To continue this week of celebrating the 30th anniversary of my favorite adventure movie, here’s an excerpt from my memoir of dangerous moviegoing… the book called Through a Screen Darkly:
The Paramount Studios logo — a crooked, rocky peak — fades out, replaced by a real-world equivalent, a stone pinnacle jutting into an ivory sky. We’re looking at it through a gap in the trees that edge the screen. A silhouette steps into the frame, classic and unmistakable: a bullwhip slung from his belt, a leather jacket, a fedora. Hands on his hips, he regards the peak he has eclipsed. Then he continues into the jungle, followed by his watchful, nervous companions. We do not see his face. He’s a mystery.
He makes his way nonchalantly through the jungle, headed into peril. The brim of his hat conceals his visage until that memorable, shocking moment when he senses a betrayal, turns, and knocks the pistol from a murderous Spaniard’s hand with a lash of his bullwhip. That rankled brow, those flaring eyes, that unshaven jaw — this is a man on a mission, fully aware of the dangers ahead and behind.
We watch him proceeding into secret passageways, pushing through thick curtains of spider webs into forbidding tunnels. Brushing off tarantulas, ignoring Satipo’s warning that no one has come out of there alive, he expertly dodges deadly darts and traps, including the one that skewered a famous competitor.
At last he kneels before a fabulous idol, the treasure he wants to preserve and display in a museum, where it “belongs.” With the skill of a surgeon, he replaces that glistening golden god with an equivalent bag of sand. Has he thought of everything?
No, alas, he has not! And moments later, Indy is outrunning the most dangerous big screen boulder since the asteroids that his intergalactic look-alike dodged in The Empire Strikes Back a year earlier. In an artful dive, Indiana launches himself out of the tunnel…
… and lands almost in the lap of his waiting nemesis — Rene Belloq — who, smiling wolfishly down on the dusty Indy, wastes no time in demonstrating his villainy.
Immediately, the world is divided into hero and villain. Indiana Jones is the kind of man who can cheat death. But Belloq is the sort of man who will steal the prize and the glory right out from under Indy’s nose.
Jones just can’t get a break.
When he enters Marion’s bar — it’s the same thing that happened in the jungle temple at the beginning. He treads carefully, shows respect, gets jarred around, and then he leaves disappointed, empty-handed. The prize has been snatched from his hands… again.
Later, after his long pursuit of the Lost Ark and its secrets, he loses that contest as well. It is Belloq who gets to lift the holy lid on its secrets.
What makes him an appealing hero if he’s prone to constant failure?
Well, there’s the issue of a costume. Like all superheroes, he has his public disguise: the tweedy suit-and-tie routine of a New England archaeology professor, complete with oversized Clark Kent glasses.
Further, he has the concerns of an adventurous kid. When he’s summoned by visiting authorities, Indiana reflexively asks, “Am I in trouble?” Any man who’s ever been a boy has asked this question. And Indy just doesn’t have time for girls. Too much fun to be had. When Marion starts kissing him, it’s his cue to promptly fall asleep — a reversal that secretly delights those boys who were annoyed that fairy tales all came down to kissing. Like the boy tells his grandfather in The Princess Bride, we want to get on to the good stuff.
We’re also in his corner because he’s interesting — the toughest thing for a hero to be. Bad guys get to be outrageous, while good guys must remain dutiful. But Indy, he’s Odysseus, venturing into the unknown and overcoming various threats. He’s Orpheus, the troubled champion descending into the underworld to perform a rescue. He’s Batman, the haunted crime-fighter who casts a shadow everyone can recognize. But we’re also rooting for Indy because he’s always being treated unfairly, always coming up short. He’s the ultimate underdog. He even has a weakness — he’s scared to death of snakes.
But for me, the most interesting and enduring appeal of Indiana Jones is his temperamental relationship with a higher power.
At the beginning of his quest, Indy’s colleague, Marcus Brody, Curator of the National Museum in Washington D.C., has a premonition that they may be about to trespass on sacred ground. Indiana makes it clear that he has faith in the pistol he’s packing in his luggage. But God? You half expect him to repeat his lines from Star Wars, “Hokey religions and ancient weapons are no match for a good blaster at your side. … I’ve seen a lot of strange stuff, but I’ve never seen anything to make me believe there’s one all-powerful force controlling everything.”
Later, drowning his woes and mourning the loss of Marion, Indy is confronted by Belloq, who boasts that the ark is “a transmitter, a radio for speaking to God.” Indy sneers a smile. “You want to talk to God? Let’s go see him together. I’ve got nothing better to do.” Is that faith, or just a smart remark?
The issue of Indy’s faith won’t be resolved until he is pressed to the point of death. For all of his skill navigating practical threats, he has yet to encounter the great mystery that will leave him as helpless and vulnerable as a child: the power of an angry God.
In Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, we learn where his experience with Christianity began. Indy grew up in a religious household, and his father’s faith was unshakeable. But the boy was a skeptic. He needed proof.
In the end, Indy fails so utterly that he can only hope for the help of someone a whole lot stronger than his sidekick Sallah. And even then, he doesn’t ask for it. He quietly awaits his doom.
But God is gracious. In his final failure, Jones is given a thorough education in the power of the Almighty. The best he can muster is a simple show of respect — he turns his eyes away from God’s holy secrets. Belloq is the one who, in his vanity, defies God. When God intervenes, Belloq is engulfed in the wrath of God, while Indiana Jones receives grace. While all of those seeking to apprehend God’s power for their own purposes are punished for their pride, Indiana and Marion are left standing unscathed, their bonds broken. It is left to Indy to carry the ark now, with responsibility and reverence.
Most action heroes are cocky, self-reliant fellows who soldier on against all odds and somehow come out on top without ever looking around to see if their steps might be protected, if they might need guidance or salvation. Indiana Jones’ adventures lead him to further steps of faith, where he will learn again to reject the temptation of power and accept his humble place in God’s service.
Indy ultimately learns that humility and faith matter more than whips, pistols, and sarcasm. The fear of God is the beginning of his wisdom. He’s my kind of loser.
Through a Screen Darkly, by Jeffrey Overstreet, pp. 152-156. Copyright 2007, Gospel Light/Regal Books, Ventura, CA 93003. Used by permission.
P.S. It’s worth noting that this reflection was written before the release of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull… a story that suggests Indiana Jones might not have learned much at all in his lifetime of adventure. Let’s just forget about that film, okay?