On the eve of the new Raiders movie, Victorino Matus has an interesting look at the shortcomings of the character of Indiana Jones. He’s a fan, but his article in the Weekly Standard takes you through the various Indiana Jones movies showing how weak and useless Indy often proves to be. Only in the inferior Temple of Doom, notes Matus, does Jones act like a hero instead of a bumbler who plays catch-up instead of leading the way:
Indiana Jones remains one of American cinema’s great swashbuckling heroes. … But as we head to the theaters to see the good doctor one last time, perhaps we should pause and view his experiences in a different light: not always leading the way, making up for lost ground due to errors in judgment (despite the best intentions), occasionally and inadvertently aiding his enemies on the quest for the world’s greatest mysteries. Yes, he is undeniably brave and ingenious. He is also quite human.
Indy is indeed human, and deeply flawed. Which is why I think the first movie is a little deeper than it is ever given credit for.
The adversaries in Raiders are not so much Indy v. the Nazis as Indy vs. his foil, Belloq, played with oleaginous zest by Paul Freeman. Each of these guys stands in for a nation—Jones for the U.S., Belloq—a Vichy S.O.B.—for Nazi Germany, although neither is an unthinking pawn of his country. Indy is clearly critical of the way the U.S. handles the Ark at the end (“Top men!”), and one suspects his true loyalty is to science and his beloved Marshall College rather than to the dull OSS bureaucrats who dispatched him in pursuit of the Ark.
Belloq, likewise, considers himself superior to his Nazi associates and regards the arrangement as one of convenience. He also wants the Ark for science, not (as the Nazis do) as an instrument for world conquest.
And the reason the movie worked so well is that Belloq is a perfect foil for Indiana Jones, and they both know it. Belloq constantly needles Jones at every one of their meetings about how “we are not so different, you and I”…which attempts at equivalence always earn a sharp retort from Jones.
Belloq, of course, has a point. When Jones intercepts the procession of the Ark on the Nazi island and levels a bazooka at it, Belloq calls his bluff. Go ahead, he dares Indy, blow it “back to God”. Which Indy just can’t bring himself to do.
So the men are similar, yes. But as shown by the horrific judgment that follows—manifested through the faux-priesthood of Belloq who opens the Ark—they are not equivalent. Jones realizes at the last minute that he is participating in a desecration, not a scientific exploration, and wills himself (and Marion) to look away.
Meanwhile Belloq, remember, does more than just crowbar the top off the Ark. All duded up in Old Testament priestly vestments, he overrides the (well-placed, in retrospect) objections of head Nazi Dietrich to a Jewish ritual and stares down directly into the depths (…the abyss looks back…) of the opened Ark. Remember earlier that Belloq had described the Ark as a “transmitter” for talking to God. He wants to look upon God’s face, which is something he (and Indy) know is forbidden.
…your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods…(Gen. 3:5)
And because of his hubris, he becomes literally the transmitter of God’s wrath into the ranks of Nazis.
Among many implausibilities and plot holes in Raiders (Matus notes Indy’s transoceanic submarine rodeo) it’s easy to overlook the odd fact that Indy knows, instinctively, something the Nazis don’t: not to look on the spirits that come out of the Ark. He realized this with enough certainty to warn Marian about it. But this isn’t a continuity error–it’s the critical realization of the film.
How did he know to do that? It’s not part of the Ark lore. And it’s not even necessary to the plot. The movie would have made sense without that line, had the Ark merely autoclaved Belloq and the Nazis and spared Indy and Marion because of their innate goodness.
What this suggests is that Indiana Jones actually had a bit of a character arc in Raiders. He has learned a bit of humility; he has learned to look away now and then. Some things, some forces, as foreshadowed earlier in the movie by Indy’s friends Brody and Salah, are “not to be taken lightly” and “not to be disturbed”. Belloq learned that lesson too late.
P.S. Contrast Raiders with a supposedly “deeper” Spielberg film–Munich. Lke Munich’s Mossad agents and Palestinian assassins, Indy and Belloq are rough men who use questionable, illegal, or violent means to achieve their goals. But Jones and Belloq are not morally equivalent, are they?
Now, you can tell me that Munich was supposed to be a serious movie about real issues, and Raiders was just a goof, a cartoonish silly pastiche of old 1940’s serials cobbled together with some hokey religious fantasy thrown in.
Maybe, but Munich is already forgotten while Raiders remains timeless, a film I look forward to showing my own kids when they get older, one that everyone has seen and can recognize and quote from.
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