Franchise Rewind: Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984)

Raiders of the Lost Ark, 1981 (Harrison Ford) Paramount Pictures/Lucasfilm

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, 1984 (Harrison Ford) Paramount Pictures/Lucasfilm

“Snakes. Why’d it have to be snakes?”

When Raiders of the Lost Ark was first released, I didn’t want to see it. It didn’t interest me. Based on the poster art, I thought it was a western, and I wasn’t into westerns at the tender age of nine. I didn’t realize that it was a joint operation of Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, and I didn’t know that Han Solo was the star of the movie. That was his name—at least to me: “Han Solo.” My Mother actually had to drag me to the theater to see Raiders of the Lost Ark.

What is this? South America? Chopping through the thick with a machete? Fragments of a deteriorating map? A guy in a hat? Another guy in a hat tries ro renege on the deal, but then the other guy flicks a bullwhip at him and the gun leaps from his hand. The guy in the hat turns, the music surges, and it’s … Han Solo! I think that was the moment I figured out that these people were actors, and that they went from movie project to movie project. I turned to my mother and asked, “Is that Han Solo? Why is Han Solo in this movie?”

George Lucas understood the elements or “non-submersible units” (as Stanley Kubrick would describe them) of his story, but not having the chops to complete a screenplay, he turned to Philip Kaufman and Lawrence Kasdan to flesh the whole thing out: chases, explosions, visual effects, jungles, deserts, and the man with the hat and bullwhip. As I noted in my Jaws review, the b-movie aesthetic had been given a rather expensive face-lift, $20 million in this case, but Raiders made close to $400 million at the box office.

Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) is a continent-hopping archaeologist and professor; he’s the perfect combination of brains and brawn, and the subject of many a young female (and possibly male) fantasy. He is prevailed upon by the Government to track down something called the Ark of the Covenant, the legendary last resting place of the Ten Commandments. What remains inside the Ark (really more of an ornate, golden trunk) is the source of Godly (the Hebrew God, that is) power that has the potential to destroy everything within its field of vision.

Hitler, being a scamp, wants to get his Nazi hands on the Ark so he can capture the world. Indy has to go to his old girlfriend, Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen) to find the headpiece to the Staff of Ra, so that he can isolate the location of the Well of Souls (somewhere in Egypt), which was where the Ark was supposedly buried. Meanwhile, he’s got Nazis (led by rival archaeologist René Belloq, played by Paul Freeman) on his tail. Raiders was one of the more strongly influential movies of the ’80s.

Rip-offs could never quite duplicate the spirit or financial success of the franchise, because, like all of these first franchise movies, it was like catching lightning in a bottle. These were happy accidents that were never planned, and you can’t plan success any more than you can plan failure.

“Are you trying to develop a sense of humor or am I going deaf?”

I wonder if it had ever occurred to Spielberg and Lucas that while Indiana Jones demonstrates heroic qualities and, more often than not, saves the day in Raiders of the Lost Ark, he never manages to effect any change for the better, and that the story would have resolved on its own. If Indiana Jones had not been involved (in any way) with the story, Hitler would have recovered the Ark and quite possibly been slaughtered along with all of his men. The only change would have been the death of Marion Ravenwood, and I know that’s a sticking point. The hero must rescue the damsel. We know this.

With Temple of Doom firmly in place, and a script by husband and wife writing team Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz, Lucas made sure his story would revolve around the actions of Doctor Jones. This is a prequel, occurring a year before the events of Raiders. Like Jedi, we conclude one adventure before beginning another. Indy (Harrison Ford) is in China, or something, looking to retrieve a priceless diamond (a big one!) when he gets double-crossed and poisoned by evil, under-handed mob boss Lao Che.

Lao Che’s girl, the bratty Willie Scott (Kate Capshaw) is an unwanted passenger on this ride when Indy escapes (with sidekick Short Round, played by soon-to-be-Goonie Ke Huy Quan), on an aircraft (chartered from Dan Aykroyd, evoking memories of 1941), which is then sabotaged by the pilots working for Lao Che. Temple of Doom begins with four action set-pieces. The first being in Lao Che’s restaurant, culminating in a car chase, which leads directly into the disastrous flight and crash in the Himalayas, and finally the raft on the rapids in India, all expertly shot and edited by Douglas Slocombe and Michael Kahn. These guys never get the praise they deserve.

Once “safely” in Mayapore, Jones and friends are told terrible stories of child abduction by the Thugee Cult that make sacrifices to their goddess Kali (the Mistress of death, time, and change—how about that?). This got dark in a hurry, but …. as I said, Jones takes affirmative action to actually be part of this story. He decides to go on to Pankot Palace, meet the young Maharajah and stick his nose where it doesn’t belong.

One of the bigger problems of Temple of Doom is the unlikable damsel, Willie. She is the polar opposite of a character such as Marion and, as such, is a terrible turn-off. Consider Marion. Tough-as-nails, classy yet street smart, fiercely independent. Consider Willie. High maintenance, whimpers when she breaks a nail … shall I go on? It’s like we took a major step backward in feminine characterization over the three short years between movies. The third movie would strike a compromise with an uncomfortable middle, but we’ll get to that when we get to that.


David Lawler has written for Film Threat, VHS Rewind, Second Union, and his own blog, Misadventures in BlissVille. Lawler has produced several podcasts including That Twilighty Show About That Zone, Two Davids Walk Into A Bar (with co-host David Anderson), EQ Lawler/Saltz (with Alex Saltz), and Upstairs at Froelich's (with co-host John Froelich).

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