How the best Indiana Jones films survive our loss of innocence

The recently issued Indiana Jones: The Complete Adventures on Paramount Blu-Ray comes at the right moment—that is, with enough passage of time–that now a reasonable assessment can be made of the entire series. Despite the historical impact that Raiders of the Lost Ark made in 1981, each succeeding sequel has surpassed it. The original now looks rather stodgy (even with the vivid Blu-Ray transfer–no matter how many people pledge nostalgic preference for it) because Spielberg’s aesthetic momentum improved–astonishingly–with each sequel.

Now it can said: Raiders is the least of the quartet, despite its early 80s novelty, coming at the tail-end of the ‘70s American Renaissance when filmmakers brought modernist revisionism to Hollywood genre. Raiders is preferred by those who refuse to take Spielberg (and pop culture) seriously. It’s actually less elegant than the widely disliked Kingdom of the Crystal Skull which is, in fact, far richer (although the amazing cinematographer Janusz Kaminski failed to light it with Douglas Slocombe’s smooth, gorgeous. ultra-Hollywood sparkle that distinguished the first three films). Crystal Skull builds on Raider’s ideas and complicates them. Arriving two decades later, it is the series’ true sequel–refined and elegant.

The other Indy films stand alone: Temple of Doom is a rambunctious comedy with some of the greatest action-directing (that rollercoaster ride through the mines) that one can ever see. And The Last Crusade is the series’ pinnacle—a masterpiece. Harrison Ford’s Indy finds his best ally in his dad (Sean Connery, evoking the crowd-pleasing ingenuity of the James Bond series that was the forerunner to this action-cycle) and then the All-American adventurer bumps into his perfect foil (Adolf Hitler signing his autograph—in the book that represents Indy’s family legacy).

In The Last Crusade’s overture sequence, detailing Indy’s boyhood (played by the late River Phoenix), we get a perfect example of relay-race ingenuity as well as a compressed history of cinema kinetics. As teenage Indy goes from horse to train (a semiotic condensation of John Ford’s The Iron Horse and Buster Keaton’s The General in the guise of Barnum and Bailey circus transport), Spielberg achieved one of the most cinematically resonant sequences in modern movies (until Joseph Kahn paid homage to it in the train/motorcycle/gun race of Torque).

It is in The Last Crusade that Spielberg comes to grips with Imperialism and the politics and ethics behind Indy’s (the West’s) anthropological urge. Manifest colonialism meets its spiritual destiny. Destiny resonates when one revisits the now-disappointing Raiders of the Lost Ark. It simply doesn’t move fast enough—either rhythmically or intellectually. It now just looks like a slow exploration of genre possibilities; in the end a childish folly; a rehash of serial movie triviality. This exercise was fascinating in 1981 (starting with the signature visual puns on the Paramount logo that always begin the caprice—signalling for the viewer to appreciate movie history) because no one had thought about Serials as a genre for decades until the lame Star Wars revived the concept in 1977. Raiders was livelier and more human than Star Wars (and seemed fresher than The Empire Strikes Back, the best film in that woebegone series) yet over the years Raiders has not aged particularly well. (Indy running ahead of the onslaught of a rolling boulder has been so overexposed that the modernist joke is lost. Now Journey to the Center of the Earth (1959), from which Spielberg stole the joke, proves to have more dramatic context.)

Consider Raiders’ confrontation with a black-garbed Arab swinging a scimitar and Indy’s very American response (reversing the axiom about “bringing a knife to a gun fight”). In ’81 it felt cool—shocking and so Wild West American—but three decades later, especially now in the era of international trepidation and foreign policy appeasement, Indy’s gunplay feels embarrassingly over drawn.  Raiders’ concept of American fun and might went around the globe, entertaining audiences everywhere, but Al Qaeda’s payback on 9/11 haunts it now.

Indy’s moment of retaliation has come to seem futile or ill-considered—far different from the American awakening from isolationism depicted in Casablanca. That gun violates the symbolism of Indy’s whip and fedora (his prowess and his mind). It also connects to what’s problematic in the series–Temple of Doom’s insensitive, tacit racism that turned the Otherness of Indian cults into bloodthirsty villainy. Spielberg’s personal artistic reflexes and political anxieties are as fascinating as the paradoxes Edmund Wilson studied in The Wound and the Bow. Raiders’ climactic shift into Judeo-Christian sanctity (using the power of the lost Ark of the Covenant as both a moral force and a final reference to the cultural touchstone of Citizen Kane—a cinephile’s covenant) was clever but only temporarily satisfying. Spielberg needed both the process of making The Color Purple which fully empathized with the experience of the Other and the pre-Schindler’s List wit of The Last Crusade to finally face up to and fully explicate the series’ Western perspective.  The Last Crusade is the film in the series that holds up best after our loss of innocence post-9/11. When revisiting the project in Crystal Skull, Spielberg broadened that perspective historically (the magnificent mushroom cloud nuclear bomb recreation), astronomically and metaphysically.

Given the mess of contemporary cultural expression—the West and the Mid-East’s unresolved feelings about history and destiny now exploding all about us—the Indiana Jones series may be America’s last example of global adventure filmmaking. How do we imaginatively utilize Indy’s bullwhip and fedora in the midst of Arab Spring and Arab Winter? Read more about this in my book The Resistance: Ten Years of Pop Culture That Shook the World.

Follow Armond White on Twitter at 3xchair