The golden Indiana Jones franchise -- Learn about the Indy universe before the release of ''The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull''

Step 1: Relive ‘Raiders’

The backstory is almost as mythic as the film itself. It’s May 1977, and George Lucas is about to release his latest film, Star Wars. After a disastrous early screening, he’s convinced that it’s a catastrophe. So he flies off to Hawaii to await the opening receipts, like a doomed politician sweating out the returns on election night. His good friend Steven Spielberg joins him there, and they pass the days building sand castles on the beach. Spielberg confides that he wants his next project to be something fun, something light. Maybe a James Bond movie. Lucas looks at him and says, ”I’ve got that beat.” He then proceeds to pitch a throwback to the Saturday-matinee cliff-hanger serials that both men loved as kids. The kind of picture that made them want to make movies in the first place. It would have romance…action…Nazis! Lucas even has a title: Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Four years later, on June 12, 1981, the movie — directed by Spielberg and executive-produced by Lucas — opened to sold-out crowds from Pittsburgh to Pasadena. It eventually grossed $384 million worldwide and spawned three sequels (the latest of which, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, hits theaters May 22). Teenagers stood on line for hours to see it for the 5th, 10th, 20th time. From its opening salvo — when Harrison Ford’s swashbuckling archaeologist, Indiana Jones, flicks off a mess of tarantulas, swings on a bullwhip over a bottomless pit, and outruns an insanely large boulder — Raiders was the closest thing to pure celluloid fairy dust that Hollywood had ever conjured. It quite simply reminded us all why we pay to sit in the dark with a bunch of complete strangers. Movies were never the same.

Before Raiders arrived, event movies were a completely different species. Yes, Jaws and Star Wars had proved that teen-targeted action flicks could rake in unthinkable sums of cash. But there was still something, well, old-fashioned about them. They had rigid, classical arcs — outdated three-act constructs of beginnings, middles, and ends. Raiders obliterated those wheezy old rules by plunging headfirst into the good stuff. In fact, it is a movie entirely made up of good stuff — 115 minutes of unrelenting climaxes stacked on top of one another.

At its heart is a smart, self-effacing, swaggering American hero whom we can, if not exactly identify with, then at least dream of one day becoming. Indiana Jones has flaws (a fear of snakes, a habit of regularly getting the stuffing beat out of him, and, sadly, no ability to speak Hovitos). But he always manages to grab his whip, dust off his leather jacket, and kick some Nazi tail when it matters most. One minute he might get pummeled by one of Hitler’s muscle-bound stooges on an airstrip, but the next he’s racing on the back of a horse, leaping onto the side of a speeding truck, and bashing the driver’s face in — all on his way to rescuing the girl. Neither he, nor the film, pauses to catch its breath until Belloq’s head explodes at the end.

On the eve of the fourth chapter, Lucas and Spielberg’s adventure cycle continues to hold a unique, almost holy, place in our popular culture. ”It’s simply the reason I wanted to make movies,” says Simon Kinberg, the writer of X-Men: The Last Stand and Mr. & Mrs. Smith. Kinberg, who’s seen Raiders 75 or 100 times and still watches it every couple of months for inspiration, was 8 when he first saw it in 1981. When the film ended, he remembers staring at the screen and thinking, ”I want to live in this world. I don’t want to get out of my seat and go home.” Neither did Jon Turteltaub, director of the Indy-inspired National Treasure, who was 17 when Raiders came out and saw the film three times during its initial run. Even now, he can’t shake its grasp. ”It’s odd how much of it sticks with me,” he says. ”When we sat down to do National Treasure, every single idea we had, after five seconds we realized that they did it already in Indy.”

That’s not to say that Raiders doesn’t have a little to answer for. In her review at the time, film critic Pauline Kael groused, ”You can almost feel Lucas and Spielberg whipping the editor to clip things sharper…. It’s all smart zap — a moviemaker’s self-reflexive feat.” Raiders‘ breakneck pacing was the template for hundreds of joyless action spectacles that came in its wake. But few have matched its human pulse and wit. All of the second-rate Raiders knockoffs like Lara Croft: Tomb Raider just prove how difficult it is to stick the landing on these kinds of movies. Blaming Spielberg and Lucas for bad imitations is like cursing Henry Ford when your car battery dies.

More than anything, though, Raiders is about joy — the sheer joy of watching movies. And if you decided to pick up this magazine after seeing the man with the battered fedora on the cover, chances are you’re probably a lot like Kinberg, Turteltaub, and the rest of us who sat numb and saucer-eyed watching it for the first time. You might have been 8, or 17. Perhaps you weren’t even born yet, but you’ve certainly seen it since, maybe even dozens of times. And when the teaser for Crystal Skull unspooled in theaters and popped up on the Web recently, you probably watched it and felt the hairs on the back of your neck salute as John Williams’ soaring theme kicked in. You might have felt hope. Or concern that it could never live up to your expectations. But maybe, for a second, you also felt something else: like a kid again. (Additional reporting by Jeff Labrecque and Adam Markovitz)

Step 2: Dig Into the Legend

Think you know a lot about the Indy-verse? We’ve excavated 27 years’ worth of facts, from the surface details to the truly dark secrets.

Raiders of the Lost Ark
Tom Selleck was originally cast as Indy, but Magnum, P.I.‘s producers wouldn’t release him from his contract. Fortunately, Harrison Ford swung in to fill the role.

The biplane in the opening of the film has the identification letters OB-CPO, a shout-out to Star Wars‘ Obi-Wan Kenobi and C-3PO. Also, in the Well of Souls, C-3PO and R2-D2 are among the figures on the wall of Egyptian hieroglyphics.

Debra Winger reportedly turned down the Marion Ravenwood role that eventually went to Karen Allen.

The movie’s funniest scene came about by accident. During the shoot in Tunisia, Ford caught dysentery and was too ill to film a long fight scene with an Egyptian swordsman. ”Let’s just shoot the f—er,” he said to Spielberg. So they did.

The monkey in the film was so uncooperative that hidden wires were needed to wrangle it around the set.

Temple of Doom
Indiana Jones was famously named after George Lucas’ Alaskan malamute. So as an inside joke in Doom, Kate Capshaw’s Willie was named after Spielberg’s cocker spaniel, and Short Round was named after screenwriter Willard Huyck’s dog.

Dan Aykroyd has a strange cameo as a guy who walks Indy to his plane after the opening chase in Shanghai. Also, Pat Roach, who plays the chief Thuggee guard, is the only actor besides Ford to appear in all of the first three Indy films.

Riding elephants for the movie led to Ford rupturing a disc in his back. He had to fly to the U.S. for emergency surgery.

The movie was originally called Indiana Jones and the Temple of Death, but it was later softened to Doom.

Two of Doom‘s biggest action sequences (the Shanghai shoot-out and the mine rail chase) were originally envisioned for Raiders.

Last Crusade
Sean Connery played Indy’s dad, despite being a mere 12 years older than Harrison Ford.

Spielberg had to pass on two projects he’d been developing when he decided to do Last Crusade instead. One was Rain Man; the other was Big.

When Connery and Ford filmed their conversation at a table aboard a zeppelin, it was so hot that both actors shot the scene without any pants.

At first Spielberg didn’t like the Holy Grail concept, in large part because he associated it with Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

Sean Connery wasn’t the only Bond-movie veteran in the cast of Last Crusade. A whopping seven other actors — including Indy’s villainous love interest, Alison Doody (A View to a Kill) — had appeared in at least one James Bond film. — Gregory Kirschling and Jeff Labrecque

Step 3: Stop Underrating the Sequels

The Temple of Doom
Though often dismissed, the second film is fascinating: dark, risky, and strange.

It grossed $333 million worldwide when it was released in 1984, but Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom is widely considered the weak link in the Indy trilogy. Critics carp that it’s too weird and violent, that Kate Capshaw’s whiny nightclub singer Willie Scott and Jones’ kiddie sidekick Short Round are just plain annoying. Even the guy who directed it isn’t much of a fan. ”Of all the Indy films, Temple of Doom is my least favorite,” Steven Spielberg has said. In 1988, he claimed that he made the following installment, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, largely ”to apologize for the second one…. It was too dark, too subterranean, and much too horrific.”

But those Doom haters — yes, Spielberg included — are wrong. It’s precisely the crazy, subterranean stuff (which helped inspire the creation of the PG-13 rating) that makes the movie so exciting. With its ripped-out hearts, death-cult chanting, and bonkers ”bad Indy” sequence, Doom” is pulpier, sillier, and less elegant than Raiders, but it’s also every bit as kinetic. And it’s much more in step with the 1930s serials that influenced the series in the first place.

The most thrilling thing about Doom may be how Spielberg took wild risks with a hit franchise. Indy drinking blood? Kids forced into slavery? Why not? Doom is one of cinema’s greatest sequels — and one of Spielberg’s most underrated efforts — precisely because it’s so black and daring. Whether or not the director himself approves, watching the film is like seeing Spielberg walk to the middle of the movie’s rope bridge, high over croc-infested waters, and chop the whole thing down. — Gregory Kirschling

The Last Crusade
The arrival of Indy’s dad provides intriguing backstory — and the series’ emotional heart.

Flawed fathers turn up in a number of Steven Spielberg’s movies (the possessed obsessive in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, the beaten-down divorcé War of the Worlds). And George Lucas’ Star Wars saga centers upon the bad dad to end all bad dads. But nowhere have these filmmakers explored dysfunctional paternity with greater resonance — or good humor — than in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. (As usual, Lucas shepherded the story and exec-produced; Spielberg directed.) In this third chapter, we got more than just action. We got psychology and, essentially, an origin story. Between feats like making a speedboat getaway and chasing a tank on horseback, Indy confronted his prickly relationship with Dr. Henry Jones Sr., his cantankerous nutty professor of a father.

Nimbly played by Sean Connery, the elder Jones is often hilarious. He patronizes Indy by calling him ”Junior” and rarely seems to appreciate his son’s heroics, even after Junior bails them out of danger. But Connery shrewdly puts a serious edge on the guy, too — and Ford’s slow-burn reactions deepen the portrait even further. You can see Indy’s tentative respect dissolving into rage when Jones Sr. rationalizes his hands-off parenting style (”You left just when you were becoming interesting!” he tells his son) or slaps Indy in the face — wow, what an emasculating moment — ”for blasphemy.”

It’s not easy cramming fresh backstory into a threequel. (Just look how badly the Spider-Man and Godfather sagas botched the job.) More than ever, Last Crusade shines as a rare third installment with brains and heart. In 1989, when the film opened, the Ford-Connery face-off felt shrewd but lightweight. Today, with Connery no longer a working actor — and having turned down a cameo in Indy 4 — it feels poignant, rarefied. It may well be the heartfelt epicenter of the whole shebang. — Steve Daly

Step 4: Prepare to Enter ‘The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull’

Spielberg and Lucas are keeping a typically tight leash on details surrounding the fourth Indy installment (due May 22). Their team helped squelch renegade plot and image leaks online, shut down the attempted sale of some stolen production materials, and stands ready to bring legal action against anybody violating confidentiality agreements. But don’t worry — taking a good, long gander at the exclusive photo at right won’t get you thrown in the slammer. Seen here for the first time, it features Indy (Harrison Ford), a new character named ”Mutt” (Shia LaBeouf), and an old favorite named Marion Ravenwood (Raiders‘ Karen Allen, with her back to the camera). For reasons best left unsaid (okay, we have no idea), the trio are careening through the Peruvian rain forest in an amphibious vehicle — yes, there’s a river chase involved in the plot somehow — racing a group of nefarious Russians to find a temple that holds the mysterious treasure of the title. — Steve Daly

Spoiler Alert! Biggest Mysteries

So what’s the buzz on the new film? Here’s a speculative look at some of Skull’s major questions — and some possible answers.

Are the Crystal Skulls alien artifacts?
Like the Ark of the Covenant in Raiders of the Lost Ark and the Sankara Stones in Temple of Doom, the skulls (there’s likely more than one, despite the singular in the title) are the supernatural MacGuffins — the powerful thingies that everybody’s chasing. (Some think the Ark will turn up again too.) From what little the filmmakers have spilled, the skulls sound otherworldly in origin, while fan speculation has it that those who covet them believe they grant psychic powers.

Does Indy have a son?
From the moment Shia LaBeouf was cast last spring as a motorcycle-riding greaser nicknamed Mutt, rumors have circulated that he’ll turn out to be Indy’s love child with Marion (conceived, perhaps, during their ship tryst?). Others claim he’s Marion’s kid, but not Indy’s, since his last name seems to be Williams. Time for a DNA test — but they didn’t have those in 1957, when the movie takes place.

Will Indy get Stockholm syndrome?
It’s believed that Cate Blanchett’s Soviet operative character interrogates Dr. Jones — and a producer has said that Indy has a typical ”love-hate” relationship with her. Let the fevered daydreams begin!

Will there be critters?
It was snakes in Raiders, bugs in Doom, and rats in Last Crusade. Judging from early tie-in toy info and Web chatter, Skull might let loose some huge, nasty ants. — Steve Daly