“But Indiana Jones doesn’t do anything…”
A few years back the painfully unfunny and irretrievably stupid ‘sitcom’ The Big Bang Theory had an episode that revolved around one of the sociopathic man-children showing Raiders of the Lost Ark to a bemused girlfriend who made the comment “Indiana Jones has no role in the outcome of the story”, pointing out the fact that the hero of the story actually has very little impact on the film’s key plot object’s (some say ‘MacGuffin’) progress through the story. Indiana doesn’t keep possession of the Ark, he doesn’t defeat the villains and he’s a step behind them all the way. Cue a big laugh from the canned laughter track and the nerds all having existential crises about their favourite movie. This then prompted the know-it-all, ‘actually’ reply guys of the world to then bring this up at every available occasion in an attempt to appear clever/contrarian (because they are both one and the same thing). Then, more recently, a transcription of Spielberg, Lucas and Radiers screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan was circulated on Twitter where the filmmakers discuss the fact Indiana “liked ’em young”. This was seen as some staggering revelation and another reason every movie not made in the last 5 years is deeply problematic etc etc. Now, in case you hadn’t guessed, Raiders of the Lost Ark is probably my favourite film of all time (so naturally Big Bang comparisons will no doubt be made) but I don’t like to not be critical of the work I love nor work that has influenced me. Understanding the flaws of something you love helps us improve, this is why criticism is so essential. The points mentioned above, however, are NOT good criticism and, in the case of Big Bang Theory, display how deeply stupid (despite their desperate, shameless efforts to be seen as the opposite) that supposedly “smart” show is. As such, allow me a rebuttal…
The criticism that “Indiana Jones has no impact on the story” shows a pretty shoddy understanding of story and character, and I don’t just mean in an academic/theoretical/film school sense. You can only make this criticism of Raiders if you only care about the Ark itself and nothing else. The thing that this criticism ignores is that the film itself doesn’t care about the Ark. If the movie’s contempt for its MacGuffin isn’t explicit enough when it literally buries it at the end then I would have thought the fact that the film needs to give a history lesson in the middle about what the damn thing even is gives you some idea of how little it has to do with the actual plot of the film. Marion’s necklace or the Headpiece for the Staff of Ra, has more plot significance for the first half of the movie. The point being is that, these objects are items whose only purpose is to push the characters forward, giving them narrative purpose. If Indiana just dug up the thing and left, that’s a dull story. Why? Because there’s no conflict. How do we create conflict? Have different characters with different ideals all look for the same objects. And what is most interesting about this is that Indy realises himself that the Ark is just a relic when he goes to blow it up with a rocket launcher toward the end of the movie. The story of the Ark isn’t important and most viewers understand that from the get go. I don’t love Raiders of the lost Ark because of its old testament theology, I love it because Indiana Jones is a great character and its one of the most exciting movies ever made. Indy’s combative relationship with Marian, his old rivalry with Belloc, his friendship with Salah and Brody, his knowledge of history, his quick thinking, his ability to improvise, his tenacity, this is what we watch the movie for, not whether it was him who ended up moving the Ark around. I feel like Spielberg and Lucas made this point again in The Last Crusade when Sean Connery explicitly states this idea in the most heavy handed fashion to explain to the smart-arses in the audience that whether the characters got the historical artefact or not is irrelevant, they have each other and it was one hell of an adventure along the way. The characters have agency and are active within the plot, which I realise is strange to the MCU generation, raised to believe that you are either born with or have superpowers forced on you. Indy chooses to go after the Ark and makes significant choices throughout the film that lead him back to be with Marion and reconcile his bad decisions by the end. Which brings us to:
“Indiana Jones is a paedophile”. I was amazed when the quote about Jones’ proclivity for young women from that transcription was posted online, as people seemed genuinely shocked by this revelation about Indiana ‘born-at-the-turn-of-the-century-and-therefore-probably-has-a-LOT-of-problematic-character-traits’ Jones. As not only is it painfully obvious, given the period, that Indy is probably a racist himself and works at an Ivy League school, which are known for being bastions of totally-not-at-all-problematic goings-on, but also because it is outright stated in the movie he has a taste for young women that are much TOO young. Multiple times even. It is implied early on that something is up when Indy and Abner Ravenwood are described as having “had a bit of falling out I’m afraid” as Indy says. We learn that this was due to Marion a little later and then we find out what that meant:
“I’ve learned to hate you in the last ten years”
“I never meant to hurt you”
“I was a CHILD, I was in love, it was wrong and you KNEW IT”
“You knew what you were doing”
is their interaction right after Marian PUNCHES HIM IN THE FACE. This is further explored later when Marian says of her father “It took a hell of a lot for you to alienate him”, to which Indy replies “not much, just you”. That’s pretty clear. Indy was shopping in the junior section, too young even for the standards of the 30s and he’s the hero of our story. This isn’t some ‘it was acceptable in the 80s’ thing either, that’s gross whatever period. What this illustrates is A) That a protagonist can have serious flaws and B) We’ll still root for them. This is GOOD writing not bad writing. I am not saying being a paedophile is good thing (sickos) or that we should make every hero a pervert but the sad fact is most white dudes from English speaking nations are deeply problematic figures with questionable opinions and ideologies even today, let alone in the 30s. I would also encourage you to read that transcription of Spielberg, Lucas and Kasdan because it is a fantastic look into the creative process for these films. They basically develop all the characters and action sequences for the first two films in one meeting. It’s a great example of ‘Yes and’ idea development and spitballing. A must read if you want to write screenplays or even just novels.
My defence of Raiders of the Lost Ark is mainly self-preservation as so much of my identity is coiled up in these movies but it’s also an attempt at protecting good art from the anti-criticism movement of “objective complaints” from the likes of CinemaSins et al. There are plenty of valid complaints about this movie that can be made, like its use of Yellow Face stunt men, or its Mystical East/Orientalism, or simply its proud colonialism, all of which are baked into the production and therefore more insidious issues, which I’m glad to see being discussed more today. Spielberg has always had a problematic understanding of history and how he depicts it which has coloured my opinion of many of his films in retrospect but Raiders has always been, and I suspect always will be, a favourite film of mine because it isn’t trying to depict the people and places of that era as anything other than an ugly mess of conflicting ideologies and desires. Indiana Jones is dirty old man and didn’t have much to do with finding the Lost Ark, correct. Well spotted. But this kind of facile observation is precisely WHY Raider of the Lost Ark is so damn good and why the Big Bang Theory is so damn bad.