Growing up, I loved the Indiana Jones movies. I hadn’t seen them in ages and recently decided to rewatch them starting with the first installment of the series: The Raiders of the Lost Ark. It didn’t go well.
I’ve always loved the silence of the opening of Raiders. There is no dialogue for a long stretch, but the stakes are conveyed. The audience knows Harrison Ford is playing the hero and that he is in a dangerous situation. It’s excellent visual storytelling. The mastery of Steven Spielberg’s filmmaking in those first several minutes rekindled my fond feelings for the film. They were quickly dashed. When Indiana Jones reaches the ancient temple, I thought to myself, “He has no right to be there.” As he breached the temple’s forbidden entrance and made his way through the labyrinth of booby traps to face the golden idol, I saw clearly the hubris and entitlement that were being presented as a spirit of adventure and courage. The idol belonged to a people — the Hovitos — and their culture. An interloper had no right to claim it to become a curiosity for the white gaze. The Hovitos were invented for the film, but the choice of how they are positioned in the story leads to the same conclusion. The Indiana Jones films romanticize colonialism and its logic of superiority and divine entitlement. Its language is that of Manifest Destiny: whatever the colonizer covets belongs to him.
Indiana Jones practices a paternalistic sort of white supremacy. Stealing the idol to put it in a museum is presented as noble — he’s safeguarding it from the real looters, like his nemesis, Rene Belloq (Paul Freeman). The notion that the people who made the idol and revere it should have a say in the matter never enters the equation. In fact, they are among Indy’s antagonists, because they had the temerity to take exception to seeing their sacred temple burgled. The benevolent white supremacy of Indiana Jones is made palatable by contrast to the more extreme, hate-fueled variation. Being juxtaposed next to Nazis shines him up. Would you rather Indy get the artifacts and place them in a museum, or would you rather they fall into the hands of evil Nazis? I’d rather all the entitled white men went back to wherever the hell they came from and left the people they were robbing alone. I’d also rather the museums return all the valuables they’d plundered to their rightful owners.
As for Indiana Jones not being so bad, think about what it means that Belloq, the villain of the story and a Nazi collaborator, at least took the time to learn the language and culture of the Hovitos instead of staging a smash and grab. There’s an argument that Belloq’s sleazy manipulation is worse, but buried somewhere in it is the notion that the Hovitos were people, who had agency, and their agency should be reckoned with. That is entirely missing in Indy’s interactions with the people whose culture he is ostensibly trying to preserve by stealing from them. I found myself rooting unreservedly for the Hovitos and their poison-tipped arrows as they chased him back to the river. I wished they’d also had the discernment to send Belloq to his grave.
In spite of my misgivings, I kept watching. Things got only worse when Indy’s latest treasure hunt takes him to Nepal. He’s looking for his mentor, but finds only the man’s daughter, Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen). She is displeased to see him, and they argue. “I was a child. I was in love,” she shouts at him. “It was wrong, and you knew it.” The absolute grotesqueness of what she was referring to had escaped me in earlier viewings. I’d assumed Marion had been one of the college co-eds, who had been making eyes at the dashing Professor Jones, and he’d taken advantage of his position of power, and their relationship precipitated his falling out with her father. It was grimy, but I never took “child” literally. Such is the power of the hero: he gets the benefit of the doubt even when the horrible truth is staring you dead in the face.
In 2009, a transcript of a story conference emerged that revealed the following disturbing exchange between George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, and Lawrence Kasdan regarding Marion’s relationship with Indy.
Lucas: I was thinking that this old guy could have been his mentor. He could have known this little girl when she was just a kid. Had an affair with her when she was eleven.
Kasdan: And he was forty-two.
Lucas: He hasn’t seen her in twelve years. Now she’s twenty-two. It’s a real strange relationship.
Spielberg: She had better be older than twenty-two.
Lucas: He’s thirty-five, and he knew her ten years ago when he was twenty-five and she was only twelve. It would be amusing to make her slightly young at the time.
Spielberg: And promiscuous. She came onto him.
Lucas: Fifteen is right on the edge. I know it’s an outrageous idea, but it is interesting. Once she’s sixteen or seventeen it’s not interesting anymore. But if she was fifteen and he was twenty-five and they actually had an affair the last time they met. And she was madly in love with him and he…
Spielberg: She has pictures of him.
A grown man doesn’t have “an affair” with an eleven, twelve, or fifteen year-old. A grown man violates a child. The notion that there’s anything “amusing” about the scenario is vile, as is the excuse that “She came onto him.” What horrified me the most as I watched the film, was that I’d heard about the transcript in 2009, but I’d forgotten about it until I saw Marion confront Indy. The story was somewhat hot for a moment, then it vanished quickly, as they always do, and the sands of time buried it. I can’t keep the database of these transgressions straight in my head. There are too many entries. They all start to run together after a while, and that’s part of what people count on to slide — as is the benefit of the doubt we extend to people we’ve been conditioned to admire, like Lucas and Spielberg. There’s a reason that concept is embedded so deeply into works like Raiders of the Lost Ark.
After the confrontation between Marion and Indy, I stopped watching and couldn’t continue. Not when I remembered the way the abuse was brushed aside and she ended up falling in love with him — absolving him and allowing him to continue to wear the mantle of the good guy. All the harm and pain that peeked out a bit through Marion’s alcoholism is just brushed aside, so Indy can remain unbesmirched in the audience’s eyes — the eyes of children, for whom the property was conceived and to whom it was marketed.
It was dispiriting, being made to consider how thoroughly propagandized I’d been as a child by the entertainment I’d consumed. The work of undoing that and resetting my values remains ongoing. Indiana Jones isn’t a hero. He’s an entitled, jumped-up sneakthief and pilferer, who carries a whip and a gun, robs Indigenous people, and molested a child who trusted him. Indiana Jones is a villain.