In Our Opinion


By • Aug 24th, 2008 • Pages: 1 2

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With the release of INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL I thought it high time for a retrospective of the series as a whole; its original concept, its ethos, its influences, and of some of the people behind the scenes that, literally, got the ball rolling in the first place. Much of this has of course been covered before in the intervening, and astonishing, 27 years since RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK hit our screens, nevertheless, I’m sure if you persevere with me, you may discover, or rediscover, like Indy himself, a wealth of treasures. Unlike Indy however, we’ll just try not to wreck everything on the way…

It’s well known that George Lucas had a thing for 1940s movie serials with their cliff-hanger endings. His idea for an Indiana Jones type character came around at about the same time as that for STAR WARS. The latter won and our intrepid explorer (originally called, incidentally, Indiana Smith, but Spielberg didn’t like it), was put on the back burner. STAR WARS was in itself another tale in the serial mold which stemmed from Lucas’s desire to make a new FLASH GORDON movie. Unable to acquire the rights, he wrote his own adventure, though borrowed heavily from the earlier serials. This is from my own review of FLASH GORDON CONQUERS THE UNIVERSE (1940)(qv):

‘The heroic theme music strikes up, the chapter number and the ‘story so far’ prologue scroll up the screen and into the distance, and we are thrust into a new adventure where our hero and his companion, now disguised as Imperial Guards, having entered the stronghold of their enemy by spaceship, are about to rescue the beautiful Princess from his evil clutches! Elsewhere in the complex our hero’s elderly mentor, dressed in his hooded wizard-like robes, also works to thwart the villain’s dastardly plans…

Sound familiar? Yes. Of course it does, for this is FLASH GORDON CONQUERS THE UNIVERSE…’

We even have Imperial Spaceships bombarding our heroes on an Ice Planet and a battle on a Forest Moon. There are many other elements too that eventually made their way into Lucas’s epic saga. So, George is clearly not averse to pinching the odd idea or… three.

To give the RAIDERS crew an idea of what they were aiming for with the film, Lucas and Spielberg reputedly screened two movies. One was an Alan Ladd vehicle called CHINA (1943), and more importantly, the other was the Charlton Heston adventure SECRET OF THE INCAS (1954).

In CHINA Ladd plays a character called ‘Mr. Jones’, an American opportunist in that country during the Japanese invasion, who gets roped into the rescue of twenty young girls and their schoolteacher (Loretta Young) who want to get to safety before the Japanese arrive. A perilous trip in a very familiar looking canvas-backed army truck ensues, with action a-plenty as the reluctant, machine-gun toting hero ‘Jones’ protects his young charges from the nasty Japs.

SECRET OF THE INCAS has Heston as ‘Harry Steele’, a fortune hunter looking for Inca treasure among the ancient ruins of Machu Picchu. ‘Steele’ has a mysterious metallic disc which he discovers holds the key to the location of the treasure. In a certain room in the ancient city, if the disc is placed in a specific place, a beam of light reveals where the treasure is hidden (I’m sure I’ve seen that somewhere…). When Steele and his love interest first arrive in the jungles of Peru (twice now visited in the INDIANA JONES series), there’s a segment where they go downriver in a big yellow inflatable which is similar to that in INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM.
But the most obvious thing to come from these movies is the heroes’ attire; both Ladd and Heston sport fedoras, leather jackets, khaki trousers and a pistol. The fedora in itself was not unusual in 40s and 50s movies, think of Bogart and Cagney; in fact most men wore them around that time. Around 1960 the trend very quickly, and oddly, died out. There is a myth that JFK’s not wearing a hat at his inauguration led to American men thinking ‘Well if the President ain’t gonna wear one, why should I go to the trouble to?’, but in fact Kennedy wore a top hat to his inauguration, removing it only to deliver his speech. Perhaps a fashion statement best left alone, as obviously most American men did. Anyhow, back to the 1940/50s fedora; maybe it was a post-war combination of military fatigues, flying jacket and civilian hat, but that combination became the hallmark of an adventurer. Harrison Ford comments on the costume:

“I didn’t have time to have any input into the costume. It’s a bizarre costume if you consider it, a man wearing a leather jacket in generally hot locales. But I understood that if he’s carrying a whip, he might as well be wearing a leather jacket, because it doesn’t make any f***ing sense anyway”

Heston’s ‘Steele’ was no archaeologist either, just a treasure seeker, and I can’t help but think what a great antagonist he would have made for Indiana Jones. Heston could have still done it too in back in 1981. Both films were Paramount pictures, so, no worries about the copyright on the costume then…
The pace of both films is considerably slower than your average Indiana Jones flick of course, but take the basic concept of the freewheeling, loose cannon of an adventurer in exotic locales, saving beautiful gals, fighting stereotypical villains and superior odds; toss in the search for buried treasure, then add the freneticism of a Saturday Matinee serial and, well, there you have it. Sounds simple doesn’t it? But somebody had to think it up. Stealing ideas is one thing; knowing what to do with them is another.
As a side note, SECRET OF THE INCAS was released 27 years before RAIDERS; KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL 27 years afterward.

Another classic movie plot device used in all the Indiana Jones movies is what Alfred Hitchcock called the ‘maguffin’. It didn’t matter what it was; all that mattered was that everybody was after it. In NORTH BY NORTHWEST it was a statuette containing microfilm, the contents of which were never disclosed; in THE 39 STEPS it was, well the meaning of the 39 Steps; in THE LADY VANISHES it was a whistled piece of music that was in turn a code; in THE MALTESE FALCON it was that very same titular avian statue. There’s plenty more. In the Indiana Jones movies they are of course the Ark of the Covenant, a mystical Sankara Stone, the Holy Grail and now a Crystal Skull. What these individual items do doesn’t matter, it’s the chase and drama involved in obtaining them before the bad guys do that creates the adventure.

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  1. SECRET OF THE INCAS is now a cult classic; see my site at:

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