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The Case Against Indy

Or why he matters less than you think.

12:00 AM, May 22, 2008 • By VICTORINO MATUS
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BEFORE YOU SEND ME IRATE emails, allow me preface this by stating how thoroughly I enjoy the Indiana Jones films, most notably Raiders of the Lost Ark. But at the end of the day, does our beloved archaeologist actually "save the day"? Does he truly prevent the armies of darkness from taking over the world? In two of the three movies (not counting the latest installment), the answer, I believe, is no.

This realization dawned on me over the weekend while watching bits and pieces of the trilogy whenever they were on television, which was often. I then turned the notion into a blog item but was urged by a colleague to expound. So for better or for worse, here goes.

In Raiders of the Lost Ark, the U.S. government sends Indiana Jones around the world to first retrieve the headpiece of the staff of Ra and then find the Ark of the Covenant before the Nazis do. In Nepal, Jones successfully procures the crucial headpiece (along with Marion Ravenwood), defeating Herr Todt and his Nazi henchmen. Had our hero not come to the rescue, Marion would have been tortured until the headpiece was found. (Incidentally, during the shootout at the bar, Todt grabs the headpiece, burning one side of it into his hand. Had the object been turned around, he would have seared himself with the opposite side of the headpiece, revealing to his superiors that their measurements for the staff of Ra were slightly off. In other words, they wouldn't have needed the actual artifact.)

Nevertheless, Dr. Jones has the upper hand in Cairo, realizing the Nazis are digging in the wrong place because of the staff's length. (In the model city, you see the currently excavated site with the words nicht stören on it, meaning "do not disturb" in German.) So Jones and Sallah and his crew begin digging in the proper location of the Well of Souls. They break ground, dodge serpents, and remove the Ark--directly into the hands of Jones's archnemesis Belloq and his Nazi bosses.

Remarkably Jones and Marion escape the Well of Souls. Indiana then sets off on horseback and truck, acting bravely, but trying to make up for his monumental error. He succeeds and the Ark is stowed on a ship. But the ship is then boarded and the Nazis regain their "property."

Once again, Indy is playing catch up. He swims over to the U-boat headed for a remote island in the Mediterranean. To this day the plothole remains: The captain of the submarine is overheard saying Tauche, which is German for "dive." Was there some compartment Jones hid inside or did he just swim beside the submersible for hundreds of miles?

On the island, Jones makes one last, futile attempt to stop the Ark from going to Berlin by threatening to destroy it. But this is only a half-hearted attempt as he claims to only want the girl. And then what? Catch a ferry to Athens? Jones runs out of options and is bound with Marion while the Ark is opened. Of course we know what happens next: The spirits of the Ark (really angry Old Testament spirits) fly around and ultimately kill anyone whose eyes are open. This leaves Jones and Marion who somehow find a way off the island. (Maybe they went back to the U-boat and got a lift.) But even if Jones was not present during the Ark's opening, the chest would have remained on the island abandoned, having wiped out everyone around it. (Blame Belloq for insisting on not waiting to open it in Berlin. Most likely, it would have been Hitler's face melted off or exploded.)

Again, I do not question for a second that Raiders of the Lost Ark is the "Return of the Great Adventure." But it is an adventure based largely on playing catch up.

Everyone's least favorite of the trilogy is Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and for any number of reasons, take your pick: Short Round, slave children, cute fight sequences involving slave children, magical stones none of us were really curious about in the first place (let alone knowledgeable about unless you studied Hindu mythology--and even then, it's dubious), Kate Capshaw, Short Round, and kids.

And yet Indiana Jones is at his most selfless. He is moved by the child who dies in his arms. He is intent on returning the stones to the village (after ephemeral dreams of "fortune and glory"). In possession of all three Sankara stones, the sinister Mola Ram does have an idea of what will transpire (with the aid of a revived Thuggee cult): "The British in India will be slaughtered. Then we will overrun the Muslims and force their 'Allah' to bow to Kali. And then the Hebrew God will fall and finally the Christian God will be cast down and forgotten." Jones actually prevents this from happening by stealing back the stones. As he and Mola Ram struggle on the bridge, Jones tells the high priest that he "betrayed Shiva," utters it in Sanskrit, and causes the rocks to ignite in the villain's hands but not in Jones's. In this instance, Indiana Jones was decisive.