It turns out that George Lucas and Steven Spielberg are as much movie nerds as Quentin Tarantino and that their four Indiana Jones films are just as full of references and echoes. But while Tarantino discovered most of his favorites on video, Lucas and Spielberg probably saw many of theirs in film school on 16mm prints, many of which never made the transition to video. Last month our own Richard von Busack wrote a post about a rare film called The Secret of the Incas (1954), with Charlton Heston as a fedora-and-leather-jacket-wearing adventurer. (Another Heston adventure, The Naked Jungle (1954), is also a definite influence.) Richard found his info at TheRaider.net, which is where I also went to work on this list of potential Indy influences. Many of the titles they list are difficult to find, and I'm also trying not to give away crucial plot points in Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, so -- to quote Indy himself -- I'm making this up as I go.
1. Saturday Afternoon Serials
For those that don't know, serials were presented in front of regular features in 20-minute installments over a period of 12 weeks (mainly in the 1930s and 1940s), leaving off each time with a cliffhanger, to be miraculously resolved the following Saturday. Many of them are rentable today, and you can watch the entire 240 minutes in one sitting, if you so wish. To date, I've made it all the way through only one serial, though I've attempted many. Most reviewers credit serials as a major Indy influence, but few reviews actually name which ones. I've narrowed it down to five. The first two are Zorro Rides Again (1937) and Zorro's Fighting Legion (1939), mainly for the swashbuckling hero's use of the bullwhip. These two are in the public domain and widely available on DVD and for download, but I'd suggest going with VCI Entertainment's DVD versions. The other three are examples of the "jungle adventure" subgenre: Perils of Nyoka (1942), Secret Service in Darkest Africa (1943) and Perils of the Darkest Jungle (1944) -- although each has also been released under alternate titles.
2. King Solomon's Mines (1950)
This one's pretty obvious. It was so obvious that some enterprising producers quickly assembled a new version in 1985, starring Richard Chamberlain and Sharon Stone, to cash in early on Indiana Jones fever. (A sequel was even more quickly assembled.) H. Rider Haggard's novel has been filmed several times, but it's agreed that the 1950 version with Stewart Granger and Deborah Kerr is the best, or at least the best-looking. Personally, I think we need a really good, much snappier version. Haggard's other big adventure novel, She, was also filmed several times, and the weird 1935 version was probably an influence as well.
3. Gunga Din (1939)
Spielberg and Lucas lifted entire scenes from this George Stevens adventure classic for Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984), including the bad guys (the Thugee cult) and the collapsing rope bridge. It's a terrific movie all on its own, with fun-loving Cary Grant, Victor McLaughlin and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. as soldiers stationed in India. Sure, they have to fight bad guys and help raise a downed telegraph line in time, but their main concern is to keep Fairbanks from getting married (and thereby growing up).
4. Stagecoach (1939)
It seems like this John Ford Western influenced just about everyone; Orson Welles reportedly screened it every day before and during the filming of Citizen Kane. Lucas and Spielberg were mainly interested in the film's dazzling chase scene in which legendary stunt man Yakima Canutt maneuvered underneath the moving coach. They put poor Harrison Ford through a similar ordeal in Raiders of the Lost Ark, only underneath a moving truck.
5. Fritz Lang's Indian Epic (1959)
For years, this two-part film, consisting of The Tiger of Eschnapur (1959) and The Indian Tomb (1959), was very difficult to find, and to complicate matters an edited, two-hour version was also floating around. But in 2001, Fantoma Films released the two films on spectacular DVDs, and they should be a part of any serious collection. Spielberg and Lucas didn't steal anything specific, but the general mood and rhythm of this jungle adventure -- about an architect who becomes involved in a battle for a Maharaja's throne -- definitely foreshadows Indy. The films marked a full circle for Lang, who returned to Germany for the first time after a long career in Hollywood, and it recalls Lang's earliest existing film, The Spiders (1919), with its treasure-filled catacombs.
6. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)
This John Huston Oscar-winner about a band of treasure hunters has a definite Indiana Jones flavor, though it's certainly darker and more cynical. Humphrey Bogart gives one of his greatest performances as Fred C. Dobbs, a "down on his luck" American (with a fedora) in Mexico who joins up with Walter Huston and Tim Holt to find gold. His face and his eyes grow blacker and more twisted as his greed takes over and he begins to mistrust everyone. Speaking of treasure hunting movies, it's also worth mentioning Werner Herzog's great Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972), in which Klaus Kinski searches (like Indy) for El Dorado, the lost city of gold, but I'm pretty sure it's not a direct influence.
7. Land of the Pharaohs (1955)
Lucas and Spielberg looked more to 1950s movies for inspiration for Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, which is set in 1957 and plays with a lot of elements from that era. When Shia LaBeouf first appears, he's dressed like Marlon Brando in The Wild One (1954), all the way down to the motorcycle. But I wanted to throw some love to this neglected Howard Hawks classic, recently released on DVD (and co-written by William Faulkner!). It was Hawks' one foray into widescreen, epic filmmaking and he hated it, but it turned out rather well regardless. The specific moment of inspiration involves an intricate method of using sand to disguise the location of the treasure in an ancient temple. Hawks' earlier adventure masterpiece Only Angels Have Wings (1939) is also a blueprint for Indy, and is definitely worth checking out as well.