The story goes that while filming in Tunisia in the summer of 1980, Steven Spielberg avoided the dysentery that afflicted most of the cast and crew of Raiders of the Lost Ark by holing up in his hotel room with a suitcase full of SpaghettiOs. Like most studio-approved behind-the-scenes errata, that anecdote's edges have been worn off, and it's probably more cute than true in the first place. Still, something in it smacks of truth: the gee-whiz everykid of the Arizona suburbs stuck in the kind of locale white folks used to call "exotic," gritting his way through it with good ol' American junk culture. Indiana Jones manages something similar, just with two-fisted comic-book scrappiness rather than crappy canned dinners. The results, though, are the same: The not-especially-curious Westerner braves the East, gets what he came for, and emerges untouched by the cultures he outwits.
This is an observation, not a complaint. The colonial assumptions of the first two Indiana Jones pictures have not aged well, of course. (If you want to argue that those movies aren't full of, um, racial insensitivities, I urge you to check out online the transcript of early story conferences between Spielberg, George Lucas and Lawrence Kasdan wherein the young Lucas calls the non-Nazi bad guys "Third World local sleazos, whether they're Mexicans or Arabs or whatever.")
But Raiders and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom at least somewhat send up the xenophobia at the heart of so much adventure literature, and they serve as playful, perhaps even self-aware records of how the world was so often dreamed of by young Americans and western Europeans back before everyone grew up and read Orientalism as full of great treasures and wild places whose natives might benefit from a spot of lashing.
Indiana Jones and the Perils of Humanistic Decency
In short, there's something disreputable about Raiders, which returns this week to theaters, blown up to IMAX proportions. (Because the original is a comparatively humble-sized 35mm movie, and because the IMAX version was not screened for critics, we're taking their word for it that it looks good.) For all its bravura chases, just a bit grittier than it needs to be violence, and fully immersive mise-en-scene — has any haunted house on-screen ever been as perfectly shadowed and booby-trapped and clearly laid out as the cave of the opening reel? — of Spielberg's top-flight technique is still in the service of the adventures of a grave robber, one introduced in shadows himself, and one just as sneaky and lethal as the poison darts he dances past.
This is a film made by a kid eating SpaghettiOs, a kid who knows it's hilarious for the pragmatic American hero to just cold-pop the Arab swordsman still enamored of ritual and time-wasting displays of grace. The latter two Jones pictures, in which the grave robber has become a gently unpleasant preserver of trinkets, were made by a grownup, a serious artist, a good liberal, a citizen of the world, an ambassador of his culture and a good-hearted boomer bonhomie. Just as it's hard to picture the Spielberg who made the tony, undervalued War Horse hunkering down with some Chef Boyardee, it's impossible to picture the Indiana Jones of the tepid Kingdom of the Crystal Skull willy-nilly murdering Lucas's sleazos.
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That Spielberg is now above such nastiness is a net gain for his soul but a serious a loss for adventure movies. An Indiana Jones who plays by our rules of humanistic multiculturalism is like a James Bond who isn't a misogynist: What's the point?
Fortunately, whatever they might have done to enlarge its frames, Raiders will always be Raiders: two hours of the finest possible kids' stuff, boasting Harrison Ford at the peak of his curly charisma; Karen Allen out-drinking the heavy in ravishing silks; serious contenders for Hollywood's best car chase and fistfight; the wicked and witty cave adventure and snake-pit sequences; a score butchered every summer at every pops concert; Paul Freeman soldiering through a scene in the desert even as an errant fly buzzes right into his mouth; that incomparable gag, cut from Spielberg's 1941, where Ronald Lacey's coat hanger at first appears to be an instrument of torture; and some charmingly risible impossibilities, like the fact that Indy and his retainers troop for what seems like days through the jungle to get to that cave, but then he has a buddy in a seaplane waiting to pick him up within jogging distance. Oh, and a literal deus ex machina, frying up Nazis Old Testament style. At some point, even the truly noble-spirited viewer must admit: This shit's too awesome to worry about its politics while it's on. And because 2016: Obama's America is still out, it's not even this week's least-charitable on-screen depiction of the Middle East.
The also-undervalued The Adventures of Tintin exhibits the brio and inventiveness absent from much of The Last Crusade and all but the opening reels of Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Tintin feels not like the work of a kid, but of a nostalgic adult, which means it's mostly safe, and it never dares the darker fantasies that adults know to hide. It's the work of a lauded chef, free to create anything in the world he might want to, blowing a kabillion dollars to whip up some SpaghettiOs.