The other day I was scrolling through Hulu attempting to find something to have on in the background or maybe something to actually watch. I wasn’t having much success, and then I stumbled upon a film series I’ve long adored. I will always watch Indiana Jones movies. Hell, I’ll even watch (and enjoy) the Allan Quatermain knock-offs from the mid-80s. While The Last Crusade is my favorite, watching Raiders of the Lost Ark is always a delight.
However, as I re-watched this film for the millionth time I came to a realization. Half of the movie is just Indiana Jones trying to pick up the pieces after making a huge miscalculation. Raiders of the Lost Ark is arguably a movie about a fuck-up.
Ok, lemme ‘splain…
Perhaps you remember several years ago, the show The Big Bang Theory offered up a contentious take on Raiders of the Lost Ark (ROTLA). Sheldon has his girlfriend Amy watch ROTLA. She enjoys it. He’s eager for her to like it and eager to explain to her why it is such a great film, but in the process of doing so, Amy manages to ruin the movie for Sheldon.
Amy doesn’t ruin Raiders of the Lost Ark, she merely points out a fact. Just like ‘spoilers’ only ruin the most trite of stories, simply pointing out a fact only ‘ruins’ a film for the most trite of viewers. You don’t watch ROTLA for the plot; you watch it for the adventure. A story is a journey and the process of getting to the destination is more important than the destination. Spoilers and The Big Bang Theory-like quibbles reveal in the listener/watcher/reader a naive experience of narrative.
But even if I didn’t agree with Amy and hate Sheldon, ROTLA isn’t about the Ark. The Ark is one of the greatest MacGuffins in film alongside Citizen Kane‘s Rosebud, Pulp Fiction‘s gold case, and the Maltese Falcon. ROTLA is about the adventures of Indiana Jones. It is a glimpse into a world of a would-be comic book hero. We don’t enjoy it because of the items or the quest, we enjoy it because the quester. In the same way, I don’t give a fuck what Lara Croft is trying to acquire, find, or save; rather I want to see her adventure. The thing is merely an excuse.
You could perhaps argue ROTLA “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)” but doing so is labored and glosses over just how bad of a ‘scientist’ Henry Jones, Jr. is. Indiana Jones is closer in academic quality to Dr. Peter Venkman than he is Louis Leakey. However, it is a great conversation to have making enjoyment of the character and the story that much more involved and heightened, which is the point of experiencing stories.
Amy is right. Amy enjoyed the film. The man-childs of The Big Bang Theory are sad and realize continued enjoyment of any cultural artifact requires a maturation of experiencing. Amy already possesses this ability. This is why Amy is a better character than Sheldon.
What the hell does faux revelation have to do with anything? This preface is meant to point out thinking about a story doesn’t ruin it, but makes it better by deepening and widening its reach. There is also no right or wrong (if we think of those terms as synonymous with correct and incorrect), but rather criticism that complicates the story and, perhaps, is more or less convincing.
My contention here is this–
If Indiana Jones had decided to free Marion Ravenwood in Rene Belloq’s tent at the Nazi excavation site, then he would have succeeded in stopping the Nazis and acquiring the Ark of the Covenant for his museum.
That wonderful moment in Raiders of the Lost Ark where you can see Indiana Jones decided to not free Marion is THE fuck-up; it is the moment everything goes bananas for Indy.
It was clear to me as a kid watching Raiders of the Lost Ark that Indy and Abner Ravenwood had a falling out due to Indy fucking Ravenwood’s teenage daughter. I must have watch this movie a thousands times ruining multiple VHS tapes both official and dubbed. At the time, this was just one more aspect to a character who I saw as a thinly veiled Han Solo. Harrison Ford was playing the same character just not in a galaxy far, far away. I know what oversimplifies the actor and the role, but that’s how my pre-teen brain worked.
And like Han Solo, Indiana Jones wasn’t a guy you could trust. He wasn’t a good guy Good Guy. Han murdered Greedo. That moment in Star Wars shocked me as kid because it showed me a hero who wasn’t a goodie-goodie. I had never see that before. Similarly, the reason Marion is so violently angry with Indy is because he took advantage of her when he was in grad school. Indy was a bit of a sleazeball. I realized only recently I had grown up admiring a murder (with-a-heart-of-gold) and statutory rapist (with-a-heart-of-gold).
Not only are both Han and Indy cads (I’m still more than a bit convinced that Indiana Jones is just Han Solo’s dream while encased in carbonite), but also both act without a real plan embodying a spontaneity nearly indistinguishable from luck. In fact, Indy admits as much:
Nearly all of Indy’s best decisions are made in the moment without any forethought. When he stops to think for even a moment, his decisions turn out poorly for him. In the very beginning of the film, we see this when he tries to swap a bag of sand for a gold idol (we’ll never know if he should or shouldn’t have gotten rid of that handful of sand or even if that mattered). This character trait will be later blown up to cartoonish proportions in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (it’s also the heart of the comedy surrounding the character Sterling Archer in the adult cartoon Archer).
When Indy arrives in Tibet to find the headpiece Abner Ravenwood possesses, we see one of the few times he has to answer for his mistakes. But more importantly, we encounter a better character–Marion Ravenwood.
Karen Allen does a wonderful job in this film. Her character of Marion does crumble the closer she gets to Indy but rebounds with a surety making wish we had more movies of just her life. There’s a potentially fascinating angle to approach Marion viewing her as someone who can’t resist her childhood abuser (Indy). Marion has literally gone to the edge of the world to get away from her father and by proxy Indy to make a life for herself by herself. Indy destroys that leaving Marion with little choice but to go along on the quest. She puts on a brave front and even seems to convince herself Indy has changed.
In Cairo, I don’t doubt for a moment the grief Indy feels for causing Marion’s death. We could perhaps conclude he throws himself into the hunt for the Ark with more zeal now because of that guilt, but I do doubt it. Yet it is clear he cares for Marion. When he (and we viewers) discover Marion’s alive there is a palpable joy matched only by the rage Marion evinces when Indy refuses to save her.
In that moment, where Indy stares off and closes his pocket knife instead of cutting Marion’s bindings, we know nothing good will happen. Indy thinks saving Marion will reveal his presence in the camp keeping him from digging up the Ark. Marion is astounded he makes this choice. Her reaction is not shock; it is rage. She immediately begins to develop (or carry out) her own escape plan redirecting that anger towards Belloq.
Yet if Indy had set her free, Belloq clearly would have searched the camp for her. He would have spent his time looking for her, pulling resources from the dig site. Belloq had already dressed down his Nazi supervisor, Colonel Dietrich, telling him he’d have to wait. He was defiant, so we can assume his arrogance insulted him from being intimated by the Nazis allowing him to blow off their attempts at pressuring him. Marion was a prize he had won and was now looking to win over. Discovering her gone, he would already have an excuse made to delay work while he looked for her.
As Indy rightly thinks, they would start combing the site. Yet this wouldn’t happen immediately thus giving Indy, Marion, Sallah, and his men time to escape the site or hid out until Belloq is unable to put off his Nazi overlords whereupon they would either go back to digging in the wrong place or, because Hitler had a lot of occult irons in the fire, abandon the project. Indy could then come back to the abandoned site, dig in the right spot, get the Ark, and bring it back. At the very least, if Indy had rescued Marion and waited, then Belloq wouldn’t have been walking around the site noticing a unit digging where they weren’t suppose to be when no one else was working.
Marion’s plan for escape gives us one of the best cinematic callbacks. We know she can drink any man under the table. And while it is ultimately unsuccessful, it was much more nuanced than Indy’s unwillingness to wait, blend in, and seize the moment at the right time. Indy’s decision to not rescue Marion leads him to lose to Belloq yet again after doing the work for the Frenchman.
Making bad decisions is the core of Indiana Jones because it then forces him into action. Indy isn’t a scientist but a man of action disguised as a man of learning. This is not to say he’s not intelligent because he most certainly is, rather Indy is character who excels in the urgent moment. The tragedy of Indiana Jones is the crisis situations he thrives in are always of his own making.