With Dr. Henry Walton Jones, Jr. – better known by his nom de voyage of ‘Indiana’ – having one last grand adventure, we finally see the door (probably a large, slowly-moving stone one) closing on more than four decades of a whip-cracking, globetrotting, ancient grave-defiling series of films. These movies helped to set a new benchmark in action flicks, and gave us a new – and, perhaps, rather unlikely – hero, in the form of a collegiate professor / archaeologist.
The Indiana Jones series didn’t so much reinvent the wheel in terms of what had gone before, but it did pay tribute to it, as well as lovingly borrowing pieces from previous features, meshing them together in a new-old way. George Lucas – the creator of the character originally called ‘Indiana Smith’ – and collaborator Steven Spielberg took the things which they had grown up with, such as the Republic Pictures serials with their cliffhanger endings, and crafted them all together into a legendary figure, with Harrison Ford using the chance to cement his place as an A-list name.
Imitation is, they say, the sincerest form of flattery. Just look at that seemingly never-ending spate of copycat space sagas to spring up in the wake of Star Wars’ release in 1977. Ironic, then, that it would be another Lucasfilm property that would spawn a rash of homages, pastiches and – let’s be honest – outright ripoffs and blatant borderline IP-infringing cash-grabs. In much the same way that the success of James Bond in the 1960s led to a major explosion in spy movies, Raiders of the Lost Ark’s box office take of almost $400 million was enough to make other studios sit up and take notice, as well as wondering how they could get a piece of that action.
Yes, Indiana Jones’ debut was indeed a runaway (in much the same way as a mine cart beneath a Temple of Doom) hit, and it was soon inevitable everyone would want to have their bit of fortune and glory, with more than just a tip of the fedora in the direction of this now-iconic character. Unfortunately, in one case there was a (seemingly unintentionally) similarly-themed film which was perhaps a little bit on the premature side, managing to beat Raiders out of the gate by only some four months: Sphinx, based upon the 1979 novel of the same name by Robin Cook.
Based around the exploits of female Egyptologist Erica Baron (Lesley-Anne Down), Sphinx centred around the search for a treasure-filled tomb in the Valley of the Kings. With Indiana Jones at that stage being an unknown quantity, and principal photography getting underway before Raiders, it seems that Sphinx being made and released around the same time was purely happenstance. However, it may have helped the cause if it had come out after Raiders, as it only made $2 million on a $10 million budget, and it could have instead ridden on the coattails of Indy’s triumph. Whilst not a ripoff, Sphinx is still worth a mention, as its cast members John Rhys-Davies and William Hootkins would also appear in Raiders
Perhaps one of the earliest – if not the first – movies directly inspired by Indiana Jones was 1982 flick The Hunters Of The Golden Cobra, an Italian production which would follow the template established by Raiders: a quest for a supernatural relic, taking place in an exotic locale. There would be a run of Italian ‘mockbusters’ inspired by Dr. Jones, including 1984’s The Ark of The Sun God, featuring David Warbeck (who also played a similar role in Hunters Of The Golden Cobra, but as a different character), involving the theft of an artefact from the Tomb of Gilgamesh, and 1982’s film Invaders of the Lost Gold, whose name is just about as close to Indy’s first outing as you can get without lawyers being involved.
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In a ridiculously similar vein, the same year saw Gold Raiders taking a far less verbose approach to its titling, and was even bold enough to use the word ‘Raiders’ in its name. Featuring Robert Ginty – the star of 1980’s The Exterminator – Gold Raiders was even seemingly turned into a pseudo-sequel to that movie in the German dub, with the posters also proudly proclaiming “The Exterminator Man is back!”. Italy would also raid the title of Indy’s debut in 1985’s Jungle Raiders, which would be a line on the CV rather late in the career of Lee Van Cleef, set in 1938 and focusing upon the hunt for the Ruby of Gloom.
1983 would also be a bumper year for Indiana clones, such as Treasure of the Four Crowns, a co-production with – you’ve probably guessed it – Italy. Upping the ante somewhat on its progenitor, Treasure of the Four Crowns was filmed in 3-D (cashing in on the early ‘80s revival of the technology, which gave us such classics as, ahem, Jaws 3-D), and whilst questing for some mystical gems from the clutches of an evil cult, sees our pseudo-Indy on the run from not just any old, common-or-garden gigantic boulder, but one which was aflame. Yet more jewel-based shenanigans were afoot in Jesús Franco’s feature Diamonds of Kilimandjaro, and Robert Ginty would turn up in Scarab, which was about a former Nazi seeking to resurrect an Egyptian deity.
Perhaps the biggest ‘close-but-no-cigar’ award would go to Tom Selleck, the man who would have actually been Indiana Jones but for being contractually bound to CBS’ Magnum. He would ultimately get to have a crack of the whip by jumping on the bandwagon (or, more accurately, a biplane) in 1983’s High Road to China (which would also be quite shamelessly known as Raiders of the End of the World). As if this was not a scant enough consolation prize, salt would be rubbed into the wounds as a 1988 episode of Magnum – the show which had led to his replacement by Harrison Ford – called ‘Legend of the Lost Art’ would be a full-on Raiders parody, and have him even dressed up like Indiana Jones. Ouch.
1984 would see the release of what would be one of the most famous mainstream examples of following the trend set by Lucas and Spielberg, in the shape of Romancing the Stone, which would have Michael Douglas paired up with Kathleen Turner. The romantic comedy directed by Robert Zemeckis – which would generate a sequel in the following year’s The Jewel of the Nile – took an impressive total of $115 million at the global box office, and – like so many other pictures of its ilk – would centre around tracking down a valuable treasure, which in this case was a huge emerald called El Corazón (‘The Heart’).
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Venturing into slightly more ’specialist’ (oh, heck, let’s just be honest and say ‘soft porn’) territory was the same year’s release The Perils of Gwendoline in the Land of the Yik-Yak. Based on the character Sweet Gwendoline from the fetish-themed art of John Willie, it would see the plot taking rather a backseat to the sheer number of opportunities that could be created in which the heroine could be caught and tied up. It seems that the whips would have a much kinkier use than ever dreamt of by Indiana Jones. IMDB notes that most of the dialogue isn’t lip-synced correctly, but it seems a fair bet no-one watching this is paying any attention to the dialogue. Or, indeed, the lips. Well, not those ones, anyway.
As well as the previously-mentioned The Jewel of the Nile, 1985 saw several Hollywood features which drank from the same Grail cup as our intrepid explorer would wisely choose in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, in the quest for new life (in terms of box office returns, anyway). For the kiddie market, there was Richard Donner’s The Goonies, and Barry Levinson’s Young Sherlock Holmes. The main Indy wannabe of the year, however, was King Solomon’s Mines, which was adapted from H. Rider Haggard’s novel about the adventurer Allan Quartermain. With Richard Chamberlain’s take cast in the Indiana Jones mould, a sequel would follow in 1986 with Allan Quatermain and the Lost City of Gold (reuniting him with Sharon Stone from the first film).
True signs of the most shameless take-offs come with a poster riff on the famous logo, with some notable examples of this. A prime specimen of it can be found with 1988’s The Further Adventures of Tennessee Buck, which not only tries to ape the poster font, but also flagrantly plays a game of ‘find your Indiana Jones name’, by making the character’s nickname an American state. 1986’s Sky Pirates also steals the format of the swooshing logo, which pre-empts Kingdom of the Crystal Skull by veering into extra-terrestrial territory, as well as also throwing time travel into the mix. One of the most faithful of all the logo poster renditions came in 1990’s DuckTales the Movie: Treasure of the Lost Lamp (which is probably much closer to the spirit of the quadrilogy too).
Various cheap knockoffs would surface throughout the rest of the 1980s and 1990s, until Hollywood would hit paydirt with the format once again in 1999’s The Mummy, paying more than just lip service to the escapades of Dr. Jones, and in the process helping to raise the profiles of Brendan Fraser and Rachel Weisz. In fact, it was the success of The Mummy which likely gave a second wind to the ersatz Indy industry, with 2001 seeing an adaptation released of the video game Tomb Raider (as well as a sequel in 2003), and Nicolas Cage in search of National Treasure in 2004 (which also spawned a follow-up in 2007). 2005 saw Matthew McConaughey in search of the ‘Ship of Death’ in Sahara, with Tom Holland in Uncharted territory in 2022.
Television has also seen its fair share of keeping up with the Joneses, such as 1994’s TV movie MacGyver: Lost Treasure of Atlantis, with Richard Dean Anderson seen (but probably not heard) alongside Brian Blessed. Starting out as a series of made-for-television feature length adventures, 2014’s The Librarians trod mythical territory, delving into mystical, historical and fantastical tales. And last – but also probably least – there was 2008’s Bonekickers, the BBC’s attempt to ‘sex up’ archaeology, except that – ironically – the audience simply couldn’t dig it, and it ended up being relegated to the deepest recesses of a dusty warehouse in Area 51. Or, more likely, the BBC Archives, awaiting to be unearthed again by some poor hapless soul, like BritBox.
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One of the most punworthy legacies from the Indiana Jones series as a whole has been the number of times that a play on words has been made on the title of the first movie. To date, we have seen Raiders of the Lost Archive used as the title of: a 2020 BBC Scotland comedy series, where vintage footage of Scottish culture is redubbed to humorous effect; a public appeal to have missing TV series returned to broadcasters; a multi-part 2007 ITV programme which showcased some of the results of said appeal; a Radio 4 documentary about the hunt for lost radio broadcasts; and a podcast series all about tales of discovery in the social sciences. (Oh, and lest we forget Raiders of The Lost Past with Janina Ramirez, which tells the tales of some actual archaeological historical discoveries. Nary a single giant boulder deathtrap anywhere to be seen, disappointingly.)
This is merely a cursory scrape of the topsoil when it comes to the exploration of Indiana Jones’ pop cultural legacy, and there are many more such examples (not all of them hidden treasures) to be uncovered by the foolhardy explorer. With the Dial of Destiny about to get a spin in cinemas, there will no doubt be many more imitations of Indiana Jones from off the back of this latest outing yet to come. Until then, please be upstanding for perhaps the ultimate accolade in the long legacy of our hero: a late ‘90s Europop hit by Aqua.