Review by Alexandra DuPont
"Harrison Ford ... created [in Indiana Jones] a memorable American film character on a sort of Bogart level, something that really found its way into the cultural fabric."
— Composer John Williams, putting it rather nicely
during his liner-notes interview for the Raiders
of the Lost Ark soundtrack CD
THE INDIANA JONES DVD FAQ
This DVD set will be on the street Tuesday, Oct. 21. Some opening disclaimers and warnings:
1. Yr. hmbl. reviewer refuses herein to refer to any Lucasfilm production by its "revised" title. Yes, I understand that Raiders of the Lost Ark was re-titled to keep all the Indiana Jones films next to each other on the video shelf. Nevertheless — at no point in the following review will you see the titles Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indiana Jones and the Palace that Leads to the Temple of Doom or Indiana Jones and His Dad and the Last Crusade. (For that matter, any future reviews written by this author will not use such revised Lucasfilm titles as Luke Skywalker and the Return of the Jedi, A Man Called THX-1138, Tucker: The Man and His Dream about a Car, or Howard: The Duck that Talks.)
2. The author will attempt herein to mount a spirited defense of Temple of Doom. Feel free to gloss over.
3. Skip way, way down this review if all you want to read about are the DVD extras, or lack thereof. (The author totally dishes on all the cool stuff they left out.)
* * *
So how the hell do you approach writing about a movie series like this?Usually with some sort of anecdote about how special the film is to you personally, or how it's entered the cultural fabric, or some other piece of puffed-up boilerplate. I will share this one anecdote:
A couple of years ago, a movie theatre near the DVD Journal offices was closing, and the usher and managers there got to pick one movie to screen for the theater's final weekend of business. They chose Raiders of the Lost Ark. And I have to say — despite the ravages of time that made the print look like a black-and-white traffic-safety film; despite the movie's many imitators, who've accelerated the original formula so much that Raiders seems almost leisurely paced today; and despite knowing every single line, shot, and action sequence backwards and forwards — the audience gobbled the flick up. Armrests were gripped. Still.
* * *
That's nice. Tell me about the DVD set, slattern!
Well, there's good news and not-so-good news on that front. The good news — and it's really, really good news — is that these movies look and sound incredible, and this from someone who usually doesn't even care all that much about restorations or "flutter" or "artifacting" or any of that tech-wank stuff. The sound's been remixed in Dolby 5.1, the picture's been meticulously restored and brightened. Only a jackass would complain — even though the groovy new mix actually makes the opening scenes of Raiders sound a little different than they used to, and the scenes in Marion's bar don't have that reddish-orange glowing warmth you remember them having on VHS. But still.
As for the bad news: Even though there's a whole fourth disc devoted to extras, a lot of movie geeks are going to have a serious beef with the lack of definitive supplements — commentary tracks, deleted scenes, storyboards, abandoned concepts, juicy set lore, stuff like that. I get into some of the stuff I missed below. Feel free to pile on. Oh and the fuzzy animated menus try to evoke Drew Struzan's Indiana Jones poster art; instead, they induce glaucoma.
* * *
Dear God, assuage my fears — they didn't do any "Special Edition" work on these classics, did they?
Um, actually, yes they did. You remember how there was a reflection of a snake in the safety Plexiglas in Raiders of the Lost Ark — you know, during the Well of Souls sequence? Yeah. After scrutinizing that scene on DVD, I'm 99-percent sure they digitally erased that. The outraged should hang onto their laserdiscs. I think everything else is unmolested — including the horrible blue-screen work on Last Crusade that makes the biplane/zeppelin sequence look like something out of a Disney Sunday Movie.
* * *
So let's read some boilerplate praise of Raiders, shall we?
Sure. Raiders of the Lost Ark is so ingrained in the cultural fabric by now that there's really nothing to write about it that hasn't been said a million times before, by people with far larger salaries and/or vocabularies than mine. Yes, the movie was the second half of a one-two punch that turned Hollywood movies into subtext-light thrill rides. (Does I even need to write that the first punch was Star Wars?) Yes, George Lucas dreamed up the ultimate adventure hero — a two-fisted archaeologist who hunts for supernatural artifacts. Yes, Mssrs. Spielberg and Lucas crafted a perfect collection of set pieces, with nary an editing or camera-placement misstep. Yes, the music is note-perfect and sticks pleasantly in one's mental craw. (That said, if I have to hear Williams' Indiana Jones theme on an endless DVD-menu loop one more time, I swear to God I'm going to adopt a child, name it "Raiders March DuPont," and beat it with a stick.) And yes, the Lucas/Kaufman/Kasdan story — an adventure movie that's all good parts — is so obviously correct that it seems as if Our Lord had already written it and they simply dug it up, dusted it off and started filming.
I'd argue that Raiders cemented the blockbuster obsession that Star Wars kicked off — and it cemented that obsession for the whole family, because you didn't run the risk of being labeled a sci-fi geek if you thought Indiana Jones was cool. Good Lord — it's a formula so compelling that teenagers have even spent years of their lives re-creating it shot for shot .
Also, unlike many of the fantasy/action blockbusters before and since, this series is driven by a single, well-sketched character: It's Harrison Ford's hot blood that gives Raiders its heartbeat. Few actors have ever interlocked with a part more solidly that Ford did with Indiana Jones. (In the two decades and change since Raiders was released, I can only think of a few actors who've taken the reins of their genre roles with as much assurance: maybe C. Reeve as Superman, R. Crowe as Maximus, V. Mortensen as Aragorn, H. Jackman as Wolverine and, well, Harrison Ford as Han Solo. It's a wee little fantasy pinnacle.) Ford's larger-than-life mannerisms — the pointing Finger of Doom, the Smirk, the Look of Horror — were perfect for a guy walking around in a fedora, carrying a whip and punching Nazis. No actor has ever taken an onscreen beating better, and no one's ever shifted as effortlessly between tweediness and scruffiness.
It was Ford, I'd argue, who kept us coming back for two flawed sequels (though I have a perverse soft spot for Temple of Doom; more on that in a sec) — sequels marred by both an increasing silliness and soggy heroines who never matched the chemistry created by Karen Allen as Marion Ravenwood. When sexy, scrappy Marion punches Indy in that Nepalese bar, you can practically see flint sparks coming off his chin.
* * *
Dear God: You really are going to mount a quixotic defense of Temple of Doom, aren't you?
I'm afraid so. Most people hate it. I sort of love it. In fact, if I feel like spinning an Indy movie in the background in the years to come, I can pretty much guarantee that it will be the last 40 minutes of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.
Mind you, I'll be the first to admit that Temple of Doom has deeply embedded problems, and that there are popular reasons for disliking it — even hating it. The dialogue is ham-fisted. (I invariably cringe during the "What are you — a lion tamer?"/"I'm allowing you to tag along" exchange. "A lion." "Allowing." A homophone! I get it!) It's surprisingly brutal in the middle. In women's-lib terms, Kate Capshaw's scream-queen Willie Scott is such a step backward from Marion Ravenwood that I'm mildly surprised NOW didn't picket the screenings. (The future Mrs. Spielberg, God bless her, got handed a terribly written role — Willie's the shrieking Jar-Jar of the Indiana Jones series.) And let's not even get into the film's retro-colonialist overtones (which I find sort of perversely funny, but still). And the film is so different from its predecessor — confined largely to one locale, not as sophisticated or quest-driven, and very nearly Satanic in its depictions of evil — that it really couldn't help but let viewers down. And the bad blood persists to this day: Several people who knew I had this DVD box a week early made a point of expressing their jealousy — but also invariably went out of their way to slam "the second one."
Still, despite all that, I managed to find not one but two DVDJ staffers who absolutely adore Temple of Doom — and we gave the platter a spin, in the dark, on a flat-screen HDTV with six-channel sound. And we three geeks arrived at the following list of reasons to love the flick:
- That unimpeachably awesome opening fight over the diamond and antidote, which contains tributes to classic musicals and Hitchcock and just absolutely rocks the house;
- Ke Huy Kwan as Short Round, who — despite being handed cute-kid dialogue that includes the lines "Hold onto your potatoes!" and "You call him Doctah Jones, DOLL!" — is quite possibly the most likeable and least obtrusive child sidekick in movie history. Check out the wonderful, genuinely warm give-and-take between Kwan and Ford as they play poker or exchange hats;
- That "Nice try, Lao Che!" visual gag;
- Harrison Ford's terrific performance — arguably his best as Jones. I love how Indy stars out as a total greedy asshole, with strong shades of Bogart in Treasure of Sierra Madre, and how there's a distinct character arc as he evolves into a Pied-Piper/holy avenger;
- The movie's look — again, the best in the series — with its striking wide-angle close ups of Indy's face and strong use of reds and shadows. Temple of Doom is a manual on how to use color in film, no joke. (As one DVDJ staffer [who, BTW, owns the original July 1984 issue of American Cinematographer devoted to Temple of Doom] put it, "This movie contains Spielberg's busiest frames, and it's all beautiful. It's a pornography of cinematography");
- John Williams' score, which is among his very best — expanding richly on the original and adding wonderful themes for Short Round and the slave children;
- Vampire bats! Severed thumbs!
- The matte paintings of Pankot Palace, which are among the best matte paintings ever;
- The sexy, playful, totally '80s, beautifully edited cat-and-mouse sequence where way-horny Indy and Willie are trying to out-wait each other, only to have the flirtation interrupted by a Thuggee assassin. (How can you not love the way that thug steps out of that wall mural?);
- The super-icky, super-taut bug-tunnel and death-trap set piece, which is a perfect transition between the palace and the Temple of Doom and which very nearly kicks the ass of the Well of Souls sequence (it certainly makes your skin crawl more) and features that great closing gag where Indy grabs his hat as the door's closing;
- The way the movie shifts so abruptly into scenes of human sacrifice and child cruelty. I'm sorry, I just love what a cinema bomb Spielberg and Lucas drop here: Yes, the horror's laid on a bit thick, but come on — how totally cathartic are those last 40 minutes as a result, when Indy snaps out of the Black Sleep of Kali and dishes out the hurt to faceless Thuggee goons?
- That little 1940s tip of the hat Indy gives to that cobra statue as he's stealing the stones — a perfect Bogart moment;
- Amrish Puri as Mola Ram — by far the scariest and most depraved villain in the series. He's mindlessly scary like Orcs are scary, you know? As one fellow staffer put it, he looks like what Abe Vigoda would look like if he were a sadistic Indian child molester;
- The way Indiana Jones doesn't just look drugged when he's in the Black Sleep of Kali, but instead looks like he's really into all the sadism and blood, like he's actually tapped into some dark part of his personality that was there all along;
- And, best of all, the movie's final 40 minutes, which are inventive and cathartic and full of righteous fury and pain and thrilling action — it's Lucas and Spielberg working out all their action-geek demons without apology, and God bless 'em for it. I mean, has any movie ever piled one action sequence on top of the next so successfully? That voodoo conveyor-belt fight followed by the mine-car chase followed by the water tunnel followed by the dual-swordsman tango followed by the rope-bridge blowout? With all kinds of semi-perverse shots like the one where both Indy and Short Round are beating the crap out of age-appropriate foes?
Really. The movie's aged well. Better than you might think. Give it a second chance. It's total geek crack.
* * *
Uh-huh. And now I suppose you're going to say the third film "sucks," right?
Now, now. I wouldn't dare to blanket-slag Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade; in fact, I actually softened on it quite a bit after I turned 30, which I'm sure should disturb me but doesn't.
Certainly, there's some wonderful chemistry between Ford and Sean Connery, who plays dotty, arrogant Dr. Jones paterfamilias (a casting coup, that). And River Phoenix does an uncanny and quite funny Harrison Ford impression, glaring and smirking as young Indiana Jones (who, apparently, acquired his whip, hat, fear of snakes and chin scar in a single afternoon in 1912). And kudos to the late Jeffrey Boam (who is, BTW, not complimented once in the supplemental materials) for writing some lively, character-driven, funny dialogue; it comes as a relief after the spoken-word atrocities wrought by Katz and Huyck. And that largely improvised action sequence with the WWI tank? Delicious. (Well, mostly delicious; see below.)
But, all that said: Despite its clearly being Spielberg's favorite and most personal film in the series — unresolved Daddy issues and all — Last Crusade commits two filmic sins I won't readily forgive:
- It resorts to mockery. It's one thing when a sequel tweaks its characters a little — but Last Crusade revels in making fools of its protagonists, to the degree that it takes me out of the movie and undermines any sense of danger the film may hold. While I generally enjoy the Oedipal dynamic between Papa and Junior Jones, there's just one too many moments for my taste where Henry makes Indiana look like a total jackass. And don't even get me started about what they did to Marcus Brody: In Raiders, Brody is an obvious mentor to Indy and no minor badass himself; as he says, he's only five years too old to have undertaken the quest for the Ark himself. But in Last Crusade, Brody's a doddering buffoon, a drunk with Alzheimer's, a man who gets lost in his own museum. Watch how his comedy "bits" with Sean Connery almost derail any tension to be had in the desert battle with the tank. It's almost unforgivable. And Sallah, so resourceful and charming and filled with music in the first film, is kind of a doofus here, stealing camels for his relatives and otherwise serving as wacky-Arab comic relief.
- The movie contains very few actual thrills. In Raiders, Indiana Jones took on sadists, Nazis and a fierce competitor (not to mention a pissed-off ex-girlfriend). In Temple of Doom, he fell into a subterranean hell and took on the very minions of Kali. In Last Crusade, he takes on a bumbling group of idiots — and, as a result, very little of the film's action leads me to believe that Indiana Jones is in any real danger. Seriously. Who are our bad guys here? Guys in fezzes? A Nazi commander out of a Mel Brooks movie? And, dear Lord, I very nearly forget that Julian Glover is even in the damned thing, and he plays the bad guy who gets the supernatural-disintegration treatment! And Glover was my old flame's acting teacher! Am I really supposed to consider this British-channeling-American slice of Wonder Bread a threat? Get back in your AT-AT, General Veers!
* * *
Whatever. So how about those extras?
As you've no doubt heard by now, there's a fourth disc devoted exclusively to "bonus material." (This disc is, in fact, packaged so it almost looks like there's a fourth film titled Indiana Jones and the Bonus Material, complete with new Drew Struzan cover art; the mind thrills at the notion of a sequel in which Dr. Jones grades extra-credit papers.) Anyway, while this isn't a Star Wars-DVD-caliber collection of extras or anything, it's an extremely slick, fat-free disc.
That said, I AM going to complain, however briefly, about what's not on Disc Four. For one thing, there aren't any deleted scenes (which are referenced in the documentary; you even see footage of them being shot). And there's no promotional-materials gallery. I normally wouldn't give two poops about a poster gallery, BTW, but Struzan's Indiana Jones poster art is some of the best ever created. Where's the love?
And, worst of all, nobody dishes on some of the juiciest lore of the production, which I'll get to in a minute.
But anyway. The centerpiece of Disc Four is "Indiana Jones: Making the Trilogy," a 2:06:58 behind-the-scenes documentary written, directed and produced by Spielberg DVD staple Laurent Bouzereau. Now, if you're like me, the notion of spending 2:06:58 watching any recent Spielberg behind-the-scenes doc with the credit "written, directed and produced by Laurent Bouzereau" is enough to send you nodding straight into Morpheus' bosom. Mind you, Bouzereau has done estimable work in years past — his Hitchcock docs and, for God's sake, his amazing two-hour laserdisc Jaws documentary that never made it to DVD — and yes, I admire his light, invisible touch, and yes, he exhaustively compiled the Star Wars Annotated Screenplays, a great read. But frankly I find the guy's most recent, safely reverential, talking-head-driven supplemental material about as exciting as an NPR broadcast — these days, he makes DVD extras that are good for you. (And BTW: What exactly does Bouzereau "write" in these docs, anyway? The dialogue for whatever's living in Lucas' throat pouch?)
On reflection, I'd wager Spielberg's to blame for the watering-down of recent Bouzereau docs. And all that said, I'm happy to report that "Making the Trilogy" is actually pretty thorough, despite some glaring deletions that I'll get into below. Spielberg and Lucas speak pretty frankly, thanks to two decades of distance from the material, and Bouzereau skillfully weaves his trademark talking-head interviews with some very human, occasionally goofy behind-the-scenes footage shot during production in the 1980s. I remember seeing some of the Raiders behind-the-scenes footage turn up on TV way back when, as part of a special that climaxed with the song "Memories, Friends and 8x10s." The fact that most of that old footage appears here softens the blow that not one of those ancient TV docs appears on the disc.
"Making the Trilogy" is divided into distinct chapters dealing with Raiders (50:49), Temple of Doom (41:07), and Last Crusade (35:02). Each chapter moves deliberately through its respective film — pretty much scene-by-scene and character-by-character — mixing recently-shot video recollections with 1980s behind-the-scenes footage (not to mention talking-head interviews with the very dead River Phoenix and Denholm Elliott, which is sort of poignant). The whole thing is really granular — picking apart details to the degree that we actually hear Lawrence Kasdan talking for what feels like a minute about how he named Marion Ravenwood after his wife and a street by his house. (Loved ones watching these docs with me actually found this stuff unbelievably tedious and fell asleep, BTW.) Selected highlights:
- Repeated behind-the-scenes moments of Spielberg, Ford and, to a lesser degree, Lucas acting like complete dorks as they clown around behind the scenes — pouring water on each other, giving direction to animals and hats for "laughs," and otherwise making lame jokes. One is struck, on this doc more than any other I've seen, by the fact that great entertainment is often produced by geeks and the crew members who laugh at their jokes;
- Shots of Harrison Ford stapling his hat to his head;
- The revelation that Danny DeVito very nearly played Sallah;
- The weird thrill of seeing Ke Huy Kwan, who played Short Round, all grown up — and looking facially almost exactly the same but speaking flawless California English;
- The perverse thrill of watching Spielberg, in a prom-night tux, doing some charmingly awkward on-set flirting with future wife Kate Capshaw;
- Shots of an absolutely fantastic concept painting of Indiana Jones, gritting a cigarette in his teeth, looking like he just stumbled out of one of those 1950s men's-adventure magazines;
- The unusual candor of Spielberg and Lucas (and even Capshaw and behind-the-scenes personnel) as they riff on the various problems they have with Temple of Doom, which apparently they openly dismiss as the redheaded stepchild of the series. That said, I grew annoyed with Spielberg's tendency to tease and blame George Lucas for stuff;
- Screen-test footage of Tom Selleck and Tim Matheson (!) in gray fedoras trying out for the role of Indiana Jones, and Sean Young (!) trying out for Marion;
- And, finally, marveling at how surprisingly well-preserved Alfred Molina and the Indy leading ladies are today, and how Mr. Ford is so reticent on-camera these days as to seem slightly senile or medicated, which I must admit worries me ever so slightly about the planned Indy 4, tentatively slated for release in 2005.
Sadly, more than a few geeky things I was hoping to learn more about were simply not discussed. At all. There's no talk about the abandoned sword fight in the marketplace (not even storyboards, which BTW would have been a wonderful extra). We don't learn about a fairly notorious abandoned scene where Indiana Jones was hanging onto the U-Boat periscope, explaining how he made it to the island without drowning. We don't hear an anecdote about the fly crawling into Paul Freeman's mouth. There's nary a peep about the legendary behind-the-scenes tomfoolery where Barbra Streisand walked on the set of Temple of Doom in a dominatrix outfit and started whipping Harrison Ford while he was chained to a rock . (Actually, maybe that's an Easter egg I haven't discovered yet.) Nobody mentions that the full-scale U-boat replica — which Spielberg borrowed from the Das Boot production — sank shortly after the Raiders crew returned it. And there's nothing about a tantalizing bit of Raiders storyboard art (you'll find it in the Raiders soundtrack CD liner notes) that revealed there was originally this goofy Nazi character with a machine gun for an arm (see inset). And dear Lord — in this DVD set's own press notes, they admit that there's a much longer cut out there of the ending sequence where they open the Ark of the Covenant!
Also, some of best behind-the-scenes footage I remember from my youth is nowhere to be seen, either — I'm thinking specifically of this fantastic bit where Spielberg (a known yeller on his sets) gets visibly pissed and exasperated when a truck crash on the Raiders set isn't spectacular enough, to the degree that a fellow crew member has to calm him down. I'm sorry, but all these oversights keep the extras from feeling definitive for me. Maybe the eventual box set they release with the fourth Indy film will address all this. Somehow I doubt it.
Moving along, we find four featurettes — all of them constructed, like the documentary, as a dance of talking-head/archival footage:
- "The Stunts of Indiana Jones" (10:56) is exciting for all the usual reasons — and I found out that a single stuntman named Pat Roach basically played three different enormous guys Indy fights in the first two films.
- "The Sound of Indiana Jones" (13:20) is yet another hagiography of "the father of Skywalker Sound," innovative sound-design genius Ben Burtt. If 13 minutes of talk about how to create snake, boulder, mine car, rat, whip, gun and punching sounds is your cup of tea, do I have a documentary for you. (Fun fact: The sound of the Ark lid being lifted was made using a toilet tank.)
- "The Music of Indiana Jones" (12:23) gives some much-deserved "props" to composer John Williams and his extraordinary Indy score (which, I must complain, has yet to be comprehensively released in a CD box; I mean, Temple of Doom is one of JW's very best scores ever, and maybe 35 minutes of it are on CD — as a Japanese import). Williams makes a great point about what a labor-intensive and deliberate process it is to come up with a simple and effective melody — and his explication of how he changes musical styles to accompany different adventure-movie tropes is pretty cool if you're a total soundtrack geek. Also, Williams is the only person to actually discuss the possibility of Indy 4 on the whole DVD set, if I'm not mistaken.
- "The Light and Magic of Indiana Jones" (12:20) talks (too briefly, I'm guessing, for many geeks) about the F/X on all three films. There are original animatics for the Ark-opening sequence; details about the landmark mine-car chase, perhaps the all-time greatest use of miniatures in an action scene; and a distinct lack of apology about the fakey blue-screen work that plagues Last Crusade.
After that, there are trailers for all three films that serve mostly to show how far the craft of trailer-making has come in the past two decades, plus a DVD-ROM Web link to "an exclusive Indiana Jones DVD website," which I'm sure is lovely for people who don't write their reviews on iBooks.
Arm yourself to attack my critical judgment! It's easy and fun! Check out The DuPont Bibliography!
- Anamorphic widescreen
- Four-disc set
- Dolby Digital 5.1 (English) Dolby 2.0 Surround (French, Spanish)
- English, French, and Spanish subtitles
- Feature-length documentary: "Indiana Jones: Making the Trilogy"
- Featurette: "The Stunts of Indiana Jones"
- Featurette: "The Sound of Indiana Jones"
- Featurette: "The Music of Indiana Jones"
- Featurette: "The Light and Magic of Indiana Jones"
- Theatrical trailers
- Exclusive DVD-ROM Web link
- Four keep-cases in paperboard slipcase