“I was desperate when I made Raiders Of The Lost Ark,” says Steven Spielberg in a filmed introduction to the newly restored, remastered Raiders DVD. “I was coming off a movie that went wildly over budget and schedule – 1941. Close Encounters went wildly over budget and schedule. And Jaws, of course, went 100 days over schedule and was almost two-and-a-half times its original budget. I really was ready to turn over a new leaf. Raiders was my chance to prove to myself that I could make a movie under schedule and under budget. I was trying to make a movie that was fiscally responsible.”
Perhaps even more than that, after the trials and tribulations involved in the making of all three of those films, plus the critical mauling he’d only recently received for 1941, Spielberg just wanted to have a bit of fun again behind the camera. Raiders gave him that and more; not only the chance to work with his long-time pal George Lucas, but to direct a film that had the globetrotting of a Bond movie mixed with the breathless action and adventure of the very same Republic Pictures-produced Saturday matinée serials that had previously been such an influence on Lucas’ own Star Wars.
In the end, Spielberg’s desperate desire to prove himself and atone for his monetary sins brought Raiders in under schedule and budget, but the film’s legacy – along with Spielberg’s – can’t be counted solely in financial terms (even though it did end up as the top-grossing film of 1981). Along with Duel, Raiders remains the director’s leanest movie – two hours of pure, delirious, non-CGI-enhanced escapism. More so than Jaws, more so even than Jurassic Park, it still stands as Spielberg’s most rip-roaringly perfect popcorn movie, in a career dominated by damn-near-perfect popcorn movies.
Even though it was set in 1935 – one year prior to Raiders – second entry Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom was more sequel than prequel, carrying over a number of sequences (including the mine cart chase) penned for Raiders but scrapped for budgetary reasons. The movie also marked Spielberg’s first attempt at a franchise (he’d turned down Jaws 2) and, at the insistence of Lucas (following the Empire Strikes Back blueprint), was conceived as a much darker, edgier, tougher film. “I wasn’t OK with it,” says Spielberg on the movie’s introduction, “but George was tenacious.”
As it turned out, Spielberg’s instincts were on the money. Temple Of Doom was the least commercially successful of the trilogy and received the worst reviews. The public outcry over its inclusion of a gruesome heart-ripping scene even led to the introduction of a new category – PG-13 – in the US. Even more of a rollercoaster ride than Raiders (the standout mine cart sequence is exactly that), Doom featured yet another series of neverending virtuoso stunts and set-pieces, although Kate Capshaw’s screaming showgirl Willie Scott still feels like a comedown after Raiders’ tough, spunky Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen).
By Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade, the novelty was beginning to wane, with Lucas’ idea of a Holy Grail-hunt feeling a tad familiar. But what continues to lift the film is Spielberg’s typically energetic direction and the script’s emphasis on character over action (although there’s plenty of the latter) – most notably the father/son dynamic that forms the spine (and heart) of the film. Spielberg based Jones’ estrangement from his dad on his own paternal relationship, then delivered a masterstroke: hiring the original Bond, Sean Connery, as Henry Jones Sr. Despite such casting genius, by the time Indy literally rode off into the sunset audiences genuinely felt this was the last we’d ever see of our Fedora-wearing friend. How wrong we were…
The trilogy made its DVD debut in 2003 in an impressive four-disc set that packaged all three films together plus a bonus spinner yielding three hours of docs. What initially makes the arrival of these Special Editions so goosebumpy is that, for the first time since VHS’ heyday, each film’s available to buy individually as well as collectively. But look closer and you might feel a twinge of disappointment…
For those who own the previous set, there’s little here to justify double-dipping. There’s still no commentary from the perennially chat-track-shy Spielberg – or even the more jabber-friendly Lucas. Gone from the boxset is the earlier bonus disc with its feature-length behind-the-scenes retrospective and four standalone featurettes. It’s replaced by a handful of concise mini-docs that tick off the trilogy’s locations, melting faces, creepy-crawlies and baddies, not to mention a round table chat with Indy’s ladies: Allen, Capshaw and Last Crusade’s Alison Doody.
OK, so it’s a nice nugget that Indy IV co-star Ray Winstone cried at the end of Last Crusade, but it doesn’t compare to a bruise-by-bruise breakdown of the still-staggering truck chase from Raiders (see the ‘Stunts’ extra on the previous boxset). With Crystal Skull around the corner, it’s the perfect time to revisit the trilogy, which remains as entertaining and benchmark-setting as ever. (How about a featurette on all the (pale) imitations that have followed?) But we might have to wait till Kingdom come before we get a definitive boxset.
[written by me, originally published in Total Film]