The Best (And Worst) Films Inspired By Indiana Jones
It’s been 40 years since Harrison Ford first came charging across screens (pursued by a giant boulder) as Indiana Jones, in 1981 classic Raiders of the Lost Ark. Created by writer/producer George Lucas and director Steven Spielberg, the adventuring archaeologist quickly provided a template that scores of action-adventure filmmakers have followed in the years since. But which of the movies to follow Indy’s example wound up treasures in their own right – and which were fool’s gold?
One of the best: Romancing the Stone
A treasure-hunting adventure featuring a wise-cracking all-American tough guy in a hat? Certainly sounds like Indiana Jones to us.
However, Romancing the Stone finds its own distinct spin on the concept, with a clear reversal of Raiders of the Lost Ark’s Indy/Marion dynamic.
Even so, Douglas’ Colton is very much an Indy-esque hero, blowing away bad guys, swinging on vines, diving off clifftops and wrestling a crocodile.
And of course, when you factor in that there’s a treasure hunt at the heart of the story, we’re in very similar territory.
A first-rate blockbuster with its own unique charm, this 1984 hit helped propel Douglas, Turner and Danny DeVito to super-stardom, and established director Robert Zemeckis as a major Hollywood player.
One of the worst: The Jewel of the Nile
Sadly, after all those nice things we’ve said about Romancing the Stone, we can’t say the same for its tepid 1985 sequel.
The Jewel of the Nile catches up with Joan Wilder and Jack Colton after their ride off into the sunset, and finds the honeymoon period is over.
When lured out into adventure once again, this time in the North Africa, the couple gradually reconcile – with Danny DeVito’s Ralph along for the ride.
As might be surmised from the fact that The Jewel of the Nile arrived on screens barely a year after the first film, the filmmakers were in too much of a hurry.
The film is not without some exciting set pieces, and the chemistry between the central trio is still there, but the real sense of wonder from the original is missing.
There was talk of a possible third film in the mid-1990s, but this never came to pass.
One of the best: The Goonies
This beloved 1985 children’s comedy adventure shares a number of notable connections with the Indiana Jones movies.
First, the story was conceived by Indy director Steven Spielberg; second, the film shares an actor with Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, in Ke Huy Quan (now known as Jonathan Ke Quan).
For kids who grew up with Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Goonies was in many ways an even more irresistible premise: what if kids like us got to have a treasure-hunting adventure of our own?
Centred on a bunch of relatable kids with the simple goal of saving their neighbourhood, The Goonies sends its young heroes off into underground caves littered with booby traps in search of long-lost pirate treasure.
It’s a great deal more light-hearted than the Indy movies with comparatively little violence and absolutely no death, but The Goonies still gets the adrenaline pumping and tickles the funny bone with great regularity.
The Goonies is a huge childhood favourite of many which remains enough close to our hearts for talk of a long-rumoured sequel to pop up from time to time, although whether we’re likely to ever see it is anyone’s guess.
One of the worst: Firewalker
One of the more unlikely movie stars to try their hand at an Indiana Jone-esque adventure was a certain Chuck Norris.
The martial arts star and future internet ‘fact’ sensation decided to trade roundhouse kicks for wisecracks in 1986 comedy-adventure Firewalker.
Another subpar latter-day effort from director J. Lee Thompson, Firewalker is a bland, by-the-numbers Indiana Jones rip-off.
Norris is completely out of his element trying to play a more light-hearted hero (after all, verbal interplay was never his strong suit).
Small wonder that after this the action man went back to his comfort zone, with sequels to Missing in Action and The Delta Force.
One of the best: National Treasure
National Treasure hinges on the most absurd yet irresistible hook: there’s an invisible treasure map on the back of the original Declaration of Independence.
Who else could convincingly sell such a madcap premise but the king of Hollywood weirdness, Nicolas Cage?
Borrowing as much from The Da Vinci Code as Indiana Jones, 2004’s National Treasure delivers a rip-roaring adventure that hinges less on action and more on following clues and solving riddles.
Cage plays Benjamin Gates, amateur historian pursuing a lost treasure trove which his family has spent generations searching for. Now, Gates and his few colleagues (including Diane Kruger, with whom Cage enjoys a slightly Indy/Marion-esque diad) are in a race against time to get to the treasure before Sean Bean’s unscrupulous criminal can steal what rightfully belongs to Gates and America.
American history scholars will doubtless be left frothing at the mouth by both National Treasure and its 2007 sequel National Treasure: Book of Secrets, but the films have an undeniable appeal and deliver a distinct twist on the Indy-esque adventure format.
Fans should be happy to hear a third film is in development for streaming platform Disney+.
One of the worst: The Further Adventures of Tennessee Buck
If based on the title you’re thinking you must have never heard about the earlier adventures of Tennessee Buck, then don’t worry, you haven’t missed anything.
Well, truth be told you haven’t missed anything anyway if 1988’s The Further Adventures of Tennessee Buck has passed you by.
David Keith (who also directs) plays the lead role of a square-jawed, booze-addled hunter who reluctantly agrees to escort a high maintenance rich white couple through the jungles of darkest Africa.
This lame-brained comedy-adventure sets itself up as a parody of Indiana Jones and other such jungle adventures.
Unfortunately there’s no wit to support it, and an unpleasant air of sleaziness, sexism and racism throughout.
Plus, as an R-rated movie, Tennessee Buck definitely doesn’t give us the (more or less) family friendly entertainment we expect from such a jungle adventure.
One of the best: Sahara
For years, Sahara has mostly been remembered as an expensive box office bomb which temporarily killed Matthew McConaughey’s career.
The film also resulted in a lengthy court battle with author Clive Cussler who claimed the filmmakers entrusted with adapting his novel had breached their contract by straying far from his original story, and not giving him approval over key creative decisions.
This is unfortunate, as this 2005 flop is an enormously entertaining action-adventure that could easily have launched a franchise with a different roll of the dice.
McConaughey heads up the cast as Dirk Pitt, the Indy/Bond hybrid who headlines scores of Cussler’s best-selling novels, with Steve Zahn as his sidekick and Penelope Cruz as the love interest.
Sahara’s plot (incorporating a deadly plague and a lost boat from the American Civil War winding up in Africa) is ridiculous and the action scenes are a bit over-familiar.
All that having been said, there’s no denying that director Breck Eisner’s film is heaps of fun, and the charisma of the cast goes a long way.
One of the worst: Jane and the Lost City
This ill-advised 1987 British production is based on an old comic strip centred on Jane (Kirsten Hughes), a hapless World War II-era heroine with a knack for accidentally being stripped to her underwear.
For some unfathomable reason, this woman of no discernible ability is sent on a military mission to locate a lost city in Africa before the Germans.
Here, Jane teams up with dashing hero Jungle Jack (Sam J Jones, aka Flash Gordon himself).
Together Jane and Jack fend off against dastardly villains played by Maud Adams (The Man with the Golden Gun, Octopussy) and British comedian and future daytime gameshow host Jasper Carrott.
Another would-be parody of the Indiana Jones adventure format, Jane and the Lost City fails miserably not only due to its low production values, but also because it’s painfully unfunny.
It’s hardly surprising that the film proved a box office bomb, and is largely forgotten today.
One of the best: Armour of God
As we’ve seen, when Chuck Norris attempted to transition from martial arts action to Indy-esque adventure, he failed miserably.
Happily, the same cannot be said of that other 80s action legend, Hong Kong superstar Jackie Chan.
1986’s Armour of God, which Chan also co-wrote and directed, casts the notoriously daring action man (who performed all his own stunts at the time) as a treasure hunter searching for the lost pieces of a mythic suit of armour.
Plot-wise it’s not much to write home about, but Armour of God delivers some of the most spectacular, energetic action you’re ever likely to see, with Chan’s signature brand of stunt work proving a perfect fit for an Indiana Jones homage.
Armour of God also carries a certain infamy among Chan’s filmography, as he came very close to death when a stunt for the opening scene went wrong.
The film kicked off a franchise for Chan, followed by 1991’s equally impressive sequel Operation Condor, and 2012’s more underwhelming Chinese Zodiac.
One of the worst: High Road to China
Two years after Raiders of the Lost Ark wowed audiences, 1983’s High Road to China attempted a similar feat.
Tom Selleck stars as Patrick O’Malley, a grizzled, booze-addled biplane pilot of the 1920s.
An almost entirely unwilling O’Malley is enlisted by a rich heiress (Bess Armstrong) in a high-flying race against time to locate her missing father (Wilford Brimley).
A long-in-development adaptation of Jon Clearly’s novel, critics largely trashed High Road to China on release as a sub-par Indiana Jones wannabe.
This must have been salt in the wound for Selleck, who infamously came extremely close to being cast as Indiana Jones himself.
It was a good news/bad news situation for Selleck, as his contractual obligation to legendary TV series Magnum, P.I. forced him to drop out of Raiders of the Lost Ark, relinquishing the role to Harrison Ford.
One of the best: The Rocketeer
Two years after our beloved Dr. Jones rode off into the sunset in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, a new hero took flight.
Adapted from Dave Stevens’ comic book, 1991’s The Rocketeer introduced Bill Campbell as Cliff Secord, a young hotshot pilot of the 1930s who stumbles upon an experimental rocket pack.
Secord does what any hot-blooded young man would do: dons a helmet, straps on the pack and takes to the skies as the Rocketeer. In so doing he puts a massive target on his back, and finds himself caught up in all kinds of trouble involving the FBI, the mafia and Nazi spies.
Considering that the film is set entirely on American soil and doesn’t involve any kind of lost treasure (unless we count the rocket itself, that is), The Rocketeer is hardly a carbon copy of Indiana Jones. Still, the influence is undeniable, not least in the 30s setting and Nazi antagonists.
Although it under-performed on release, The Rocketeer’s reputation has quite rightly grown with time, with many fans now holding it up as one of the best family friendly action-adventures of the 90s.
After years of speculation that a sequel or remake might get off the ground, The Rocketeer was finally resurrected in recent years as, surprisingly, a Disney Jr. kids cartoon. (Needless to say, not all fans of the movie or the comic were impressed with that move.)
One of the worst: King Solomon’s Mines (1985)
The earlier film adaptations of H. Rider Haggard’s 1885 novel King Solomon’s Mines were a key influence on the character of Indiana Jones.
As such, it’s small wonder that someone would hit upon the idea of filming Haggard’s story again in the wake of Raiders of the Lost Ark.
Alas, the people that did so were notorious B-movie factory Cannon Films, who enlisted Richard Chamberlain to play Haggard’s hero Allan Quatermain as a very thinly veiled facsimile of Indy.
1985’s King Solomon’s Mines is a bald-faced bargain basement rip-off of Indiana Jones, but with none of Spielberg’s flair.
Both Chamberlain and co-star Sharon Stone look thoroughly embarrassed to be there, and it’s quite sad to see how low the once-esteemed director J. Lee Thompson had fallen by this point.
No better can said of the film’s 1987 follow-up Allan Quatermain and the Lost City of Gold, in which Chamberlain and Stone return (and if anything look even more embarrassed the second time around).
One of the best: The Mummy (1999)
Who would have expected great things from a remake of a 1932 horror movie, directed by the man who made the box office flop Deep Rising, and headlined by the guy who played the neanderthal in Encino Man?
Nonetheless, 1999’s The Mummy proved to be a crowd-pleasing swashbuckling adventure epic the likes of which we hadn’t seen in years.
Set in 1926, the film sees Brendan Fraser‘s distinctly Indy-like adventurer Rick O’Connell enlisted by would-be Egyptologist Evelyn Carnahan (Rachel Weisz) to find a lost Egyptian city. They hope to find untold lost treasures, but accidentally wake the cursed mummy Imhotep (Arnold Vosloo).
The blend of Indy-esque action and monster movie motifs proves surprisingly effective, and director Stephen Sommers delivers visual delights galore.
However, as with Raiders of the Lost Ark, it’s the chemistry between the cast that really makes The Mummy work. Fraser, Weisz and John Hannah are a winning combination, and Vosloo makes for a wonderfully hissable villain.
All the key cast and crew members reunited to marginally lesser effect for 2001 sequel The Mummy Returns (but the less said about 2008’s third instalment The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor, the better).
One of the worst: Fool’s Gold
While we’re more than willing to defend Matthew McConaughey’s work in Sahara, we have to wonder what he was thinking when he signed on alongside Kate Hudson for Fool’s Gold.
This 2008 action-adventure/romantic comedy crossover reunites the How To Lose a Guy in 10 Days double act as another bickering couple – only this time, they’re also treasure hunters.
McConaughey and Hudson play recent divorcees whose marriage was turn apart by the husband’s obsessive hunt for a lost treasure ship – but just as the ink starts to try on the divorce papers, he gets a major breakthrough in his search.
Of course, there are no shortage of other parties eager to get their hands on the treasure, so a race against the clock ensues.
Director Andy Tenant’s film attempts to marry Indiana Jones vibes with a rom-com, not too dissimilar to Romancing the Stone – but it falls very wide of the mark.
Fool’s Good draws as heavily on the charm and good looks of its lead actors as it can, but nothing can hide how hollow and lifeless the whole thing really is.
One of the best: Pirates of the Caribbean (series)
2003’s Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl draws from a similar well as Indiana Jones: the time-honoured swashbucklers of old.
Of course, ever since Raiders of the Lost Ark, any film that combines lost treasure, exotic locales and a roguish hero can’t help but evoke the spirit of Indy.
Johnny Depp’s Oscar-nominated turn as Captain Jack Sparrow arguably established the character as the millennial equivalent of Indiana Jones.
While we’d argue that the original film did it best, the four subsequent sequels have followed a similar course to the Indy movies.
Perhaps the most Indy-like instalment is 2011’s Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, which sees Captain Jack explore a jungle island in search of the fountain of youth.
That mix of classic boy’s own adventuring with spiritual and supernatural overtones comes straight out of the Indiana Jones playbook.
One of the worst: Treasure of the Amazon
This low budget 1985 production from Mexico takes the bare skeleton of Indiana Jones, and slaps a whole lot more flesh and blood on it.
Treasure of the Amazon sees all-American adventurers struggling to retrieve a priceless treasure before a villainous Nazi. So far, so Indy, right?
However, this firmly R-rated adventure owes as much to the jungle cannibal movies that were popular in exploitation cinema at the time – so family viewing this definitely isn’t.
You might have thought the melting Nazi faces of Raiders of the Lost Ark, and the heart-ripping human sacrifice of Temple of Doom were a bit much, but that’s child’s play compared to what’s in Treasure of the Amazon. (Caution for the squeamish: the trailer below contains glimpses of some of the film’s most gruesome bits.)
This movie sees the heroes fend off against cannibals, piranha, alligators and carnivorous crabs, all to considerably grislier effect than anything even Lucas and Spielberg could get away with.
Beyond this, Treasure of the Amazon is a very untidy and amateurish affair (although if you enjoy low-rent B-movie trash, it’s not without its entertainment value).
One of the best: The Phantom
The Phantom is another action-adventure blockbuster which digs into the same material that formed the genesis of Indiana Jones: in this instance, comic strips.
This 1996 movie casts Billy Zane as Kit Walker, AKA The Ghost Who Walks, AKA The Phantom – the masked adventurer created by Lee Falk in 1936.
He’s an all-American 1930s tough guy fighting villains in a far-off exotic land, with ancient mystical artefacts involved. Sound Jonesy enough for you?
Directed by Simon Wincer, The Phantom is a straightforward but highly enjoyable period swashbuckler, with a suitably rugged hero in Zane.
Sure, the film treads some pretty familiar ground, but it does so with a bit of a spring in its step.
Not unlike The Rocketeer, The Phantom was considered a flop on release, but is generally held in higher regard today.
One of the worst: Jungle Raiders
From the title alone, it’s obvious that 1985’s Jungle Raiders was designed to trick unsuspecting punters into thinking it had a direct connection to Raiders of the Lost Ark, especially in the design of its marketing.
However, this low budget Italian production (whose original title literally translates as The Legend of the Malaysian Ruby) is not cut from the same cloth as Indiana Jones.
Starring the esteemed Lee Van Cleef and former soap opera star Christopher Connolly, the film follows adventurers searching for a lost ruby in the jungles of South East Asia.
Director Antonio Margheriti makes little attempt to hide the film’s debt to Raiders of the Lost Ark, often directly recreating moments from Steven Spielberg’s film.
There are also some (presumably) unwitting anachronisms, notably that the film claims to take place in Malaysia in 1938; but Malaysia would not be established as a country for another 25 years.
As blatant cash-ins go, Jungle Raiders is harmless enough, but it’s certainly not a film you should go to any pains to see.
One of the best: The Mask of Zorro
Here we have another instance of a post-Indiana Jones blockbuster based on a character which pre-dates (and indeed inspired) Indiana Jones.
Opening with Anthony Hopkins as the original Zorro, the movie then hops forward in time to Hopkins training Antonio Banderas to be his successor.
The interplay between Banderas and Hopkins has hints of the father-son relationship of Ford’s Indy and Sean Connery’s Henry Jones Sr. in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Concurrent with this, the banter and sexual chemistry between Banderas and Catherine Zeta-Jones’ Elena echoes Indy and Marion.
Overall, The Mask of Zorro carries the Indiana Jones gene in its wonderfully staged swashbuckling set pieces, with old school action sequences aplenty.
Taking over $250 million at the box office, the movie was a big enough hit to spawn a sequel in 2005’s The Legend of Zorro, which unfortunately didn’t live up to its predecessor.
One of the worst: Lara Croft: Tomb Raider
The influence of Indiana Jones has, of course, spread far beyond cinema and into the broader popular culture – including video games.
One of the first major video game franchises to draw on Indy was the Tomb Raider series, following the adventures of aristocratic treasure hunter Lara Croft.
The popularity of the character meant a big screen adaptation was inevitable – and when Oscar winner Angelina Jolie was aptly cast as Croft, hopes were high for a great new big screen adventure series.
Unfortunately, director Simon West’s 2001 film Lara Croft: Tomb Raider turned out to be an extremely shambolic affair, with a muddy plot and frenzied camerawork combined with editing which renders the whole thing borderline incoherent.
Jolie may well be perfectly cast, and she has some notable co-stars (including a pre-Bond Daniel Craig), but even their best efforts fail to keep this particular ship from sinking.
Still, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider was commercially successful enough for Jolie to return in 2003’s marginally better Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life. 15 years later, the series was rebooted to greater effect with 2018’s Tomb Raider, starring Alicia Vikander as Croft (a sequel to which is in the pipeline).
One of the best: The Scorpion King
After being introduced as an antagonist in 2001’s The Mummy Returns, Dwayne Johnson (back when we only knew him as The Rock) was given his own spin-off prequel as The Scorpion King.
While director Chuck Russell’s 2002 film is officially set in the same universe as the Mummy movies, it tells an entirely separate adventure story with heavy overtones of Indy.
Showing how Johnson’s lone warrior Mathayus rose to power, The Scorpion King pits the title character (then still a good guy) against Steven Brand’s power-hungry warlord Memnon, with Kelly Hu‘s Sorceress caught in the middle.
The Scorpion King gave Johnson his first leading role, and it proved right away that the wrestler-turned-actor could carry the day as a big screen action hero.
As befits his wrestling background, Johnson gets a bit more full-on with the violence than Indy ever did; at points the film owes as much to Rambo as Dr. Jones.
The Scorpion King helped Johnson on his way to becoming the major box office draw he is today, and it even wound up launching its own series of direct-to-DVD sequels (in which Johnson, unsurprisingly, doesn’t appear).
One of the worst: Six Days, Seven Nights
By 1998, it had been almost a decade since Harrison Ford had last appeared as Indiana Jones, so many fans were hankering for a return of the great adventurer.
Instead, we got the ill-advised action-adventure rom-com Six Days, Seven Nights, which proved to be a career low for both Ford and director Ivan Reitman.
The movie casts Ford as a drunken pilot hired by Anne Heche’s fashion magazine editor to fly her to Tahiti – but when a sudden thunderstorm hits, they crash-land on a desert island. Worse yet, their efforts to escape are hindered by the arrival of pirates.
So, we have Harrison Ford, a mismatched love interest in Heche, an exotic location, formidable villains and a battle to survive. All the right ingredients seem present, yet the charm of Indy is nowhere to be found.
Six Days, Seven Nights was a modest box office success, yet it marked a downward turn for Ford, and it would be some time before the actor made another movie of any real impact.
Yet as disappointing as the film may be, there is some pleasure to be taken from knowing that Ford (a certified pilot in real life) did most of his own flying.
One of the best: Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle
In the absence of Indiana Jones, recent years have seen audiences get their good old-fashioned action adventure fix from an unexpected source: Jumanji.
The original 1995 film starring Robin Williams saw a jungle adventure board game magically brought to life.
While the film was beloved by many, it would be another 22 years before a sequel arrived, with an all-new cast and a rather different approach.
2017’s Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle saw four teenagers sucked into a video game and into the bodies of their chosen characters, with Dwayne Johnson taking the lead as Dr. Smoulder Bravestone.
This winning ensemble (Johnson accompanied by Kevin Hart, Jack Black and Karen Gillan) returned in 2019’s equally enjoyable follow-up Jumanji: The Next Level.
While the films boast very modern sensibilities, at heart they’re digging into much the same old-fashioned dreams of adventure that fuelled the Indiana Jones movies.
One of the worst: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
Yes, we’re going there. 19 years after his last adventure, fans were thrilled to see Indiana Jones himself finally return for a fourth big screen adventure.
Unfortunately, 2008’s Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull singularly failed to meet the expectations of viewers who’d been waiting almost two decades to see it.
While Ford’s increased age (he was 66 at the time) didn’t impede his ability to play the role, the passage of time did necessitate moving the action out of the pre-World War II days and into the late 50s, with the Soviets replacing the Nazis on bad guy duties.
Moreover, the film reflected the passage of time by introducing Indy and Marion’s college-age son, a Marlon Brando-esque biker named Mutt. For this key role, Spielberg and Lucas made the somewhat regrettable casting choice of Shia LaBeouf, an actor singularly lacking the macho charisma of Ford.
Worse yet, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull moves away from the ancient religious mysticism that fuelled the original trilogy, with a central plot device that instead centres on aliens. This move into sci-fi, plus a convoluted plot packing in way too many incidental characters, plus an overuse of CGI, plus the sense that LaBeouf’s Mutt was being groomed to take over the franchise… it all added up to fans being left very unhappy.
It’s not all bad news: Cate Blanchett makes an entertaining villain, and it’s lovely to see Karen Allen return as Marion. Overall, though, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull was a serious misstep for the franchise, and we can but hope that the upcoming fifth (and presumably final) movie will make amends.
One of the best: Dora and the Lost City of Gold
Yes, we’re serious. The 2019 big screen adaptation of Dora the Explorer is a better action-adventure than the last Indiana Jones movie.
Directed by James Bobin (2011’s The Muppets), Dora and the Lost City of Gold casts Isabella Moner as Dora, the young heroine of the Nick Jr. cartoon, now in her adolescence.
Together with her cousin Diego (Jeff Wahlberg) and two other high schoolers, the bold young explorer must help guide them all to safety when they are abducted and smuggled off to a remote jungle, where Dora’s archaeologist parents are searching for a mysterious lost city.
Heavy on ironic humour and playful nods to the franchise’s preschool-friendly origins, Dora and the Lost City of Gold proves a lot wittier and more engaging than anticipated.
Moreover, while the emphasis is primarily on family-oriented fun, the movie still packs in plenty of old-school treasure-hunting action, with thrills, spills and booby traps galore.