Of all the attractions at the Disney MGM theme park when it previewed for the press back in 1989, the “Indiana Jones Epic Stunt Spectacular,” re-creating the rotating-airplane scene from Stephen Spielberg & George Lucas’s Raiders of the Lost Ark, impressed me the most. The physical logic of the sequence played out in “real” life exactly as it did on the screen (the propeller part somewhat grislier).
Looking back, I can see that this was a time when movies inspired theme parks rather than the other way around. It was a time when action sequences unfolded without the currently fashionable veil of rapid editing and CGI. They were laid out like the workings of a Rube Goldberg device or a silent-movie gag, or, as Spielberg himself put it in a recent interview, “the way Chaplin or Keaton would [shoot it], everything happening before the eyes of the audience, without a cut.”
And so the re-released DVD box set Indiana Jones: The Adventure Collection offers a refreshing, if nostalgic, experience. Although the films’ style hasn’t survived, some of the substance has. They represent the genre’s transformation from mere entertainment to “myth,” a process that was spawned by misguided readings of the works of Joseph Campbell and that continues to the present day with the Lord of the Rings trilogy and the Narnia movies.
Thus Raiders aspires to more than just the cliffhanging thrills of the B movies that Spielberg claimed as his inspiration. It is also a quest story, with Harrison Ford’s Jones a hero in search of a talisman of patriarchal power, the Ark of the Covenant. US Army intelligence has asked him to track it down before the Evil Empire of the day (it’s 1936), the Nazis, can find it and conquer the world. A fitting allegory for 1981, the year of its release and the first year of the Reagan revolution, which would seek to restore America’s greatness and strengthen its resolve to fight Communism.
By 1984, however, that resolve had deteriorated into good old-fashioned American materialism, the pursuit of “fortune and glory,” as Jones puts it in The Temple of Doom. This time he’s searching for a nondescript rock, and the film is about as generic as the artifact, opening with a Busby Berkeleyish production number of “Anything Goes” and ending with a fracas in a set that looks like a cross between the Temple of Kali in Help! and a tacky Polynesian restaurant.
What Doom lacked was a link with real life — like Nazis, Biblical mysteries, the occult, and conspiracy theories. In short, the breathless pseudo-history that would later propel the History Channel and bestsellers like The Da Vinci Code. Hence the return to form of The Last Crusade, in which Indy gets a second shot at the Third Reich, at personal redemption, and even at Wagner’s Parsifal. The object of his quest is no less than the Holy Grail. But what he really seeks is reconciliation with his father (impishly played by Sean Connery).