Looking back, it’s hard to believe that all but one movie studio turned down the opportunity to produce what is considered one of the best action films ever produced: Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark. On vacation in Hawaii following the colossal success of 1977’s Star Wars (later retitled Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope), George Lucas brought up the idea he had conjured up in 1973 for the Indiana Jones films to longtime friend and collaborator Steven Spielberg. Lucas envisioned the films as modernized versions of the film serials from the 1930’s and 1940’s and wanted the character to be “better than James Bond.” Shortly thereafter, Lucas started to develop both a sequel to Star Wars – later called The Empire Strikes Back – and with the help of Spielberg and friend Lawrence Kasdan, the character of Indiana Jones and the first movie in which he would be featured, Raiders of the Lost Ark. Now, Harrison Ford’s Indiana Jones is considered an icon and the first three films he was featured in – Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Temple of Doom, and The Last Crusade – are considered classics not only because of great writing, action, and all-around quality filmmaking, but because of the simple yet engaging and relatable theme of good vs. evil.
In every Indiana Jones movie, Indy as he affectionately called is the main protagonist that belongs on the “good” side. He is always accompanied by one or more sidekicks that are secondary protagonists are on the “good” side. In Raiders, Indy is accompanied by Marion Ravenwood and races against time to stop archrival Belloq and the Nazi’s from finding and taking control of the Ark of the Covenant, a long-lost treasure from long ago with immense power. What’s interesting about Raiders is the familiarity Indy has with the main bad guy, Belloq. Unlike other villains (the sources of evil) in the series, Belloq knows Indy intimately and makes for a tougher antagonist, simultaneously giving Indy more depth and raising the stakes of the story. It’s clear from history and from this and other films that the Nazi’s are bad and evil people – they are the embodiment of evil; it’s clear from the film that Belloq is a dastardly and evil guy. It’s really simple, but incredibly effective because it transports audiences into Indy’s world much more quickly by making the film easier to follow and enriches the action that is on the screen. Put plainly, Nazi’s are bad and Indy is good.
In Temple of Doom, Indy is accompanied by wise-cracking Short Round and singer Willie (played by Spielberg’s soon-to-be wife, Kate Capshaw) and battles a group led by Mola Ram known as the Thugee. Through intimidation and mind-control, Mola Ram and the Thugee aim to find and then use the five Sankara Stones to bring about the reign of Kali, the goddess of death. Like Raiders, the good vs. evil theme is exceptionally clear and simple and used brilliantly. Audiences are meant to root for Indy, Short Round, and Willie and are meant to root against Mola Ram and the Thugees. As it did in Raiders, good triumphs over evil and the world is again saved by Indy and co. This evokes the feel of those film serials from the ‘30’s and ‘40’s Lucas wanted to evoke when creating the character and films. The theme also provides for rich symbolism and tremendous action scenes (see: The Bridge Fight between Indy and Mola Ram towards the end of the film).
In Last Crusade, Indy is accompanied by his father (played by Sean Connery) and does battle against the Nazi’s and their associates (specifically Elsa; to a lesser extent Donovan). Indy and his father have to obtain the Holy Grail before the Nazi’s and Elsa do. Letting it fall into the hands of the Nazi’s, a group that craves power and domination, would spell the end of modern civilization. Audiences know from history and this film about the Nazi’s and the atrocities they committed; only Indy and his father can stop such a horrible thing from happening. The film clearly sets up that audiences are meant to root for Indy and his father and are meant to root against the Nazi’s, Elsa, and Donovan. What makes the villains (who represent evil) work in the this film – and the other Indy films that came before it – is that they are the direct opposite of Indy. The Nazi’s are the embodiment of evil: ruthless, unforgiving, cruel, violent, uncaring, and unthinking. At the end of the day, though, the film is making the argument that the ends never justify the means. If somebody uses evil to get what they want, they are evil themselves.
Interestingly, in the least successful film of the series, 2008’s Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, the good vs. evil theme is still present, but much like the plot of the film, very muddled up and convoluted. The baddies in this film are the evil Russian Communists led by the primary antagonist of the film Dr. Irina Spalko, as well as Antonin Dovchenko, the double and triple-crossing Mac, the always-lurking FBI, and strange aliens and other magical and mystical forces. In previous Indy films, there were only one or two antagonists. In this iteration, there are a number of evildoers. Not only does this confuse audience members, it makes a very simple and powerful theme less powerful, less cinematic, and less meaningful. At the end of the film, the audience doesn’t know if good really triumphed over evil (as it invariably did in previous films). Some of the villains really aren’t really all that dissimilar to Indy and don’t have dastardly intentions.