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Digging Into the Cinematic Archaeology of the Indiana Jones Movies

The genius of Steven Spielberg’s treasure-seeking blockbuster franchise is how it synthesized Old Hollywood ethos with New Hollywood sheen. But how do they hold up, now that their reference points are ancient history?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

“It belongs in a museum.” That’s the rallying cry of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, a movie that is about, among other things, the importance of preserving holy objects so that future generations can marvel at their grandeur.

Netflix isn’t a museum, and, notwithstanding the release of The Other Side of the Wind, its connection to film history grows wispier with each passing year. But as a digital display case for the Indiana Jones movies—all of which are on the streaming service as of the beginning of January—it’ll do just fine.

By Netflix’s standards, Steven Spielberg’s movie is a relic. It’s been 38 years since Raiders of the Lost Ark debuted in theaters, approximately the same amount of time separating it from the films that inspired it—the serialized dramas of the 1930s and ’40s, which shaped the sensibilities of Spielberg and producer George Lucas in their movie-crazed childhoods. “With both Star Wars and Raiders,” Lucas told The New York Times in 1981, “I started out by asking myself, ‘Gee, when I was a kid, what did I really like?’”

Separately and together, Lucas and Spielberg spearheaded the mix of affectionate nostalgia and accessible postmodernism that reshaped American cinema in the 1970s. The decade is now regularly fetishized as a wellspring of directorial originality, but ironically, the “New Hollywood” was largely defined by acts of borrowing or outright theft. Artists as varied as Peter Bogdanovich, Robert Altman, Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, and Brian De Palma had their own styles and sensibilities, but the common denominator between this group (not counting cocaine) was a willingness to pilfer from film history while sorting out their own identities.

What distinguished Lucas and Spielberg from their peers was not only their relatively unpretentious frames of reference—less French New Wave or Italian neorealism than studio spectacle—but how they yoked their old-school enthusiasms to state-of-the-art technology. Where eccentric, idiosyncratic gestures like McCabe & Mrs. Miller and Taxi Driver reconfigured ideas of the American “art film,” Jaws, Star Wars, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind collapsed the gap between A and B movies that had defined production and exhibition practices in the old studio era. That one-two-three punch, spanning 1975 to 1977, represented a colossal paradox: There was nothing in these unapologetic genre exercises that audiences had never seen before, and yet nobody had ever seen anything like them. And the movies would never be the same again.

Some would say that this development was a turn for the worse: that by awakening the proverbial inner child of the moviegoing public, Lucas and Spielberg were also infantilizing viewing tastes for decades to come. That may be truer of Lucas, whose biggest contribution to film history was taking the basic, goldbricking principle of serialized narrative—keep ’em wanting more—and monetizing it in the form of a franchise predicated on sequelization. Lucas saw the epic world-building of Francis Ford Coppola’s Godfather films—at once more ambitious and calculated than the simple, market-driven cash-ins of Jaws 2 and Rocky II—and raised it one whole galaxy.

The consequences of Lucas’s investment in the creative and commercial possibilities of an extended cinematic universe are easy to see today, both in the bordering-on-oppressive dominance of Marvel and the new cycle of Star Wars sequels and spinoffs, all of which, in a culturally inevitable twist, have cannibalized and canonized their predecessors as fully as A New Hope blended together Flash Gordon, Joseph Campbell, and Akira Kurosawa.

If Lucas was the big-picture guy, Spielberg supplied the 35mm frames—the mobile, kinetic, awe-inspiring image-making, #oneperfectshot after another—that turned his last name into an adjective synonymous with crowd-pleasing entertainment.

In terms of pure filmmaking chops, there was never really any contest between the guy whose breakthrough movie used mostly of shots of people sitting in vintage Cadillacs and the one whose debut turned an 18-wheeler into Moby Dick. The story goes that Lucas talked Spielberg into making Raiders in lieu of throwing his hat in the ring for a James Bond assignment, and that the film’s screenplay was not so much written as assembled to specifications via a 100-page transcript of conversations between the two titans—a breathless inventory of the things they liked as kids.

From its title on down, Raiders of the Lost Ark cops to Lucas and Spielberg’s grave-robbing artistic M.O.—the giddy thrill of trying to get your hands on something ancient that doesn’t quite belong to you. “There is nothing you possess that I cannot take away,” sneers Paul Freeman’s Vichy archaeologist Belloq, summing up the rhythm of the series as a whole, as surely as the rolling boulder that nearly squashes Indy flat a few seconds before his arrival.

Indy’s penchant for getting into dangerous situations is a running joke, and so is the character himself: Ford starts sprinting in the first scene of Raiders and barely stops moving. The punch line, which is virtually the same in each of the first three Indiana Jones movies, is that the prize is too hot to handle. The Nazis open the Ark of the Covenant and get melted; Thuggee cult leader Mola Ram burns his hands on the Sankara Stones and plummets to his death; Walter Donovan chooses—unwisely—to sip from a bogus Holy Grail and decomposes on the spot. And, in each case, Indy’s heroism becomes inverted: He wins by being patient and humble, by sucking it up and letting go, by just averting his eyes.

Raiders is not a movie that lacks for classic moments, but its fiery climax ranks among Spielberg’s greatest sequences. Visually, the opening of the Ark rhymes with the ending of Close Encounters of the Third Kind—a gigantic light-and-sound show on a mountaintop, with all of the film’s characters gathered around to watch. But where Close Encounters aliens stood in for a kind of benevolent, New Age deity (with the Devils Tower transformed into a neon version of Burning Man), the Old Testament God unleashed in Raiders has no pity. His wrath reverses Close Encounters’ bliss-out and anticipates the vaporized corpses of War of the Worlds. In that film, Tom Cruise’s Ray Ferrier advises his daughter to close her eyes to shut out the carnage, echoing Indy’s similar order to Marion; they remain blind to the spectacle while we get our money’s worth.

It’s possible to see Raiders’ variation on the myth of Pandora’s Box as a self-reflexive commentary on the blockbusterization of American cinema—a force that, once unleashed, overwhelms and ultimately destroys any and all spectators. (Being surrounded at all times and on all sides by superhero movies can make you feel a bit like an innocent victim bound to a stake.) I wouldn’t put such sharp, double-edged satire past Spielberg, whose filmography is filled with metaphors for filmmaking and viewing—from the quixotic expeditions of Jaws to the surveillance horror of Minority Report and Munich—and yet it’s also the one place where his joyfully artificial, retrograde movie, all matte paintings and bruising stunt work, pushes past a strictly filmic frame of reference.

In a film set in 1936, with Adolf Hitler in ascendance and World War II on the horizon, the opening of the Ark isn’t just a showstopping climax; it’s a stand-in for the real-world detonation of atomic bombs on Japan, shifting the location, targets, and meaning of the 20th century’s most apocalyptic act of violence until it signifies—powerfully and humorously—in a different manner: as a Jewish filmmaker’s act of fantastical, special-effects revenge, getting the last laugh on the Nazis and rewriting history in the process. (A double bill of Raiders and Inglourious Basterds would be revealing, not only because of how much Quentin Tarantino stole for his own ending, but because QT, the film nerd whose after-40 “maturity” has involved taking on more serious subjects than the hit men and $5 shakes of his early-’90s breakthroughs, is in many ways the new Spielberg.)

I’ve always found the very end of Raiders to be far creepier and more historically suggestive than its superficial Citizen Kane homage would indicate. The line in Alan Moore’s Watchmen describing the weaponized potential of Dr. Manhattan—“The superman exists … and he’s American”—corresponds perfectly to the sight of the Ark being filed away in some government warehouse, ready to be unpacked the next time America needs to wipe out some perceived evil empire. The atomic anxiety also provides a through line from the first and best of the Indiana Jones movies to the fourth and worst, 2008’s much-maligned The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, which attempted to recontextualize its protagonist’s heroism by transporting him from the cynical, two-fisted ’40s to the Eisenhower era, in an America riven in equal parts by prosperity and paranoia. Yes, the scene where Indy shields himself from a nuclear test blast by hiding in a fridge is ridiculous, but the imagery is stunning, from the prefab-plastic Norman Rockwell backdrop to the shot of Ford gazing upward at a billowing mushroom cloud, as if awed and helpless in its presence.

Like many “late” Spielberg films—i.e., everything he’s made since winning his second Oscar for directing Saving Private Ryan in 1999—The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is a mixed bag, leveraging exceptional technique against a palpable sense of obligation. While some filmmakers can phone it in with a clear conscience, Spielberg’s level of investment is always easy to peg—although “personal” doesn’t always mean “good” (see: Hook)and the attempt to rekindle Raiders’ central romance between Indy and Karen Allen’s Marion Ravenwood doesn’t quite spark.

The masterstroke of The Last Crusade was to fill in an ornery loner’s backstory by giving him an origin myth—complete with River Phoenix’s Young Indiana Jones lecturing a thief that the Cross of Coronado belongs in a museum—and a father figure in the form of Sean Connery’s Henry Jones Sr. It was a brilliant piece of casting that evoked not just James Bond but John Huston’s 1975 adventure classic The Man Who Would Be King, a film whose DNA particles run deep in the series’ bloodstream. By the time Crystal Skull got around to doubling down on the all-in-the-family theme with Shia LaBeouf as Indy’s greaser offspring Mutt (he’s also named for the dog, get it?), it all felt a bit too pat and pandering.

Raiders’ greatness is largely uncontested; Crystal Skull’s ultimate superfluousness is largely agreed upon, except by Spielberg’s most fervent champions. It’s harder to sort out whether Last Crusade has held up better than The Temple of Doom—the movie it was designed primarily to “apologize” for. Where Raiders was intended—and successfully executed—as a tribute to Lucas and Spielberg’s childhood fantasies, The Temple of Doom is a weirdly adolescent enterprise, filled with gore and gross-out humor and radiating bad vibes. It begins brilliantly with a mash-up of Busby Berkeley and James Bond set in a Shanghai nightclub, swapping out Raiders’ boulder for a golden, bullet-deflecting gong, and moves at the kind of breakneck pace that only Spielberg at the peak of his powers could successfully orchestrate.

Unfortunately, Kate Capshaw’s ditzy nightclub singer Willie Scott is a poor substitute for Marion—even if her damsel-in-distress vibe is played satirically, it’s exhausting. And the introduction of Jonathan Ke Quan’s preadolescent sidekick Short Round is shamelessly sentimental: an attempt to make the series even more kid friendly, which is also pretty perverse considering how nasty things get from there. Once the trio reaches India and the script sets up the story of a village decimated by the child-enslaving, heart-snatching members of an ancient cult, things curdle in a hurry. Spielberg’s attempts at horror-movie malevolence are forced and awkward, to say nothing of the film’s omnipresent racism, which unsettles in two separate directions: not only the outrageously depicted evil of Mola Ram and his mindless, chanting acolytes, but the helplessness of the villagers under his control, who are in need of a whip-cracking white savior in order to rebuild their society.

Raiders of the Lost Ark was hardly a model of political correctness itself, and critics like Jonathan Rosenbaum have raised questions (and eyebrows) about moments like the “sword vs. gun” duel in which Indy shoots a fancy, sword-swishing Arab with his gun rather than worry about using his whip. The long-standing justification for such bits of business—by fans, if not the filmmakers—is that the retrograde politics of the Indiana Jones universe films are as much carryovers from their serialized inspirations as poison-tipped darts, and that the scripts consistently make sacrilegious hash of Christian and Jewish theology. The brazen racism of Temple of Doom, however, hints at something uglier, to the point that the production was denied access by the Indian government. The Temple of Doom’s twist, where Indy becomes possessed by the Thugs and transformed—briefly—into a villain, plays now like a concise, unintentional metaphor for the movie itself: Whatever got into Lucas and Spielberg didn’t stay in their system for long.

If Temple of Doom suffered next to Raiders because of the things it tried to do differently, The Last Crusade leaned into the original, functioning almost as a beat-for-beat remake, albeit with the aforementioned addition of Connery. The return of the Nazis was also a course correction, giving Spielberg another chance to lay into cinema’s most reliably irredeemable bad guys, although Last Crusade suffers for the lack of a really memorable central villain (notwithstanding Hitler’s cameo during a scene set at a book-burning rally). What feels new—and fun—is the sense of Indy meeting his match in the form of his father, which has as much to do with Connery’s roughly equivalent star power and 007 associations as anything his character says or does. By contrast, the casting of Cate Blanchett as a Russian villainess in Crystal Skull—making her the series’ first true celebrity foil—just doesn’t play, only adding to the sense of clutter in an already crowded ensemble.

What comes through most strongly in The Last Crusade—and what makes it, finally, the sweetest of the films—is its embedded sense of reassurance, visualized by Spielberg as a literal ride into the sunset. I’ve always felt that this final shot was also the end of analogue action movies as we know them. In the summer of 1989, James Cameron was already gazing into the CGI mirror of The Abyss, and within the next five years, an onslaught of artificial-yet-authentic T-1000s and T. Rexes would rewire the Hollywood blockbuster into something more ruthlessly technocratic. Maybe that’s why Crystal Skull, with its digitally designed aliens, just doesn’t fit with its predecessors despite its desperate efforts at aesthetic and thematic continuity. And maybe it’s why Raiders only gets better as time passes: It’s an artifact that somehow hasn’t aged a day.

An earlier version of this piece misstated how long it’s been since Raiders of the Lost Ark was released.