Baby, I am missing you; I want you by my side… Reassessing Indiana Jones #reviews

Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark
Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

[A]rchaeologists have frequently been presented in cinema as transgressive individuals who cross the boundary of socially appropriate behavior to interfere with the dangerous and still-potent realms of the past, and that their actions consequently threaten our beliefs and our physical well-being (Hiscock 2009). Films reviewed there, and here, focus on characters identified as archaeologists, explicitly or implied through their behavior, or feature clearly recognizable archaeological materials such as pyramids, graves, skulls, or ruins. [Source: Hiscock, P. ‘Cinema, Supernatural Archaeology, and the Hidden Human Past’ Numen 59 (2012)]

Sometimes, it’s just better to quote from the best.  When I went back and watched the Indiana Jones trilogy, this article by Peter Hiscock kept appearing at the back of my mind.  There are a few moments in the trilogy where Jones explicitly says that archaeology is more about libraries than it is about wild adventures, but the representation of archaeology as this elite, almost spy-games world is the lasting image.  Archaeologists are so well respected that government officials approach them in order to thwart international villains.  Archaeologists chase crime syndicates, topple corrupt leaders, and wipe out battalions of Nazis.  Archaeologists do what Batman and James Bond only dream.

Unlike Star Wars, there’s no continuing story or theme which links the Indiana Jones trilogy, but there is a general structure to the individual films.  Dr Jones is made aware of a religious relic of the past which is a desired object by a rival group.  Although he uses a ‘science’ to uncover and obtain the relic, Jones experiences a theophany at the point of engagement with the relic.  It’s through these symbols that Jones comes into contact with the divine, similar to Moses encountering God through the burning bush.

There are two ways of reading these moments.  Jones could be read as a character similar to Diomedes from The Iliad who was so accomplished a warrior that he even began to injure the gods.  Both Diomedes and Jones are the absolute limit of human excellence who begin to transcend into the divine realm, but they are not of that realm themselves.  Unable to master that sphere of reality, they get a glimpse of it but return to their appropriate place in the hierarchy of being.

But Jones could also be read as a character similar to Heracles who represents the mastery of humanity over supernatural, ancient events.  Heracles wondered about the world destroying remnants of the divine — monsters and creatures that were held over from the earlier, chaotic age.  Similarly, when Jones encounters these relics of the divine, he must put them in a place advantage to the supremacy of humanity: in a museum, a shrine, or lost to an earthquake.

The series is somewhat out of order.  The second film, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, is a prequel to the first, Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark.  When put in the ‘proper’ sequence, there’s a (Christo-centric) progress in the theme of the divine.  Indiana experiences the divine reality of polytheism before encountering the monotheistic Old Testament God, then the messianic New Testament deity.  In this light, Jones is the Hero of Modernity — a secular, rational (white) man reframing the political and religious world in terms of himself.

To the films individually!

Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark

I saw this recently at Dendy and it was amazing.  Fly-eating supervision.

Raiders of the Lost Ark describes Indiana Jones’ adventure to find the Ark of the Covenant, a relic of the Old Testament God.  Although sitting in the middle of the film, the Ark itself is not explored as a concept.  We understand that it is some kind of weapon, but its relationship to the Law is not raised.

In the Old Testament, Moses was given the instructions to build the Ark after the Hebrews had escaped bondage in Egypt but prior to the Hebrew’s conquest of the Promised Lands.  The Ark was a tangible representation of God’s presence and a channel through which God could communicate.  Those communicative aspects are stripped from the Ark represented in the film but do inspire extra-textual thoughts.  Do the Nazis seek a closer communicative relationship with God?  Is this about legitimacy, with the possession of the Ark symbolising a mandate of heaven?

Similarly, the Nazis are stripped of elements which define them.  In this film, the Nazis are not evil because they’re a racist, fascist, military expansionist, global villain.  In this film, the Nazis are evil because they are competing with Indiana Jones.  And don’t give me that crap about Nazis being more ruthless in their pursuit of the Ark — Indiana whips, shoots, and punches his way to his goals just as much as the Nazis.

The quest for the Ark is not only a quest which disrupts the dust that’s settled on global history, but is a quest which disrupts the dust that’s settled on Jones’ own history.  The person who has the information on how to find the Ark is an ex-girlfriend.  Although initially in a position of power with regard to the information, she quickly becomes a damsel in distress.  Nazis attack her for her information, then Nazis attack her for her relationship to Jones.  Just as the Ark is the chief MacGuffin of the film, the film also manages to turn her into a MacGuffin in her own right.  There are sequences where Jones has to decide quite literally between obtaining the Ark or reobtaining the ex-girlfriend.

Ultimately, this is a film about knowledge.  Jones is able to get to the Ark first by controlling and limiting the information available to the Nazis.  When the Nazis abduct the Ark, they are unable to use it safely because they do not have the information which Jones possesses.

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom

A prequel to Raiders of the Lost Ark, this is a particularly difficult film.  Having just thwarted a crime syndicate’s plan somewhere in Asia, Indiana Jones, a street urchin, and a cabaret performer crash land in India.  A village elder explains that a religious artefact has been stolen by the palace.  Without the artefact, all the crops in the village will die.

Indiana travels to the Palace where he finds the Maharajah in the service of a Kali-worshipping cult.  Jones thwarts the cult (which is using child slaves, violence, and religion as its power base), returns the rock, and scampers back to his university.

Jones is seen as a character restoring a natural balance, but analysis of what that balance entails is disquieting.  He has entered a world in which the Maharajah is a puppet of the British Empire.  The problem is that the Maharajah is being used as a puppet by figures from his indigenous religion and this upsets the ‘civilised’ world order.  The Kali-worshippers explicitly wish to overthrow the British control of India and are resorting to darker, more violent aspects of their cultural heritage in order to do so.

To that end, there are three parties to this dispute: the Kali-worshippers who wish to liberate India; the British Empire who wishes to retain control over India; and the ordinary lay-folk who care more about their immediate happiness than abstract notions of freedom.

The elder of the village — representing the lay-folk who prioritise their immediate needs — believes that the ‘good’ deity, Shiva, has brought Indiana to India in order to resolve this dispute in favour of the British Empire and thereby fulfill the villagers’ immediate needs.

It’s kind of an uncomfortable message.  More uncomfortable is that Indiana restores the cosmic balance — stealing the rock and returning it to the shrine — using military force composed of local Indians under the direction of the British.

The film’s position within the trilogy makes it difficult to understand the narrative character of Jones.  The Indiana Jones who was been possessed by the Kali cult using a magic potion, who has seen a priest pull a heart out of a living person, and who has had pain inflicted upon him by some sort of Indian voodoo seems not to be the hardened secular, rational Indiana Jones seen at the start of Raiders of the Lost Ark.  Whatever character development we see in this film is erased by the time the credits roll.

Temple of Doom sits as a second entry in a trilogy of disconnected parts.  Unlike Empire Strikes Back or Back to the Future 2 which serve as the middle act of a three-act trilogy structure, Temple of Doom sits by itself as a story on its own.  I get fanatically interested in the structure of trilogies, it’s true.  I go on about it way too much.  But what the disconnected nature of this shows us is that this Indiana Jones character is more like a James Bond character — always returning to a state of ignorance at the start of each new chapter.  Like all the characters in a weekly animated sitcom who somehow have the reset button pushed with startling seven-day regularity.  Sure, it was deliberate (the films taking their inspiration from the old action serials of Lucas’ adolescence) but it makes it’s still irritating.

But pulling a heart right out of the chest of a living person?  That’s kinda cool.

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade

Easily the best in the series, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade has the most baffling villain: two Nazis who have utterly no reason to be Nazis.

We’ve already established that Nazis are just bad because they want the same things that Indiana does.  Last Crusade hangs a lampshade on this fact.  Elsa Schneider is a Nazi henchwoman who just really hates all the Nazism stuff and only really wants the Holy Grail.  Grand Meister Pycell is an American businessman who really wants the Holy Grail and couldn’t really give a crap about the Nazism thing.  It’s like none of the prominent Nazis in the film are really that interested in being Nazis.

It causes a weird dynamic to the whole film.  Being Nazis, Schneider and Pycell feel the need to trick Indiana Jones and his father into hunting for the Grail.  Except Jones Sr was already looking for the Grail.  The only reason he stopped looking for the Grail was that he discovered Schneider and Pycell were Nazis.

In other words, if Pycell and Schneider just stopped being Nazis (which they don’t particularly wish to be anyway) everybody could get what they want: the Holy Grail.

The Temple of the Grail is wonderfully, beautifully, gloriously strange in its philosophy.  In order to reach the Grail, Indiana must pass three tests.  The first is a series of hidden blades attached to real life gears.  Jones discovers the physical, mechanical reason why the blades work and disables the mechanism.

The second is a floor with concealed pillars.  Incorrect placement of step causes the panel (unsupported by a hidden pillar) to fall through.  Indiana discovers the physical basis for the test and passes unharmed.

The third test is a cleverly painted bridge, camouflaging it against the gulf.  Although Indiana abandons reason and steps out onto the bridge as an act of faith, he works out how the test works and sabotages it by scattering dirt across it.

The final test is a room filled with grails where only one is the Holy Grail.  People who reach the room are invited to choose a grail from which to consume.  If they choose poorly, their face melts off.  Why?  Because freaking magic, that’s why.

There is a kind of logic to it.  The first test is purely mechanical and Jones deduces how it works through reason.  The second test looks obvious but Jones has to question his assumptions (‘Jehovah’ apparently begins with an ‘I’ in Latin, which leaves us asking why there’s a ‘J’ on the floor at all).  The third test is unable to be deduced through reason and it’s his assumptions which require him to abandon reason.  We could wonder whether it is really an abandonment of reason: he certainly has a reason to abandon his sensory information.

The final room (the one with all of the grails) is the ultimate test of reasoning but solved in a peculiar way.  Obviously, the correct grail is the one which is the most different to all of the others.  All but one is made of gold; ergo, the one not made of gold is the grail.  Instead, it’s divined through exegetical brilliance: Jesus was a carpenter so therefore it will be a wooden cup.  And even though it’s about reasoning, the outcome is the most supernatural (magic face melting).


Nazis should be evil because Nazism is bad.  It’s a simple idea yet the Indiana Jones trilogy fails to grasp it.  Odd that.



Author: Mark Fletcher

Mark Fletcher is a Canberra-based blogger and policy wonk who writes about conservatism, atheism, and popular culture. Read his blog at OnlyTheSangfroid. He tweets at @ClothedVillainy

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