[Editor's Note: Press Play is proud to present Chapter 6 of our first video essay series in direct partnership with IndieWire: Magic and Light: The Films of Steven Spielberg. This series examines facets of Spielberg's movie career, including his stylistic evolution as a director, his depiction of violence, his interest in communication and language, his portrayal of authority and evil, and the importance of father figures — both present and absent — throughout his work.
Magic and Light is produced by Press Play founder and Salon TV critic Matt Zoller Seitz and coproduced and narrated by Ali Arikan, chief film critic of Dipknot TV, Press Play contributor, and one of Roger Ebert's Far Flung Correspondents. The Spielberg series brings many of Press Play's writers and editors together on a single long-form project. Individual episodes were written by Seitz, Arikan, Simon Abrams and Aaron Aradillas, and cut by Steven Santos, Serena Bramble, Matt Zoller Seitz, Richard Seitz and Kevin B. Lee. To watch Chapter 1: Introduction, go here. To watch Chapter 2: Blood & Pulp, go here. To watch Chapter 3: Communication, click here. To watch Chapter 4: Evil & Authority, click here. To watch Chapter 5: Father Figures, click here. ]
What does it mean to be a father? What does it mean to come of age without a father? These questions have been at the center of many Steven Spielberg films. Both light entertainments and dark historical dramas have considered them.
The director’s evolving views on fathers and fatherhood are on surprisingly vivid display in the Indiana Jones series, which were produced by his longtime friend and Star Wars mogul George Lucas. Taken as a whole, the films feel like markers in Spielberg’s maturation.
Raiders of the Lost Ark introduces us to Indiana Jones, an archeologist who is more excited by grave-robbing and cheating death than by lecturing to Ivy League students. Indy holds a position of authority at the university, but were it not for the fact that he’s somewhat older than most of his charges and stands at the front of a classroom, he could be mistaken for a student.
There is no clear parental figure or even parental influence in the film. If anything, Indy is in his late thirties but has no visible entanglements. He even seems to treat his home merely as a crash pad, a base of operations.
When Indy decides to go looking for the Ark of the Covenant, he is cautioned by his older colleague of its power – the power of God, the ultimate father – and warned that maybe it shouldn’t be disturbed. Indy’s response is a blithe dismissal.
In later films we will learn that Indy has taken on the vocation of his father as a way to impress, and then one-up, the old man, a stern and distant academic. In Raiders, Indy is presented as almost a runaway kid, a grown-up Bowery Boy who doesn’t give much thought to others. He possesses the shallowness of youth, complete with the clichéd woman in every port. He’s a heartbreaker, this one.
The most uncomfortably adult moment in the film might be the scene where he re-encounters his great love, Marion. We learn that he loved and left her cruelly, and that she was much younger than he was. Their affair ended badly enough to drive Marion to go tend bar in the Himalayas. There’s an unsavory hint of cradle-robbing.
Although chronologically it’s a prequel, the hard-edged Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom is actually a direct continuation of Spielberg’s coming to terms with adulthood.
Made on the eve of his marriage to Amy Irving — a marriage that would eventually end in divorce, and a second marriage to Temple of Doom costar Kate Capshaw — Spielberg channels the hesitation that can paralyze some men when deciding to make the ultimate commitment. The entire movie positions Indy in relation to various configurations of family – good and evil, functional and dysfunctional. The film is dotted with images of fathers, from the Chinese gangster Indy barters with to the dignified general who protects the palace to the numerous guards in the Thugee cult. And the entire story is infused with a son’s primal fear that his father will fail him — and a father’s primal fear that he’ll let his wife and children down.
The movie finds the hero slowly forming his own bickering makeshift family, with Indiana Jones as reluctant, grouchy father, nightclub singer Willie Scott as mother, and orphaned pickpocket Short Round as their son. Early in the film we’re casually informed that Short Round’s parents were killed in a bombing. Willie could be a gold-digging female equivalent of Indy, an eternal teenager who’s mainly interested in having fun and acquiring nice things. Three people who are used to living alone and relying only on themselves are thrown together, and forced to depend on each other to survive. Their trivial concerns will be beaten and burned out of them, in the Indiana Jones film which for long stretches is essentially a horror movie.
When Indy, Willie, and Short Round come across a village, they discover all of the children have been kidnapped and forced into slave labor in the mines of the Thugee cult. In effect, the bad guys in this film have made the entire village childless, and turned all the kids into orphans by kidnapping them.
The image of the cult is like a child’s nightmare made real as it consists of nothing but horrible, evil fathers. When Indy is forced to drink a potion he comes under the spell of the cult and his behavior is that of an abusive alcoholic dad.
Temple of Doom, along with Gremlins – which Spielberg produced, and which was also released that same summer – represent Spielberg’s final hurrah as a pure pop storyteller. These are tonally very strange movies, by turns charming and vicious, buoyant and horrific. When he directed the movie in the summer of 1983, Spielberg was edging up on 40, star Harrison Ford was actually turning 40, and George Lucas was dealing with the fallout from a painful and costly divorce. There’s a sense of looking backward on innocence, and forward, toward something darker.
In the 5 years between Temple of Doom and Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade Spielberg had become a father himself. The film’s opening origin sequence shows Indy risking life and limb to get his father’s approval, only to be dismissed when he tries to show his dad his big discovery. His newfound understanding of what that means can be seen in the way that the film presents Indy’s relationship with his own father, a brilliant but rather distant man whom Indy instinctively calls “Sir.”
Like Roy Neary in Close Encounters, Indy’s father is obsessed with a vision, in this case the location of the Holy Grail – the cup from which Jesus Christ, perhaps theology’s most piteously suffering son, drank during the last supper.
While the elder Jones didn’t literally abandon his family to pursue his obsession, we have no doubt that a lot of the time when Indy was growing up, the old man was mentally or emotionally checked-out. You can see it in the way they communicate – or more accurately, don’t communicate.
Estranged from his father for years, the two are forced to work together when the Nazis attempt to also find the Grail.
Their rivalry is a constant source of father-son friction. It even plays out in Freudian ways as they sleep with the same woman.
In earlier films Spielberg might’ve been more inclined to empathize with Indy’s resentment towards his absentee dad. But in the scene in which Indy tries to lay a guilt trip on his dad, and his dad grows impatient with such childish complaints, Spielberg’s identification is with pretty clearly with the father.
For Spielberg, hanging onto resentment and anger over a parent’s failings is ultimately pointless, a sign that one has failed to evolve. At the same time, though, The Last Crusade acknowledges that a father is still capable of learning late in life, and that for good of both father and child, such evolution is desirable, and necessary.
When Indy is hanging on for dear life as he attempts to grab hold of the Grail, his father gives him one last order. The son puts his pride aside and listens. And it saves his life. It is the same lesson that the elder Jones had to learn – that the emotional reality of one’s family is more important than the abstract goal of pursuing one’s dream. Both father and son learn the value of letting go.
Released almost twenty years after the last Indiana Jones film, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull feels like a coda. Indy seems to be re-thinking his decisions, and having pangs of regret. Although the sixty-something Indy is still a snarling, leathery ass-kicker, and in what might be his surliest mood since the middle section of Temple of Doom, the movie’s overall tone is rueful and melancholy.
The whole story is suffused with feelings of displacement and regret. Indy is a man out of his element, and out of his time – perhaps out of time, period. Nobody who’s endured so much punishment should have lived this long. And emotionally, what has he got to show for it? Nothing. Or so he thinks….
Set in the 1950s – the decade of Spielberg’s childhood – Kingdom of the Crystal Skull shows Spielberg bringing everything full circle on both a story level and as his final musings on what he’s learned as a husband and father.
Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is about rejuvenation and the passing of knowledge. As a young man Indy thrilled to the globe-trotting search of artifacts of history without giving much thought to their historical significance. He sees them as prizes, showing little interest in context or for all that has come before him.
Indy’s discovery that he has a son forces him to realize that – in his own more physically fearless, two-fisted way – he’s as emotionally isolated as his father ever was. As he embarks on an adventure with Mutt, he doesn’t just become a father figure, he realizes he actually IS a father to the young man. He sees himself in Mutt, and tries to impart wisdom to the boy. Of course, coming out of Indiana Jones’ mouth, a lot of this sounds hilariously feeble. But he means well.
As father and son tentatively come together in order to rescue the boy’s mother – Marion, the relative baby that Indy robbed from her cradle in Raiders – their adventure becomes a meditation on a father’s legacy. It becomes
Indy’s last – and most important – adventure while simultaneously representing a son’s first step into true manhood. For Spielberg the gaining and passing of knowledge is the greatest legacy a father can give his son.
The changing of the guard – and the handing down of knowledge and wisdom – is symbolized in the film’s closing shot, which pairs Indy’s long-delayed marriage to Marion and Mutt’s final ascent into functional adulthood. There’s a gravitas to the young man’s swagger. His adventures with his mom and dad have seasoned him. For a moment we believe he might be ready to take possession of Indy’s iconic hat.
But the old man’s not done with it yet.
San Antonio-based film critic Aaron Aradillas is a contributor to The House Next Door, a contributor to Moving Image Source, and the host of “Back at Midnight,” an Internet radio program about film and television. Matt Zoller Seitz is publisher of Press Play.