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Indiana Jones paved the road for dumb box-office thrill rides

Largely by cracking jokes and his bullwhip, Indiana Jones snared American hearts in the 1980s. Ever since, the indefatigable finder of incomparable objects in improbable places has continued to astound and amaze.

“Raiders of the Lost Ark”: Steven Spielberg’s classic adventure aspired to be escapist frivolity.
“Raiders of the Lost Ark”: Steven Spielberg’s classic adventure aspired to be escapist frivolity.Read more

Largely by cracking jokes and his bullwhip, Indiana Jones snared American hearts in the 1980s. Ever since, the indefatigable finder of incomparable objects in improbable places has continued to astound and amaze.

From Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), where the guy in the fedora hung by his cuticles over a pit of poisonous snakes, to Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989), where he eluded rats of the rodent and Nazi persuasions, Indy has defied death, and gravity, with a shrug and a smile.

See him outrun a crushing boulder! Watch him cling to the rails of a mine cart hurtling to hell! Gasp as he commandeers a Nazi plane! Indiana is manly, rakish, wry. Who does not love Indy Jones?

I don't. Sorry to say, I'm a bit of a Raider-hater. And I don't think I'm alone in dreading the release of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, the fourth installment of the fourth most popular movie franchise in history.

Didn't totally hate Raiders. Appreciated Steven Spielberg's direction and Harrison Ford's nonchalance. Couldn't help but be propelled by its hold-on-to-your-snap-brim energy. Apart from the roller-coaster spills and thrills, found it uninvolving.

Given the subsequent installments, it is hard for me to muster enthusiasm for a franchise that has done so much to dumb down movie scripts, ramp up movie tempos, perpetuate colonialist stereotypes, and, yes, marginalize women.

Most egregiously, the films in the Indiana Jones cycle have grown increasingly shallow and preposterous. Some might say that's part of their charm.

Some describe Raiders as the precipitous thrill ride that Spielberg made between his early career peaks of Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), and E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982).

But after Close Encounters there was another movie, 1941, the desperately unfunny World War II comedy widely dismissed as "Spielberg's Pearl Harbor." It was a critical disaster and commercial disappointment. Before Spielberg could make another movie from the heart, the director who had gone over budget on Jaws, Close Encounters and 1941 had to demonstrate fiscal reliability.

He said yes to his pal George Lucas' offer to direct Raiders, a "James Bond movie without the hardware," in part because with Lucas holding the wallet, Spielberg figured he could make a movie on time and under budget. Raiders, as Hollywood analyst A.D. Murphy noted at the time, amounted to the director's professional "rehab."

It might not have a particularly high IQ, but Raiders boasts a sky-high FQ, or fun quotient. Leaping from set piece to set piece like the 1940s-era Saturday-morning serials it celebrates, the film wanted nothing more than to be escapist frivolity, and for the most part it succeeded.

The whips, the snakes, the daredevil stunts amount to a week of dessert, froth without food value. I'm OK with that, though at the time I thought even Jaws and Star Wars, those twin templates for the modern action/adventure film, managed to serve up at least a few morsels of thought about valor and honor.

Raiders is a fairly innocuous piece of entertainment. It's what came after that is pernicious: Raiders helped pour the foundations for the Temple of Dumb (think The Goonies, Gremlins, WarGames): thrill rides made solely for the purpose of pumping up the adrenaline, plumping up the box office, and dumbing down scripts to reach a lowest-common-denominator audience.

Stateside, Pauline Kael charged Spielberg with infantilizing the audience; Brits routinely complained of his "juvenilisation" of moviegoers. After Raiders, every third movie, or so it seemed, was made expressly for 12-year-old boys.

Spielberg frequently gets blamed for accelerating movie action beyond the speed of comprehension. (The result? See The Bourne Ultimatum.) While this trend was already under way, as film scholar David Bordwell notes, what Spielberg created with Raiders is a model for the Gen ADHD flick - a movie paced 25 percent faster than his other films, one that influenced the bullet pacing of so many inferior imitators.

Raiders, released in June 1981, clocks in with shots that average 4.5 seconds in length, says Bordwell, who goes to movies with a stopwatch. At the time, average shot duration was six to seven seconds, which is what Spielberg's Jaws, Close Encounters, and War of the Worlds average.

With the exceptions of the Indiana Jones and Jurassic Park movies, Spielberg - like Woody Allen, P.T. Anderson and M. Night Shyamalan - is a proponent of the long take. He knows that the more extended the shot, the more the audience bonds emotionally with the characters. The shorter the shot, the more the audience is propelled by the rhythm and action.

Raiders, released two months before the launch of MTV and blitzkrieg-paced music videos, had its boot on the accelerator - both reflecting the culture and helping to boost its pace. And it influenced such Jerry Bruckheimer/Don Simpson movies as Flashdance (1983) and Top Gun (1986).

Underlying the Raiders series like rotten fruit is ethnic stereotyping consistent with 19th-century British imperialism.

Weirdly for a movie series critical of Nazi master racism, its antagonists and villains are largely designed to present a world in need of saving by the white hero.

Recall the Arabs of Raiders - famously, the one who menacingly draws arabesques with his sword before Indy just shoots him? Remember the Indian pagans of Temple of Doom - notoriously the Thuggee priest Mola Ram (Amrish Puri) who rips a beating heart from a human chest? Remember how the Middle Eastern Nazi henchmen in Holy Grail are swarthy and oily?

Joseph McBride, one of Spielberg's more sympathetic biographers, denounced the first two pictures in the Indy Jones cycle as "fantasies of American cultural dominance over Third World primitives." No wonder that India initially banned Temple of Doom.

While Indy, adventurer/archaeologist, conquered the global box office, what of the women who conquered his heart?

In Raiders, gin- and gunslinging Marion Ravenwood is an adventuress whose daredevil-may-care aplomb and leather bomber jacket are a match for Indy's own. Temple of Doom featured Willie Scott (Kate Capshaw), a spangled nightclub singer screaming for help and a manicure. Finally, Last Crusade offered up svelte Nazi spy Elsa Schneider (Alison Doody), who seduces, then betrays, Indy and his dad, Henry (Sean Connery), in a movie where the real love affair is between father and son.

You might say of the Indiana Jones cycle that Indy's gal is, in the initial movie, his helpmeet. In its second, she is helpless. And in its third, she is his enemy. You also might say the series is an index of the diminishing importance of women in the '80s, when action/adventure conquered Hollywood.

In 1980, the year before Indy hit the screen, the biggest box office hits included Coal Miner's Daughter, 9 to 5, and Private Benjamin. By 1984, when he returned in Temple of Doom, the only big-screen heroine left among the top 10 movies was in Romancing the Stone.

Even so, it's encouraging that Crystal Skull has two significant female roles - Karen Allen returning, happily, as adventuress Marion Ravenwood, and Cate Blanchett playing the Soviet heavy.

What makes a great movie franchise? Wall Street measures greatness in dollars. By that metric, the Indiana Jones franchise is a whopping success.

Main Street measures greatness by emotional fervor. The Lord of the Rings trilogy, each subsequent film deeper and richer than the previous one, was great. The Matrix, where the first installment was phenomenal and the second two cashed in on the phenom, got more irrelevant as it went along.

Indy Jones? The first was OK; the second a nightmare; the third a sick joke.

I don't blame Indiana Jones for transforming Hollywood from a moviemaking town into a synergized marketing town - Star Wars did that. But on so many other counts, the guy in the fedora has a lot to answer for.

Top-grossing U.S. movie franchises

Star Wars $2.1 billion (6 movies)

Harry Potter $1.4 billion (5 movies)

James Bond $1.4 billion (23 movies)

Indiana Jones $1.3 billion (3 movies)

Lord of the Rings $1 billion (3 movies)

Pirates of the Caribbean $1 billion (3 movies)

Source: Box Office Mojo. Figures adjusted for inflationEndText


Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

Opens Thursday in area theaters.