The trouble with Indy

May 29, 2008

The new Indiana Jones film is a lot like the ones before it--filled with racist stereotypes.

I WAS an usher at Sack Cinemas, a now defunct chain of movie theaters in the Boston area, when the first Indiana Jones film, Raiders of the Lost Ark, opened in 1981. The film was a huge a hit night after night for many weeks.

Raiders was a lot of fun, and much of its popularity had to do with the likeable but flawed leading characters of Dr. Henry "Indiana" Jones (played by Harrison Ford) and Marion Ravenwood (played by Karen Allen).

The anti-Nazi gloss of the film also helped a lot. The success of Raiders, considered by almost everyone to be the most entertaining of the series, led to two sequels in the 1980s, a television series, video games and a theme park. Any originality in the series--or at the very least some unpredictability in the story line--was beaten out of it long ago.

This became absolutely clear with the release of the fourth installment of the series Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull over the Memorial Day weekend. It was greeted with large crowds and mixed reviews. I saw it at a sold-out Saturday night showing in Chicago, and the biggest scare for me was the $21 it cost for two tickets.

It is an emotionally flat film, where most of the time I could have easily shouted out the lines before they were spoken. The special effects weren't very special, and we've seen it all before anyway. George Lucas and Steven Spielberg have certainly become very lazy, sitting on their mountains of cash. In many ways, the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull feels like a weak homage to the Indiana Jones series, with the return of Indy's original love interest and a recycled plot.

BUT THERE are deeper issues and problems with the Indiana Jones series that precede the latest installment.

Indiana Jones creator George Lucas wanted to pay homage to the serials of the 1930s and '40s, many of which were filled with offensive racist characters and stereotypes. Think of two of most famous serials of that era, Tarzan and Charlie Chan.

Apes raised Tarzan, the infant son of deceased British aristocrats, after he was shipwrecked in Africa. Tarzan becomes the protector of the jungle--wild animals and people alike. While there were worse portrayals of Africans in British and American films of this era, Tarzan gave them serious competition.

Professor Jones, surrounded by the latest collection of bad guys
Professor Jones surrounded by the latest bad guys

The Charlie Chan films presented a more benign racist stereotype. The wise and paternal Chinese-American detective (played in almost every version by a non-Asian actor) doled out homespun advice, usually starting with the phrase, "Ancient Chinese philosopher say..." Lucas and Spielberg could have at least poked some fun at the old serials, such as fellow director John Carpenter did in his 1986 film Big Trouble in Little China.

Then there's the problem of Indy himself, the adventurer-archeologist-history professor. Lucas and Spielberg went out of their way to make him a character the audience could identify with; after all, most of us aren't tenured professors or archeologists.

"He's a real guy," said Lucas. "He's just like us. He makes lots of mistakes. He kind of goofs up. He has the same kind of thinking that we have. He's beat up all the time. It's like he's not a superhero. He's just an average Joe that's always in over his head that somehow seems to get through it."

Indy searches the world for priceless and mysteriously powerful ancient artifacts that, if they fall into the wrong hands (Nazis, Communists), could give them the power to take over the world. But Indy claims he's no thief or grave robber; as he adamantly declares in The Last Crusade, these ancient artifacts "belong in a museum."

But whose museum are we talking about? Archeologists were notorious during the conquest of North America and the European colonization of large parts of the globe during the 19th and early 20th centuries for plundering indigenous peoples of important symbols of their civilizations and stuffing them into the museums of their capital cities--especially the British Museum--as trophies of conquest. Most archeologists in this era engaged in straightforward tomb and grave robbery, stealing not only artifacts, but also the dead themselves.

The pseudo-science of craniology--the measurement of skulls to prove a hierarchy of racial types--produced a strong market for grave robbery in the mid-to-late 19th century, in particular in the United States. As David H. Thomas, author of Skull Wars, writes, "As Indian tribes were being confined to reservations or hunted down, the bones of their dead were systematically gathered up and shipped to the newly founded [U.S.] Army Medical Museum."

Given this history, an archeologist-adventurer is certainly a strange choice for a modern-day movie hero.

The indigenous people who help Indy in his exploits are sympathetically portrayed, but those who resist are seen as ignorant and superstitious. And some really nasty racism rears its ugly head.

An audience survey of the most popular scenes in Raiders revealed that most people's favorite scene was when Indy guns down a sword-wielding Egyptian man with a pistol in a crowded square. What if the situation was reversed and a sword-wielding white man was gunned by an Arab? Would it still be the public's favorite scene? I don't think so.

The Lucas-Spielberg contribution to filmmaking has been to raise the B movie--what had historically been low-budget films--to being today the highest-priced blockbusters. The results have not always been satisfactory.

According to Halloween director John Carpenter, "When you make a big-budget film, there is lots of pressure to be commercially acceptable. It better be great, because you're spending all this money. So the risk-taking, in terms of subject matter, the kind of treatment, or trying something offbeat, becomes overwhelming."

Studio executives and producers usually justify their production choices by saying that this is what the people want. And sometimes that's true, but not always.

Imagine a movie about a Native American Iraq war veteran, who, after witnessing the U.S. Army stand by and allow the looting of the treasures of Iraqi civilization in the early days of the occupation, decides to lead a raid on the Smithsonian Institution and return all the stolen artifacts there to the rightful Native American nations. In the process, he battles the FBI, the D.C. cops, corrupt politicians and sanctimonious museum officials, including a very old Indiana Jones.

It could be called Indiana Jones Loses the Last Battle. That would be a great movie.

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