Raiders Of the Lost Ark introduced us to the fedora wearing, whip cracking archaeologist Inidana Jones in 1981. The film was the brainchild of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg who had respectively mined the science fiction serials of the 1930 and 1940s in Star Wars, and the Golden Era of flying saucer movies of the 1950s in Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
They envisaged this as a trilogy of films in the derring-do spirit of swashbuckling adventure films of the past. As in their previous films they up-dated old film genres using big-budget resources for a modern mass audience. Critics have identified the likes of film serials Spy Smasher (1942) and The Masked Marvel (1943) as inspirations for Raiders and that a whip cracking character featured in the trilogy Zorro Rides Again (1937), Zorro’s Black Whip (1944) and The Man with the Steel Whip (1954).
A film serial Adventures of Captain Marvel (1941) had the prime characters seeking a golden scorpion, and this template of questing for valuable historical and mythical artefacts is a basic ingredient of the Indiana Jones films. Another important element of the Jones films is a constant progression from one elaborate cliffhanger to the next, without having to wait another week to see the resolution of the cliffhanger when old film serials were shown in cinemas. Like the old serials there is often a blatant disregard for narrative logic and through editing or a brief one-liner the hero escapes inevitable capture or death.
Spielberg did not however want Jones to be a James Bond hero who wins every fight virtually unscathed. Instead he wanted him to come away cut and bruised and in obvious pain.
The fast paced action, sophisticated camera movement and editing of Raiders brought to life the aspirations of the old serials, and was an immediate box-office success. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom appeared in 1984 to a more critical reaction regarding its use of violence and its racist and sexist elements. Like Raiders it is a roller-coaster ride filled with cliffhangers and a superbly choreographed opening sequence, but even Spielberg admitted it was too dark, subterranean and horrific.
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade in 1989 takes us back to basics with its opening sequence showing how the young Indiana Jones got his fedora hat, bull-whip and phobia of snakes. In his quest for the Holy Grail, Jones, played by Harrison Ford unites with his father played by Sean Connery (the first James Bond). This neatly enables Spielberg to emulate his love of the James Bond movies that feature goodies and baddies chasing each other in exotic locations throughout the world. The story has father and son looking for the Holy Grail and by bringing them together they gain a mutual respect and understanding.
The planned trilogy should have ended there but after a long break we got Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull in 2008, again directed by Spielberg. The story is set in the 1950s and it references science fiction films of that period, lots of elements of the UFO mythology and involves the KGB and psychic interdimensional aliens. Along with racing to find the crystal skull Jones marries Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen) who was his love interest in the original Raiders film.
Although Crystal Skull repeated the same old formula, it was a box office success. For what is intended to be the last film of this franchise starring Harrison Ford, Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny, director James Mangold takes over the directorial reins from Spielberg.
In the first 30-minute sequence of Destiny, we go back to WWII where Jones is captured once more by the Nazis. Like the earlier movies it moves from one cliffhanger moment to another at an exhilarating pace. Then we move to July 1969 when the first moon landing is being celebrated, yet Jones is surprisingly disinterested in this important historical event. We find him in his small shabby apartment, and he is in an equally old and shabby condition not helped by his consumption of alcohol. Interestingly, Spielberg from the outset wanted Jones to be an alcoholic with a sleazy home life but Lucas vetoed that idea. I think Lucas was right in that regard, and it seems a shame that such an iconic heroic character is reduced to this.
In the nick-of-time Jones’ goddaughter Helena Shaw (Phoebe Waller-Bridge) appears and has him reluctantly drawn into finding the Antikythera mechanism (the dial of destiny in the film’s title), which is an early type of mechanical computer. They are in a race to find all the parts of the mechanism with a former Nazi scientist who wants to use it to open a portal in time/space to enable him to return to WWII and change the course of the war. As well as helping save the world from Nazi domination Jones’ sad life is given a brighter future.
As an exhilarating, whip cracking, roller-coaster movie with plenty of chase sequences using virtually every means of land, sea and air transport you will find it hard to find any better.
Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny is screening at Plymouth Arts Cinema from Friday 21st – Thursday 27th July.
Reviewed by Nigel Watson