But first, a brief moment of self-promotion. If you like my blog, please go to my Facebook page and Like me there too. My goal is to convince Facebook I am in fact a real person. Thus far it is unconvinced, which leaves me in something of an existential crisis of identity.
“Pulp magazines” were cheap magazines full of fantastic stories printed from 1896 through the 1950s. The stories were highly sensationalized and usually featured some half-dressed woman on the cover requiring rescuing. The Shadow and Flash Gordon are examples of pulp super-heroes (and, it could be argued, Batman), and although he appears in comic strip form, I think the Phantom also qualifies. And, in no coincidence, they’ve also had movies made about them. However, when I think of pulp-style movies, I think of a fedora wearing, whip-carrying archeologist – Indiana Jones.
Interestingly, but not surprisingly, having run over budget on their previous two movies, Spielberg and Lucas were having trouble finding backers for their adventure archeologist movie. With such a winning concept, I can’t imagine why… Finally Paramount agreed, but put in the contract that if the budget went over, they were on the hook for the rest of the cash. Harrison Ford wasn’t even the first choice, but the first choice was locked in a television contract. Then the first and second choice actresses didn’t work out. And finally, while filming in the desert (Tunisia, I think), half the cast and crew came down with terrible water-bourne diseases (the value of proper water and wastewater treatment should not be underrated). But it was a huge success and spawned a franchise. This, however, is where things started to go downhill.
Raiders of the Lost Ark is, to me, the gold standard of pulpy action/adventure movies. I hold all movies like it (The Mummy remake, The Shadow, The Phantom, and yes even National Treasure, etc.) up to this movie as the bar to meet or exceed. It has action, it has adventure, it has Harrison Ford being, well, a bad-ass. Even when he is scared of the snakes, he’s still a bad-ass. It has bad guys everyone can hate (Nazis) and a damsel who while often in distress does her darnedest to get out of distress by herself and is a great foil for Indiana Jones. Marian and Indy had great chemistry. It has interesting secondary characters. It has witty dialogue and a compelling story that doesn’t actually seem too far-fetched (for all that they are searching for the Ark of the Covenant). Despite the terrible real life circumstances of filming, everything in that movie just came together. Even one of the days Harrison Ford was so dreadfully ill he couldn’t physically perform the scripted stunt produced one of the most memorable scenes in the movie and definitive proof of the addage, “Never bring a knife to a gun fight.”
By movie law, any successful movie will spawn a sequel. In this case, a prequel, but it doesn’t matter. Whereas “Raiders” did everything right, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom managed to do nearly everything wrong. Okay, maybe that’s a little harsh, although like many sequels/prequels the production decided to go with Darker and Edgier, and I don’t think that fit in with the first one’s tone at all. Even if Darker and Edgier is your thing, there were still two huge problems with the movie – the damsel in distress and the precocious child sidekick. I don’t know why so many sequels (prequel, whatever) seem to feature a precocious child sidekick. The plot usually doesn’t provide any reason why the child is there in the first place, or why the heroes don’t try to get the child to safety as soon as possible. Indy just sort of picks Short Round up like a stray dog. Oh, and this precocious child is also in no way an offensive racial stereotype (I hope the sarcasm is apparent). And Indy’s in no way an ugly American for just picking up this kid and not asking any questions about who his proper guardians might be. Reportedly, Spielberg wanted Willie Scott to be a complete contrast to Marian Ravenwood. Congratulations, Steven, you got it. Of course, it turns out a complete contrast to Marian Ravenwood is a ditzy blonde that did not seem to shut up the entire movie! I swear every other word out of her mouth was “AAAAHHH!!!” I was not rooting for Indy to rescue her. Also, the mine ride scene. Wait, it wasn’t supposed to be a rollercoaster? Could have fooled me.
Well, Spielberg reportedly didn’t like “Temple of Doom” much and the third movie was an effort to get back to the original’s awesomeness. I think Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade almost made it. I really liked the flashback scene to a teenaged Indy who it turns out was also pretty bad-ass for a kid. There were more comic elements than in the first movie, and the plot wasn’t really about finding the Grail, but more about Indy’s coming to terms with the estranged relationship he has with his father. This, to me, makes the Grail a very appropriate quest object, since in a lot of literature about those who sought the Grail, the Grail wasn’t really the end goal. The quest for the Grail was an effort for those seeking it to prove their own purity of spirit or of faith. Sure, the Nazis were the bad guys again, but the use of them as villains was historically appropriate and this installment included the femme fatale character who managed to be different from Marian and Willie in good ways. She was a different kind of foil for Indy in that she was a scholar, just like him. I like that she was visibly upset by the Nazi book-burning and yet continued to work with them because of her own desire for the Grail. I.e., she wasn’t a flat character. Indy’s father also showed that just because he’s more academic and scholarly than his son doesn’t mean he’s any less of a bad-ass. It is my second favorite in the series.
So, for all that Spielberg didn’t like “Temple of Doom,” that didn’t stop him from helping make Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. This movie actually had a lot of good elements. It showed that even an aged Indy is still a bad-ass. It brought back Marian Ravenwood, as spunky as ever. The idea of introducing Indy and Marian’s son was a good one, although I question the execution. I don’t object to him being a greaser, since that was the dangerous bad boy of the times. But having seen a young Indy as a total bad-ass in the previous movie, Mutt was somewhat disappointing, to say the least. He was too comic-relief-y and not bad-ass enough (two words – nut shot). The scene in the refrigerator was not actually the worst part of the movie, but it does sort of explain why the movie didn’t work. It was just too over the top. I don’t know why movies where Indy went looking for real artifacts worked so much better than movies where he went looking for fake artifacts. I also didn’t think there was enough detective work in this one. Indy found the skull with what seemed to me very little effort. I would rate it as better than “Temple” but not as good as the other two.
So there it is – the rise and fall of a great movie franchise. All other pulp action-adventure style movies are held to the standard of “Raiders” and don’t want to fall to the level of “Temple” (I rate the aforementioned National Treasure as somewhat better than “Crystal Skull” but not as good as “Crusade”) Also, Fifteen-minute movie versions of these movies are forthcoming.