Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) - Pick
Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984) - Pass
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989) - Pick
Until now, the adventures of Indiana Jones have been available on DVD only in a boxed edition with all three movies. This week, in anticipation of Jones’ imminent return to the big screen, the original films are finally available in individual editions. At last, no one has to buy Temple of Doom in order to own Raiders of the Lost Ark.
Still the classic standard by which action-adventure movies are measured, Raiders of the Lost Ark is Lucas’ and Spielberg’s hugely entertaining throwback to old matinee serial cliffhangers. Brilliant action set pieces, Harrison Ford at his swashbuckling best, Old Testament spirituality, satiric jabs at Nazi anti-Semitism — it’s all here.
Roger Ebert says Raiders “plays like an anthology of the best parts of all the Saturday matinee serials ever made” — and does it ever — but it does much more than that. Although Jones evokes Alan Quatermain of King Solomon’s Mines, neither author H. Rider Haggard nor his various adapters ever figured out how to make King Solomon’s mines more than a MacGuffin. What elevates Raiders from great entertainment to transcendently great entertainment is that the filmmakers know exactly what to do with the Ark of the Covenant.
Lightning never struck twice. Neither sequel recaptured the numinous awe of the Ark — and both added overt sensuality absent in Raiders, which is discreet enough in that respect to watch with children (assuming they can handle the melting heads and all).
The weakest link is Temple of Doom, a downright oppressive prequel that fails as entertainment by miscalculating the ratio of unpleasantness the audience will endure in relation to entertainment value we get out of it.
Although everyone remembers the infamous heart-ripping scene, that’s not the worst of it — nor are the bugs and the monkey brains. Where I stop having fun is when it comes to African children kidnapped into slavery, the drugged Indy brutally smacking Short Round to the ground and lowering Willie into the lava, and the oppressive darkness of the Thuggee cult in the absence of any countervailing element of light or hope such as the Ark or even the Grail.
A significant improvement on its immediate predecessor, Last Crusade is still no rival for the original. Sean Connery is an inspired choice as the senior Jones, and the lighthearted tone is closer to Raiders, but while the quest for the Holy Grail holds out hope for transcendence, in the end the Grail is ultimately something of a disappointment.
Partly this is because the Grail of Christian legend is a hazier property than the Ark of the Old Testament — and also a more spiritual one. The film reaches for “enlightenment,” but that’s harder to pull off than melting Nazi heads.
All three films are full of action violence, mayhem and some gruesome images, with some profanity and crass language. Raiders includes some drunkenness; Temple of Doom and Last Crusade both include bedroom scenes (no nudity). Teens and up.