When “Raiders of the Lost Ark” first hit theaters in 1981, it was a gigantic success that cemented the larger-than-life adventures of Indiana Jones in the imaginations of movie goers around the world. Portrayed perfectly by Harrison Ford, and created by George Lucas and Steven Spielberg as a an American James Bond type, Indy was introduced as a cunning, suave, archeologist with a penchant for punching Nazis and protecting mystical artifacts from greedy grave robbers.
One thing that’s always fascinated fans of the series however is the timeline. Much like the original “Star Wars” from 1977, Raiders drops you into the middle of the action, with a fully formed character, while later movies, books, comics, games, and even a TV series have since gone back to flesh out his backstory. Whereas Bond has always been contemporary, always reflecting the current times through every iteration, Indiana Jones has always been very much a period piece, with the original trilogy being set in the 30’s (hence all the Nazi bad guys).
Many casual movie goers might not even realize that the first sequel, “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” is actually a prequel, taking place in 1935 (with Raiders being set in 1936)! And then we get even more of Indy’s backstory in the cold open to the third film, 1989’s “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade”(which primarily takes place in 1938) – flashing back to Young Indy in 1912 (played by River Phoenix)! This later went on to inspire the TV series, “The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles” in the early 90’s (starring Sean Patrick Flannery), which primarily took place during WWI, and the early 20’s, filling in even more details of our favorite archeologist / part-time tomb raider.
An odd thing worth noting about the Young Indy series is that it was originally released with bookends featuring ‘Old Indy’ with an eye patch played by George Hall, but when the series was later re-released as “The Adventures of Young Indiana Jones”, the show was re-edited (by George Lucas, of course). For better or worse, it was rearranged chronologically, and the Oldy Indy segments were removed, so unless Indy loses an eye in ‘Dial of Destiny’, the George Hall scenes are currently considered non-cannon by the fanbase, while the rest was cemented as cannon, when it was referenced in the notorious fourth movie…
Years later, the Indiana Jones was dug up once again in 2008 with the divisive “Kingdom of the Crystal Skull”, taking place in 1957 (the one with the Russian baddies, Ancient Aliens, and Shia LaBeouf). This fourth entry spent a decade or so in development hell. While the original trilogy was heavily inspired by the black and white serials of the 30’s, for this one, George Lucas wanted to recapture the feel of the 1950’s sci-fi B-movie era. In fact, his original draft of the script was entitled “Indiana Jones and the Saucer Men of Mars”!? There was a later draft penned by Frank Darabont called “Indiana Jones and the City of the Gods”, which is considered far superior to the movie we eventually got, but was shot down in favor of Crystal Skull.
Now, 15 years later, we’re finally getting the *final* chapter of the series, with James Mangold’s “Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny”! (In theaters on June 30th, 2023) In this latest outing, Dr. Jones will once again be facing off against his swastika-wearing adversaries in both 1944 (thanks to the miracles of CG de-aging) *and* 1969!
1908 – Young Indy (9) travels the world with his father and briefly gets lost at a dig site in Egypt, and even has an encounter with T.E. Lawrence (a real historical figure, known to the world as ‘Lawrence of Arabia’). – as seen in “Young Indiana Jones and the Curse of the Jackal” (aka ‘My First Adventure’ in the later releases).
Historical Note: Henry Ford’s Model T becomes one of the first affordable, mass-produced, automobiles in 1908.
1912 – Young Indy (13) has a run-in with a group of grave robbers in the Utah desert, as a boy scout, searching for the Cross of Coronado. He gets his fear of snakes and earns his iconic hat from lead tomb raider, a mysterious man in a fedora named… Garth? – from the opening to “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade”!
1918 – “Young Indiana Jones and the Treasure of the Peacock’s Eye” – After the war ends, Indy and his buddy, Remy, uncover a treasure map that sends them on a globe-trotting quest in search of fortune and glory. They have a number of misadventures throughout the South Pacific after a (seemingly cursed) diamond that was said to have belonged to Alexander the Great! After being lost at sea, narrowly escaping other treasure hunters, surviving a band of Chinese pirates, and being captured by a native tribe on a remote island, Indy decides to give up the quest, forever parting ways with his friend, Remy, who goes on without him, tragically never to be seen again…
Indy and Remy – “Young Indiana Jones and the Treasure of the Peacock’s Eye”
THE LOST YEARS (1920-1935)
1920 – Young Indy (21) moves back to the states and decides to pursue a career in Archeology, studying at the University of Chicago. At one point he inadvertently crosses paths with some bootlegging gangsters! – Young Indy, Chapter 20: “The Mystery of the Blues”
The Early 1920’s – Although we never see it on film (because the Young Indy series was cancelled after Season 2), there are a number of significant events alluded to in “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and “Kingdom of the Crystal Skull”, during this period, although the timeline is a bit fuzzy:
Indy studies archeology under Professor Harold Oxley, eventually earning a doctorate
Indy meets Abner Ravenwood, a treasure hunter who takes him under his wing
While searching for the Ark of the Covenant with Professor Ravenwood, Indy has a brief fling with Abner’s daughter, Marion, causing a rift between the two
Indy becomes rivals with a French tomb raider named Belloq!
Indy spent the next decade going on random side quests around the world and becoming a seasoned adventurer.
1922-1934 – While this period hasn’t yet been covered on screen, there was a series of 12 (loose cannon) paperback novels that sort of bridge the gap between the Young Indy Adventures and the OG Trilogy. Some of these were pretty throwaway, but they’re still fun if you’re looking to scratch that itch, especially while you’re waiting for that next Indiana Jones video game that’s currently in development from Bethesda. That said, I’m a big proponent of Disney Plus doing either an animated anthology or live-action series set during this period at some point, because honestly there’s so much potential there.
Prohibition was passed in 1920, making alcohol illegal in the United States.
King Tut’s Tomb was excavated by Howard Carter in Egypt, in 1922.
The first motion picture with sound, “The Jazz Singer” debuted in 1927.
Charles Lindbergh became the first pilot to cross the Atlantic in 1928.
The US stock market crashed in 1929, leading to the Great Depression throughout the 1930’s.
The Hoover Dam was under construction from 1931 to 1936.
1934 – “Indiana Jones and the Secret of the Sphinx” (Novel by Max McCoy) – The last of the Indy books from Bantam press might be the best one. It takes place the closest to the original Indiana Jones movies and so tonally feels the most like those classic adventures that we all know and love. The novel starts out with Indy in China looking for the lost tomb of Qin Shi Huang in a classic cold open (more on that in the next entry), before running afoul of some Imperial Japanese soldiers, surviving a typhoon in the Pacific, and eventually using the Staff of Aaron to unlock a secret chamber underneath the Egyptian Sphinx!? It even features Sallah!
1935 – “Indiana Jones and the Emperor’s Tomb” (Video Game) – This 2003 Video Game was created as a direct prequel to “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” and although it didn’t age super well in the graphics and mechanics department, it stuck pretty closely to the classic Indy formula of Dr. Jones on a globe-trotting adventure, punching Nazis, and hooking up with a dame, all while seeking a mystical macguffin that he’s skeptical about. Indiana is hired by Marshall Kai Ti Chang (and his assistant, Mei Ying) to locate the ‘Heart of the Dragon’, a black pearl supposedly buried in the tomb of the First Emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang! Of all the stories in the Indy expanded universe, this one feels the most like a movie we missed out on. After fighting his way through an army of possessed terra-cotta warriors and facing off against a literal dragon (?!), the game ends with Indiana Jones and his new pal Wu Han being hired by Lao Che, a Chinese gangster, to track down the ashes of Nurhachi…
THE ORIGINAL TRILOGY (1935 – 1938)
1935 – “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” – The movie opens at Club Obi-Wan in Shanghai, where Dr. Jones has a tense meeting with infamous Chinese gangster, Lao Che. Indy attempts to trade an urn with the remains of Nurhachi for the Peacock’s Eye (a massive diamond said to have belonged to Alexander the Great) – a treasure he’d been after for over 15 years. Unfortunately, things go south, Jones is poisoned, he loses the diamond, and Indy’s partner, Wu Han, is tragically killed during the conflict. Indy barely escapes the chaos, with a singer from the club named Willie, thanks to a young kid called Short Round (Ke Huy Quan).
Indy, Short Round, and Willie make it to a plane, but it turns out it’s owned by the mobster, who ordered the pilots to bail out over a mountain range. The three manage to escape just in time with an inflatable raft that miraculously delivers them down the mountain into a river that eventually leads to the jungles of India where they come upon a cursed village. According to a Hindu prophet, Shiva delivered them to help save their children and return the Sankara Stones that were taken by an evil cult dwelling beneath Pankot Palace.
Indy and friends make their way through a series of deadly traps and uncover the ‘Temple of Doom’ where they witness a ceremonial human sacrifice, as the dark sorcerer, Mola Ram (Amrish Puri) rips a dude’s heart out of his chest, like a Mortal Kombat fatality, before burning him alive. Indy gets tortured by voodoo, Willie nearly gets lowered into a pit of lava, Short Round helps to revive the young Maharaja out of a trance, a buff henchman gets ground into paste, there’s a crazy minecart ride straight out of Donkey Kong Country, and it all culminates with a standoff on a rickety rope bridge. Indy and Short Round manage to free the enslaved children, returning the stones to their rightful place, and lifting the curse. Indy realizes that there’s more important things in life than “Fortune and Glory”.
Shanghai in the 1930’s had a significant western influence due to an influx of Jewish refugees from Europe.
India was still under colonial British rule in 1935, and wouldn’t gain independence until 1947.
Alexander the Great of Macedon lived from 356-323 BCE
Nurhachi was a Chinese Emperor of the Manchu Dynasty, reigning from 1616 to 1626.
1936 – “Raiders of the Lost Ark” – Indiana Jones and a crew of hired guns make their way through the jungles of South America, seeking the ruins of a lost Incan Temple. Indy makes his way through a series of elaborate boobytraps in an attempt to grab a golden idol from the crumbling structure, in an attempt to get it before his rival Belloq can make off with it. Unfortunately, Indy is betrayed by Alfred Molina (Doc Ock from Spider-man) and left for dead, but barely manages to escape only to come face to face with an indigenous tribe, paid off by his nemesis, Belloq (Paul Freeman). Left empty handed once again, Indy makes his escape aboard a sea plan, flown by his pal Reggie (and his snake co-pilot).
Back at Marshall College, in Connecticut, Dr. Jones is teaching a course on archeology when he’s approached by his mentor, Marcus Brody. Marcus introduces him to a couple of Army Intelligence Officers who need his help tracking down an ancient artifact that the Nazis are reportedly after: The Ark of the Covenant! (In Biblical Mythology and Hebrew Tradition, the Ark was the resting place of the Ten Commandments that Moses brought to his people after their Exodus from Egypt.) Although Indy is skeptical about the existence of the Ark, he decides to help them and travels to Nepal to meet up with Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen), since her father was an expert on the subject.
After a turbulent reunion, Indy and Marion put aside their differences when they’re attacked by Nazi thugs. The two join forces and head to Cairo, Egypt where they meet up with Indy’s good buddy, Sallah (John Rhys-Davies)! Using the headpiece to the “Staff of Ra”, Indy locates the hidden location of the Ark: ‘the Well of Souls’!
Unfortunately, the Nazis get the upper hand, steal the ark, and leave Indy and Marion trapped in a pit of snakes! Regardless, the two manage to escape (by decimating thousands of years of history and priceless artifacts), and murder their way through a whole bunch of Nazis! Our heroes manage to get the Ark back during a truck / horse chase – where after Indy punches a whole bunch more Nazis in one of the greatest action sequences ever filmed!
After some more shenanigans, Indy and Marion are captured, and Belloq and the Nazis ultimately end up with the Ark, but soon get their faces melted off in one of the greatest deus ex machina scenes, with some of the best practical effects ever put to film! The US government steps in to retrieve the Ark, and it’s lost once again as it’s tucked away in a massive warehouse, never to be seen again…
Hitler and the Nazi Party first rose to power in Germany in 1933, although WWII didn’t officially begin till 1939. In real life, the Nazis really did steal art and artifacts from around the world, and had an interest in the occult.
Egypt was under British control until 1936.
While the Biblical story of the Exodus (as told in the Torah and Old Testament) is generally regarded as myth by modern historians, if there are historical truths to the story, it’s been argued to have occurred during the reign of the Pharaoh Ramses II (1279-1213 BCE).
1938 – “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” – Decades after his initial run in with the grave robbers in Utah as a kid, Indy finally tracks down the Cross of Coronado to a boat off the coast of Portugal, and manages to steal it back from the greedy antique collector in the white Panama Hat, yelling “It belongs in a museum!”
Back in the states, Indy is approached by a wealthy art collector, Walter Donovan, who offers him a chance to join him in the search for the Holy Grail – which according to legend can grant one immortality. At first, Dr. Jones brushes off the notion as Arthurian myth, but he’s spurned into action after learning that his father, Henry Jones Sr. (Sean Connery) had gone missing shortly after following a lead in Venice. Indy gets ahold of his dad’s grail journal, and immediately mounts a rescue mission with Marcus Brody and a woman named Elsa (who later turns out to be a secret Nazi).
After finding a clue in the catacombs beneath Venice, Italy, Indy is confronted by a secret society known as ‘The Brotherhood of the Cruciform Sword’, sworn to protect the location of the Grail from falling into the wrong hands. Soon after, Indy locates his father at a Nazi-controlled castle on the border of Germany and Austria, where they’re immediately captured, and it’s revealed that both Donovan and Elsa are working with the Nazis!
Indy and his father, who have a strained relationship after years of not talking to one another are forced to work together to survive. They manage to escape, steal a motorcycle, and dispatch some Nazis during some fun father-son-bonding. After getting his dad’s journal back from Berlin, Indy and his dad board a zeppelin, which leads to a bonkers plane chase. The Joneses then join up with Sallah and Marcus for another spectacular action sequence that features Indy on a horse vs… a tank!?
It all leads to ‘The Temple of the Sun’ (filmed at Petra in Jordan), where Indy is forced to face three trials to save his father from a gunshot wound: ‘The Breath of God’, ‘The Word of God’, and ‘The Path of God’. Indy successfully navigates each of the cryptic challenges, and meets a 700-year-old Templar Knight guarding the grail!
Donovan and Elsa follow shortly behind, and the Grail Knight shows them a wide assortment of grails, and tells them they must choose wisely. Elsa chooses a fancy goblet for Donovan who, obsessed with gaining eternal life, drinks from it without a seconds thought, and suddenly starts to age rapidly, before crumbling to dust! “He chose… poorly.” Indy however knows that Jesus would have had the cup of a carpenter and picks a simple one made of clay, and doesn’t immediately die, and is able to heal and revive his father with it’s power.
They were told that the grail can’t be removed from the temple. Unfortunately, Elsa doesn’t listen, gets greedy, and tries to make off with it, causing the whole structure to crumble around them. Elsa falls to her death, and Indy nearly follows her fate, reaching desperately for the grail, but his father convinces him to let it go, proving that his son is more important to him than his life-long quest…
1939 – “Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis” (Video Game) – In this point-and-click adventure game, Dr. Jones teams up with a psychic redhead, Sophia Hapgood, to travel the world in search of clues to the whereabouts of the Ancient Lost City of Atlantis, before the Nazis can get to it first! While it was a bit light on story, the basic plot isn’t terrible, and it was the original concept behind the fourth movie.
1943 – “Indiana Jones and the Army of the Dead” (Novel by Steve Perry) – After crash landing in Haiti, Indy and his Australian war buddy, Mac (later seen in ‘Kingdom of the Crystal Skull’), compete against German spies, Japanese agents, and a Voodoo Priest in search of a mysterious black pearl called ‘the Heart of Darkness’, all while a hurricane sweeps through the Caribbean! Oh and did I mention the zombies? Yeah, there’s zombies…
1944 – The opening to “Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny”! (in theaters now) – Indiana helps an Oxford Professor, Basil Shaw (Toby Jones), behind enemy lines, during WWII.
1945 – “Indiana Jones and the Spear of Destiny” (Comic Book) – a 4-issue Dark Horse mini-series that follows Indy and his father on one last adventure to stop the Nazis from obtaining the Roman ‘Spear of Destiny’ or the Holy Lance, a powerful Christian relic that could destroy the world if it fell into the wrong hands!
1947 – “Indiana Jones and the Infernal Machine” (Video Game) – Indiana Jones works with the CIA to thwart a Soviet plot to harness an ancient Babylonian device. While the game doesn’t hold up at all by today’s standards, it was another great concept for a post-Last Crusade adventure, and the first time Indy faced off against the Russians.
1950 – Indiana helps a Native American shaman named Gray Cloud recover a stolen sacred pipe from a couple of mobsters in Wyoming. – as seen in “Young Indiana Jones and the Mystery of the Blues”
THE LATER YEARS…
“Operation Paperclip”, a secret US program, recruited former-Nazi German scientists from 1945 to 1959, including Wernher Von Braun – who would go on to help develop the Saturn V rocket for NASA’s Apollo program.
‘The Roswell Incident’ allegedly occurs in New Mexico, in 1947.
Chuck Yeager breaks the sound barrier in 1947.
The Soviet Union develops it’s own Atomic Bomb in 1949, after KGB spies stole US state secrets from the Manhattan Project, effectively starting the Cold War.
The Hydrogen Bomb is first tested in 1952.
Color Television is invented in 1954.
The USSR successfully launches Sputnik, the first man-made satellite, into orbit in 1957
1957 – “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” – In the um… *divisive* fourth entry, Indiana Jones and Mac (his Australian buddy from the war) are kidnapped by Soviets led by Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett) who infiltrate Area 51, using Jones’s knowledge of the supernatural to uncover the corpse of an “alien” recovered from the Roswell incident 10 years earlier. During the ensuing confrontation, Indy manages to escape a Nevada nuclear test site by climbing into a lead-lined fridge… (No, I didn’t make any of that up.)
After being accused of being a communist by the FBI, losing his job at the college, and being chased by KGB agents, he’s approached by Mutt Williams (Shia LaBeouf) who asks for his help to find Professor Oxley (John Hurt), who went missing, searching for the Lost City of Akator in the Amazon, or something.
Long story short, Indy is reunited with Marion Ravenwood, learns that Mutt is his son, fights some more Russian troops in some really terrible CGI sequences, and they discover an ancient Mesoamerican temple / shrine where they return a magnetic, non-human, crystal skull that somehow activates what appears to be a flying saucer and resurrects an interdimensional being?!
Oh and Indy and Marion finally tie the knot, I guess…
1969 – “Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny” – In Indy’s final big screen adventure, Dr. Jones comes out of retirement to help his goddaughter, Helena Shaw (Phoebe Waller-Bridge) in her quest to locate a mysterious device created by the Greek mathematician Archimedes, before Dr. Jürgen Voller (Mads Mikkelsen), a NASA scientist, can use it to alter the course of history…
Erik Slader is the creator of “Epik Fails of History” a blog (and podcast) about the most epic fails… of history. With Ben Thompson, Erik is the co-author of the Epic Fails book series. He has a Bachelor’s Degree in Digital Media, once managed a comic book shop, has a weakness for fancy coffee and currently lives in Green Cove Springs, Florida with too many cats.