I don’t have kids, but I was wondering recently if I had, which movies from my childhood would I introduce them to early. My first impulse would say Star Wars. It is, after all, one of my all-time top five favorite movies, the first movie I remember seeing in a movie theater, and kids still love the hell out of that movie even today. But then I put some more thought into it and considered Raiders of the Lost Ark might be a better choice. Why? Well, Raiders is a fast-paced action adventure with a nostalgic twist for people of the Lucas/Spielberg generation while also not coming across as an overly bloated franchise that I fear Star Wars may become in the corporate hands of Disney.
Plus, Steven Spielberg is just a flat-out better director than George Lucas.
The Spielberg/Lucas thing may seem obvious today after the Prequels That Shall Not Be Named (doing so gives Ryan hives), but just a casual viewing of the two franchise’s first films shows a general sense of camera movement to Raiders that is lacking in, well, all of Lucas’ directorial efforts from what I’ve seen. I think Lucas is a good idea man, but he isn’t a particularly masterful storyteller. Listening to the audio commentary on the first six Star Wars films told me that much as I heard him describing what he was going for in all of those movies and realizing he never achieved those narrative goals in any of the movies he directed. That’s fine for the first one he made (it’s still awesome), but it says a lot that many of the better films in the franchise he is most associated with are directed by other people.
Even if we want to take aside the obvious of Spielberg’s general superiority behind the camera, there’s another factor to consider: Indiana Jones himself. Harrison Ford has played many, many memorable and heroic figures in his career, but I would argue that Indiana Jones is his most iconic. Han Solo, a character Ford doesn’t care for very much, is fine, but he’s basically a space cowboy. Indiana Jones, on the other hand, is more unique. While he is still a throwback, this time to old movie serials, face it: Indiana Jones is iconic enough that you recognize him just through his silhouette.
He also has a damn impressive character introduction in this film. Cinefix put it onto one of their top ten lists, and they make a better case for it than I ever could. But look at that opening scene: everything you need to know about Indiana Jones is established right there. There’s the booby traps, the treacherous assistants (including Alfred Molina in his first film), the giant boulder, and even the snake at the end. Sure, we can wonder who the plane was for and who flew it there (it isn’t big enough to carry the entire expedition), but there are lots of things about this film we shouldn’t think about, like how Temple of Doom was set before it and here Indy says he doesn’t believe in magic and superstition, or how the Nazis were having a massive expedition in what was British-controlled Egypt, but this isn’t the sort of film we should think about for those sorts of things. What sort of film is it?
It’s the sort of film where the hero does what the Muppets call “travel by map” across the globe. It’s one where the hero escapes and fights through his troubles in the most creative way possible. It’s one where the stunts and thrills hold up in the age of CGI (another reason why this one might be a first showing for a nonexistent kid of mine). It’s the sort of film where a bad guy can look threatening while hanging up his coat.
Additionally, unlike most film franchises, this one introduces a series of standalone films. You can probably watch most any of these films without seeing any of the others. A little general knowledge of Indiana Jones will suffice, and you get that pretty easily. Kingdom of the Crystal Skull had a lot of problems, but one of the ones that bothered me the most was it felt more like an actual sequel than any of the others. It referenced other adventures, including The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles TV series at one point
That said, there was one thing that misbegotten fourth entry did right: it brought back Marion Ravenwood. Karen Allen brings a cocksure attitude to the female lead, one who even saves Indy’s life at one point until about halfway through the movie when she reverts to damsel-in-distress mode. Besides, it was nice to see a love interest that was closer to the same age as the male hero for a change. Sure, she lost her spunk and had an obnoxious son, but…wait, why was it a good thing?
Then again, seeing Marcus Brody and Sallah in this movie as fairly competent men, it’s a little odd seeing them as more comic relief figures in Last Crusade, a movie that is much better than Temple of Doom to right-thinking people everywhere.
Ultimately, though, Raiders is an action adventure, old fashioned in its style even when it was produced, with cartoon villains and a literal dues ex machina MacGuffin that will eventually be examined by “top men”.
Just make sure you keep your eyes shut to avoid the horror that is the next time we see that Ark: in the opening scene from Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.
By the by, this film has a Nazi monkey in it, and it got what it deserved when it ate those poisoned dates.
NEXT UP: We’re going back to 1955 for another iconic character, James Dean’s signature role in Rebel Without a Cause.