Dr Henry (Indiana) Jones, known to be ruggedly handsome with an appetite for adventure and all things pre-historic, walks into the frame in Raider of the Lost Arc with such decisiveness that you cannot help but anticipate what is to come. Nearly four decades after Harrison Ford first donned the hat of the whip-toting archaeologist, the movies have lost their sheen, but not their marketability.
Indiana Jones films were always questionably fun – a white man sauntering into someone else’s country to ‘discover’ relics and seemingly ‘save’ indigenous people seems like an accurate representation of the white man’s saviour complex. But of course, the implications of such were lost on me as a young viewer, who was charmed by Ford’s easy screen presence.
But how does the franchise continue to sustain it's popularity despite criticism?
Steven Spielberg as the director
Steven Spielberg had become a household name after his 1975 film Jaws. Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982) followed suit. All these films laid the foundation for his success as a director.
Raider of the Lost Arc was released around the time of his ascent to success. Spielberg was interested in making a Bond (James) film. However, George Lucus' idea was to make a film "better than Bond", Spielberg fell in love with the story and the rest is history.
Indiana Jones has now become a canonical classic - the fedora-donned adventurer combined with the allure of ancient history in the hands of Spielberg created much intrigue. And as the auteur rose to prominence with films like Schindler's List (1993) and Munich (2005), Indian Jones become a bedrock of his success.
Harrison Ford's stardom
Ford catapulted into stardom after his portrayal as Han Solo in Star Wars. The star's laconic characterisation of Indian Jones, right after, was an instant fan favourite. He was the 'coolest' professor of the generation. But that doesn't mean the films did not have drawbacks.
Temple of Doom is perhaps the most problematic of the franchise – with its skewed representation of India from a white gaze. So glaring was the misrepresentation that, over the years, it has become a point of contention amongst fans.
However, the franchise's continued success, despite criticism, was a sign of the times, racist stereotypes were after all the norm, it was written to incite a chuckle or two. Coupled with Ford's stardom it was a recipe for what the audiences wanted to see - a hero with a devil-may-care attitude but with a heart of gold in an 'exotic' land.
Tried and tested tropes
If Temple of Doom was a complete post-colonial nightmare, then Kingdom of the Crystal Skull was plain silly with sketchy CGI and interdimensional beings. But the film was enjoyable precisely because it didn’t take itself too seriously.
Jones' son is introduced and a lost lover arrives in tow. Personal relationships are explored with the added thrill of the missing relic (the skull). Some of these tropes were Mills and Boons-esque - keeping things engaging without pushing too many boundaries.
And although the film gets sillier, with Jones' sudden encounter with aliens, all is forgiven in time, considering, Dial of Destiny is running in theatres now.
A Lasting Legacy
In hindsight, George Lukas and Steven Spielberg created a fascinating character that fortunately and unfortunately changed how we look at archaeology – it influenced a generation of moviegoers to pursue the subject – despite the films glossing over many crucial details of the profession.
The enduring legacy of Indiana Jones was perhaps cemented by The Last Crusade which gave us an initial peek into Jones’ personal life. It managed to steer clear of the mistakes made in its previous film, Temple of Doom. So the dialogue-less indigenous warriors were mercifully missing.
The final act
Dial of Destiny, isn’t directed by Spielberg, the reigns have been passed onto James Mangold, known for directing Logan and Ford and Ferrari. It features an adept ensemble cast and leans into all the tropes that Indiana Jones is known for. Mangold is tailoring the film for a nostalgia-driven audience, who are so used to meta-verses, franchises and cross-overs.
With Marvel and DC taking over the movie-going experience it doesn’t seem like a terrible idea to bring back Indiana Jones for a last hurrah.
In the end, though, its sustained popularity is anchored by the big names it is associated with – George Lucas, Steven Spielberg and Harrison Ford. Furthermore, a generation of fans have grown up watching the globe-trotting professor and our ever-evolving fixation with franchises despite it offering subpar storylines adds to the popularity.
Aside from willfully caricaturing cultures, the films do offer the unadulterated joy of watching Jones unearthing relics, discovering treasures and deciphering hieroglyphics while saving the day. It’s an age-old Hollywood fantasy that has sold too many tickets and if one can skilfully market nostalgia it will sell a few more.