I can still recall the first time I saw Raiders Of The Lost Ark. I can remember waiting in the cinema foyer, an art deco joint in a small town at the foot of the Blue Mountains, west of Sydney. I was perhaps seven or eight years of age, and the clearest memory of that evening is standing beside my parents staring at the adult patrons assembled in anticipation of what was to come. To a child, the anticipation was palpable, and I could feel my own heart beating in excitement. I had seen the advertisements on the TV and I knew then and there that this would be the greatest night of my short life.
I was no stranger to the cinema at that young age. I had been taken to see Star Wars a few years previous by my aunt and uncle. My father, against my protests, had taken my brother and I to see Alby Mangel’s World Safari sometime after that. But both occasions had been late afternoon excursions with relatively empty theatres and the wonder of a cinema had not yet been fully appreciated by my young self. It was the Raiders evening that changed all that.
For a young boy who had immersed himself in classic tales of adventure and courage such as Treasure Island and Robinson Crusoe, and delved, somewhat ignorantly, into my parents’ collection of adult novels by authors such as Clive Cussler and Wilbur Smith, Raiders Of The Lost Ark was nothing less than the visualisation of tales wrought in my own imagination. In one sense, Raiders destroyed my imagination as everything I created or acted upon in childhood play derived its essence from Steven Spielberg’s box office sensation. Living in the mountains, surrounded by the harsh Australian forest, provided the perfect environment for kid adventures and my years following my night at the cinema in 1981 were consumed with Indiana Jones role-playing. Every kid needs a hero, and unlike Luke Skywalker, Indiana Jones was a hero rooted in the real world. It was easy to imagine yourself as him.
Being a large child, the ability to throw my weight around was a handy skill to have. By 1982, every kid in the neighbourhood had seen Raiders, and every kid in the neighbourhood wanted to be Indy whenever we trekked into the forest on Saturday and Sunday afternoons. Yet I always managed to convince them that being an enemy of Jones was more fun than actually being Jones. Fools. Of course there was no one better than Indiana Jones! But who was going to argue with an eight-year-old kid the size of a twelve-year old? In hindsight, my actions were anything but the heroic virtue that Indiana himself would practice.
Raiders Of The Lost Ark became something of an obsession. I had the film on videocassette, the soundtrack on audio-cassette as well as the paperback novel, which was nothing more than a glorified screenplay. I had Indiana Jones colouring books, collected the Scanlen’s trading cards and coveted my grandfather’s fedora. I pestered my parents for a bullwhip and they gave me some crap about it being far too dangerous. I convinced myself I would grow up to be an archaeologist, even though any realisation of that dream would have left me sorely disappointed as to the true nature of digging up relics. My young life was a whirling hybrid of Star Wars figures and Indiana Jones daydreams. I thought I would go insane waiting for Indiana Jones and the Temple Of Doom.
As a child, my disappointment with Temple Of Doom was something I could not quite grasp. It was Indy, after all. He was embroiled in spectacular hijinks. He had Short Round for a sidekick. And in one scene, a poor soul has his beating heart ripped from his chest. All the action and ghoulish treats a kid could ask for. When our hero is trapped on a precarious rope bridge and proceeds to cut the suspensions, I’m sure my young mouth let forth an audible gasp that the entire cinema could hear. Yet something was missing. And it wouldn’t occur to me until years later.
My mother would often remark at how Raiders had been a throwback to a time when cinemas were populated by “serials”. My mother would explain how she and a friend would journey to the local theatre every Saturday afternoon to catch the next fifteen minute installment of some action-packed tale that would leave you in anticipation, breathless, until the next week. And the episode would always end on a cliffhanger (most likely, a character hanging from an actual cliff) to ensure you returned for the outcome. My mother always maintained that that was the beauty and power of Raiders – the fact that it was an homage to a time when an exciting story could be told simply and traditionally.
Being an astute filmmaker, Spielberg knows what an audience wants. Therefore, after Raiders was a gigantic box office hit, the natural progression as far as a sequel was ‘bigger’. You cannot make a sequel to an action film and have less action or smaller set-pieces that it’s predecessor. So Temple went above and beyond as far as hair-raising chills and thrills. But in doing so, it discarded the very thing which made Raiders such a wonderful, timeless film – seriousness. I realised, sometime in my early teens, that Raiders was a generational film. An adult film that happened to be embraced by children as it contained the elements of classic storytelling that appealed to kids like me prior to the digital age. Temple was shrewd marketing – the filmmakers accepting that their audience would be predominantly youngsters. So, give them what they want and them some. The kids don’t care about homage.
When Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade was released some years after Temple, I was reluctant to see it. Whilst a definite improvement over the second film, Spielberg and George Lucas this time created a film with more humour than was absolutely necessary and again upset the balance of what was achieved in the first film. The characters had become caricatures, and the Indiana of Raiders was long gone. He was no longer the serious hero that had dominated my childhood. For since the original, Indiana had been defined by the public, transformed into a pop culture icon by millions who all percieved the man differently. To me, he was no longer Indiana, and so I have remained a purist my entire life, denouncing the sequels and ending the story of Jones with the finale of Raiders – the moment he and Marion walk off to grab a drink and (in my mind) spend the rest of their lives together.
No film has had more of an impact in my life than Raiders Of The Lost Ark, for it was the first time I experienced the wonder of filmmaking. In later years, during the inevitable cycle of teen angst, my Indiana persona was momentarily replaced by the anti-heroes of the time such as John Bender or even Fred Krueger. These were simply phases of an undirectional stage in evolution that soon faded away with the approach into adulthood. Yet Indiana is still there. He still lurks in the catacombs of my psyche, ready to make another appearance when I don my deceased grandfathers’ fedora to mow the lawn beneath the hot Egyptian (I mean, Australian) sun.