Director: Steven Spielberg
Writer:Jeffrey Boam; Story by George Lucas and Menno Meyjes
Cinematographer: Douglas Slocombe
Producer: Robert Watts
by Jon Cvack
Every year throughout my teens, all the way up through high school, I would kick off summer by watching the Indiana Jones trilogy on VHS. I didn’t really have a favorite film from the series, since as being a kid they all felt part of the same story. The Temple of Doom remains the film that I often first associate with the trilogy, as my mother and sister hated the bug scene, which etched itself into memory as one of the first scenes I recall anxiously expecting from a movie - in this case reaching your hand inside a bug infested hole in a wall - always hearing my mother’s voice say “Oh my god” when the scene began.
The films epitomized summertime in youth, where alongside Back to the Future, they provided some of the greatest adventure stories a kid could ask for. Like most others, I found a jump rope to act as my whip, digging through my closet full of toy guns, and grabbing my revolver to battle the Nazis. Thinking back, it was films like this that must have planted the seed of my love for movies - offering exciting escape into a world that was both fantastical and unfamiliar, and yet which all felt so real. These films serve as one of the finest examples in demonstrating how the highest level of filmmaking craft can tap into anyone’s subconscious; where even young kids, who know nothing of how the films are technically achieved, agree that it’s an incredible film. It shows that craft of the highest magnitude is what creates widespread praise, allowing the piece to shift from an ephemeral moment and into becoming part of the culture.
While I’m not positive, I’m pretty sure I haven’t watched either this film or The Temple of Doom since high school, having possibly seen Raiders of the Lost Ark when I was in college. I recall wanting to wait until I bought or had the DVD set, which then changed to wanting the BluRay, always putting it off and waiting for the right summertime moment. Given that it’s January 30 (at the time of writing this), I’m not sure why I wanted to watch the film, other than that I’ve been working long hours on a few deadlines and needed some old fashioned escape.
I knew I hadn’t seen this movie in a long time when I thought I might have put on Kingdom of the Crystal Skull for a second, as I didn’t recognize any of the intro. We’re following some type of Boy Scout club, as a young Indiana Jones and his bloviated friend follow a group of treasure hunters deep into a cavern, where the men dig up and steal the golden Cross of Coronado. Calmly and collectively, Indiana Jones pulls a snake off his friend’s lap and tells him to get the troupe. The friend leaves and Indiana Jones jumps down, grabs the cross and runs out, finding the troupe gone. He hops onto a horse and gallops toward a train pulling a bunch of circus cars, thus entering into one of the greatest action-adventure intros of all time.
As though straight out of a Buster Keaton movie - in wide we see a Indiana running from one of the men. Although the very real train is moving very fast, they’re held in center frame, running along the cars like a treadmill. It doesn’t cut until Indiana heads into the lizard car, where inside there’s a bunch of crocodiles and snakes. He hangs up on the rafters, and we know where this is going - and making us all the more anxious as we just saw that Indiana doesn’t yet have his snake fear. Of course he falls in, covered in the creatures, and then escapes. He then heads up to the train roof, and again looking all exceptionally real, not at all like it was done in some green screen, Indiana fights with a man while a rhino slams its horn through the train car. It all culminates in him heading to the magic car, where he makes a very obvious hiding choice in a magic box as the man comes inside, only to create one of the coolest shots of the movies, as in a single take, where again on a moving train - Indiana disappears through the magic box, the camera pans with the man and out the rear window where we see Indiana running off. It’s a scene like this where the moment, you realize you have launched off and are about to enter into a different world.
Scenes like this are most similar to the grand musical numbers that often open the genre (and strange that fans of one side typically don’t like the other). What makes the scene work is that we are constantly moving through a situation that makes perfect sense, no matter how ridiculous the situation is. From the grand desert to the cavern to chasing a train and then onto a train, but not just any train, but a circus train whose every car offers a different obstacle. All so often action scenes seem to throw away the logic of simple movement - let alone story - constructing how a character gets from one place to the other in order to accommodate the next big scene. We can laugh and they’re fun, but the world immediately feels fake in such cases. The opening of Indiana Jones shows Spielberg’s magnificent ability to show rather than tell information, as so much of the scene exists without words, and yet the amount of information and story we get is as full as any great dialogue.
This extends throughout the film, where Indiana Jones finally meets up with his father Henry Jones (Sean Connery) in one of the greatest father/son roles of all time. Meeting Henry for the first time, completely oblivious to Indiana’s safety or injury, he makes the boy count one through twenty in Latin. The Sheriff then shows up, demanding the cross back. After all we just experienced it didn’t matter. And in that moment of defeat, we receive the final piece that makes Indiana Jones who he is - the hat, received not from some great and noble man, but from a corrupt treasure hunter who inspired Indiana to do what he did. This could be watched as a short film and stopped right there.
Luckily it doesn’t, though, as just as the young Indiana puts on the hat and bows his head, we cut with the Spielberg touch to Harrison Ford, head bowed, hat toward us, fighting men on a ship that’s about to explode. This was another great touch, as the white-suited mustachioed man was seen in the background during the flashback, now battling modern Jones, aboard a ship that’s about explode. Jones is victorious and he finally retrieves the cross that inspired his entire career.
Check back for Part 2...
BELOW: One of the greatest action movie intros
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