Indiana Jones movies and Raiders of the Lost Ark: Why the original still stands alone

A long read on Harrison Ford’s first and greatest star-vehicle role, the religious ideas (or lack of them) in each of the movies—and why it matters that there’s no such movie as Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark

Left: Detail from the poster for "Raiders of the Lost Ark" (1981); right: The theatrical release poster for "Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny" (2023). (Image: Wikipedia)

I was 12 when Raiders of the Lost Ark opened in 1981, and it changed my relationship with movies. I was already an avid moviegoer; what’s more, between the first two films in the Star Wars and Superman franchises, along with Jaws and Close Encounters, John Williams was a huge part of the soundtrack of my childhood. Steven Spielberg and George Lucas were already giants in my world. But Raiders did something to me no prior movie had: It made me want to make movies. I had long wanted to be Luke Skywalker, but I never wanted to be Indiana Jones, only to film Indiana Jones.

I spent countless hours planning and storyboarding an ambitious Raiders spoof. My uncle drove a pickup truck with a rack that would be suitable for a Nazi truck–type sequence—and he was willing in principle to play the lead. I climbed all over that truck planning the stunt sequences. My grandfather let me borrow his Super-8 camera, and, while I never actually made my Raiders spoof, I did shoot a few scenes of an unfinished silent science-fiction spoof. It was called Cyborg; I played a renegade robot. Another uncle played the mad scientist who built me, obligingly rolling over backward when I came to life and clobbered him. There were a few very simple substitution-splice special effects which I was proud of.

The world is no poorer for the loss of my one feeble effort at cinematic storytelling. I was never going to be the next Steven Spielberg. The point is, though, watching Raiders made me want to be. I had watched Superman II any number of times, but Raiders I studied from a young age—and then I began applying the habit to other movies. Before long I was watching At the Movies with Siskel & Ebert, and my life’s path was more or less set.

Many movies I loved when I was 12 I have since realized do not deserve my love. Raiders remains a masterclass in moviemaking—a reality brilliantly highlighted by Steven Soderbergh’s 2014 black-and-white, silent version of the film. By stripping away dialogue, color, and cues from the score, Soderbergh directs viewers’ attention to how Spielberg uses light and shadow, depth of field, camera movements, editing, composition, and shot sizes—how he uses the camera like an artist’s brush, not just telling a story, but creating mood and atmosphere and emotion; or like a musician’s instrument, playing not just the notes but the audience. (Less exotically, of course, listening to John Williams’s score without the film is also an education.)

The first two Star Wars movies had made Harrison Ford a star in an iconic trio of heroes. With Raiders, at the peak of his considerable powers—cynical and swaggering, rugged but not invulnerable—he established himself as a superstar and, for another decade and a half, an A-list box office draw, which was a thing back then. Ford would go on to play more complex, interesting characters, but Indy remained his greatest star vehicle. (My favorite Ford role is John Book in Witness. The extent and limits of his range are on display throughout his peak years in roles both righteous [The Fugitive; Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan] and compromised [Blade Runner; The Mosquito Coast; Presumed Innocent]. Among less successful efforts were attempts at romantic comedy [Working Girl; Sabrina].)

Raiders began with an idea for a hero that Lucas described to Spielberg as “something better than Bond.” Bond was a fantasy icon of a flawed masculine ideal: tough and self-reliant, attractive and suave, yet callous, at times murderously violent and vengeful, sexually predatory and at times downright rapey. If Indy is some of these things, for good and ill, Raiders is somewhat more critical of its hero than the Bond franchise ever was of 007 (prior to the Casino Royale reboot, anyway). Indy is a womanizer with a history of statutory rape, but no Bond Girl ever socked 007 in the jaw and told him it was wrong and he knew it, like Karen Allen’s scrappy, jaded Marion Ravenwood. His reluctance to meet the Army intelligence men and their awkward first exchange is at least some acknowledgement of the shadiness of Indy’s extracurricular activities as a looter of cultural heritage. On the other hand, we all laugh when Indy unexpectedly, casually guns down an assailant armed with a sword, because that’s how Spielberg sells it.

Like Bond, Indy is an action hero who can throw a punch and take a punch—but he’s also one who winces and can be worn down and overwhelmed, whose setbacks in action may be played for laughs, who aches and complains afterward in ways I’m aware of no prior Hollywood tough guy doing. A few years earlier in Hong Kong Jackie Chan had pioneered a similar departure from Bruce Lee’s indomitable impassiveness, flinching and grimacing and showing fear in his brand of kung-fu comedy. Indy paved the way for the hero’s frailties in that other iconic 1980s action movie, Die Hard. A variation on this tradition is carried on in the non-ordinal Mission: Impossible movies of the last dozen years, in which Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt doesn’t always stick the landing and can be stunned and even take comic pratfalls.

Much of this can be said for the first two Raiders sequels, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984) and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989). Both sequels carry on Raiders’ legacy of exotic locales, healthy doses of humor, envelope-pushing gruesome special effects, and magnificently crafted action set pieces in the old serial-adventure tradition, but more so. Yet, like Die Hard, Raiders stands alone, notwithstanding its many sequels and imitators—not to mention Lucas’ efforts to rebrand it Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark, as if they were all comparable slices of a homogenous Indiana Jones Product. (Lucas did the same thing with Star Wars in 1981 by adding the subtitle Episode IV: A New Hope. In the case of Raiders, this franchise-crafting revisionism belies the reality that Indy is himself one of the “raiders” in question—almost a bit of “Han shot first” whitewashing.) Happily, whatever the box art may say, Spielberg refused to change the onscreen title, which remains Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Part of the credit for Raiders’ singular achievement belongs to the screenwriting contributions of Lawrence Kasdan (who also co-wrote the best Star Wars movie, The Empire Strikes Back). Allen’s Marion, too, is a far more engaging romantic interest than the off-putting leading ladies of the sequels. The master stroke, though, is the inspired choice to build the story around Nazis hunting for the Ark of the Covenant. Iconic good and iconic evil: what’s more, iconic antisemitic villains versus an actual icon of the covenant deity of the Jewish people. Indy may be no one’s idea of a role model—as noted by his archnemesis, Paul Freeman’s unprincipled, refined René Belloq, Indy has more in common with him than he’d like to admit—but the plot isn’t Indy versus Belloq, or even Indy versus the Nazis.

By the numinous moment (witnessed by no one but a few rats) that the wooden surface of a crate bearing the stamp of a swastika and Nazi eagle spontaneously begins smoking and blackening, the abominable image blotted out by the transcendent power within, the jig is up. Indy can go around punching Nazis, dragging in the dust behind trucks, stowing away on U-boats, and waving around rocket launchers all he likes. In the end, Raiders comes down to the Third Reich versus God. Eight years earlier, The Exorcist offered a gut-wrenching morality tale about, among other things, the spiritual dangers of messing around with Ouija boards and demons. The climax of Raiders offers a complementary warning about trifling with the no less terrible power of the holy.

The movie’s conceit is that the Nazis want the Ark in order to harness the power that shattered the walls of Jericho, and that Indy’s colleague Marcus Brody (Denholm Elliott) describes obliterating the Egyptian lost city of Tanis in a year-long sandstorm. “The army which carries the Ark before it is invincible,” Marcus concludes with less than convincing logic. Neither Marcus nor the Nazis, I guess, remember how the Philistines routed the Israelite army and captured the Ark in 1 Samuel; or how the Ark, even captured and placed as a trophy in the temple of the Philistine deity Dagon, brought low the foreign god and smote the people until they sent it back. The filmmakers remember, along with how the Ark was not to be touched except with poles used to carry it, and how men were slain by the Lord for looking into the Ark or touching it (1 Samuel 6:19, 2 Samuel 6:6–7). “Any of you guys ever go to Sunday school?” Indy queries the Army intelligence men following the Nazi treasure hunt. Over four decades later, I still reference Raiders teaching CCD classes. Most of my students haven’t seen it, but a few have. It’s a place to start.

* * *

There’s a Casablanca-like magic about Raiders, a serendipitous perfection of parts somehow coming together in a way not foreseen from the outset, when all Lucas had was “something better than Bond.” It could easily have been otherwise. Exhibit A: Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.

Maybe Kasdan was right that the chaos in Lucas and Spielberg’s personal lives at that time has something to do with the crude, mean-spirited ugliness of Indy’s second outing. It’s a long list, from the parade of grating stereotypes (mostly involving Indians, but also Chinese people and women) to the oppressive darkness of the bloodthirsty Thuggee death cult and gory heart-ripping—all unleavened by any countervailing image of light or goodness like the Ark, or even the disappointing Grail of Last Crusade. I’m not aware of relationship issues between married screenwriters Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz at this time, so they don’t have that excuse.

Spielberg had wanted to bring back Marion for the sequel, but Lucas didn’t want Nazis again and decided a prequel would be the best way to avoid that—which of course meant Marion was out. But then Spielberg nixed Lucas’s concept of a creepy haunted castle in Scotland because he wanted to get away from Poltergeist territory, and the setting was shifted to Asia, with most of the film set in India after a prologue in Shanghai. So Nazis wouldn’t have been an issue, meaning there was no reason to do a prequel, and no reason not to bring back Marion. And yet, our serial Jones Girl is Kate Capshaw’s shrill, squeamish, screaming Willie Scott, a pampered, venal damsel in distress whom Marion would have clocked without breaking stride, provided Willie didn’t faint first. Yes, she’s recapping a trope from old adventure serials; it doesn’t make her more tolerable. I have read the pro-Willie reevaluations, and if they work for you, I’m happy for you. I like what Simcha Fisher said about her: Willie is the “heroine you love to hate, except they forgot to put in the part where you love her.” Does it make it better or worse that Indy is almost as unlikable (regularly demeaning Willie like a supercilious pick-up artist, even as he closes her bedroom door; slinging his whip around her waist in the denouement and pulling her toward him as she tries to walk away)?

The Indian government film board was reluctant to give permission to shoot in India and requested changes to culturally inaccurate tropes including voodoo, human sacrifices, and the humorously repulsive misrepresentation of Indian cuisine (eyeball soup and monkey brains; Willie is also grossed out by some kind of brown paste served by the villagers). The production responded by moving the shoot to Sri Lanka and going full steam ahead with the cultural caricaturing. As Walter Chaw points out, this is also, like shrieking Willie Scott, true to the old adventure serials (in precisely the way that Marion socking Indy and making him apologize was a corrective).

The Indian characters in Temple of Doom are basically all of two types: demonic villains and helpless victims. On the one hand, we have the sad villagers living in terror of devotees of an evil god at Pankot Palace who have stolen a sacred stone, a Shiva-linga, along with their children. They pray to Shiva (or Śiva) for help, and Indy arrives, apparently a literal divinely sent White savior. On the other hand, there’s the royal court at the palace led by a child maharajah, which (like an alternate-universe QAnon conspiracy theory) hides a vast, secret underground temple devoted to the murderous cult running a child-kidnapping and slave-labor operation and offering human sacrifices to a satanic version of the Hindu goddess Kali. (There are also the anonymous British Indian Army forces who ride in like the cavalry at the very end, hooray for colonialism.) At least in Raiders Egypt had John Rhys-Davies’ Sallah, a competent local ally who provides Indy with resources and information and helps to keep him in the game. A Sallah-like character in the sequel would have gone some way toward making Indians seem more like, you know, real people.

What lingers most in the memory (like scars, perhaps) is the infamous heart-ripping scene and the colorfully grotesque palace feast. As bad as they are, they’re only fantasy bad. What really most kills the movie for me is the horror of kidnapping and child slavery: the young villagers toiling away underground in endless mining excavations, enduring beatings, searching for the last two of the five Infinity Stones, or Sankara stones as they’re called here. If that’s not hellish enough, the villainous Mola Ram (Indian actor Amrish Puri, intense and menacing) drugs them with “the blood of Kali” into zombie-like compliance. Scenes of the drugged Indy grinning as he claps a terrified Willie into the iron rig by which sacrificial victims are lowered into boiling lava and starts lowering her, followed by brutally slapping his young sidekick Short Round (Ke Huy Quan) to the floor, are likewise just too horrible for escapist entertainment, at least without some powerful apotheosis of redemption that never arrives.

What we do get is Indy denouncing Mola Ram’s twisted Kali worship, shouting, “You betrayed Shiva!” and then repeating it in both English and Hindi, thereby activating the power of the Sankara stones in the least satisfying, least visually interesting preternatural finale of the whole franchise. Temple of Doom is the one film where Indy performs traditional hero duty at the end, acting to defeat the villain, recovering the stolen Shiva-linga stone, and rescuing the kidnapped children. Which, I mean, good for him, but we’re still left with a Western agnostic who can only turn away from the power of Judeo-Christian sacred artifacts—whose response to personally witnessing dozens of Nazis wiped out by numinous powers unleashed by an otherworldly Jewish relic is the galaxy-brain idea “It has to be researched”—confidently invoking a Hindu goddess against an Indian cult leader. In his first supernatural big-screen outing, no less! The only rationale I can see is that either the lingering effects of the blood of Kali gave him Hindu superpowers that subsequently faded, or as the divinely sent White savior he had infused knowledge from Kali, or both. (Either way, this could have been Indian Sallah’s big moment.)

Long ago a friend noted that if you watch the 1980s trilogy in internal chronological order, Indy’s supernatural experiences go from polytheism to Judaism to Christianity. Someone else has observed (this insight is not original to me, but I haven’t been able to track down the source) that Indy’s “first,” pagan adventure is the most overtly religious and theologically explicit, while the third, Christian adventure is the fuzziest and most equivocal. Only Temple of Doom features religious rituals enacted by a company of true believers; Raiders features a kind of forensic, reconstructed reenactment of Jewish ritual presided by a curious Gentile in the company of Nazis, while Last Crusade contains no religious ritual at all. In Temple of Doom Indy drank the blood of Kali; the blood of Christ is scarcely mentioned and drunk by no one. Indy invokes Kali by name in Temple of Doom; in Raiders he only tells Marion not to look. In Last Crusade, the closest we get to a statement of faith from one of the good guys is when Indy’s father, Henry Jones Sr. (007 himself, Sean Connery), unexpectedly slaps Indy for profane misuse of the name of Jesus Christ: “That’s for blasphemy!”

“Do you believe, Marcus?” Indy asks early in Last Crusade when the topic of the Holy Grail is broached. Then of course he ruins it by adding, “Do you believe the Grail actually exists?”

Marcus’s response overtly removes Christ, and almost God, from the equation: “The search for the cup of Christ is the search for the divine in all of us.” We’re a long way from “You betrayed Shiva!” At the denouement, when Henry Sr., eyes twinkling, observes, “Elsa never really believed in the Grail,” what exactly is “belief in the Grail” supposed to mean? To Indy’s question about what he found in the Grail, Henry replies enigmatically, “Illumination.” Of course it’s enigmatic. The filmmakers have nothing to say—not about illumination, anyway.

Last Crusade can be called a story about an emotionally distant father and an alienated son who experience a rapprochement, not so much in the pursuit of the Grail itself as in encounters with mortality. It can also be called a story about an estranged father and son who experience a rapprochement after sleeping with the same treacherous woman, femme fatale Elsa Schneider (played by former Bond Girl Alison Doody), but let’s stick with the first thing.

The movie’s most elaborate set piece, the Nazi tank sequence, ends with Indy plunging over a cliff. Suddenly Henry Sr. is wracked by regret: “Oh, God. I’ve lost him. And I never told him anything. I just wasn’t ready, Marcus. Five minutes would have been enough.” Indy, of course, is once again literally true to his cliffhanger roots, and they press on to the Grail temple, where the dullest villain in the entire series, Julian Glover’s businessman Walter Donovan, shoots Henry, obliging Indy to brave the temple’s deathtraps to find the Grail, which has powers of healing and immortality. The Grail heals Henry’s body, but it turns out that neither the Grail nor the immortality it bestows can leave the temple precincts. When the villains try to take the Grail, an earthquake shatters the temple, and the Grail is on the far side of a crevice in the floor. After Elsa falls to her death reaching for the Grail, Henry tells Indy not to make the same mistake, and father and son ride off into the sunset.

Indy’s anger and estrangement from his academically distracted dad, and their eventual reconciliation, may play differently for viewers who have seen Spielberg’s semi-autobiographical The Fabelmans (and this, of course, makes the Elsa thing much, much weirder). Many viewers have observed that the film seems to be setting up Henry, who has pursued the Grail his whole life, to replace the medieval Grail knight (Robert Eddison) who has kept vigil in the chapel for almost a millennium. That would have been a better character arc, but in the end Last Crusade seems to suggest that “the search for the divine in all of us” matters less than human relationships. On some level that may be an appealing idea, but it’s hard to square with the words of the one who said “Anyone who loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and he who loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me” (Matthew 10:37).

Speaking of worthiness? The final test in the Grail chapel arbitrarily involves a table covered with chalices of all shapes and sizes, and the Grail knight says that drinking from any of the false grails brings death. Donovan drinks from the wrong chalice, chosen for him by Elsa, and suffers an underwhelming Raiders finale–style special-effects death. Then Indy picks the right one; not an elaborately adorned chalice for a King of Kings, but a humble pewter cup (“the cup of a carpenter”). It’s not a terrible idea; the problem is that on pretty much every level the Grail is an anticlimax compared to the Ark. The Ark was holy, awesome, and perilous; the Grail is just surrounded by contrived, arbitrary deathtraps. It comes down to this: The filmmakers knew what to do with the Ark of the Covenant; they have no clue what to do with the Holy Grail.

To be fair, this isn’t entirely their fault. The Ark of the Covenant occupies an exalted place in the Old Testament, and its holiness and perilousness are spelled out in the text. The Grail as such is a product of medieval Christian legend rather than scripture; obviously there was a cup at the Last Supper, but we know nothing else about it. The legends about the cup catching his blood at the crucifixion and going off with Joseph of Arimathea and the quests to recover it come more than a thousand years later. Even in legend the Grail’s properties are hazy compared to the Ark. Only the worthy can get anywhere near the Grail, and only the worthiest can hope to attain it. The Grail is associated with spiritual epiphany; in several versions of his story, after the virginal Galahad attains the Grail, he is assumed into heaven. Themes like this are harder to approach onscreen than melting or exploding Nazi heads, especially in an action-adventure movie.

Still, there were other paths they could have taken. Here’s an idea from the New Testament they might have considered: Just as the Ark could be fatal if mishandled, St. Paul says that eating and drinking the body and blood of Christ unworthily can result in sickness or death (1 Corinthians 11:27). Only water is drunk from the Grail in Last Crusade, but what if the Grail itself were perilous, like the Ark? What if there were no arbitrary false grails, and Donovan died after drinking from the real one? What if Indy and his father had to first be reconciled to one another—each apologizing, each forgiving—before either could drink safely from the Grail (cf. Matthew 5:23–24)? They could have had their five minutes, and then Henry could have taken the Grail knight’s place, ascending into heaven as it were. (Making the Grail knight not ridiculous would have been a start.)

For all their mistakes and miscalculations, Temple of Doom and Last Crusade are too well crafted to dismiss either entirely. Temple of Doom’s sublimely silly first-act climax, with the heroes leaping from a crashing plane in an inflatable life raft, tobogganing down a snowcapped mountain peak, skidding off a cliff and falling 300 feet into a river, is more over the top than anything in Raiders, but the world would be poorer without it. The nail-biting rope bridge sequence at the end is terrific (Tim Brayton shrewdly compares it to Kurosawa). Last Crusade’s sparkling prologue offers a taste of “Young Indiana Jones” action while providing the background for Indy’s fear of snakes as well as his whip and fedora (and even Ford’s chin scar). The tank set piece is among the best in the series, and the zeppelin sequence has the funniest post-Raiders punchline (“No ticket”).

* * *

I have a theory that, generally speaking, a franchise that has lain fallow for a decade or more goes dormant, and whatever you do after that is not a revival but an essentially new creative act, more akin to a reboot than a typical sequel. This is both a challenge and an opportunity; the stakes are lower for a nostalgia sequel, and fans of the original work may be satisfied with less. When Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull debuted 15 years ago and 19 years after Last Crusade, I formulated the difference this way: “With a sequel, we want more of the same; here we know it can’t be the same. Sequels ask: ‘What happened next?’ With these latter-day homages, the question is: ‘Where are they now?’”

There are a lot of problems with Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, but it’s almost worth it just to see Allen as Marion again. There’s only one Marion, just like there’s only one Raiders, and Indy says in so many words that she’s always been the only woman for him. From the first moments she’s onscreen it makes me angry that Willie and Elsa ever happened. I felt the same seeing Sam Neill, Laura Dern, and Jeff Goldblum together again in Jurassic World Dominion: Both movies are pretty much unsalvageable, but I’m willing to forgive a lot for the pleasure of time spent with old friends.

Part of the problem with James Mangold’s Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny (the only film in the series not directed by Spielberg or based on a story idea by Lucas) is that it brings back Rhys-Davies’s Sallah, teases him joining Indy on what will presumably be his last ride—and then has Indy successfully turn him away. Marion has an even briefer cameo. It’s not enough. I have no objection in principle to introducing Phoebe Waller-Bridge as Indy’s goddaughter Helena Shaw, who’s meant to be a charming grifter who’s only in it for the money, except that (as was said above about Willie) they forgot the part about making her charming. I have no idea whether storytelling choices or practical considerations of one kind or another are the reason Rhys-Davies and Allen are limited to cameos, and I don’t really care. It’s just as disappointing either way. That the movie opens with Indy and Marion divorcing makes me angry this movie exists. That the death of their son Mutt (Shia LaBeouf) in the Vietnam War is the catalyst for their split at least makes sense.

If Indy’s journey through the 1980s trilogy can be mapped from polytheism to Judaism to Christianity, Kingdom of the Crystal Skull takes a turn for vague, New Agey aliens and crystals with invocations of pre-Columbian religion. Dial of Destiny opens with a feint toward the Last Crusade world of Christian Arthurian legend: There’s some short-lived misdirection about that other Arthurian New Testament relic, the Spear of Destiny (the weapon of the Roman soldier, traditionally called Longinus, who stabbed Jesus’ side on Good Friday). But we know from the title that there’s a dial, and for the first time the mysterious artifact of a Raiders sequel is tied to a purely science-fiction conceit with no religious significance.

At the same time, the trend from more belief to less belief continues. “Belief, Dr. Jones, is a gift you have yet to receive,” Cate Blanchett’s Natasha Fatale–esque Soviet villain Irina Spalko taunts Indy in Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. “Oh, I believe, sweetheart” is Indy’s rejoinder, but it has all the conviction of an “I believe I’ll have another beer” T-shirt. Only Indy’s T-shirt would say “I believe I’ll steer clear of the weird.” Finally, in Dial of Destiny, Indy’s journey ends in…complete indifference: “It’s not so much what you believe; it’s how hard you believe it.” Huh. Then why did Spalko disintegrate at the end of Crystal Skull? Why did Belloq explode at the end of Raiders? Did they not believe hard enough? I’m reminded of Tom Hanks’s creepy conductor in The Polar Express: “One thing about trains: It doesn’t matter where they’re going. What matters is deciding to get on.” Some trains, of course, are going to Auschwitz. Destinations matter, and a lot of Nazis believed something pretty hard. What a place for the guy who invoked Shiva against Mola Ram to wind up.

There is this to say for Crystal Skull and Dial of Destiny: Between them, they have both a) a brilliant opening act, with one of the franchise’s most ingenious set-piece conceits, and also b) the one artifact-driven paranormal finale since Raiders that is actually satisfying on its own terms and that adds something to the franchise. Yes: For me, at least, where the Sankara Stones, the Grail, and the Crystal Skull didn’t deliver, the Dial of Destiny does.

The brilliant opening act belongs to Crystal Skull, with Indy fighting Communists in 1957 at a highly restricted Air Force facility in Nevada and barely escaping a nuclear test simulating the destruction of a creepy model town. The “nuking the fridge” bit is hands down the most over-the-top, comic-booky inspiration in any of these movies, transcending even Temple of Doom’s inflatable raft sequence, and it’s glorious. The big special-effects finale with Indy in the foreground staring at an immense UFO in the midst of a maelstrom of floating rocks is one more disappointing finale, but here’s where Dial of Destiny does something new.

The dial in question turns out to be an ancient Greek artifact called Archimedes’ Dial, also called the Antikythera, which is actually the name of a real and incredibly sophisticated ancient Greek device, a type of analog computer capable of predicting the positions of heavenly bodies decades in advance, including predicting solar eclipses. Which is amazing, but of purely historical value—so what the movie’s Dial predicts is not eclipses but ruptures in time. It’s not exactly a time machine, but it’s like a time machine; it will let you travel to other times. Let’s put a pin in that for a moment.

Dial of Destiny is mostly set in 1969, circa the Apollo 11 moon landing. This is 33 years after Raiders in 1936, but 43 years in real-world time, and the 10 years between 70 and 80 are telling on Ford—at least after an extended prologue set in 1944 featuring a digitally de-aged Ford fighting Nazis on a train with an ally named Basil Shaw (Toby Jones). (Basil is the father of Waller-Bridge’s character Helena, whom Indy calls Wombat.) A lot of work went into creating Ford’s digital youth mask, and the results are pretty incredible, except when he talks. Visually it looks persuasively like lost Ford footage from the 1980s, but his normal speaking voice is that of an old man. (He does sound more like his younger self when he shouts.)

Indy and Basil get away with the Archimedes’ Dial—or rather, with half of it, since it seems Archimedes designed it in a modular way, so that each half is useless without the other. Mads Mikkelsen plays a Nazi scientist named Jürgen Voller who was on that train in 1944 and in 1969 turns up in the US working on the Apollo 11 project as part of an Operation Paperclip–type program. Voller wants the dial in 1969 so that he can travel back to World War II and fix it so the Nazis win.

Nobody but Spielberg is Spielberg, and it’s unfair to blame Mangold for what he isn’t. Still, while Crystal Skull and Dial of Destiny are both lame movies, Crystal Skull has arresting images and spectacular compositions (the best of which is Indy silhouetted in his fedora in the background, tiny against the backdrop of a giant mushroom cloud), and Dial of Destiny doesn’t really. Another problem with Dial of Destiny is the ramped-up nastiness factor. These have always been violent movies, but the majority of violent deaths have been those of bad guys. In Dial of Destiny the villains leave in their wake a body trail of sympathetic characters and ordinary people minding their own business. There’s nothing sadistic here like the torturous death of a female assistant in Jurassic World, but it adds up, and it’s unpleasant. It doesn’t help that Helena (whose look is slightly reminiscent of Marion) is so callous that at one point Indy has to snap at her, “My friend was just murdered!”

The familiar pattern of Indy solving problems and finding things just in time for the bad guys to swoop in and seize them plays out too many times; sometimes it makes sense and sometimes it doesn’t. If I started nitpicking the plot, this essay would need to be twice as long as it already is.

So I’ll just say that the finale does something unprecedented for a Raiders sequel: something that is not only pretty cool, but that actually illuminates Indy’s character in a new way. Granted, it means a revelation about Archimedes’ Dial that makes the premise orders of magnitude more ridiculous, but for the sake of the destination I’m willing to accept it the way I do highly improbable premises on Star Trek or Twilight Zone. I appreciate a sweet moment in the denouement for what it is. I don’t know that I’ll ever watch Dial of Destiny again, but I’m glad I saw it once. That’s something, I guess.

I’m also glad Indy’s adventures appear to be over. For one thing, short of joining Scientology or something, there’s nowhere left for him to go; he has followed his road to the end. It’s a lousy end, but at least his story has a shape. It’s far from impossible that he could wind up in a better place than he is now, but the journey probably wouldn’t make for a very good Raiders sequel. Not that any of the others have either. The Raiders sequels all star Harrison Ford and are variously linked by other talents in front of and/or behind the camera. That can’t be said, of course, for Raiders’ many imitators, from the Brendan Fraser Mummy movies to the National Treasure franchise, from Romancing the Stone to Lara Croft. One thing, though, all of these have in common, whether the title says Indiana Jones or not: None of them is Raiders of the Lost Ark.

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About Steven D. Greydanus 50 Articles
Steven D. Greydanus is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle, a permanent deacon in the Catholic Archdiocese of Newark, and the founder of He has degrees in media arts and religious studies. He and his wife Suzanne have seven children.


  1. Worth the read, thanks! Wasn’t planning on seeing this newest one but your hints about its ending have me intrigued. However, Mutt was the big draw for Crystal Skull so without him this is probably skippable.

  2. I would simply say the first movie was greatly comic book adventure with minimal true gore, while the following movies were ever more gore soaked, and loud, The Goonies loud, and much the same could be said for later Lord Of The Rings installments. They all tried to make up laxk of plot and writing with loud screaming improbable special effects action sequences seeming to try for “funny” at same time.

  3. Wow, Steve, you really read a lot into a series of truly silly movies.

    I’d rather hear more about Witness or The Mosquito Coast, far superior movies. Even The Fugitive has more substance and, to me, bears multiple watchings, which I’ve never been able to muster for the matinee bubble gum and popcorn Jones movies

    • Both Witness and Raiders are among my top 25 movies of all time. I worked hard on my essay on Witness, and it’s one of the pieces I’m proudest of. Perhaps you will enjoy it.

      Raiders is worth another look. It is certainly silly, but it’s also an absolute masterpiece. You don’t have to agree with my assessment of its moral and religious themes, but anyone who loves cinema should be able to appreciate that it’s simply one of the best directed and best edited films ever made.

  4. Great review…as far as I’m concerned only 2 Indiana Jones movies exist…Raiders and Last Crusade. I thought Last Crusade was in the spirit of Raiders and Sean Connery did an excellent job as Indy’s father…the comedic tension was well done. I haven’t seen the new one. I hope it’s good.

  5. My mother had a good time watching Indiana Jones 5 Dial of Destiny.

    I find it difficult to suggest new movies we can see together at the movie theater, but I thought “good old” Indiana Jones might be a safe bet.

    Honestly I’m kind of glad I didn’t read this review beforehand, or it might have discouraged me from bringing my mother to the “roller coaster ride” of Indiana Jones 5. (She described it as a roller coaster ride after seeing it.)

    But I appreciate SDG’s work. This essay was an interesting read for me after I watched the movie.

    • Thanks, C. I’m glad your mother enjoyed the movie!

      For what it’s worth, while I always try to keep in mind people who haven’t seen the movies I write about, on balance I write more for people who have seen them than for people who haven’t. Some film writers work in a Consumer Reports mode, primarily for the benefit of readers trying to decide what to see or not see. There’s nothing wrong with that, either for the writers or the readers, but it’s not primarily what I do. I’m always glad to hear that someone who saw a movie appreciated what I wrote about it.

  6. I agree with your assessment of “Dial.”
    My son said it best when he commented, “This is the only Indy movie with no sense of joy.” I’m glad I saw it because I wanted to see Ford as Indy again, but have no wish to see it again. Save for the first 20 minutes, I found it a joyless ride.

    I enjoy rewatching all the others, including “Crystal Skull,” which for me remains the best finale of these films. And I really think Indy does show his faith/belief in a higher power at the end of “Skull.”

    While Indy recognizes the aliens in “Skull” are seeking to acquire ultimate knowledge— “they were archaeologists” (Indy reflects after seeing artifacts from different cultures in the temple)—he also recognizes that belief in a higher power is ultimately superior to knowledge. Similar to Henry Sr. letting the grail go in “Crusade,” Indy declines the “superior knowledge” of the aliens. Spalko does not and dies for it; she mistakenly thought she found a prize. Indy and the others survive because they don’t meddle with powers beyond them, yet Indy does acknowledges at least some belief in heaven when he tells Mutt that his granddad is looking down on them, smiling. Finally the movie ends with a church wedding, thus endorsing at least some version of Christianity.

    The first three movies remain the best, but I feel “Skull” is a fitting end to Indy’s development as a character. He chooses a family and a belief in a benevolent higher power over pursuing occult knowledge, which ultimately destroys. I like that ending and plan to just forget “Dial” ever happened.

  7. It’s odd. When I was a lad, Charles Bronson had become a sort of cultural joke. That’s because of the endless Death Wish movies he made. I remember the snickering, which was a shame. He deserved better. Not that Death Wish was the first franchise (hello Universal*). But it had a certain ‘Oh goodness, not another one’ feel about it whenever the next film in the series was released. When they released DW 4, it was bad enough and many of my college peers and I just laughed. We won’t even discuss DW 5. Being a bit of a fan, I always felt sad that Bronson went out like that.

    All of this is to say that what we mocked and laughed at and saw as nothing but low art garbage for the latest money grab is now par for the course. Either the undead franchise, or the endless remake. My son and daughter-in-law recently said they were going to see some movie I haven’t heard about. Can’t even remember what it is. They said it’s not their cup of tea, but at least it’s original. It’s not part of a prepacked franchise, a never-ending string of pointless sequels, or the usual properly rebranded remake. And that’s enough for the ticket price.

    As a huge fan of the original Raiders (can’t agree more about the assessment of the first versus the following Jones films), I wouldn’t be sad to see it end, and all of it end.

    *But then, could you argue that The Little Tramp was an example of its own franchise? Perhaps it’s a quality and effort problem as much as ‘how many in the series’ problem.

    • Thanks for your comments, Dave G.

      FWIW, the earliest franchise film series might be a series of silent Sherlock Holmes shorts produced in Denmark by the Nordisk Film Company from 1908 to 1911. The first feature-length franchise films might be Douglas Fairbanks’ 1920 Mark of Zorro (nice pro-Catholic themes in that one, though I find the 1940 remake with Tyrone Powers more authentically Catholic) and its 1925 sequel Don Q, Son of Zorro. However, there were only two of them. Same for The Sheik (1921) and Son of the Sheik (1922).

      Universal Studios made a lot of monster movies in the 1930s and 1940s, including some early sequels like The Bride of Frankenstein and Dracula’s Daughter, as well as later crossovers like Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man. Perhaps the first notable series of which I’m aware of ongoing franchise feature films with the same stars in the same leading roles would be MGM’s five Thin Man films (1934 to 1947), based on Dashiell Hammett stories.

      • Somewhere I recall reading that Holmes was perhaps the earliest film series. It wouldn’t surprise me. Interestingly, this last Christmas we received a collection of The Thin Man films. An acquired taste I’ll admit. I’m more a William Powell fan than a Dashiell Hammett fan, and that gets me through them.

        But I think the issue today isn’t that sequels or franchises never happened before. Heck, we didn’t even get into the Universal monster crossovers with Abbott and Costello. But alongside those sequels was a much larger catalogue of original material. Today it’s there, but as often as not one must go to the indies or similar to find it.

        Part of it is likely the morphing of the Box Office Blockbuster into what it is today. All we have to do is compare the top grossing films of each year in the 1970s, with the top grossing films of each year of the 2000s, to see how things changed. I’m no film historian, but I’d wager it has to do with the marketing of potential blockbuster movies to focus on opening weekends (before word gets out) rather than the olden ways, in which word getting out is what made blockbuster movies what they were.

        Anyhoo, I’m sure there are many factors behind this, as there usually are with most things. But it isn’t hard to notice there seems to be a dearth of original, outside the box material coming out of the studios today. That’s what I think on when I think about my hope that this is the last Indiana Jones movie we will see. If nothing else, for Ford’s sake.

  8. I was wondering what you thought of The Big Bang’s show theory (I am sure it actually originated somewhere else but I don’t feel like searching Google for it) that Indy was irrelevant to the conclusion of Raider’s of the Lost Ark. That if Indy never did anything, that the Nazi would still have died on the island at the end, therefore making everything that happens in Raider’s pointless.

    While you answer this, I had my own theory. Indy wasn’t irrelevant or pointless. His participation was actually detrimental. If Indy is never contacted by the government, then the Nazi’s find the medallion, find the ark, and then take it to Berlin.

    Then it is opened in front of Hitler. Also in front of all the top levels of the Nazi government and military. Then when the power/wraith of God kills everyone who looks upon the ark, the Nazis are effectively decapitated before they can even start WWII. Millions of Jewish people live and the Europe isn’t destroyed.

    Instead the ark is taken to an island and only kills a few low-level Nazis. It could be interpreted that Indy obstructed the will of God.

    • Indy wasn’t irrelevant or pointless. If he hadn’t been involved, Marion would almost certainly have been murdered by the Nazis.

      • I think the theory is that he is irrelevant to the Ark and the Nazis getting it and opening it, and not to other people like Marion.

        I don’t think he is irrelevant just detrimental. Whether he is involved or not, either way the Nazis get the ark. All the Nazi command structure dies if he was never involved. I go more into detail with my reply to SDG.

  9. Steven,
    thank you for backing me up on “nuking the fridge”. Man, i have been defending that opening act and conceit ever since 2009 – so many friendly arguments with no one on my side! Well i’m happy to say ‘our side’ now. Cheers!

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