“You call this archeology?!”
–Sean Connery, “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade”

In the American Film Institute’s 2003 poll of top movie heroes, Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) placed second behind Atticus Finch, the courageous lawyer from “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Given that Finch is a decidedly nontraditional hero, we can safely assume the AFI think Indy is the best conventional, swashbuckling action hero of all time.

Not that we needed the AFI’s word on the matter. Indy is a lot of people’s favorite hero, with “Raiders of the Lost Ark” regularly winning viewer-opinion polls as the best adventure film ever made. It’s no wonder, then, that Paramount Home Entertainment decided to promote their newest Indiana Jones movie (“The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull”) by reissuing the original three adventures–“Raiders of the Lost Ark,” “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom,” and “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade”–separately and in the three-disc box set reviewed here.

Probably everyone by now knows the genesis of the movies. Back in the late seventies, buddies George Lucas and Steven Spielberg had just come off the successes of “Star Wars” and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” respectively, and they wanted to do something different, something old-fashioned, something that didn’t rely on flashy, outer-space technology. Spielberg had been wanting to do a James Bond-type epic, and Lucas had just the right story idea. They settled on a homage to the movie serials of their youth–the brief, one-reel cliff-hangers they remembered from Saturday afternoon chapters of children’s adventures that featured heroes like Jack Armstrong, Spy Smasher, Flash Gordon, Commando Cody, Dick Tracy, Zorro, Ace Drummond, Captain America, Buck Rogers, Terry and the Pirates, and the Masked Marvel. They made their hero an archaeologist and named him after Lucas’s dog. They borrowed Indy’s hat from Humphrey Bogart in “Treasure of the Sierra Madre,” the leather jacket from Commando Cody, and the bullwhip from the likes of Lash La Rue and Whip Wilson. My guess is that Lucas and Spielberg also patterned their hero in part after the fictional character Allan Quatermain, H. Rider Haggard’s adventurer in “King Solomon’s Mines” (1885); and in an ironic twist Sean Connery, who plays Indiana’s father in “The Last Crusade,” starred as Quartermain in “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen” (2003).

All the while, Lucas and Spielberg had Tom Selleck in mind for the hero, but Selleck was doing the “Magnum, P.I.” television show at the time, so then they considered other people like Nick Nolte. Instead, the role of Indiana Jones went fortuitously to Harrison Ford, the haughty rogue of the initial “Star Wars” saga, and the rest is history. Of course, we’ll never know how good Selleck or Nolte might have been, but there’s no doubt about Ford. His modesty, his charm, and his self-effacing style combined with a virile strength and masculinity that appealed as much to men as to women, and as much to adults as to children. With Lucas co-writing and co-producing and Spielberg co-writing and directing, the series became an instant success.

Incidentally, a cliff-hanger (or cliffhanger) for those young and uninformed is a precarious ending to a chapter, often used in old-time movie serials, leaving audiences in suspense and wanting to come back for the next installment; things like the hero hanging off a cliff (naturally), falling from an airplane, or apparently being blasted to smithereens by a bomb exploding under his seat. Today, the word “cliff-hanger” refers to any suspenseful predicament of which the outcome is uncertain until the very last moment. The “Indiana Jones” movies are a succession of cliff-hangers, and what fun Lucas and Spielberg must have had (and must still be having) concocting them. In a series of episodic adventures, the stories subject poor Indy to everything from tarantula spiders to deadly snakes, giant rolling balls to medieval snares, near-fatal pitfalls to the fires of hell. And Nazis. Set in the mid-to-late 1930’s, two of the first three adventures feature Nazis. “I hate these guys,” says Indy in a moment of supreme understatement.

The “Indy” films are among that rare breed that have their tongue planted firmly in their cheek but never ridicule the action-adventure style; they’re entertaining with their high spirits and good humor, while being serious participants in the genre. “The Crimson Pirate” (1952) was able to poke good-natured fun at pirate movies while being a great swashbuckler in its own right; the early Bonds paid friendly homage to spy capers while being suspenseful and exciting spy capers themselves. Likewise, the “Indiana Jones” films take great joy in having fun with action-adventure flicks at the same time they establish themselves as the foremost champions of such thrillers. It’s not an easy accomplishment.

“Raiders of the Lost Ark”:
Anyway, it all started in 1981 with “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” a title that had more than few folks puzzled. As the Wife-O-Meter and I were leaving the theater after seeing “Raiders” for the first time, we overheard a teenage girl saying to her companion, “I liked the movie, but why did they call it ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’? I didn’t see any football players in it.” Honest. True story.

In “Raiders” the time is 1936, and Jones, a professor of archaeology, is hunting for the Ark of the Covenant, the chest containing the stone tablets of the Ten Commandments, the most sacred object of the ancient Israelites and thought lost after the sacking of the Temple in Jerusalem, where the Israelites kept it in the Holy of Holies. In the movie, Indy tells us the Ark possesses tremendous supernatural powers, carrying with it “the wrath of God,” thus making it a subject of interest to Adolph Hitler, who in real life believed to some extent in the occult and actually did try to collect various reputedly metaphysical items.

The U.S. Government wants the Ark before the Nazis can get it, and they send Jones, an expert on such matters, out to look for it. Along the way, Indy meets his old sweetheart, Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen), still the best of the “Indiana Jones” female leads for her intelligence and spunk. Then there are the good guys who help Indy: Dr. Marcus Brody (Denholm Elliot) and Sallah (John Rhys-Davies); and the baddies, Rene Belloq (Paul Freeman), a rival archaeologist out for himself alone, and Toht (Ronald Lacey), a Gestapo agent who gets one the best laughs in the film from a coat hanger. Everyone knows the rest, the giant rolling ball, the spiders, the snakes (“Why did it have to be snakes”), the shoot-outs, the adventures continuing from what appears to be Berkeley, California, to Nepal to Egypt to heaven knows where else. And all along the way, there’s one hairbreadth escape after another. When Sallah asks Indy how he’s going to rescue the Ark from the baddies, Indy replies, “I don’t know. I’m making this up as I go.” Yet despite the fast pace, the movie is never frenetic or tiring, just pure, unadulterated fun throughout. Classic stuff. Trust me.

“Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom”:
A few years after “Raiders,” in 1984, Lucas and Spielberg tried to top themselves with the second Indiana Jones installment, “The Temple of Doom.” Attempting to make the new film as different as possible from the first one yet retain the adventurous atmosphere, they set it in China and India, gave Indy a kid for a sidekick, and provided him with a stereotypical ditzy blonde girlfriend rather than the plucky and resourceful Marion of the earlier film. They also took out the Nazis, set it a year earlier in 1935, confined three-quarters of it to a single locale, the cavernous underground depths of a mountain temple, and designed the plot around a group of children in jeopardy. The result was a film that felt more claustrophobic than its predecessor and an adventure that was darker and more somber. In fact, the Motion Picture Association of America’s ratings board considered several scenes in the film so grisly, it inspired them to come up with the now-familiar PG-13 classification to supplement their regular PG. The filmmakers even toned down the original title, “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Death.”

“Temple of Doom” pays homage to any number of classic films along the course of its plot, beginning with “Casablanca,” Ford in the Bogey role, continuing with “Gunga Din,” and adding bits and pieces of things like “Chandu the Magician” and “The Pied Piper,” among others. Indy’s job in this one is to retrieve a sacred stone stolen from an Indian village, a stone the villagers believe brings them good fortune. Without it, their land has gone to waste and their children are disappearing. Turns out, the children are being kidnapped by a nearby Thuggee cult to work in the mines beneath an abandoned Hindu temple, Pankot Palace.

The filmmakers strove mightily to outdo “Raiders,” but rather than the adventure springing naturally from the story line, they generated most of the excitement this time from a sequence of gross-out gags and several exhilarating stunts. There’s a banquet scene, for instance, that features monkey brains, eels, eyeball soup, and various huge bugs to eat; there’s a segment with a Thuggee priest reaching into a man’s chest and pulling out his heart; and there’s a passageway filled with creepy-crawly insects that is an obvious endeavor to one-up the snakes in “Raiders.” The three best action sequences are a fight on a narrow rope bridge and two amusement park-type attractions, a bobsled ride down a Himalayan peak and a wild, heart-pounding roller-coaster ride inside the temple’s subterranean tunnels. The latter is the highlight of the film.

Assisting Indy this time out are Kate Capshaw as Willie Scott, an American nightclub singer who gets shanghaied into the adventure, and eleven-year-old Jonathan Ke Quan as Short Round, a young friend who comes along willingly. Ms. Capshaw was one of a multitude of women who auditioned for the part, by the way, and the film is where she first meet Spielberg; they married several years later. Indian actor Amrish Puri and TV and film actor Roshan Seth play the villains, Mola Ram, leader of the Thuggee cult, and Chattar Lal, the shifty prime minister, respectively. Also look for a bit part by Dan Aykroyd.

“Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade”:
“The Temple of Doom” had been another smash success with the public, but so many critics assailed it for its dark tone that Lucas and Spielberg went back to their roots, so to speak, with the third installment, “The Last Crusade” (1989). Indeed, almost everything about “The Last Crusade” harks back to “Raiders,” from plot to characters. The result is more satisfying than “Temple of Doom,” although throughout the film it seems as though we’ve been there before.

In this third episode, set in 1938, two years later than “Raiders,” Indy is trying to find the legendary Holy Grail, the cup from which legend says Christ drank at the Last Supper and into which his blood poured on the cross. The Grail was the object of quests in the Arthur traditions, and in the film it possesses the power of healing and rejuvenation. Naturally, Hitler and the Nazis are after it, too.

The film’s structure is much the same as “Raiders,” starting with a mini adventure about Indy as a Boy Scout (River Phoenix); it has little to do with the rest of the story except to set the pace and provide some historical data on how Indy became afraid of snakes, learned to use a bullwhip, received the scar on his chin, and got his famous hat. As usual, though, this prologue is one of the best parts of the picture.

The filmmakers opened up the movie to more exotic locales, this time Italy, Austria, Germany, and the Middle East (Petra, in Jordan). They also brought back a couple of old faces in expanded parts, John Rhys-Davies and the late Denholm Elliot, and introduced several new characters, Julian Glover as Walter Donovan, a wealthy industrialist, and Alison Doody as Dr. Elsa Schneider, a love interest in the form of a femme fatale.

Most important, however, they brought in Sean Connery as Indy’s dad, Professor Henry Jones, Sr., a high-minded father whose expectations his son was never able to meet. But as a twist, they made the usually intrepid Connery an ultraconservative academician, shocked by his son’s constant adventures and wild heroics. Only once, when Connery clamps his hand on a Nazi thug, do we see the old, indomitable Bond showing through the professor’s befuddled, mild-mannered exterior. Connery and Ford establish a remarkably likable on-screen relationship that helps sell the film. According to the comments of Spielberg and Lucas, there was some disagreement about using Connery, the filmmakers worrying that audiences might associate him too much with 007. But, then, they remembered that Bond was one of the fictional characters upon which they based their hero, so using Connery would bring the series full circle. In any case, the father-son relationship is at the heart of the movie and differentiates the film from the others, making it, instead of a pure action picture, a character piece with action in it. (As an aside, there is really only a twelve-year age difference between Connery and Ford, but who cares.)

As with the “Indy” films before it, “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” relies on a succession of rousing escapades and hairbreadth escapes. Many younger people of my acquaintance who came to the Indiana Jones series late, with “The Last Crusade” as their first encounter, have commented that they like it better than “Raiders,” which to them seems too derivative of the series’ later work. Sorry, folks, other way around. Nevertheless, although I personally find “The Last Crusade” a little less energetic and inspired than “Raiders,” there is much to enjoy in both pictures.

Paramount had the films digitally cleaned and restored frame-by-frame for their first DVD release in 2003, using the same outfit, Lowry Digital Images, that refurbished such classics as “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” “North By Northwest,” “Sunset Boulevard,” and “Star Wars.” The results are, needless to say, excellent, mastered to THX standards in 2.35:1 ratio, anamorphic widescreen. As far as I can tell, the present transfers are the same, still exceptionally clean and sharp. The remastering company did not tamper with the color values, but they did bring out all the luster of the original prints in reproductions that are probably as good as what many folks saw in theaters at the time of their initial release. The picture quality in all three films is remarkably similar: colors that are bright but never overly bright, very natural, with black levels that are intense, textures that are deep and rich (and only sometimes slightly soft), and images that display virtually no grain.

Like the video, the sound is quite good. The Paramount audio engineers slightly altered and remastered the sound on all three films, this time in Dolby Digital 5.1 surround. Although the surround effects may not always be pinpoint discrete from the rear channels, they do produce a satisfyingly comfortable, enveloping dimension, evident from the start of “Raiders” with jungle sounds, birds, and music. Typical of much movie sound, however, there is a slight rise in the frequency response between the upper midrange and lower treble, resulting in a degree of sharpness on the one hand and a good theatrical presence on the other. A healthy bass and a solid transient response partly compensate for this frequency rise. The sound on these transfers is not likely to disappoint anybody, especially during the mine-shaft ride in “Temple of Doom” and during the gunplay in “The Last Crusade,” where much of it effectively encompasses the listener.

Unlike Paramount’s first box set of Indy films where the studio placed the bonuses on a separate DVD, this time the extras come on each of the discs, most of the material newly made. In addition, there are English, French, and Spanish spoken language and subtitles, plus a healthy list of thirty-one to thirty-six scene selections for each movie.

The bonus features on “Raiders of the Lost Ark” start with a new, seven-minute introduction by Steven Spielberg and George Lucas. Following that is “Indiana Jones: An Appreciation,” eleven minutes, wherein the stars of “Indy 4” look back and comment on the original series. Next, there is
“The Melting Face!,” an eight-minute, behind-the-scenes look at some of the special effects that Industrial Light and Magic came up with, specifically concentrating on the melting face at the end of the film. After that, “The Well of Souls Storyboards,” four minutes, shows us a comparison of the “Souls” sequence in finished form alongside the storyboards for it. Finally, we get a series of still photo galleries covering illustrations and props, portraits, ILM effects, marketing, and the like; and, lastly, a promo for an upcoming “Indiana Jones” LEGO game.

The extras on “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” follow suit. They begin with a new, six-minute introduction by Spielberg and Lucas, followed by “Creepy Crawlers,” a twelve-minute segment about the snakes, spiders, and rats in the series, with comments by several of the actors and filmmakers today. You can play it with or without pop-up trivia notes. After that are “Travel with Indy: Locations,” ten minutes, also with optional pop-up trivia, and “Hold Onto Your Hat! The Mine Cart Chase Storyboards,” about two-and-a-half minutes comparing the completed footage with the storyboard illustrations. Things wind down with another series of still photo galleries; and, finally, the LEGO game promo mentioned above.

For “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” the extras are pretty much of a like kind. There’s a new introduction by Spielberg and Lucas that lasts about six minutes. There’s a nine-minute excerpt from “Indy’s Women Reminisce,” a 2003 American Film Institute tribute to the leading ladies in Indy’s film: Karen Allen, Cate Capshaw, and Alison Doody, each of whom discusses her part in the films. Then there are “Indy’s Friends and Enemies,” ten minutes on the supporting actors in the series; and “The Birth of an Action Hero! The Last Crusade Opening Scene Storyboard,” another live-action/storyboard comparison. Things again finish up with still-photo galleries and the LEGO game promo.

In the box set, the three discs come packaged in ultra-slim cases, further enclosed in a handsomely embossed slipcover. It makes for a classy affair. Otherwise, the three discs come separately in ordinary keep cases.

Parting Thoughts:
Whoopi Goldberg once remarked that “Movies are supposed to be big, because if they’re not, they’re television.” Well, the Indiana Jones movies are big, and it’s a shame we can’t enjoy them in our homes in the sheer size that motion-picture theaters display them. But these new Paramount transfers are probably as close as we’re going to get, for the time being at least. They’re bold and beautiful, and, depending on your television screen, big enough.

If you took a gun to my head and forced me to rate the films individually, I’d give “Raiders” a 10, “Doom” an 8, and “Last Crusade” a 9. Nothing before or since has quite matched the overall ingenuity and sheer sense of fun generated by “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” While “Doom” is a bit gloomy, puts children in danger, and confines its action primarily to one spot, it’s still quite entertaining. And even though “Last Crusade” is largely a rehash of “Raiders,” it’s a very good and entertaining rehash, with a great father-son relationship.

Like most reissues, these latest Indy DVDs are meant either for people who don’t already own the previous sets because, as I’ve said, these are the same transfers Paramount used earlier, or for dedicated Indy fans who have to have the newest extras. More important, as far as watching the first three installments at home, at the moment it doesn’t get any better than these DVDs, unless you count high definition. For that, we’ll have to wait and see.

In the meantime, enjoy.