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.
Finally there is Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, taking place in 1938, and once again involving the Nazis, who are searching for the Holy Grail. Except they cannot succeed without the assistance of the diary belonging to Indy's father, Henry Jones Sr. The elder Jones wisely sends the diary to his son in the United States. But when Indy goes looking for his father, he brings the diary with him, and thus into the hands of the Nazis. In addition, at the castle, Indiana sees his love interest held at gunpoint by Colonel Vogel. Jones's own father had it right, insisting it's a trap and that Elsa too is a Nazi. But the son makes yet another poor decision--believing Elsa's life is threatened--and surrenders his Schmeisser. The rest of the film consists of the Joneses' race to get back the diary and catch up to the Nazis.
Now had Indiana not gone to Europe in the first place, his father probably would have been executed. The Nazis may or may not have found the location of the Grail. But even if they had it down to the Canyon of the Crescent Moon, how many men would have been beheaded by the "breath of God" before they made it passed the next two challenges? And then how many more would have drunk from the various chalices before finding the right one? Even so, there is no moving the cup beyond the seal, let alone bringing it to Berlin.
None of this is meant to remove the fun from all the films. Trust me. Indiana Jones remains one of American cinema's great swashbuckling heroes. (The other being Allan Quatermain. Kidding!) But as we head to the theaters to see the good doctor one last time, perhaps we should pause and view his experiences in a different light: not always leading the way, making up for lost ground due to errors in judgment (despite the best intentions), occasionally and inadvertently aiding his enemies on the quest for the world's greatest mysteries. Yes, he is undeniably brave and ingenious. He is also quite human.
Victorino Matus is assistant managing editor of THE WEEKLY STANDARD. His greatest adventure consists of a whitewater rafting trip in Costa Rica. He almost lost his glasses.
ADDENDA: Reader Greg Caires points out that "Herr Todt's burnt hand is what gave the Nazis the information about the staff of Ra's length. So your assertion that had he burnt his hand on the reverse side of the headpiece, they WOULD NOT have known the staff's true length" is incorrect. Interesting and certainly plausible, though it's never directly mentioned. Secondly, says Caires, "In the comic book tie in I once had, Indy uses his whip to lash himself to the U-boat's periscope, which remains 'up' during the transit to the island. This isn't a satisfactory resolution as it raises more questions: Why was the boat at periscope depth for so long? What was Indy's physical condition upon arrival? (In the comic, he says the whip is cutting him and the wounds are stung by salt water.)"