Posted May 29, 2021
By Jim Amrhein
Indiana Jonesing for America’s Identity
Raiders of the Lost Ark is my all-time favorite motion picture.
And speaking as a lifelong and still-active movie buff, I can’t imagine it will ever fall from this top spot in my eyes. But this is not just because Raiders is such a perfect film — and ranked on all sorts of “greatest ever” lists compiled by people with way more cinematic cred than I’ll ever have…
It’s because of how uniquely American I’ve always perceived the movie to be. I don’t mean this solely in the sense that it was conceived and made by great filmmakers who hail from the U.S., like Spielberg, Lucas and Kasdan.
I’m also referring to certain elements of a quintessential American identity I’ve always seen in the movie’s plot, storytelling, and characters. In its iconic score, too, of course. Thanks to John Williams — the indisputable movie-music GOAT — Indy’s theme drips with red-white-and-blue guts, gumption, and triumphant boldness.
I bring all this up because June 12th will mark the 40th anniversary of the release of Raiders of the Lost Ark. And I’m apprehensive about how this event will be portrayed in certain very influential circles of the modern media. As much as I love the movie, I’m actually hoping this occasion largely escapes notice.
That’s because — like what’s happened to so many other things lately (history, freedom, masculinity, femininity, dissent, national pride, comedy, etc.) — I worry about this brilliant and important film getting “cancelled” by all the narcissistic little commie-larvae that pass for social commentators, in what now passes for America.
That would be a very bad thing. Because if ever younger generations of Americans needed to re-identify with some of the core traits that made their nation great, it’s now. And some of these traits are on full display in Raiders.
Many talk about how important this film is — but few talk about how important its driving themes are
No discussion of Raiders of the Lost Ark is complete without at least acknowledging its groundbreaking superiority as an exercise in moviemaking. I know I’m not alone in saying that it’s perhaps the most perfect blend of action, laughs, gravitas, homage, excitement, and sheer, unbridled entertainment ever to grace the screen. And romance, too, as we’ll talk more about in a moment.
For me, a somewhat detached fellow by nature, it’s also amazingly emotional to watch this movie. That may be at least partially because of nostalgia. But it’s the cinematography, story, and music, too. It’s really the whole package.
Case in point: I defy anyone to watch the map room scene — that’s when Indy uses the Staff of Ra to pinpoint the precise location of the Ark — without getting goose-bumps. It’s a perfect four-minute slice of cinematic heaven.
I also dare you not to cheer at the scene in which Indy swims from Katanga’s steamer, the Bantu Wind, to the German U-boat in dogged pursuit of both the Ark and Marion (but mostly Marion, as I’ll shortly prove). And of course, when he takes off after the heavily-armed German convoy on a stolen horse with just a whip, a pistol, and his huge American testic— er, resolve.
In both these scenes, Indy strikes out boldly after an objective, without hesitation, without regard for his own safety, and without anything like a firm plan. He simply knows that if he doesn't get killed, he can get the job done somehow. In my view, this speaks to a uniquely American mix of determination, courage, and confidence.
The phrase “Yankee ingenuity” comes in part from this cocksure can-do mentality. It speaks to the ability — and the will, just as importantly — to do great or improbable things on the fly, with only the resources at hand. When you study the life stories of many great Americans, you often find this same mix of traits.
And doesn’t it sort of remind you of something else, too? Like maybe the pillars of the U.S. Marine Corp’s modus operandi? Improvise, adapt, and overcome. That’s Indiana Jones, up one side and down the other.
Some critics and commentators have argued that Jones is more plunderer than archaeologist. They have a valid point, too. At the very least, he’s flirting with this line. In Raiders, when Belloq — the villainous Frenchman and Nazi collaborator — claims to be “a shadowy reflection” of Indy, he’s right…
Jones is ambitious to a fault, and more than a little cynical. Like he tells Dr. Brody early in the film, Indy doesn’t believe in the divine power of the Ark, or any other artifact. To him, they’re all just historical big game to be stalked, taken down, mounted, and displayed in his professional trophy room, the National Museum.
He also clearly doesn’t care about being considered somewhat of a mercenary. The Army intelligence men who hire Indy call him as much when they first meet him, and he doesn’t bat an eyelid. If Washington wants to pay him a lot of money to bag the “bogeyman” of relics to psyche out Hitler, that’s fine with him on all counts.
Good or bad, I see this sort of detached ambition as an American trait. Perhaps not exclusively, but prominently. Same with not giving a crap what anyone else thinks. In my view, self-reliance and general distrust for others’ judgment is arguably part of the quintessential American DNA. A lot of monumental things have happened in our great nation because of this trait. Some terrible things, too. And some just plain stupid things. A guy names Custer comes to mind...
That’s all part of the American mix, though. We’re not a perfect people. We never have been, and we never will be. We’re not supposed to be, either. That’s the thing the axe-grinding virtue fascists who seem to run the show nowadays just don’t get. Nobody’s perfect. Not you, not me, and certainly not Indiana Jones.
But true Americans are always striving to be just a little more perfect, like it says in the Constitution. That’s really the American Way. The way of change, for the better. True Americans know that perfection is unattainable, but that betterment is our duty, individually and collectively.
Jones certainly changes for the better over the course of Raiders of the Lost Ark. He gains perspective on the difference between ambition and principle. He learns that there’s more to life than the quest, and the conquest. He discovers that the relics he seeks are not just historical trophies — they can be objects of awesome power. And he comes to realize how important love and loyalty are. I actually think Indy’s change is most profoundly evident in this aspect of the story…
For instance, when Jones tracks down Marion in Nepal and finds out her father (Abner Ravenwood, Indy’s former mentor) is dead, he basically tries to hustle her out of the second-most important artifact in the world at that moment — the headpiece to the Staff of Ra, key to finding the Ark of the Covenant.
In case you don’t remember the scene, he calls it a “worthless bronze medallion” and offers her a low-ball $3,000 for it — shameless, considering its pivotal importance. He doesn’t even offer to take her back to the states, for Pete’s sake!
Yes, minutes after their negotiation, he saves her from ruthless Nazi thugs seeking the same artifact. But it’s unclear whether he does it out of concern for her, or to protect his own conduit to obtaining the piece for himself.
Later in the movie, however, it becomes obvious that Indy’s main concern has become Marion, rather than the Ark. When he believes that she’s been killed in Cairo, for instance, a despondent Indy is stopped at the last second from straight-up murdering Belloq over it, even though it means his own certain death.
Also remember that until the Ark’s true power is revealed at the end of the movie, Indy doesn’t believe in its ability to do much of anything but burnish his laurels and further our knowledge of history. In other words, Jones doesn’t believe that Hitler and his army will become invincible simply because they possess the Ark, like the scriptures warn.
So when the Nazis recapture the Ark from the Bantu Wind, Indy doesn’t have all that much incentive to continue pursuing it at mortal peril. Yet still, he jumps from the deck of the steamer, swims to the U-boat, and somehow secretes himself on it for the journey to God-knows-where. That’s a big, big risk to take.
Why does he do it?
It’s clear to me that he does it mainly for Marion, rather than the Ark. He can’t bear the thought of her once again in the evil clutches of Belloq and that cackling, sadistic Gestapo hyena Toht. So he takes his extremely slim chances with the sea, the sun, and the German army.
Same deal once he gets to the island. Jones knows there’s no escape unless he can somehow force the Nazis into a bargain, and pray that they honor it. Of course, he also knows that’s about as close to a zero percent chance as you can get. But he lays it all on the line anyway…
Indy picks his moment and threatens to blow up the Ark, depriving Hitler of his prize, if he and Marion aren’t released and given safe passage off the island. “That depends on how reasonable we’re all willing to be,” Jones says, his rocket launcher trained on the Ark. “All I want is the girl.”
If you’ll remember, Belloq calls the bluff, and Indy backs down. But not because he secretly wants to see the Ark opened, as Belloq suggests. Again, Jones is not religious or superstitious. He doesn’t care what’s in the Ark, because at that point in the story, he still believes it to be meaningless…
I think Indy backs down simply because if he blows up the Ark, Marion will surely die. Either in that moment, from the rocket itself — or later, at the hands of Belloq and the Nazis. If he stays his hand, however, there may still be a chance that she’ll be spared somehow, even if he most certainly will not.
Again, the point is that over the course of the story, Indiana Jones changes from someone who wouldn’t hesitate to cheat and hustle a woman — even one he once knew intimately — into someone who can love so utterly as to risk almost certain death, repeatedly, in exchange for the faintest glimmer of hope that she (or dare he hope, they) might live.
This is an aspect of Raiders of the Lost Ark that I can’t recall anyone really ever focusing too much on…
For all its adventure and import, I see Raiders as a love story at its heart
And Marion is so worth it, too.
Whatever downy innocent she once may have been when Indy did whatever he did with her back in the day — as a woman in full, she has become Jones’ equal in every way. She’s every bit as resourceful, self-reliant, and formidable as he is.
Case in point: Within seconds of reacquainting with Indy, she decks him for being careless with her heart a decade earlier. Then she bends him over for an extra two grand on the deal, and kicks him out of her bar without promising a thing. And after more than holding her own in the barroom shootout (she saves Indy’s bacon in that fight, too — twice), she muscles her way into a full-on partnership with him.
Marion’s also just as willing as Jones to use every available advantage, play a little dirty, and even kill when necessary. In fact, if you add them up carefully, I’m pretty sure her body count in Raiders is bigger than his!
Yes, Marion is the archetypal tough American broad, any way you cut it. Yet she’s also the moral center of the entire story, in my opinion. Even though Jones tries to cheat her, destroys her livelihood (the bar in Nepal), and leaves her tied up to be interrogated by Belloq and Toht in the camp at Tanis…
She keeps mum, does her part for the cause, and doesn’t throw Indy under the bus, even though she could profit greatly from it, not to mention save her own life. Instead, she saves his life, time and again, despite her ambivalence toward him. And after all the bleeding and shooting and shouting is over, she forgives him, too.
Call me anachronistic, but these are some of the reasons why I consider Marion Ravenwood to be a heroic character of the highest order. One that younger Americans — male, female, or “other” — can all look up to in many ways.
That’s partly why I’m so apprehensive about Raiders getting cancelled next month over a backstory that might include a consensual affair between a man and a young woman that she comes to regret, and clearly harbors resentment about. These days, that’s territory you don’t come back from easily, even in fiction…
To be clear, I’m not minimizing the gravity of such a thing, in stories or in life. I’m simply saying that like Marion did, in many cases we really can work through — one way or another — the unintentional damage others have done to us long ago, and move on with our lives. I know this firsthand, because I’ve done it myself.
I’m also saying that like Indy did, we can redeem ourselves of mistakes we’ve made or character flaws we have. Redemption. Comebacks. Second acts. Second chances. Do-overs. These are common American themes. Or at least they were, until the woke army showed up and started teaching us to condemn and cancel and ruin each other’s lives over past transgressions and mistakes.
Another way in which I see Raiders as a uniquely American film is its portrayal of the government
In the movie, Washington needs help from the experts and academics in the private sector to achieve their goals. That’s the way it used to be in America, for the most part. Yet predictably, when the bureaucrats finally get ahold of the Ark, they stonewall those same experts, and totally botch its handling…
Point being, government is a cumbersome, wasteful, misguided, and none-too-bright machine with too much money and power for its own good. Jones, Marion, and Brody learn this the hard way, when the Ark ends up in a wooden crate, stacked with thousands of other, similar crates in an Army warehouse.
This is a perspective on government that Americans would do well to keep front-of-mind, especially these days — as it’s growing like an aggressive tumor. Yet you don’t often see it so starkly portrayed in movies anymore.
I could keep you enthralled for another hour with this sort of stuff, for real…
But I’m way long here, and it’s time to wrap up. So I’ll leave you with one final note on why I love Raiders of the Lost Ark so much. If I had to boil it down to just one thing, it would be how human Indiana Jones is, as a character. Unlike so many movie heroes, he’s not a paragon of virtue, as we’ve already discussed. And he’s the farthest thing from a superhero, physically.
He gets beaten up, thrown around, shot, dragged, and otherwise abused pretty much constantly. Yet still he just keeps on coming. Indy’s persistent in the extreme. I see that as sort of American, too. I also love the fact that other than his use of a bullwhip from time to time, there’s nothing all that special about the way Indy does things. I love the fact that he’s not a crack shot, or even a very good fist-fighter. And that he’s afraid of snakes…
To me, Indiana Jones is a regular guy. What makes him special is that he’s willing to risk everything, every minute, for whatever he’s going after at the time. Sometimes that’s something good and right and noble, and sometimes it isn’t. But either way, he gives it everything he’s got — even if he’s hurt, tired, and scared.
That all seems awfully American to me, too.
Freedoms Editor, Whiskey & Gunpowder