Few movies go on to spawn franchises, and even fewer are adored by generations. The Indiana Jones franchise is one of those rare few to capture the imaginations of viewers young and old, worldwide. Before the next installment of this iconic franchise drops this summer, let’s make sure everyone is up to speed on the films that have come before. After all, Indy is enjoyed by all ages, and some viewers may not have seen his many exploits up to this point.
Raiders of the Lost Ark
Two titans of the modern blockbuster teamed up in 1981 for an old-fashioned cliffhanging thrill ride. Raiders of the Lost Ark was the spectacular result of a collaboration between director Steven Spielberg and executive producer George Lucas, who also co-wrote the story. And with matinee idol Harrison Ford in the title role, their archaeological adventure would set the standard for many blockbusters to come.
In a thrilling prologue set in 1936, manly archaeologist Indiana Jones recovers a gold idol from a booby-trapped South American temple, only to have it stolen by rival Rene Belloq. Returning to the U.S., Jones is informed by associate Marcus Brody that the Nazis are after the Ark of the Covenant, the housing for the original stone tablet Ten Commandments. Indy knows they’ll need a special medallion to find the Ark, and he just happens to know who has it: old partner Abner Ravenwood.
The intrepid archaeologist hops a plane to Nepal, but Abner is dead, leaving his spitfire daughter Marion with the medallion. She isn’t exactly eager to give it up, especially not to ex-flame Indy, but she’s willing to negotiate. That night, a hissy-voiced Nazi named Toht barges in to claim the medallion, a brawl breaks out, and Indy ends up with Marion as his new partner.
The two travel to Tunis, where old friend Sallah helps arrange for Indy to find the Ark’s location and dig it up. The Ark is found, but Belloq, now working with the Nazis, again steals Indy’s prize. From then on, it’s a non-stop series of chases and fights, narrow escapes, and frustrating failures as Indy and Belloq trade upper hands across northern Africa, culminating in a supernatural climax that gave several kids nightmares for months.
With scenes like that, Raiders of the Lost Ark more than earned its PG rating, but it was a family film in the truest sense of the word. Kids and parents were left on the edges of their seats, and grandparents smiled at the memory of the classic Republic movie serials of yesteryear. The film went well over budget, but the money was put to good use, filling every second with larger and more elaborate stunts. It quickly paid its debts… and then some.
Released in the summer of 1981, Raiders of the Lost Ark was still playing in some theaters a year later, earning its way onto the list of all-time box office champs. Indy’s trademarked bullwhip, leather jacket, and fedora became a perennial Halloween costume, and an entire franchise was on the horizon.
Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom
The sequel to the mega-successful Raiders of the Lost Ark was actually set a year before the first film. It was so gory and surprisingly violent, it led to the creation of the MPAA’s PG-13 rating. And if you don’t think that was enough to send every red-blooded kid in America racing to the theater to buy a ticket, you’ve obviously never been a kid.
Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom was certainly bloodier than the first film, but that seemed to be part of the master plan—bigger, faster, louder…in every way a higher-octane version of the thrill-packed original. Indy even got a pair of new partners, along with a new quest for sacred treasure.
In the elaborately choreographed opening sequence set in a Shanghai nightclub in 1935, a group of dancers stages a production of Cole Porter’s “Anything Goes.” In the audience is Indiana Jones, who’s negotiating with Chinese gangster Lao Che for a priceless diamond. One thing leads to another, and soon Indy is scrambling for a vial of antidote to the poison he’s just drunk, while lead dancer/singer Willie Scott grabs for the diamond in a club-wide riot. Indy grabs Willie and makes his escape to the Shanghai streets, where pint-sized kid sidekick Short Round picks them up. The threesome board the next plane out of Shanghai, which turns out to be owned by Lao Che himself.
The pilots bail from the sabotaged plane, leaving Indy and company with no parachutes. So like any good scientist, he improvises, riding an inflatable raft through air, land, and finally water, coming to a rest in a small East Indian village. The locals feed Indy, Short Round, and the endlessly complaining Willie, but they humbly ask a favor in return.
The village children have been disappearing, and the villagers think they’re being held in a nearby palace. Indy isn’t really one for pro bono work, but when he learns there’s an archaeological treasure involved—the legendary Sankara stones—he mounts up for another adventure, one that will take him through insect-plagued passageways, into a bizarre cult and through a harrowing mine cart chase before the high-wire finale.
Again packed with wall-to-wall stunts, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom delivered the promised action, and audiences responded by making it the biggest worldwide hit of the year. The film was actually the least successful of the three Indiana Jones films, but was still popular enough to warrant a third film.
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, the third in the blockbuster trilogy, dropped kid sidekick Short Round but picked up another memorable partner in Henry Jones Sr., tweed-wearing father to archaeologist/danger magnet Indiana Jones. As played by Sean Connery, the elder Jones helped make this chapter a light-hearted departure from the darker Temple of Doom entry, but the film still packed in the chases and thrills, along with a return appearance of the Nazi Empire (“I hate these guys”).
In a prologue set in the 1910s, teen Indiana Jones (played by River Phoenix) discovers a group of no-good treasure hunters while on a hike with his Boy Scout troop. The archaeologist-to-be knows that their find—a jewel-encrusted cross—belongs in a museum, so he steals it and tries to make his escape. The ensuing chase spills onto a passing circus train, where the origins of several of Indy’s famous features are revealed—the bullwhip, the fear of snakes, even the little scar on his chin. The adventurous teen loses the cross but gains his trademarked fedora, given to him by one of the treasure hunters.
Flash forward to 1939, where a now-grown Indy tries to get the cross back during a storm at sea. Back on land, Indy gets the news that his father has disappeared on his never-ending search for the Holy Grail, which promises immortality to whoever drinks from it. The elder Dr. Jones has compiled the ultimate reference guide, his personal diary, and the Nazis are willing to steal, kidnap, or kill to have it.
Only Henry and Indy know the diary’s location, and since it’s the only way to get his father out of the Nazis’ hands, Indy mounts yet another quest. The adventure takes him to rat-infested catacombs beneath Venice, to a Nazi-occupied castle in Austria, to a book-burning rally in Berlin where he comes face to face with Adolph Hitler, and eventually to the Grail’s Middle Eastern resting place, where a test of knowledge and faith awaits.
Once again, director Steven Spielberg and executive producer George Lucas set out to top themselves with a non-stop parade of stunts and chases, involving boats, motorcycles, zeppelins, dogfighters, horses, tanks, and more. Yet another lady love came on the scene—this one with the shadiest background yet—and the elder Dr. Jones finally revealed the truth behind the name “Indiana.”
The anticipation was overwhelming in the months leading up to this latest Indiana Jones installment, and when the film was finally released in May of 1989, it set records for first-week ticket sales (a record it soon lost to Tim Burton’s first Batman film). The Indiana Jones phenomenon showed no sign of letting up—in fact, the third film was an even bigger worldwide success than the first two. The franchise was too popular to let fade off into the sunset, so a television series followed instead of another movie.
The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles
In 1992, George Lucas, clearly a fan of reversing chronology in storytelling, brought Indy to the small screen in The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles, an adventure series that would serve as a prequel to his three movies.
In the last of the film series, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, River Phoenix played young Indy, which may have been the genesis for the TV series. On the small screen, Phoenix’s (and Ford’s) shoes were filled by Sean Patrick Flannery (as the teenaged Indy) and Cory Carrier (the kid Indy). The stories spanned from Indy’s childhood travels with his father (who was on, what seemed, one continuous Medieval studies lecture tour) to the solo journeys of his youth and even into World War I.
Every episode began with a 93-year-old Indy, a gray-haired professor, talking about one of his old childhood adventures—and oh, there were a lot of them. Indy met (in no chronological order whatsoever) Lawrence of Arabia, Pablo Picasso, Pancho Villa, and Sigmund Freud; he competed against a young Ernest Hemmingway for the affections of a girl, listened to scholar T.E. Lawrence, was nursed back to health by Albert Schweitzer and went on safari with Teddy Roosevelt. Just think of what his autograph collection could have been…
This must have been a show that wanderlusty actors and TV tradesmen were clamoring to be a part of—it was shot on location all over Europe, Africa, and Asia. There was action, comedy, and romance, and amidst all of that, the show somehow managed to maintain a decent amount of historical accuracy, which isn’t exactly a TV priority.
Thirty-two episodes were filmed in two separate productions for ABC between 1992 and 1993. Unfortunately, these exciting versions of history lessons were terrifically expensive to shoot, and although the series had built a loyal cadre of die-hard fans, its popularity never lived up to the standard set by the films. ABC canceled the show after only a year of production, but The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles kept the franchise alive for a little while longer. But Indy’s greatest legacy was always the movies, so another kick at the can was to come.
Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
In 2008, almost twenty years since the last film, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas brought Indiana Jones back to the big screen with Indian Jones and The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Set inn 1957, Soviet agents led by Irina Spalko kidnap Indiana Jones and his partner George “Mac” McHale. They infiltrate “Hanger 51” in Nevada and use Jones to locate an alien corpse from the Roswell incident. He locates the corpse before being double-crossed by Mac but manages to escape to a nearby model town. The town is destroyed by a planned nuclear detonation, but Jones survives in a lead-lined refrigerator before being rescued and interrogated by the FBI.
Returning to Marshall College, Jones is informed that he has been placed on an indefinite leave of absence. Young greaser Mutt Williams approaches Jones and informs him that a former colleague of his, Harold Oxley, found a crystal skull in Peru before being abducted alongside Williams’ mother. Soviet agents attempt to capture them, but the two escape and travel to Peru. There, they find carvings made by Oxley which lead the pair to the grave of Francisco de Orellana, which contains a crystal skull. Leaving the grave, the two are captured by the Soviets and taken to a camp in the Amazon. They are reunited there with an addled Oxley and Williams’ mother, revealed to be Marion Ravenwood, who informs Jones that Williams is his son. Spalko explains to Jones that she believes the skulls to be alien in origin and from the mythical city of Akator. Jones realizes that Oxley is attempting to communicate through automatic writing, discovering a route to the city.
While en route to Akator, Jones retakes the skull from the Soviets and escapes from them alongside Ravenwood, Oxley, and Williams, allowing Mac to accompany them after he claims to be a CIA agent. After traversing several waterfalls, Jones and his companions locate a rock formation that leads them to Akator, evading the city’s guardians and reaching a large temple. There, they find evidence of the city being built by aliens and enter a large chamber that contains thirteen crystal skeletons. The Soviets, who had been following transceivers planted by Mac, arrive there as well; Spalko takes the skull and places it onto the one headless skeleton. It awakens and telepathically offers a reward to Spalko, who demands to “know everything”. As an interdimensional portal opens above the chamber, the skeletons combine into a reanimated alien, which transfers an overwhelming amount of knowledge into Spalko’s mind, killing her. Jones, Oxley, Ravenwood, and Williams escape as Mac is drawn into the portal. As the city crumbles, a flying saucer rises from the ruins and departs for another dimension. Jones and his party return to the United States. In the following year, he is reinstated at Marshall College and marries Ravenwood.
Indiana Jones and The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull was met with mixed reviews due to the nature of its story. But this hiccup in the franchise hasn’t been enough to bring it to an end. On June 30, 2023, Indiana Jones will return to the big screen for a final adventure in Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny, proving that you can’t keep a good man down.