raiders spoof episode of Magnum). On television, ABC had a show called Tales of the Gold Monkey about a seaplane-flying pilot in the 1930s South Pacific, and CBS had Bring ‘Em Back Alive, a one-season adventure show featuring Bruce Boxleitner as hunter/naturalist Frank Buck in Singapore. Comics got in on the act as well; Marvel had an anthology series called Amazing High Adventure that it sporadically published for a few years in the 80s. Eventually Hollywood seems to have decided that Raiders hadn’t been a wild success because of some deep appetite for period adventure, but because it was simply a great film, made well. Funny how that works. Not even George Lucas’s attempt to bring Indiana Jones to the small screen, in a series called The Adventures of Young Indiana Jones, succeeded particularly well. This style of adventure tale wouldn’t really have another big hit until 1998’s The Mummy, which, like Raiders, likely became a big hit by virtue of being a really good adventure movie, well-made. Again, funny how that works.

For me, Raiders of the Lost Ark‘s appeal and influence wasn’t on a specific character or time period in history (though I do confess that for a time in 1981 I said “archaeologist!” when asked what I wanted to be when I grew up–it was nice to have a real-world thing to aspire to be from the current geek obsession movie, since one couldn’t exactly want to be “Starship Captain” or “space smuggler” or “Jedi knight”). It was more a style and approach to adventure storytelling: an attentiveness to pace and to carefully setting up everything that is to come later, and it’s about giving each character a definite motivation for what they’re pursuing. It’s about the idea that hero and villain can want the exact same thing, for completely different reasons, and it’s about a hero who keeps going, who doesn’t give up, and whose intelligence allows them to make it up as they go.

Thanks for 40 years of adventure, Dr. Jones.

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1 Response to “I don’t know, I’m making this up as I go!” Forty Years of Indiana Jones

  1. Roger Owen Green says:

    For some reason, I was not that confused by Raiders, or maybe just was willing to go for the ride.

    But I NEVER saw the 2nd film because I knew its PG rating stretched the boundaries (as you probably know, it helped create PG-13)

    I love the 3rd film, never saw the 4th, and am disinclined to see the 5th.

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