Indiana Jones — a real American hero?

Indiana Jones — a real American hero? February 16, 2008

Jeffrey Wells raised a point yesterday that had sort of occurred to me while watching the new trailer for Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull the day before that. He notes that the international version of the trailer is missing the American flag — and I have to admit that, while watching the trailer two days ago, I found myself wondering if any of the previous Indiana Jones movies had been so implicitly patriotic.

Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) was, if anything, skeptical of nationalist sentiments. Although the film takes place in the 1930s, at a time when the United States was officially staying out of European affairs, Indiana Jones is sent overseas to retrieve the Ark of the Covenant before the Nazis can get it — and the film portrays the government bureaucrats who send him as secretive, deceptive and basically untrustworthy. Indy goes after the Ark because he’s interested in it for its own sake, not because he believes it will make a difference to national security or anything like that — and when he does come to believe in the Ark’s power, he resents the way the government is handling it.

Then there is the scene in which Marion, trapped in a basket and carried off by the Nazis’ Egyptian henchmen, yells, “You can’t do this to me, I’m an American!” — a line that is played for laughs more than anything else — and while the line, in context, might mean nothing more than “I’m not an Egyptian”, it also serves as a nicely subtle dig at American exceptionalism: the fact that someone comes from the United States does not mean that bad people cannot do bad things to that person.

The only other specific reference in that film that occurs to me right now is Toht’s line to Marion, when he barges in on her and Belloq: “You Americans, you’re all the same. Always overdressing for the wrong occasions.” Of course, the dress Marion is wearing at that point happens to be a present from the evil Frenchman, so the line is basically one bad guy’s dig at another bad guy’s taste in fashion, with a hapless American caught in the verbal crossfire — so make of that line whatever you will.

I don’t know the sequels as well as Raiders, but I don’t think either of them got even that specific.

The Temple of Doom (1984) takes place entirely in Asia, with a prologue in Shanghai and a main narrative set in India, back when the British Empire was still dominant there. So unless I’m forgetting something, American concerns are off that film’s radar entirely.

And then there is The Last Crusade (1989), which follows a template similar to that of Raiders, but with some notable minor differences. Once again, Indy battles Nazis in the Middle East — with some extra intrigue set in Europe — but if memory serves, he is sent this time not by the government but by a private philanthropist, Walter Donovan, and he is once again motivated not by national-security issues but, in this case, by a personal concern for his father. Through it all, America remains the place where the hero goes to hide behind his mild-mannered Clark Kent facade, while all the interesting superheroic stuff takes place overseas. And if Donovan does have any government connections — I can’t remember — then it is worth noting that he turns out to be the main villain of the piece. Once again, a member of the nation’s elite turns out to be untrustworthy.

Things could be very different in the new movie. For one thing, it seems at least two major action sequences will take place on American soil: first, there will be a motorcycle chase in or near the university where Dr. Jones works; and second, the trailer gives us a glimpse of a major action sequence set in a warehouse which may or may not be Area 51 and may or may not be the same place where the Ark of the Covenant was stored at the end of Raiders.

What’s more, the villains this time are Communists, and the film takes place in 1957, when the United States was very much engaged in a “cold war” with the Soviets. And based on the reports that came out eight months ago, it seems the sequence set at the university will also include an anti-Communist rally.

So it makes sense that this newest film would be more “American” than the three films which came before it. But that hopefully doesn’t mean it will lose its subversive edge. Indeed, the soldiers Indy beats up in the trailer are clearly wearing American uniforms; then again, they could be Soviets in disguise.

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