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DVD Review: Indiana Jones Trilogy

By Glenn Abel

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photo Portuguese coast, 1936. Your basic dark and stormy night. The bad guy and his henchmen surround archaeologist Indiana Jones, taking from him an ancient cross.

"It belongs in a museum," Jones yells in protest.

"So do you," says the bad guy.

The creators of the Indiana Jones series -- George Lucas and Steven Spielberg -- have indeed enshrined their action hero, finally collecting his adventures and theirs in a handsome four-disc set.

For many fans and videophiles, the Indy Jones trilogy was the holy grail of DVD, one of the format's few high-profile holdouts. Paramount meets most of the high expectations with today's release of "The Adventures of Indiana Jones: The Complete DVD Movie Collection" (retail $69.98).

The set's first three discs contain restored versions of the Jones films: "Raiders of the Lost Ark," "The Temple of Doom" and "The Last Crusade." The fourth disc packs in more than three hours of bonus materials supervised by director Spielberg and story-weaver Lucas, featuring new interviews with pretty much anyone fans would want to hear from (and then some).

Video and audio get off to a shaky start. "Raiders" (1981) looks OK, but it's a product of its time -- at least there are few visible signs of wear and images are reasonably clear. But it isn't until "Temple of Doom" (1984) that the high quality of these DVDs begins to emerge.

"Doom" is inevitably called "the darkest" Indy film, but from Frame 1 it employs a robust color palette to tell its tale of slavery and black magic. The DVD delivers the goods, with rich blood reds and working-in-the-coal-mine blacks.

"Last Crusade" (1989) looks like a new film, with sensational, crystal-clear images.

All three movies are presented in widescreen (2.35:1) with the 16x9 enhancement.

Dialogue and music come across clearly on "Raiders," but its surround effects tend to muddy up and distract from the action. "Doom's" audio works better, with clear and discrete surround. "Crusade" sounds as if it were recorded yesterday. All of the films are in Dolby Digital (5.1). Audio and video carry the THX endorsement, naturally.

The DVD documentary "Making the Trilogy" -- actually three featurettes strung together -- tells how Indiana Jones began his quest.

"American Graffiti" director George Lucas was full of big ideas when he first envisioned "a modern-day fairy tale -- couched in Saturday matinee vernacular." (Inspiration for the hero came from title art for the old Republic serials.) Lucas also had the concept for a "Flash Gordon"-like series.

"I decided to go with the space idea," he says, thus setting off the big bang that became "Star Wars."

The director was trying to relax on a beach in Hawaii, awaiting boxoffice returns on the first "Star Wars," when he told his tale of an archaeologist action hero to pal Steven Spielberg. The "Jaws" director had only one objection: The name "Indiana Smith" needed work.

They enlisted writer Lawrence Kasdan. The men spent three days heaving ideas into a tape recorder. Kasdan went off to meld their concepts, writing out the first script in longhand. Spielberg committed to directing a series of three films, if they could get them made.

Even red-hot Lucas had trouble getting a green light. No one, it seems, believed the script could be shot for $20 million. Paramount finally bit.

The filmmakers knew who should embody Indiana Jones -- man of action Tom Selleck. Harrison Ford, who worked with Lucas on "Star Wars" and "Graffiti," was vetoed by the director, who said, "I don't want him to be my Bobbie De Niro."

Selleck and Sean Young auditioned for the roles, in costume. Spielberg says the pair was "really good" -- but the clip shown in the DVD docu suggests otherwise. No matter. CBS provided the hand of fate, signing away Selleck for its "Magnum P.I." series. "We had nothing," Spielberg recalls. But there was Harrison Ford.

There's no telling what today's youth will make of the bull-whip-cracking tough guy, forged in the days before CGI. Most of today's kids weren't born when the last Indy movie came out. And they may not get the joke: Republic serials get little play in the age of "The Matrix."

Lucas says Indiana Jones' appeal remains universal because he's an everyman hero, always in over his head but endlessly tenacious. "He wasn't quite up to what he was supposed to be -- (not) what the old classic Republic serial hero was," Lucas says. "That's one of the things that came off the best."

(Unfortunately, the DVD extras don't cover Republic serials, missing a chance to bring the audience up to speed on the thrilling cliffhangers of yesteryear.)

Jones' taste in heroines certainly helped sell the series. The first, Karen Allen, got the part in "Raiders" because Spielberg was a fan of her work in "Animal House." "She reminded me of the 1930s women," Spielberg says. "She had that Irene Dunne quality, a little bit of Carole Lombard." The DVD shows Allen screen-testing with "Animal House" alum Tim Matheson.

Allen, who gets a lot of talking-head time in the docu, says she helped develop some of her key scenes via improv, pushing for her character to participate in the action, not just go along for the ride.

Her successor, Kate Capshaw, took some serious heat for her damsel-in-distress in the next film, "The Temple of Doom." Upon first reading the script, the self-proclaimed feminist actress asked herself, "Can this woman do anything but scream?"

The DVD docu has some terrific clips of Capshaw and director Spielberg on the set, their chemistry obvious. "Are you going to go to the prom with me?" she asks the director as they clown around in formal attire before the big musical scene. A grinning Spielberg points out that Indy didn't really get the girl in this film -- he did. Director and actress were married a few years later.

Alison Doody returned a tough heroine to the mix in "Last Crusade" with her portrayal of a double-crossing Austrian. Doody says she was more afraid of running around Venice's slick streets in high heels than of the film's famous cavern of rats.

Ford, for the record, insists that unlike Indy, he isn't afraid of the series' parade of rodents, reptiles and insects. As proof, he's seen cozying up to a friendly rat on the set. Not Spielberg, who says the zillions of snakes used in "Temple of Doom" made him "want to puke." One of the docu's best clips has Spielberg talking to a snake who refuses to recoil from fire, but instead loves it. "You're ruining my movie," Spielberg says to the slithering extra.

The docu shows that Lucas and Spielberg weren't always in sync. Spielberg says meeting Capshaw was the only good thing he got out of "Doom," which Lucas says was especially dark because he was going through a divorce. And Lucas had to be sold on the father-and-son story that brought Sean Connery to "The Last Crusade." (Who else to play Indy's dad but James Bond, they figured.)

The DVD extras spend a lot of time covering the exotic locations used in the series: Sri Lanka, Jordan, Venice, etc. The film shoots were well documented, so there's plenty of great footage of the cast and crew at work on classic scenes.

Featurettes that average about 12 minutes each cover stunts, sound, music and special effects. The effects segment reveals plenty of exploding, decaying and melting heads, all done without CGI. One of the series' running gags was the use of giant stunt man Pat Roach, who played multiple roles, notably the bald pugilist Nazi in "Raiders." Composer John Williams does his usual great job explaining his work, telling how atonal music helped creep out audiences: "We go to great lengths to scare people." Sound editor Ben Burtt, who won Oscars for his work, tells how a Honda Civic provided the sound of the giant boulder chase that opens "Raiders."

Trailers include original and reissue spots, as well as teasers.

Glenn Abel is Executive Editor, Electronic, at The Hollywood Reporter

Reprinted, with permission, from The Hollywood Reporter

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