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DVD: Real Archaeologists Wear Whips Volume 56 Number 6, November/December 2003
by Maryann Johanson

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Iconic archaeologist Indiana Jones, played by Harrison Ford, rides to the rescue in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989). Indy donned Arab garb to sneak into a Nazi excavation in Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981). (Paramount Pictures)

Ah, the whip, the hat, the man--Indiana Jones. The world's most famous archaeologist may be fictional, but chances are that if you're under 35 and have any interest whatsoever in exploring the past, that interest was at least partly fostered by 1981s Raiders of the Lost Ark. Fabulist filmmaker Steven Spielberg's masterful ode to the Saturday morning serials of the 1930s and 40s like Spy Smasher and The Masked Marvel unearthed a bit of forgotten Hollywood history and remade it for the present, turning character actor Harrison Ford into one of the world's biggest movie stars. Now, Raiders and its two sequels, 1984s Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and 1989s Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade, have finally arrived on DVD, restored and remastered (Paramount Home Video, 2003; $49.95). The extras, on a fourth disk, include the only full-length feature about the making of the movies. But it's the chance to see the films in the best light since their theatrical releases that's so delicious.

They are still glorious, and gloriously fun, globetrotting romps through ancient (often invented) folklore. Indy's escapades take him through Nepal, Cairo, India, Shanghai, South America--and of course, his small New England college, the most dangerous jungle of all--in his search for the Ark of the Covenant, the Sankara Stones, and the Holy Grail. Along the way he outwits booby traps, pieces together old maps, and survives bugs, rats, and, in one memorable scene from Temple of Doom, chilled monkey brains for dessert. Despite beatings, gunshot wounds, and the mean right hook of Marion Ravenwood (Indy's romantic opposite in Raiders, played by Karen Allen), unflappable Indy never loses his cool. Well, except in the face of snakes. And Nazis. And flirtatious, eyelash-batting female students. But he never, ever loses his hat.

Pure, unabashed fun, these flicks. They don't pretend to be anything meaningful or profound...and yet, even as magic and supernaturalism swirl around him, it's Indy's intellectual integrity and sheer excitement in the face of discovery that ground him in reality. The films also hint at a community of unsavory adventurer archaeologists just offscreen--Forrestal, who fails to survive a spiky booby trap in the South American temple in Raiders, and the unnamed, fedora-sporting looter who digs up the "Cross of Coronado" in The Last Crusade. But Indy is always on hand to foil his rivals while exclaiming that this or that priceless artifact "belongs in a museum!"

The rapturous expression on his face at that triumphant moment in Raiders when the sun hits the headpiece of the Staff of Ra and reveals the location of the Well of Souls tells us all we need to know about Indy. He's never been infected with the greed of acquiring and hoarding artifacts--for him, the discovery is the adventure, and knowledge is the reward. Archaeology is about fact, not truth, Indy tells his students--giving us all a little truth worth hoarding.

Maryann Johanson is a New York City-based film critic and webminder of FlickFilosopher.com.

Click here for a list of ARCHAEOLOGY's multimedia reviews.

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© 2003 by the Archaeological Institute of America
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