Top Ten Favorite Movies Set in the 1930s

Below is my current list of favorite movies set in the 1930s:

TOP TEN FAVORITE MOVIES SET IN THE 1930s

1. “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” (1984) – In this exciting second installment of the Indiana Jones franchise, the intrepid archaeologist is asked by desperate villagers in Northern India to find a mystical stolen stone and rescue their children from a Thuggee cult practicing child slavery. Directed by Steven Spielberg, the movie starred Harrison Ford as Dr. Henry “Indiana” Jones.

2. “The Sting” (1973) – Paul Newman and Robert Redford starred in this excellent Oscar winning movie about a young drifter who teams up with a master of the big con to get revenge against the gangster who had his partner murdered. George Roy Hill directed.

3. “Death on the Nile” (1978) – Peter Ustinov made his first appearance as Hercule Poirot in this superb adaptation of Agatha Christie’s 1937 novel about the murder of an Anglo-American heiress during a cruise on the Nile. John Guillermin directed.

4. “Chinatown” (1974) – Roman Polanski directed this outstanding Oscar nominated film about a Los Angeles private detective hired to expose an adulterer, who finds himself caught up in a web of deceit, corruption and murder. Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway starred.

5. “Gosford Park” (2001) – Robert Altman directed this Oscar nominated film about a murder that occurs at shooting party in 1932 England. The all-star cast includes Helen Mirren, Kelly MacDonald, Clive Owen and Maggie Smith.

6. “Evil Under the Sun” (1982) – Once again, Peter Ustinov portrayed Hercule Poirot in this entertaining adaptation of Agatha Christie’s 1941 novel about the murder of a stage actress at an exclusive island resort. Guy Hamilton directed.

7. “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” (2000) – Ethan and Joel Coen directed this very entertaining tale about three escaped convicts who search for a hidden treasure, while evading the law in Depression era Mississippi. George Clooney, John Tuturro and Tim Blake Nelson starred.

8. “Murder on the Orient Express” (1974) – Albert Finney starred as Hercule Poirot in this stylish adaptation of Agatha Christie’s 1934 novel about the Belgian detective’s investigation into the death of a mysterious American aboard the famed Orient Express. Sidney Lumet directed.

9. “Indiana Jones and Raiders of the Lost Ark” (1981) – Harrison Ford made his first appearance as Dr. “Indiana” Jones in this classic movie, as he races against time to find the iconic Ark of the Covenant that contains the Ten Commandments before the Nazis do in 1936 Egypt. Steven Spielberg directed.

“Seabiscuit” (2003) – Gary Ross directed this excellent adaptation of Laura Hillenbrand’s 2001 book about the famed race horse from the late 1930s. Tobey Maguire, Jeff Bridges, Chris Cooper and Elizabeth Banks starred.

Honorable Mention: “Road to Perdition” (2002) – Tom Hanks, Tyler Hoechlin and Paul Newman starred in this first-rate adaptation of Max Collins’ 1998 graphic comic about a Depression era hitman who is forced to hit the road with his older son after the latter witnesses a murder. Sam Mendes directed.

“INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE” (1989) Review

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“INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE” (1989) Review

After a mixed reaction to the darker tones of 1984’s “INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM”, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg decided to compensate by ending what was then planned their Indiana Jones trilogy with a movie lighter in tone. The result of this decision is the 1989 movie, “INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE”.

The movie began with a prologue set in 1912 with a 13 year-old Indiana Jones riding with his Boy Scout troop in Utah. He stumbles across some robbers in a cave finding an ornamental cross that once belonged to Spanish explorer Coronado. Indy manages to steal the cross from the robbers and make it back to town to report the crime. His father, Henry Jones Sr. is oblivious to what his happening, due to his obsessive research on the Holy Grail. And Indy is forced to give up the cross to a mysterious man for whom the robbers worked for. Twenty-six years later, Indy finally gets his hands on the cross from the mysterious man, off the coast of Portugal.

“INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE” proved to be the only film in the franchise in which its prologue had little to do with the movie’s main narrative, aside from a brief peek into Henry Sr.’s obsession with the Holy Grail. Still in 1938, Indiana is contacted by an American businessman named Walter Donovan, who also happens to be a collector of antiquities. He informs Indy that Henry Sr. had vanished in Venice, Italy while searching for the Holy Grail on his behalf. Indy also receives a package in the mail that contains his father’s “Grail Diary” – a notebook featuring the latter’s research on the artifact. Realizing that Henry Sr. is in trouble, Indy and his mentor, Marcus Brody, travel to Venice and with the assistance of Dr. Elsa Schneider, Henry’s Austrian-born assistance, search for the missing archaeologist. During their adventures, the trio discover that Henry’s disappearance is either tied to a Christian secret society called the Brotherhood of the Cruciform Sword or the Nazis.

From the time I first saw “INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE”, I enjoyed it very much. Actually, I can say the same for just about every INDIANA JONES movie I have seen, save one. It really is a fun movie and I suspect this is a result of Lucas and Spielberg’s decision to make its tone lighter than either “TEMPLE OF DOOM” and 1981’s “RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK”. Just like in the previous movies, “THE LAST CRUSADE” saw Indiana Jones on a globe-trekking adventure to acquire a famous artifact on behalf of someone. In this case, he seemed to be working on behalf of both Walter Donovan and especially his father, Henry Jones Sr. But there was one aspect of this movie that made this movie particularly enjoyable was the casting. Lucas and Spielberg, along with screenwriters Jeffrey Boam and Tom Stoppard (uncredited), decided to make this movie a family affair by including Indy’s dad into the story. They also broadened the role of Indy’s mentor (and Henry Sr.’s college chum), Marcus Brody, who was featured in probably the movie’s funniest scene. And this is the only INDIANA JONES film and the second one for Lucas that featured a villainous leading lady. In fact, I suspect that Lucas was inspired by the Princess Sorsha character in 1988’s “WILLOW”, who started out as a villain and ended up as a sympathetic character. With Dr. Elsa Schneider, Lucas and Spielberg had a leading lady who started out as a heroine, slipped into villainess mode and ended up as a very ambiguous anti-heroine. I am not claiming that Elsa was the best of the movie franchise’s leading ladies, but she was certainly interesting.

The movie also featured some first-rate action sequences. My favorite included Indiana and Elsa’s conflict with the Brotherhood of the Cruciform Sword in Venice, Indy and Henry Sr.’s hasty departure from a Zeppelin that was returning to Germany and especially their escape from the German Army controlled Brunwald Castle on the Austrian-German border. The extended action sequence featuring Indiana’s clash with Colonel Ernst Vogel aboard a tank in the fictional Hatay desert ended with one of the movie’s best scenes – namely the tank falling over a cliff along with Indy and Vogel. This particular sequence must have been so successful that I suspect producer-director Peter Jackson more or less used it in one important scene in 2003’s “LORD OF THE RINGS: RETURN OF THE KING”. But the movie was not sustained by interesting characterizations and action sequences alone. The main narrative for “INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE” – the search for the Holy Grail and belief in its existence and power – not only set in motion a series of adventures for the main characters, but also served as a backdrop for Indiana’s complicated relationships with both Elsa Schneider and especially, Henry Sr. In fact, one of my favorite scenes in the entire movie featured a brief conversation between Indy and Henry Sr. aboard the Zeppelin in which the former pointed out that the latter’s obsession with the Holy Grail and inability to communicate led to a twenty-two year estrangement between father and son.

But as much as I enjoyed “INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE”, it is probably my least favorite in the franchise. Aside from the leading lady’s characterization, the movie strikes me as the least original of the four movies. The other three movies offered something truly original to the franhcise – especially in regard to narratives. I cannot say the same about “THE LAST CRUSADE”. Despite its unusual addition of the Elsa Schneider and Henry Jones Sr. characters, it was more or less a rehash of “RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK”, which included a search for a Judeo-Christian artifact, Nazis, a Middle Eastern setting, the return of both Marcus Brody and Sallah Mohammed Faisel el-Kahir (Sallah), and a non-German collaborator of the Nazis who seemed more interested in the artifact than ideology.

Also, I was not that impressed by the 1912 Utah prologue for the movie. I did not find it particularly interesting, even though I am thankful that it served as a forerunner to “THE YOUNG INDIANA JONES CHRONICLES” television series from the early 1990s. And as much as I enjoyed the relationship between Indy and Elsa, there was one scene between them that I found unappealing. It concerned Indy’s efforts to retrieve his father’s “Grail Diary” from the Austrian art historian in Berlin. The retrieval led to an angst-filled quarrel that struck me as rather false. I got the impression that Lucas and Spielberg were trying to capitalize on the emotional relationship between the James Bond and Kara Milovy characters in the 1987 Bond movie “THE LIVING DAYLIGHTS”. The problems were that I never got the feeling that Indy and Elsa were that emotionally involved for such angsty fight, and Harrison Ford and Alison Doody never really sold it for me . . . at least in that particular scene. Like the other three movies in the franchise, “THE LAST CRUSADE” suffered from some heavy-handed action sequences. This was especially apparent in the Hatay desert sequence featuring the Nazi tank. And could someone please explain how that Zeppelin traveled from Berlin to Southeastern Europe so fast? It was in the latter region where Indy and Henry Sr. encountered the German fighter planes sent to kill them. Also, “THE LAST CRUSADE” suffered from a fault that also marred both “RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK” and 2008’s “INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULLS”. In the film’s final confrontation scenes, Indy played no role in the main villain’s downfall. Like in the 1981 and 2008 films, he mainly stood around with this thumb up his ass while someone else . . . or a supernatural entity dealt with the main villain. And like in the other two movies, I found this anti-climatic and rather disappointing.

But I was certainly not disappointed with the cast. They proved to be first-rate . . . not surprisingly. Harrison Ford returned as the intrepid archaeologist Indiana Jones and was superb and more relaxed in the role. Okay, I did criticize his acting in that Berlin scene with Alison Doody, but it was only one blot in an otherwise excellent performance. Dr. Henry Jones Sr. has to be my favorite Sean Connery role of all time. I adored him as Indy’s priggish and high-minded father who finds working in the field a new experience. And he also got to speak one of my favorite lines in the entire film, while repelling a German fighter plane in Eastern Europe. In fact, it is my favorite Connery quote of all time. Alison Doody was at least 21 or 22 years old when “THE LAST CRUSADE” went into production. She only had at least 2 to 3 years of acting experience. And yet, I was more than impressed by her portrayal of the amoral Austrian art historian Dr. Elsa Schneider. Doody had once complained that dealing with the Austrian accent was difficult for her. I would think dealing with Elsa’s complex nature would be more difficult. And I believe that despite her limited experience at the time, she did a pretty damn good job in portraying the very ambiguous Elsa – aside from that Berlin scene with Ford.

Julian Glover gave a smooth performance as Walter Donovan, the American businessman for whom the Jones family sought out the Holy Grail. His Donovan also proved to be just as complex, thanks to his skillful performance. Both John Rhys-Davies and Denholm Elliot reprised their roles as Sallah and Dr. Marcus Brody. And both were not only entertaining, but also gave first-rate performances. I especially enjoyed Elliot’s display of humor in a scene featuring Marcus’ arrival in Turkey. Michael Byrne’s portrayal of S.S. Colonel Ernst Vogel struck me as both subtle and intimidating. Back in 1980, Kevork Malikyan first tried out for the role of Sallah for “RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK”, but the role went to Rhys-Davies. But Spielberg remembered him and hired the actor to portray Kazim, a member of the Brotherhood of the Cruciform Sword, whom Indy and Elsa encountered in Venice. Malikyan’s skllful portrayal of Kazim proved to be a complex mixture of intensity, religious fevor and a deep-seated calm. And River Phoenix did a marvelous job in portraying the 13 year-old Indiana. He proved to be quite adept in capturing Ford’s mannerisms and speech pattern, while maintaining the persona of a boy in his early teens.

As I had stated earlier, I found “INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE” to be the least original of the four movies in the franchise. Because of this, it is also my least favorite. But despite being my least favorite “INDIANA JONES” film, it is still very entertaining and I never get tired of watching it, thanks to a solid story penned by Jeffrey Boam and Tom Stoppard, first-rate direction by Steven Spielberg and an outstanding cast led by Harrison Ford and Sean Connery.

“INDIANA JONES AND THE RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK” (1981) Review

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“INDIANA JONES AND THE RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK” (1981) Review

I suspect that many would be astounded to read the following – I did not want to see “INDIANA JONES AND THE RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK” when it first hit the theaters back in 1981. I simply did not. And there were a few reasons why I felt this way.

Back in the late 1970s and early 1980s, I was not a particular fan of George Lucas. Aside from 1973’s “AMERICAN GRAFFITI” (which I saw on television), I was not in love with his movies. I heartily disliked “STAR WARS: A NEW HOPE”, when it first hit the movie theaters during the summer of 1977. “MORE AMERICAN GRAFFITI” did not impress me in 1979 (and it still does not). And I had felt torn about 1980’s “STAR WARS: THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK”. A part of me felt impressed by the movie. Another part of me was distressed by its darker tone and cliffhanger ending. My feelings about Steven Spielberg were equally muted. I was not a big fan of 1977’s “CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND” or any other movie he did during the 1970s. And “E.T.” was a year away. When “RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK” first arrived during the summer of 1981, I read a negative review that completely turned me off from wanting to see it. However, movie attendance was (and still is) a family affair. So, I found myself forced to watch the movie. I fell in love with it and wondered how I could have ever harbored doubts about it in the first place.

The plot for “RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK” focused on the adventures of an archaeologist/university professor named Dr. Henry “Indiana” Jones, Jr. The movie began with Dr. Jones trekking through a South American jungle in 1936, with two local guides, in search of a golden fertility idol. After securing the artifact with great difficulty, Indy lost it, thanks to a conniving competitor and fellow archaeologist named Dr. René Belloq. But he also managed to escape with his life from a group of Hovitos tribesmen set upon him by Belloq. Indy made it back to the States and resumed his job as a professor at Marshall College. Not long after his return, two U.S. Army Intelligence agents questioned him and fellow colleague Dr. Marcus Brody about a Nazi communique that mentioned the name of Indy’s former mentor, Professor Abner Ravenwood. When Indy and Brody explained that Ravenwood was an expert on the ancient Egyptian city of Tanis and possessed the headpiece of the Staff of Ra, they came to the conclusion that the Nazis were after the Ark of the Covenant. The agents tasked Indy with finding the Ark before the Nazis, on behalf of the American government. Indiana’s search for Ravenwood and the Ark took him on a globe trotting adventure to Nepal, Egypt and finally to a small island in the middle of the Aegean Sea. Along the way he reunited with his former lover and Ravenwood’s daughter, Marion Ravenwood, formed a new friendship with a professional excavator from Cairo named Sallah el-Kahir and clashed with his old rival Belloq . . . and the latter’s Nazi allies.

For the past three decades, critics and filmgoers have acknowledged “RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK” as one of the greatest adventure films of all time. They also regard it as the best film in the INDIANA JONES franchise. Not only do I agree with the first assessment, I believe the same could be said for the other three INDIANA JONES movies. As for“RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK” being the best film in the franchise . . . well, it is all subjective, is it not? I must admit that the movie holds up very well, after so long. Aside from some narrative flaws and a major historical blooper, screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan wrote a tight adventure filled with memorable characters, exciting ation sequences, snappy dialogue, a complex love story and most importantly, well constructed character development.

One cannot discuss the 1981 movie without recalling the memorable action sequences that many still talk about. Who can forget Indy’s escape from Belloq and the Hovitos in South America? Or the shoot-out inside Marion Ravenwood’s Nepal tavern? Or even Indy’s attempt to save the kidnapped Marion from thugs hired by the Nazis in Cairo? But it was Indy’s epic-like attempt to recover the Ark of the Covenant from Belloq and the Nazis that proved to be the most memorable action sequence . . . at least for me. Not only did it turned out to be the film’s longest action sequence, but also the most exciting. More importantly, Lucas, Spielberg and stunt coordinator Glenn Randall, Jr. utilized an old stunt from John Ford’s 1939 Western, “STAGECOACH” with equal success.

However, “RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK” was not all memorable action sequences, thanks to Kasdan’s tight writing. He did an excellent job in establishing the relationship between the protagonist and the main villain even before he established the main plot. Kasdan’s screenplay created the main narrative with a somewhat witty discussion about the Ark of the Covenant between Indy, Brody and the two Army Intelligence agents. There were other dramatic or comedic scenes that made this movie a joy to watch. One of my favorites include a visit by Indy and Sallah to an old friend of the latter’s named Imam, who managed to translate the Staff of Ra’s headpiece for them; Indy and Belloq’s conversation about Marion’s “death” and their rivalry; Belloq’s attempt to seduce a captive Marion; Indy and Brody’s last conversation before the former’s depature . . . and especially Indy and Marion’s rather funny romantic scene aboard the Bantu Wind.

I certainly had no problems with the movie’s production values. Lucas and Spielberg were wise to hire Douglas Slocombe as the movie’s cinematographer. Thanks to Slocombe’s work, “RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK” featured some beautiful scenes rich in color and style, as shown in the images below:

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I also have to commend the special effects team for some of the most iconic moments in film history, including Indy’s escape from the rolling boulder and the sequence that featured the opening of the Ark. Norman Reynolds’ production designs, along with Michael Ford’s set decorations and Leslie Dilley’s art direction beautifully re-created the mid-1930s in the U.S. and Egypt. And I cannot mention “RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK” without bringing up John Williams’ memorable score. Unfortunately, Williams failed to win an Oscar for his exceptional work and lost to Vangelis’ score for “CHARIOTS OF FIRE’. Pity. I thought Williams truly deserved that statuette.

As much as I love “RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK”, I cannot deny that it has flaws. I was in my mid teens when I first saw the movie. And I believe that my enthusiastic reaction to the film’s virtues may have blinded me from its flaws. Despite a strong narrative, “RAIDERS” suffered from a weak ending. I could probably say the same for two other films in the franchise. The finale for “RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK” struck me as anti-climatic. In other words, Indy played no part in the villains’ defeat. The wrath of God did. I understand that Lucas and Spielberg wanted to show the consequences of the villains’ lack of respect toward the Ark’s power. But I still wish Indy had played some kind of role in their downfall. And once the power of God destroyed Belloq and the Nazis on that Aegean Sea island, how did Indy and Marion get off that island? I doubt the two of them could operate the U-boat that delivered them to the island on their own.

Another problem I had with “RAIDERS” proved to be certain costumes worn by actress Karen Allen, who portrayed Marion Ravenwood. I was not particularly impressed by two costumes designed by Deborah Nadoolman. The first was the red-and-white outfit worn by Marion in the Cairo street scene, which struck me as some bizarre take on mid-1930s fashion. If “RAIDERS” had been set during the year of the movie’s release (1981), I would have no trouble with the outfit. But for a movie set in 1936? To make matters worse, Allen wore wedge-heeled shoes with it. And the white dress that Marion received from Belloq blended well with the 1936 setting. Unfortunately, Marion was in her mid-to-late twenties in the film. And the dress seemed more appropriate for a 17 year-old debutante. Either the dress was some expression of how Belloq truly regarded Marion . . . or an example of what Deborah Nadoolman regarded as the height of fash”ion for a woman in 1936. And in both cases, I find this unfortunate.

The main problem I found in “RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK” turned out to be a case of a major historical blunder. Although the movie’s main villain is the French-born René Belloq, the latter’s allies are a Gestapo agent and more importantly, two senior German Army officers . . . with a complete regiment at their command. And entire German Army regiment roaming freely throughout Egypt in 1936? What were Lucas, Spielberg and Kasdan thinking? Egypt was a British Imperial protectorate between 1882 and 1936. In the latter year, both Egypt and Britain signed the Anglo-Egyptian Treaty of 1936, which led to the withdrawal of British troops from the country . . . with the exception of 10,000 personnel stationed around the Suez Canal. I doubt that the commander of those 10,000 British troops would sit on his heels and allow a regiment of German troops to roam nilly willy all over Egypt. I doubt that the Egyptian government would have allow this, as well.

Harrison Ford had already made a name for himself in the first two “STAR WARS” films. But he was a supporting character in the movies, not the leading man. And Lucas’ first choice as Indiana Jones was Tom Selleck. But the latter lost the role, due to obligations to CBS’s “MAGNUM P.I.”. And the rest is Hollywood history . . . for both Ford and Selleck. I suspect that Selleck would have been superb in the role. But you know what? So was Ford. He did an excellent job in portraying all aspects of Henry Jones Jr.’s personality quirks – both the good and the bad. He also created a strong screen chemistry with his leading lady, Karen Allen. Not only was she magnificent as Indy’s former flame Marion Ravenwood, she did a great job in balancing her pseudo machismo and feminine allure. I was originally surprised to learn that Paul Freeman, who portrayed Indy’s rival René Belloq, was actually English. And he did a great job in portraying a Continental European without the cliches and portraying an intelligent, suave and villainous character.

“RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK” proved to be the first time I had laid eyes upon John Rhys-Davies on screen. His portrayal of Egyptian-born excavator Sallah el-Kahir seemed a touch theatrical. Surprisingly, it worked. I believe Rhys-Davies is one of those actors who can do theatrics with perfection. And he also injected a great deal of intelligence and pragmatism into the role. Wolf Kahler gave a performance just as subtle as Freeman, in his portrayal of Colonel Herman Dietrich, commander of the German regiment. I was relieved to see that his performance avoided the old “Ve haf vays of making you tahk” crap from old Hollywood World War II films. Anthony Higgins managed to avoid the same cliche in portrayal of Dietrich’s second-in-command, Major Gobler. However, I was amused to discover a certain degree of cockiness in his performance. Ronald Lacey’s portrayal of Gestapo agent Arnold Taht seemed less subtle. In fact, his performance seemed to be a strange mixture of subtle dialogue and gestures, blended with theatrical moments. I found Lacey’s performance to be the most interesting in the movie. Denholm Elliot’s role as Indy’s mentor, Dr. Marcus Brody, struck me as charming and witty. But he was not in the movie long enough for me to really enjoy his performance. George Harris gave a commanding performance as the captain of the Bantu Wind, Captain Simon Katanga. He was especially effective in his character’s encounter with the arrogant Colonel Dietrich.

What else can I say about “RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK”? George Lucas and Steven Spielberg created an imaginative and exciting movie that kick-started a first-rate movie franchise that has withstood the test of time. The movie also featured some memorable action sequences and dramatic moments, thanks to Lawrence Kasdan’s well-written screenplay and Spielberg’s superb direction. And although “INDIANA JONES AND THE RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK” has some obvious flaws, it still remains one of my favorite adventure films of all time . . . period.