My wife recently picked up the first three Indiana Jones movies at a garage sale, and my boys have loved watching them, discovering the movies that I remember fondly from my years growing up. Of late, anything—a piece of rope, a broken bead necklace—has become an instant stand-in for Jones’ whip in our house.
In the first movie, I recall so well how Indy fought all the Arabs, punching and whipping his way free as he searched for the kidnapped Marion. Then that deadly swordsman appeared, twirling his blades madly. Oh, the humor and perfection in that moment when Indy pulled out his gun and shot the bad guy. Harrison Ford actually came up with the idea when, bored after too many takes, he did just that. One of those cherished moments from my childhood movie memories.
As a recent NPR piece on Indiana Jones and archaeology put it, Dr. Jones is “handsome, and he can beat up most anybody. He’s definitely a stud — with tenure.” But is he saving history or stealing it?
The Story on Archaeology
Archaeologist Winifred Creamer makes no bones about it: “You could say Indiana Jones is the worst thing to happen to archaeology, because Indiana Jones has no respect for anybody and anything. Indiana Jones walks a fine line between what’s an archaeologist and what’s a professional looter.”
But Creamer also confesses that students love Indiana Jones. As one student puts it, “I thought it was damn cool. I wanted to do that… (Indy) does everything that all archaeologists would like to do. Go on crazy adventures, fight bad people, not steal stuff but save it from being destroyed by the bad guys.”
That becomes a hook for Creamer: “They come in thinking that they are going to talk about pyramids and gold and serious cool stuff. Instead, people want to talk about tree-ring dating and radiocarbon dating and the atmosphere, so some are really turned off by it. Others are intrigued by puzzling out an answer and the problem-solving aspect of it, and some of them stick around.”
Creamer notes that a “true archaeologist is more interested in the context” of the whole tomb, rather than destroying it to get one artifact. The tomb can tell us about life in a past culture—that is our true treasure. And that treasure comes through the gathering of data, not pieces to show off. Rather than tomb raiding, it’s painstaking excavations. This type of good science, coupled with modern-day anthropological comparisons, tells us a lot more than solving the mystery of one covenant on film.
Indy and Science
Love vs. the worst thing, destruction vs. truth—obviously anthropologists are ambivalent about Indiana Jones. The archaeologist Cornelius Holtorf writes in The New Scientist that “Indiana Jones Is No Bad Thing For Science.” This charismatic hero gives the field popularity. What other fields have such a great figure to attract interest? And, besides, just as with sci-fi movies and real space travel, audiences can distinguish between fact and fiction.
But as Holtorf also notes:
What weighs far more seriously is the criticism that elements of the film scripts communicate highly objectionable values. The adventures of Indiana Jones are premised on an imperial world in which western archaeologists routinely travel to the far corners of the globe in order to retrieve precious artefacts and save the world from Evil, giving the impression that the world is dependent on intervention from the west. Moreover, the films draw on a long cinematic tradition of portraying archaeology as the domain of white, heterosexual, able-bodied and comprehensively talented men who live though action-packed adventures in foreign countries.
Indiana Jones now sounds like Anakin Skywalker before he turned to the Dark Side. He is the symbolic agent of a larger war—women, indigenous peoples, sacred tombs, all just things to be used as Dr. Jones sees fit. Things that ideally belong in a museum. It’s because Indiana Jones is an agent of oppression, Western male dominance riding on the back of capitalistic entertainment, fedora and whip serving as handy props to keep us distracted from the real struggles that define freedom and servitude in this world. As Indy quips to Marion, “I never meant to hurt you.” But he did.
Ultimately Holtorf comes down on the positive side in his essay: “Archaeology has far more to gain from being associated with characters like Indiana Jones than it has to fear. Public enthusiasm for the films attracts many bright young students to the field, as well as creating goodwill and occasionally providing fund-raising opportunities.”
Archaeologists “are often driven by the same spirit of adventure that epitomises Indiana Jones… [And] like their professors, students tend to consider fieldwork under tough conditions pleasurable, taking any opportunity to tell each other of hardships encountered and hazards lived through. Even for seasoned scholars, the best rewards for hard work are spectacular discoveries, and it helps when they are made of precious metal.”
Still, everyone knows that the Indiana Jones movies were never about the science. It was about entertainment, heroism, good and evil, and adventure. Indy was based after the swashbuckling and space faring heroes in the comic rags, adventure serials, Saturday matinees, and cheap sci-fi books of the 1950s, a yearning for yesteryear, for a good man who fought on, no matter what the odds. And, of course, saved the day.
And, no surprise, that’s what Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is about (according to my inside info at Entertainment Weekly): the fight against “greed, abduction, the Cold War, anticommunist fervor, torture, [and] theft.”
In that fight, Indiana Jones becomes the hero for our times, more humane, full of humor and mistakes, with inner resolve. Here is Harrison Ford speaking recently of his character:
[Ford] finds Indy much more interesting than Han Solo — especially since Indy’s mortality has always been a key part of his appeal. ”One of the pleasures is that we allow him to get in too deep,” Ford says. ”He’s in over his head and has to pull himself out. A character without fear or with no sense of his own inadequacy would be a pain in the ass to be around.” Time to embrace our own foolish, feeble humanity again — and Indiana Jones, courtesy of a buff sexagenarian, is here to show us how.
The buff sexagenarian, with girlfriend and sidekick in toe, faces off against a formidable villain, and thus takes us through “a familiar recipe of thrilling chases, spectacular stunts, mystical symbols, ancient civilizations and jokes about Jones’s fear of snakes. But [the film] also ventures into the realms of extra terrestrials and parallel worlds, and tackles issues including McCarthyism in the United States in the 1950s, the destructive power of nuclear weapons and even the disappearance of forests in the Amazon.”
This rollicking combination is what is so attractive to my sons, with the whip to put it all in hand. The whip is something they can act out, and all the rest can take place in their imagination. Stereotypes, entertainment, morality, aliens and all.
In filmmaking the MacGuffin is just an empty plot device, something to drive the characters forward. Here’s Wikipedia: “The element that distinguishes a MacGuffin from other types of plot devices is that it is not important what the object specifically is. Anything that serves as a motivation will do. The MacGuffin might even be ambiguous. Its importance is accepted by the story’s characters, but it does not actually have any effect on the story. It can be generic or left open to interpretation.”
It was Hitchcock who immortalized this approach to story telling in film, as BFI Screeononline notes:
The whole point of the MacGuffin is that it is irrelevant. In Hitchcock’s own words, the MacGuffin is: “the device, the gimmick, if you will, or the papers the spies are after… The only thing that really matters is that in the picture the plans, documents or secrets must seem to be of vital importance to the characters. To me, the narrator, they’re of no importance whatsoever.”
And George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, what does they have to say, via our trusty Entertainment Weekly?
INT: So what took so long to get to installment No. 4? It’s been 19 years since Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, the last of the original trilogy of films.
LUCAS: When we got to [the idea of making a fourth] one, I had already said, ”No. I can’t think of another MacGuffin.”
INT: Meaning, the mystical thingy everyone is chasing.
LUCAS: I said, ”I can’t do it. It’s too hard.” We barely got through the last couple of ‘em with smoke and mirrors. Sankara stones, for God’s sakes? ….
LUCAS: …It wasn’t until the idea of introducing the father came along that we kind of pulled [the third movie] out of the fire. Because it then shifted from being about the MacGuffin. But ultimately, these are supernatural mysteries. They aren’t action adventures. Everybody thinks they’re action-adventure films, but that’s just the genre we hang them on.
SPIELBERG: There’s not one that hasn’t been supernatural.
LUCAS: The supernatural part has to be real. [He taps the table] Which is why they’re very hard, and you run out [of options] very fast. You have to have a supernatural object that people actually believe in. People believe that there was an Ark of the Covenant, and it has these powers. Same thing with the Sankara stones, same thing with the Holy Grail. We may have exaggerated some of its powers, but basically there are people who believe there is a Holy Grail, brought back by the Knights Templar.
And the Crystal Skull certainly falls into that domain. In this Indy movie the Skull seems to have mind control powers. And if we know one thing, Indy has a strong and resilient mind, a mind that trusts itself to get out of scraps. Well, with a gun to help!
The point here is that the movies are built around MacGuffins, plots devices cum objects that serve to drive everything along—but open to interpretation by the audience.
In real life Indiana Jones is a wonderful cultural MacGuffin—all those ambivalent interpretations by us anthropologists and by teenagers and by women. It’s the essence of a symbol, material and image melded together, shimmering with symbolism.
Most anthropologists espouse a holistic approach, the need for varying interpretations and theoretical approaches. It’s not always easy. Like other frail humans seized by a sense of adventure, we often want to reduce our realities to one thing, certain and firm. Just follow our own particular MacGuffin—Indy is good for science or bad for science, Indy is fun fantasy or imperialistic stereotype.
But the magic of the Indiana Jones series is how it brings together entertainment, capitalism, storytelling, and science in a way that resonates more than any single piece alone. My kids embody that—their own materialist MacGuffin in a piece of rope, and all the rest about imagination and fun. And maybe buying the latest Indiana Jones Lego, because I’m not getting an actual bullwhip.