Do you remember the first Indiana Jones movie? It wasn't called an Indiana Jones picture in those days, of course. We had no idea who Jones was and no series of movies was planned. The film was called Raiders of the Lost Ark, and I remember queuing up to see it on the very first day of its release and being wowed by the opening shot: The Paramount mountain turning into the Blue Mountain of Peru.
After that, it was a thrill a minute. I loved every last bit of it. I adored Karen Allen's feisty Marion Ravenwood as she entered the movie drinking a bunch of Nepalis under the table.
I liked Paul Freeman's Nazi collaborator The special effects (especially the climax) were amazing. And Harrison Ford was absolutely perfect in the role. Why was I so taken with Indiana Jones?
Partly I suspect, because it predated the trend for comic book movies. In the 1930s, Hollywood made three types of pictures. There were 'A' movies with big budgets and real stars. There were 'B' movies with low budgets and contract players. And the lowest form of movie making consisted of the serials. The serials (made usually by such lowrent studios such as Republic Pictures) were exactly what the name suggests.
They were the 1930s and 1940s equivalent of TV serials. Each week, the studio would release one chapter in the cinemas. Usually the serial would focus on adventure stories and at the end of each episode, the hero would be trapped in a situation from which sudden death seemed to be the only escape.
Audiences would return to the cinemas the fol. lowing week to see how the hero escaped because, unsurprisingly enough, the villain never won and the hero never died. Almost every comic book character you can think of got a serial. Superman got two (with Kirk Alyn as the screen's first Man of Steel). So did Batman (with two different Batmen: Lewis Wilson and Douglas Croft), Flash Gordon (Buster Crabbe played Flash), The Phantom (Tom Tyler lived in the Skull Cave), Mandrake the Magician (but the studios decided that audiences would not accept a black sidekick so Lothar was replaced by a man in a turban), The Lone Ranger (made famous by Bob Livingstone) and Captain Marvel (Tom Tyler again).
The serials were cheaply -- and generally shoddily -- made. Each serial probably cost less than Clark Gable's remuneration for an 'A' movie. The special effects were a joke. Because they did not have the money to make Superman fly, they switched to animation each time Alyn took to the skies.
The plots were preposterous and often xenophobic: a Batman serial made during the Second World War dispensed with the Joker and all the other Bat villains to make an evil Jap (played by J Carrol Naish who wasn't even Japanese), the Caped Crusader's chief enemy I missed the serials because I was part of the wrong generation but whenever I could, I caught a re-run in some cinema.
Many serials, such as the Lone Ranger and The Phantom were later edited (badly) into feature length movies and in the 1960s, many Bombay cinemas ran them as morning matinees. It wasn't till Christopher Reeve breathed life into Superman in the late 1970s that the super-hero picture took off. But even then, it soon spluttered to a halt, till the big boom of the last decade or so. (As I write, Iron Man is America's number one movie and Batman The Dark Knight and a new version of The Hulk are on their way) George Lucas grew up in an era where serials were the principal entertainment for boys. Despite serious movie credentials (he made American Graffiti and Apocalypse Now was his movie till his mentor Francis Ford Coppola took it over amidst some acrimony), Lucas longed to recreate the world of the serials.
Star Wars was inspired, he says, by Flash Gordon and when that movie became a super-hit, he set out to make more such serial-inspired features.
Steven Spielberg was less keen but also interested in recreating the spirit of the serial. (His company developed and produced a disastrous Lone Ranger film in the 1980s.) Raiders of The Lost Ark emerged out of both men's desire to make a 1930s serial with the budget of a 1980s 'A' movie. They meant it to be hokum.
They wanted to portray foreigners in the insensitive two-dimensional manner of the Republic serials. They wrote in plenty of improbable action. And they wanted a big climax.
Their first choice for Indiana Jones (meant to be a Clark Kent-type professor who turns into a Jungle Jim-style adventurer when he hits the road) was Tom Selleck. But he'd already signed up for MagnumPlon TV So, in desperation, they settled on Harrison Ford. Ford had followed a strange career trajectory A journeyman actor, he knew the Lucas gang and was cast in a small role in Apocalypse Now by Coppola as a prissy army officer (the in joke was that his name in the movie is G Lucas) but never really hit the big time till he played second lead in Star Wars to Mark Hamill (remember him?).
Ford thought that the movie was a mess but it went on to become one of the biggest grossers of all time, the first in a trilogy and his launch pad when he acted Hamill off the screen. Despite starring in Blade Runnen (a film that is not only ten million times better than Star Wars but is one of the most influential movies of recent times), which received critical acclaim but was a box office flop, Ford was not able to follow his Star Wars success with a major blockbuster So, he was glad to take on the role that Selleck could not accept.
Which brings us back to Raiders of the Lost Ark. One of the reasons I loved the movie was because it combined Lucas's passion for the serials (which mirrored my own comic book sensibility) with people who had serious talent. Fortunately, Lucas did not direct it himself.
He is God-awful at making movies. (Have you seen the second Star Wars trilogy?) He chose Steven Spielberg who is one of the world's greatest directors. Nor did he write the final script. He is notoriously bad at working out how real people talk and his dialogues usually stink. On the sets of the first Star Wars, Harrison Ford famously complained to Lucas about his lines, "You can type this shit, George, but you sure as hell can't say it." So they enlisted Lawrence Kasdan, one of Hollywood's best writers, to turn Lucas's idea into a finished script.
The success of Raiders prompted Lucas and Spielberg to contemplate a sequel. Trying to capture the xenophobia of the old serials, they made the ghastly Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Set in some imaginary maharaja-ruled India (they filmed in Sri Lanka) it was filll of racial stereotypes but nobody got the joke. Spielberg was stung by the criticism of racism and resolved to make another, better Indiana Jones movie to make up to fans. It's clear now that the third film, (Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade) owed more to Spielberg than Lucas.
The original idea was to have Indiana look for the Holy Grail. Spielberg thought that was boring: "it's just a cup." He suggested imbuing the Grail with magical powers -- immortality, for instance. And he decided to write in Jones' father and chose Sean Connery (who stole the movie from Ford) to play the role.
In many ways, it's the best of the trilogy because, apart from the action set-pieces, the serial-style hokum (the search for the Grail etc.), it made the Indiana Jones character seem less one dimensional. The pacing was just right -- better even than Raiders. And the dialogue was so hokey-pokey ("You have chosen wisely, my son") that it was irresistible. And that should have been that. Spielberg certainly told interviewers that the trilogy was over Ford moved on to bigger movies.