Indiana Jones and the series of doom
I remember enjoying Raiders of the Lost Ark when it came out in 1981; I hadn't seen the matinee serials that inspired producer George Lucas and director Steven Spielberg, but I did respond to the junky theme-park ride feel (actually it wasn't so much a theme park ride (that came later) as it was a traveling carnival, complete with walking freaks, lurid exhibits, the hint of sex, and thrills galore). The picture shambled and lurched horribly (there wasn't much of a plot to speak of) but that was part of the charm, and it moved with agreeable speed (the huge fiberglass boulder threatening to roll over Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) pretty much set the pace and tone of the picture).
So many decades later, the appetite for movies derived from other movies has been satiated to the point of nausea (for me, at least). Raiders spawned endless clones, some amusing (I'm thinking of Romancing the Stone (1984)--basically Raiders told from the point of view of the heroine, ably directed by Spielberg protégé Robert Zemeckis), many not (the Richard Chamberlain remake of King Solomon's Mines (1985) and Jon Turtletaub's National Treasure (2004) anyone?). Re-watching the picture, the question of racism comes to fore: do South American savages, Nepalese grotesques, and Tunisian thugs all exist to be mere fodder for Indy Jones to whip, kick, verbally and physically abuse, and--when in a particularly bad mood--simply shoot in the chest?* The picture moves so fast one may miss the subtext, unless one is South American, Nepalese, or Tunisian, or simply non-white...
*Actually, Toshiro Mifune had a--to my mind, at least--far wittier response to the question of gun vs. blade, in Akira Kurosawa's great black comedy Yojimbo (1961)
...Though I'm sure there were nonwhites that did miss the subtext (the movie was an international hit) and I'm sure much of the racism was unintentional (Spielberg was--still is, I'd argue--a political naïf; Lucas even more so), a carryover from the serials of old with their '30s attitude toward darker-skinned people--but a racial slur is a racial slur, even when not intended to offend, even when the victim fails to notice.
Might as well throw in the observation that the climax, involving the Ark of the Covenant sitting inside a 'caldero'-like structure shooting flames into the sky, is partly inspired by the Night on Bald Mountain sequence in Disney's Fantasia (1940). And that the Bald Mountain sequence was in turn inspired by the opening passages of F.W. Murnau's Faust (1926)--with Emil Jannings a far more impressive Devil than Disney's rather sexless version, spreading his vast bat wings from horizon to horizon.
Which reminds me of another grand adventure that trod heavily on racial lines--George Stevens' Gunga Din (1939). Indians are depicted here as either ignorant buffoons or homicidal heathens (though the putative villains, the Thuggee cult, did actually exist). It's more difficult to condemn the implicit racism in Stevens' film for several reasons: the producers were cunning enough to present a sympathetic Indian character (the eponymous Din, played by Sam Jaffee), and--better yet--they show the Englishmen to be equal if not bigger buffoons in their slapstick antics.
The cries of racism probably weren't strong enough; in Spielberg's next movie Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984) the attitude towards foreigners--in this case East Indians--is even more virulent. Jones helps a poor Indian village recover their magic Macguffin;* it's not a case of the white archeologist-adventurer recovering a powerful device for the free world, but of powerful and malevolent Indians oppressing their poorer brethren (the white adventurer is merely a benefactor). Spielberg's view of India (a country steeped in dire poverty, ancient architectural and cultural marvels, and great natural beauty) is almost unredeemably ugly, the ugliest I've seen in any picture supposedly set in that country (actually shot in soundstages in Elstree Studios, England, and in Sri Lanka (the location scout must have deliberately chosen the least appealing spots in that country), so that it doesn't look convincingly Indian, either). Offsetting this--well, other than the poor victimized village and a spoiled brat of a prince who turns out to have been under hypnotic control, there isn't any mitigating circumstances (Gunga Din at least had the loyal (if intellectually dim) Gunga Din).
*From Alfred Hitchcock: a "Macguffin" is the plot device (uranium, stolen secrets, ancient talisman, whatever) important to the characters in the picture that drives the story forward, but which we the audience couldn't care less about.
A royal feast midway through the picture is especially insulting, with offerings of pregnant pythons slit open, eyeball soup with distinctly human eyes (that aren't cooked), and chilled monkey brains. Spielberg doesn't even bother to get details of his gross-out fare right (none of these dishes are served in classic Indian cooking,* which has its own share of strange and wonderful dishes).
*the eating of live monkey brains is most often attributed to the Chinese not the Indians--and even then there's little actual documentation.
The sequel does exceed Raiders in number and quality of inventive action setpieces. The Chinese nightclub sequence, for example, with its diamond-delivering Lazy Susan, giant bulletproof gong, and Kate Capshaw singing Cole Porter's "Anything Goes" in Mandarin, is an Oriental chop-suey wonder (here it's Capshaw's song that sets the tone); the mine scenes feature an innovative (for that time) chase; the battle on the bridge is genuinely thrilling (and not for the acrophobic). If pure popcorn entertainment can in any way justify a picture's cultural insensitivity, this is one of the better arguments I've heard from Hollywood in recent years. It almost--almost--makes its case.
Might add that Temple of Doom had a subtler, more insidious effect on future popcorn movies: as far as I know, this was the first time a chase was explicitly shot and edited as if it were an amusement park ride, with lengthy inserts of the action as seen riding inside the mine car. It's a special-effect wonder--I remember reading production stories about how a camera was mounted on little tracks, riding up and down scale model recreations of a mine--and here, at least, the connection made (between chase and roller-coaster ride) is witty; the elaborate effects were in the service of jokes, at least one of which was actually funny ("Water! Water!"). With time and endless repetition, however (by anything and everything from the Star Wars prequels (1999 - 2005) to Ice Age (2002), Chicken Little (2005--notice how American digital animation features are the worse offenders?) and the recent Horton Hears a Who! (2008)), the cliché has become tiresome and annoying.
The louder cries of racism and a temporary ban in India may have prompted Spielberg to reconsider: with Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989), Spielberg abandons the use of foreign cultures as hate effigies and takes aim at a more convenient villain, the Nazis (when the swastika appears midway through the picture and Jones slumps back, saying "I hate Nazis," it's almost with a sigh of relief; at least, Spielberg seems to say, there won't be any protest letters from minority groups).
Spielberg took care to include a little local color: the incomparable canals of Venice, of course, and the amazing stone facades of Petra, a desert city carved out of a mountainside, acting as stand-in for the ancient temple hiding the Grail (for a series with a supposedly strong geo-historical orientation, I shudder to think what image of the world the movies present to millions of children). Middle Eastern characters are at best loyal sidekicks (Sallah, played by the Englishman John Rhys-Davies), ambivalent antagonists (The Brotherhood of the Cruciform Sword, who at some points cross paths with Jones, then drop out of the picture entirely), or cannon fodder.
The action setpieces are--serviceable (maybe three stand out: a young Indy Jones clambering his way through a chugging circus train; a flagpole used against a motorcycle; a fighter plane and an umbrella in deadly confrontation). The movie's feature attraction is really Indiana's ambivalent relations with his father (Henry Jones, Jr., played by the by-now legendary Sean Connery). Of the three, Raiders comes off as perhaps the 'freshest' (considering most of its elements were secondhand), Temple of Doom staged the best action (and worst violence), Last Crusade was the most politically acceptable (was, at least, not out-and-out offensive), and emotionally complex (which isn't saying much, actually).
The series as a whole is a fine example of popcorn entertainment (if you can set aside the frankly racist content of the first two pictures) but compared to earlier entertainment, well...
Take Gunga Din. The Indy movies barely have a story--just a Macguffin hidden way in some remote death-trap for Jones to uncover; Gunga Din, which does do its share of borrowing, borrows from the best: the basic plot and premise of The Front Page transposed into an army comedy, where one officer (Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.) threatens to marry and leave the British Army while two fellow officers (Cary Grant and Victor McLaglen) scheme to keep him enlisted. If the Indy movies have one star turn (Ford, and at one point Connery), Gunga Din has three (Fairbanks, McLaglen, a magnificently physical Grant); if the Indy movies have Rube Goldberg action setpieces, Gunga Din has Rube Goldberg comic setpieces (and who's to say a comic setpiece is not an action setpiece, only funny?), plus a rousing finale that makes full use of all the character detail and comic goodwill built up in the past couple of hours. All in all, the Indiana Jones series aren't all that bad; it's just that there's better out there, if you're willing to go and look for it.
First published for Businessworld 5.23.08)