Hi there, my name is Asher Cantrell. I’m an average 30-year-old male, at least upon first glance. I’m married, have a day job and am fairly nerdy in that dull, normal way that everyone is nerdy in 2014. But I also hold a deep secret. One that shocks my colleagues, friends and family.
I have never seen a single Indiana Jones movie. I don’t know how it happened. In fact, I haven’t seen many, many “classic” films of my generation. Let’s tick off some common ones.
The Back to the Future trilogy? Nope.
The Goonies? Nah.
The Die Hard series? Nuh-uh.
Robocop, E.T., Gremlins, Jaws, The Dark Crystal, Animal House, Tron? Nada.
I have seen Star Wars. I’m not a total monster. But when I admit any of these to people, either acquaintances or people I’ve known for years, I get the same reaction. Jaw hanging open. Eyes widening. They start to form those oh-so-familiar words. “How… how have you not seen… I can’t… Are you some religious weirdo or something?”
I am not.
I guess it’s simply because I grew up playing a lot of video games and reading books and kind of skipped out on movies. We didn’t have the money to go to the theater often (plus there were four of us kids in total), and VHS tapes were crazy expensive in the 80s and 90s.
But now I intend to rectify this and perform an experiment as well. I am going to watch these seminal movies that everyone else has seen, only I’m doing so as an adult with no nostalgia for the material. In theory, this should give me a unique perspective on the films, but probably I’ll just make myself look like a dummy because I’m not a trained film critic in any way.
To start this weird journey, I watched my very first Indiana Jones movie this week. So, let’s get this going with…
Raiders of the Lost Ark
Yeah, when I say I haven’t seen an Indiana Jones movie, I mean all of them. (Bonus: That includes the fourth one, which is purportedly terrible.) The 1981 film debut of Henry Walton Jones, Jr. cleverly disguised as Harrison Ford jump-started the franchise and spawned multiple generations of rip-offs that continue on into today.
In fact, that’s an excellent place to start. Watching this film wasn’t really a fresh experience for me for one huge reason: every single sequence in Raiders has been aped in some other film.
Weirdly enough, the film felt cliched even though it was the one that created (or re-popularized) all the cliches. The swaggering, confident adventurer. The romantic interest who can still hold her own (more on that in a bit). The pulp serial nods. Even without watching any Indiana Jones, I had watched it purely by virtue of consuming several other films and television shows in the decades since its release. It was that influential, and yet to a new watcher, it works against it in weird ways that are hard to shake.
Indiana Jones? More like Nicolas Cage in National Treasure or Brendan Fraser in The Mummy or even Nathan Drake in the Uncharted video games. He’s been shamelessly ripped off so many times that the ripoffs have overtaken Indy. He’s actually fairly flat in this film. He’s an adventurer and we like him because…? He’s cool. That’s it.
He’s got a cool hat and a cool whip and says and does cool things. But as a fully-fleshed out character? He’s not there at all. He’s a professor, he’s got an ex-girlfriend, and he hates that Belloq guy. Also snakes.
Who wouldn’t be afraid of snakes at this point?
That is the extent of Indy in this film. There’s no deep backstory. In fact, there’s not much backstory to anyone or anything, which feels extremely weird today. Marion is just Indy’s ex-girlfriend. Sallah is a guy Indy knows somehow. The Ark is just, you know, the Ark. From the Bible. The villain is an evil Nazi because he’s evil and a Nazi.
In fact, I’d say that Belloq is not only more of a villain than The Nazi in Black, but possibly the deepest character in the film. He has motivation. He’s jealous of Indy. Indy has the girl, he finds the artifacts. The only way Belloq can come out on top is by doggedly following him and stealing the glory. And he’s not even completely a bad guy! He’s a jerk (so is Indy) and a creep, but like Indy, he’s really about the artifacts and the history. Yeah, he threw in with the Nazis, but this was 1936. It’s not like everyone knew they were totally evil yet.
Totally fine to be friends with this guy. He looks normal.
There’s a fan theory out there that states that Indy is actually irrelevant to the film’s plot.
- The Nazis can’t find the head of the Staff of Ra. Indy leads them to Marion, who has it.
- The Nazis begin a dig based on an incorrect interpretation of the map room. They catch Indy at the correct spot.
- And in the end, Indy doesn’t stop the Nazis at all. He just (inexplicably) knows to keep his eyes shut when they open the Ark.
Assuming Indy hadn’t intervened, the Nazis would have spent ages combing the desert for the Ark, and even if they found it, they’d all die when they opened it and it’d be free for the Americans to swoop in and take it.
It makes a lot of sense because the ending is a literal deus ex machina that has little to do with Indy’s presence whatsoever. And then some g-men take it and stuff it in a warehouse and the movie’s over. By modern standards, it’s a pretty unsatisfying ending.
And speaking of modern standards, you can’t really ignore the racism. Everyone who isn’t white in this movie is little more than a face in a crowd or combatant. Sallah is the exception, but he’s also played by a white actor. I’m not going to harp on it too hard because under-representation of minorities and whitewashing actors is still a problem today, but I thought it was worth mentioning. Hollywood hasn’t learned shit.
I will, however, harp on Marion because she’s so close to being a surprisingly strong woman in a movie that’s three decades old. She’s capable, she’s bad ass, but she’s still feminine. It’s like the film couldn’t quite grasp it, though, because after showing her downing liquor like a pro and gunning down Nazis, we see her running around and screaming in the streets of Cairo and wielding a frying pan. She ping-pongs back and forth between helpless damsel and a woman who can actually take care of herself for the rest of the film. Still, for 1981, I suppose I should be glad they got nearly as far with her as they did.
In most other 80s movies she’d be drinking a cosmo instead.
I didn’t hate the movie or anything, of course. The pacing is lightning quick (within 30 minutes the movie jumps from America to Nepal to Egypt), which is something movies still can’t get right. The acting is top-notch, which is how Lucas and Spielberg got away with the aforementioned character thinness. The action sequences are good and never overstay their welcome.
Basically, it’s what all the dumb action movies made ever since want to be, and all too few can actually become.
What should I watch next? Let me know in the comments or e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I have seen some movies (especially horror movies), so don’t feel bad if I don’t use your suggestion one of these days.