Indiana Jones and the Fall of My Favorite Hero, Part Two: The Biggest Loser

[This is Part Two of my series on the heroism of Indiana Jones. If you missed it, here's Part One.]

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Perhaps it’s not so much Indy’s virtues or successes that distinguish him. Consider, instead, his failures.

Has there ever been a hero so prone to failure as Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark? Let’s review:

  • Indy gets the golden idol from the temple, then promptly loses it to his nemesis, and never gets it back.
  • He gets his old girlfriend back, then gives her every reason to dump him as he leaves her in captivity to pursue a higher prize.
  • He captures the Ark of the Covenant, only to lose it, get it back, and lose it again!
  • He ends up surrendering to the enemy—not exactly a signature move for a hero.
  • In the film’s climactic scene, is he saving the day? No, he’s tied to a post at the edge of the scene, while the enemy enjoys a discovery that he will never behold.

Further — Indy’s understanding of the Ark has been wrong all along. The Nazis want the Ark because Hitler believes it will make them invincible. The Scriptures make no such claim, of course, but Indy doesn’t seem to realize that. (He’s apparently unfamiliar with the book of First Samuel, in which the Philistines steal the Ark from the Israelites only to suffer dreadful plagues.) Instead, he laughs off the Old Testament stories as so much “hocus pocus.” Like Han Solo dismissing the power of the Force, Indy seems to need convincing.

He sure gets it. Jones sees the power of God unleashed at the close of the film, as divine wrath engulfs arrogant Nazis, punishing those who would dare exploit the Almighty’s power. It’s God, not Indy, who makes the final move. And it’s Jones’s willful surrender — his respect for what is sacred, his fearful lunge into faith — that seems to be a determining fact at the end of Raiders. Fear of God is, for Indy, the beginning of wisdom.

In The Last Crusade, Indy turns the page from Old Testament to New Testament, seeking the legendary cup that Christ drank from at the Last Supper. While the story includes fantastical details about how the cup survived, it’s concludes with some resonant moments. Jones shows that he understands what it means to be “penitent” before God. And so he finds the Holy Grail at last, affirming that Christ was a humble man who drank from a humble cup, not a gaudy goblet. It seems that in reconciling with his earthly father, he takes a necessary step of healing in relationship with his heavenly father.

You’ll note that there’s little mention here of Temple of Doom. That’s because the film focuses on the satanic powers of the ancient cult of Kali. What we see there proves that Jones rightfully fears the demonic, and he cannot help the slaves without being rescued by the courage of a child.

But in the two best installments, Indiana Jones has something in common with Frodo Baggins of The Lord of the Rings: He comes to the knowledge that his own strength and wisdom are not enough. There is “another will at work” that can bring all souls to a day of reckoning, justice, and grace.

Too bad it doesn’t last. Tomorrow, in Part Three, we’ll look at Indy’s fourth (and disastrous) adventure.

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  • Rosie

    ["You’ll note that there’s little mention here of Temple of Doom. That’s because the film focuses on the satanic powers of the ancient cult of Kali. What we see there proves that Jones rightfully fears the demonic, and he cannot help the slaves without being rescued by the courage of a child."]

    Even in “TEMPLE OF DOOM”, Indy manages to defeat the villain by summoning for help from the power of God (called Shiva by the Indians in the movie). Only he uses the Sankara stone to summon that power for help.

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  • John

    “Has there ever been a hero so prone to failure as Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark?”

    In the action genre, probably not. But I hadn’t really considered all of these failures as failures, mainly because the tone of the film is so energetic and “in the moment” that audiences don’t have the inclination while watching to catch on to these failures, and are left so breathless by the end that they don’t really care. Ultimately, Jones does succeed in getting what he’s after, he just doesn’t get to keep it. Which wasn’t a promise that was made to him. It’s Brody who answers Indy’s question of whether the museum will get to house the Ark, and Brody does so in a kind of off handed way… there’s not really much substance to Brody’s, “Oh…. yes.” answer.
    I’m sure there are other characters in film who fail nearly as much as Indy, but the only other one I can think of whose failures abound from beginning to end is J.J. Gittes in Chinatown. He always manages to dig up clues and progress further and further into his investigations, but ultimately he is the downfall not only for himself, but many of those around him.

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