The Indiana Jones series is a fine example of popcorn entertainment but as Critic After Dark Noel Vera points out, it's just that there's better, if the viewer is willing to go out a little further and look for it - like Gunga Din, for instance.

I remember enjoying Raiders of the Lost Ark when it came out in 1981; I hadn’t seen the matinee serials that inspired producer George Lucas and director Steven Spielberg, but I did respond to the junky theme-park-ride feel (actually it wasn’t so much a theme park ride [that came later] than a traveling carnival, complete with walking freaks, lurid exhibits, the hint of sex, thrills galore).

It shambled and lurched horribly (there wasn’t much of a plot to speak of) but that was part of the charm, and it moved with agreeable speed (the huge fiberglass boulder threatening to roll over Indiana Jones [Harrison Ford] pretty much set the pace and tone of the picture).

So many decades later, the appetite for movies derived from other movies has been satiated to the point of nausea (for me, at least); Raiders has spawned many clones, some of them amusing (I’m thinking of Romancing the Stone [1984], which was basically Raiders but from the point of view of the heroine, and ably directed by Spielberg protégé Robert Zemeckis), most of them not (the Richard Chamberlain remake of King Solomon’s Mines [1985] anyone?).

Re-watching the picture, the question of racism comes to fore: do South American savages, Nepalese grotesques and Tunisian thugs all exist to be mere fodder for Indie Jones to whip, kick, verbally and physically abuse, and - when in a particularly bad mood - simply shoot in the chest to get it over with? The picture moves so fast one may miss the subtext, unless one is South American, Nepalese or Tunisian - or if one simply wasn’t white.

Raiders of the Lost Ark.

I’m sure plenty of non-whites missed the subtext (the movie was an international hit) and I’m sure much of the racism was an accidental side-effect (Spielberg was - still is, I’d argue - a political naif, Lucas even more so), a carry-over from the serials of old with their ’30s attitude toward race relations - but a racial slur is a racial slur, even when not meant, even when the one being insulted never noticed.

Might as well throw in the observation that the climax, involving the Ark of the Covenant sitting inside a "caldero"-like structure shooting flames up into the sky, is partly inspired by the "Night on Bald Mountain" sequence in Disney’s Fantasia (1940) (and that the "Bald Mountain" sequence was in turn inspired by the opening passages of F.W. Murnau’s Faust [1926] - with Emil Jannings so much more impressive in his horizon-spanning batwings than Disney’s rather sexless Devil).

Which reminds me of another grand adventure that trod heavily on the racial lines, George Stevens’ Gunga Din (1939). Indians are depicted as either ignorant buffoons or homicidal heathens (though the putative villains, the Thuggee cult, did actually exist). It’s more difficult to condemn the implicit racism in this case for several reasons: the producers are cunning enough to present a sympathetic Indian character (the eponymous Din, played by Sam Jaffee), and - better yet - they show the Englishmen to be equal if not bigger buffoons in their slapstick antics.

The cries of racism probably weren’t strong enough; in Spielberg’s next movie, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984), the attitude towards foreigners - in this case East Indians - is even more virulent.

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.

Jones helps a poor Indian village recover their magic MacGuffin*; here it’s not the case of a white scientist-adventurer recovering a powerful device for the free world, but of powerful and malevolent Indians oppressing their poorer brethren (the white scientist-adventurer is merely a benefactor). Spielberg’s view of India - a country steeped in dire poverty, ancient architectural and cultural riches, and great natural beauty - is almost unredeemably ugly, the ugliest I’ve ever seen in any picture supposedly set in that country (actually shot in soundstages in Elstree Studios, England and in Sri Lanka [the location scout must have deliberately chosen the least appealing, most fly-ridden spots in that country], so it doesn’t look very convincingly Indian, either).

Offsetting this - well, other than the poor victimized village and a spoiled brat of a prince who turns out to have been under hypnotic control, there really isn’t much in the way of mitigating circumstances (Gunga Din at least had Gunga Din). A royal feast is especially insulting, with offerings of pregnant pythons, eyeball soup where the eyeballs are distinctly human (and aren’t even cooked), and chilled monkey brains (actually an exotic Chinese delicacy). The movie was for a time banned in India for its "racist portrayal of Indians and overt imperialistic tendencies."

The sequel does exceed Raiders in number and quality of inventive action setpieces. The Chinese dinner club sequence, for example, with its diamond-delivering lazy Susan, giant bulletproof gong and Kate Capshaw singing Cole Porter’s "Anything Goes" in Mandarin, is an Oriental chop-suey wonder (here, it’s Capshaw’s song that sets the tone); the mine scenes feature some nifty fights (and enough intense violence to force the MPAA to invent the PG-13 rating); the battle on the bridge is genuinely thrilling (and not for the acrophobic). If pure popcorn entertainment can in any way be a justification for a picture’s cultural ignorance and insensitivity, this is one of the better arguments I’ve heard from Hollywood in recent years, and it almost - almost - makes its case.

The louder cries this time of racism and the ban in India may have prompted Spielberg to reconsider his tactics and propose a more radical change: with Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989), Spielberg eschews using foreign cultures and aims at a ready-made, ever convienient villain, the Nazis (when the swastika appears midway through the picture and Jones slumps back behind a railing, saying "I hate Nazis," it’s almost with a sigh of relief; at least there won’t be any protest letters from minority groups).

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.

The Macguffin this time is distinctly European and undisputably Christian (nothing less than the Holy Grail). This time Spielberg took care to include at least a little local color: the incomparable canals of Venice, of course, and the amazing stone facades of Petra, a desert city carved out of a mountainside, which doubles as the ancient temple hiding the Grail (for a series that features many exotic locations, I shudder to think what kind of geographical picture of the world the movies present to millions of children). Middle Eastern characters are at best loyal sidekicks (Sallah, played by the Englishman John Rhys-Davies), ambivalent antagonists (The Brotherhood of the Cruciform Sword, who at some points cross paths with Jones but in the end seem to drop out of the picture entirely), or mere cannon fodder.

The action setpieces are - serviceable (maybe three stand out: a young Indie Jones being chased by a gang of rogues, clambering his way through a chugging circus train; a flagpole used against a motorcycle in unexpected ways; a fighter plane and an umbrella in a deadly earnest confrontation). The movie’s feature attraction is really Indiana’s ambivalent relationship with his father (Henry Jones, Jr., played by a by-now legendary Sean Connery).

Of the three, Raiders was perhaps the "freshest" (considering much of its elements are taken secondhand from many older pictures), Temple of Doom had the best action (and violence), Last Crusade is the most politically acceptable (at least it’s not out-and-out offensive), and emotionally complex (which isn’t saying much, actually - just some father-son angst).

The series as a whole is a fine example of popcorn entertainment (if you can set aside the frankly racist content of the first two pictures) but judged purely as popcorn entertainment, well - take Gunga Din. It moves faster; it’s not as loud (or obvious). In terms of story, the Indy movies barely have any - just a MacGuffin hidden away for Jones to uncover; Gunga Din, which is guilty of its share of borrowings, borrowed from the best: the basic plot and premise of The Front Page, where one officer (Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.) threatens to marry and leave the British Army and two others (Cary Grant and Victor McLaglen) scheme to keep him enlisted.

If the Indy movies have at least one star turn (Ford, and at one point Connery), Gunga Din has three (Fairbanks, McLaglen, a magnificently physical Grant); if the Indy movies have all these Rube Goldberg action sequences,Gunga Din had a Rube Goldberg device of a plot, full of wonderfully inventive comic set-pieces, and a rousing finale that builds on all that character detail and comic goodwill. The Indiana Jones series isn’t bad at all; it’s just that there’s better, if you’re willing to go out a little further and look for it.

*From Alfred Hitchcock: a "MacGuffin" is a plot device (uranium, stolen secrets, ancient talisman, whatever) that is important to the characters in the picture and helps drive the story forward, but which we the audience couldn’t care less about.

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First published in Businessworld, 05.23.08.

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May 27, 2008