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Indiana Jones and the Misunderstood Character Arc

Indiana Jones and the Misunderstood Character Arc

Back in October 2013, an episode of The Big Bang Theory ruined Raiders
of the Lost Ark
for many of its fans. In the episode, the geeky Sheldon
shows the movie (one of his “all-time favorites”) to his new girlfriend, Amy.
The moment the credits start to roll, he turns excitedly to ask her what she
thought of the film (as well as his taste). Her reaction is not what he had hoped
for. “It was good,” she shrugs, clearly underwhelmed. “It was very
entertaining. Except for the glaring story problem.” Incredulous, Sheldon insists
that Amy explain; she replies: “Indiana Jones plays no role in the outcome of
the story. If he weren’t in the film, it would turn out exactly the same. […] The
Nazis would have still found the ark, taken it to the island, opened it up, and
all died. Just like they did.” Sheldon’s mouth drops, followed by the mouths of
geeks worldwide. Amy’s criticism was picked up and passed around the Web, as writers
at various fan sites chimed in to voice their opinions on how the episode had gutted
Indiana Jones. At What Culture, Simon Gallagher explained “How
the Big Bang Theory Ruined Indiana Jones For Everyone
,” while at Cinemablend, Kristy Puchko asked, “Has
Big Bang Theory Ruined Indiana Jones Forever?
” (Such hyperbole is
typical of geek culture.) Suddenly, a previously undetected story problem was
eating away at the fabric of geekdom itself. But the problem, despite all the
hullaballoo, is that there is no problem, and there never was.

 

Amy’s argument, essentially, is that Indy isn’t a good protagonist
because he doesn’t advance the film’s plot. At the climax of the movie, he ends
up tied to a post, and doesn’t do anything to beat the Nazis. According to this
argument, he’s not a true hero because he fails to save the day by, say, punching
someone, or rigging an explosion. Instead, God steps in and wipes out Indy’s
foes, a modern-day version of deus ex
machina
.

But this argument fundamentally misunderstands the central
conflict in Raiders of the Lost Ark,
and what the film is ultimately about. To be sure, the Nazis are Indy’s
antagonists, and he struggles with them throughout the film. His motives stand
in clear contrast to theirs, and one of his goals is to stop them from
unearthing the lost Ark of the Covenant for their own nefarious ends. (Hitler’s
army, with the Ark at its forefront, would be unstoppable.) But Indiana Jones’s
true struggle isn’t ultimately with the Nazis, but with something else.

Let’s consider who Indiana Jones is. He’s a man of science,
an archaeologist who travels the world digging up priceless artifacts, then
putting them in museums—which is where, he repeatedly and gruffly insists, those
artifacts belong. In other words, Indy is devoted to uncovering the past,
bringing its remains to light, and adding them to the stockpile of human
knowledge. This is why he’s incensed by mercenary archaeologists like his rival
René Belloq, who work for private collectors; it’s also why he opposes the
Nazis, who would use the Ark as a weapon, and a tool of oppression. Belloq and
the Nazis might do archaeology, but their goal isn’t the enrichment of all humankind.
For Indy, securing an artifact for a museum is to secure it for everybody, to
put it on display where anyone can see it, and learn from it. (Of course, this ignores
the colonialist, imperialist aspects of archaeology, especially archaeology of
the 1930s, but let’s save that critique for another day.)

It’s with this goal in mind—the enrichment of public
knowledge via science—that Indy enters into a race against the Nazis. Can he
find the Ark before they do? But his primary struggle remains a conflict with himself. His arc, if you will (pun
intended), comes to a crisis when his devotion to science is tested, and he’s
confronted with the limits of secular, experiential knowledge.

Early in the film, Indy makes it clear that he doesn’t
believe in the legends surrounding the Ark. When explaining what the artifact is
to some visiting FBI agents, he calls it “the chest the Hebrews used to carry
around the Ten Commandments …  the actual
Ten Commandments, the original stone tablets that Moses brought down out of
Mount Horeb and smashed—if you believe in that sort of thing.” A little later, while
studying a picture of the Ark, the agents ask, “What’s that supposed to be
coming out of there?” Indy replies, “Lightning … fire … the power of God, or
something.” He agrees to locate the Ark before the Nazis do, but his
motivation is, as usual, to secure a great new piece for Marshall College’s museum.
As soon as the FBI agents leave, he confirms with his colleague Marcus Brody that the school’s museum
will get the Ark.

Brody chastises his friend, however, for taking the matter
too lightly: “For nearly three thousand years man has been searching for the
lost ark. It’s not something to be taken lightly. No one knows its secrets.
It’s like nothing you’ve ever gone after before.” Indy’s reaction couldn’t be
more flippant. Laughing, he says, “Oh, Marcus! What are you trying to do, scare
me? You sound like my mother. We’ve known each other for a long time. I don’t
believe in magic, a lot of superstitious hocus pocus. I’m going after a find of
incredible historical significance; you’re talking about the boogie man.
Besides, you know what a cautious fellow I am.” On that note, Indy tosses his
revolver into his suitcase. It’s a brilliant character moment in more ways than
one. Obviously Indy is a tough guy who can take care of himself in a scrap. But
he also believes that any threat he meets will be mortal—not divine.

The Ark, to Indy, is an artifact like any other. It’s rarer,
perhaps, and more celebrated, but it’s something made by man, and mystified by
human stories. His nonchalant manner regarding the artifact’s divine power
stands in exact contrast to his friend Sallah, who truly respects the Ark’s supernatural
power. Sallah echoes Marcus Brody’s warning to Indy, claiming, “It is not
something man was meant to disturb. Death has always surrounded it. It is not
of this earth.”

Lest any of this reading seem like embellishment, the
question of Indiana’s faith was central for Harrison Ford, who scribbled notes
in the margins of his script, wondering whether Indy was “a believer.” Recall
also Belloq’s line to Indy, when our hero is standing above him with a grenade
launcher, threatening to blow up the Ark. Belloq calls his rival’s bluff,
saying, “All your life has been spent in pursuit of archaeological relics.
Inside the Ark are treasures beyond your wildest aspirations. You want to see
it opened as well as I.”

Indy’s lack of faith is directly challenged at the climax of
the film, when the Nazis secure the Ark. He and Marion Ravencroft watch as the
villains prepare to open the chest—going so far as to document the moment on
film—and their hubris proves instructive. Whereas the Nazis believe
themselves to be God, or even superior to God, Indy realizes that he must
choose a different course of action. Famously, when the Ark is finally opened,
he shouts to Marion that she should close her eyes. In other words, at the very
moment when they are finally able to look upon the artifact they’ve been
chasing, Indy chooses to look away—to refuse to observe. He has come to agree
with Sallah that the Ark is a thing divine, and embodies knowledge that humans
are not supposed to have.

To misunderstand this is to misunderstand Indiana’s
character, and the whole point of the story. Ultimately, Raiders of the Lost Ark is a film about the limits of science, about its hero reaching a boundary where one kind
of knowledge (empiricism) breaks down, only to be replaced by a different kind
of knowledge (religion, faith). Unlike the Nazis, unlike Belloq, Indy humbles
himself, and makes what the film considers the right decision: to close his
eyes before God.

If there is a “glaring story problem” with the Indiana Jones
films, it’s that this basic conflict gets repeated in all of the movies. Temple of Doom, Last Crusade, and Kingdom of
the Crystal Skull
all effectively reset Indiana to square one, despite the
lessons he’s learned elsewhere. In each film, Indy starts out a man of science,
incredulous in the face of some greater power, only to relearn humility. Indeed,
the ending of Last Crusade depicts
him once again learning this lesson. Even worse, Temple of Doom takes place chronologically before Raiders, which means that Indy already
had some experience with the divine before setting out after the Ark—albeit the
divine of a different faith. (A separate article could be written on the
challenges that Temple poses to the monotheism
of Judaism.) To gripe about any of that would be a complaint worthy of a true geek,
rather than the weak tea with which the pretend nerds on Big Bang Theory flummox one another.

But of course, Raiders
got made first, and told the story best. Its crystal-skull-clear dramatization of
Indy’s crisis of faith—and his triumph via humility—is an essential part of why
it’s the greatest Indiana Jones film.

A.D Jameson is the author
of three books:
  Amazing Adult Fantasy (Mutable Sound, 2011), Giant Slugs (Lawrence and Gibson, 2011), and 99 Things to Do When You Have the Time (Compendium Inc., 2013). Other
writing of his has appeared
at
Big
Other
and HTMLGIANT, as well as in dozens of literary journals. Since August 2011 he’s been a PhD student at the University of Illinois at
Chicago. He is currently writing a book on geek cinema. Follow him on Twitter at
@adjameson.

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