In Multimedia II, one of our first assignments was to choose a film we think is culturally relevant and write a short paper analyzing it, then post it to our blogs.
The good anthropologist that I am, (it was my major in college) I chose to write my short paper on that 1981 classic, Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Arc. I submit for your perusal:
Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Arc (1981)
The archetype of the hero is reinvigorated in the 1981 action-adventure movie Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Arc. The story is of a hero answering a call to adventure – an archaeologist at the dawn of WWII being summoned to find the Arc of the Covenant, “an ancient chest that contains the Ten Commandments and is said to be cursed with deadly, God-like powers” before Hitler’s team can find it first. [www.scriptologist.com] The reinvigorated hero builds on the hero from the films of the 1930s through 1950s – tough, with guts, brains and brawn. Think Sam Spade, Philip Marlowe, Dirty Harry. These men are the masculine ideals our culture has created. American machismo is strengthened and bolstered by heroes created out of thin air. And the legacy continues with new heroes for a new generation with examples like Mission: Impossible and the Bourne series. The heroine archetype is also restored in the film, merging a lady-in-need-of-rescue with the burgeoning tough gal, no-girl-friday of the rough and emerging late 1970s feminist movement. She is also the Rosie the Riveter of WWII female ‘We can do it!’ fame. The Raiders movie also solidified the basic racism and xenophobia of late 1970s/early 1980s film. People that grew up watching TV and movies from the 50s and above were well used to the giant stereotypes in film based on race and ethnicity. This is the time before internet, before political correctness, when xenophobia and cultural stereotyping were the accepted norm.
Indiana Jones is first glimpsed in Raiders through a heated jungle, somewhere in the South America of 1936, as a silhouette, a man in a fedora leading a large group of swarthy men. The men fall off as they uncover seemingly frightening statues and poison darts, all of which leave the quiet leader unfazed. Finally only two are following until one pulls a gun while Fedora Man’s back is turned. With the speed of light Fedora Man turns, pulls a whip from his belt and lashes the gun out of the man’s hand at just the right second. He steps into the light. Hello Indiana Jones, American Hero.
As we follow Jones through the first scene, into a cave replete with booby traps and harrowing death just around the corner we are unsure of his motives. Is he a good guy or a bad guy? This question remains with us for the entire film. And it is this question that is letting us know that the American hero hasn’t really changed since the 30s. This is the question in any noir film, in any Clint Eastwood movie, anything with Humphrey Bogart, our American heroes of the past. The American Hero must keep his cards close to his chest; there can be no emotion or fear. 1981 allowed a little fear to seep into the new American Hero. A real fear of death… yes, from an advancing boulder, a pit of snakes or a giant man chasing him onto a plane that is about to go up in flames from an encroaching line of fuel-filled fire, but a fear of death just the same. The new American Hero is a little more human than Heroes of past.
And what fuels our hero? With Indiana Jones is it greed for treasure or desire to save a priceless artifact from destruction or worse – falling into the hands of our enemies? And this central conflict gives our 1980s American Hero a little more depth perhaps. It isn’t either the simple greed for self or altruistic selflessness. It’s a little of both, a little of something else. Our hero struggles with this question throughout the movie and we struggle with him. We see this most clearly towards the end of the film, in one of the final adventure sequences. Our nemesis, the French archaeologist Bulloq (who has corrupted himself by being a hired hand of the Nazis) has seized both the girl and the prize – the Arc of the Covenant – and is walking through sands and desert towards some destination when Indiana Jones emerges on a hilltop, grenade launcher in hand and yells out ‘Give me the girl or I’ll blow up the Arc!’ to which our nemesis replies ‘Go ahead.’ thereby calling Indie’s bluff. Bulloq also knows our hero well, and knows that his greed and curiosity, which are the same as his own, are too much for Indie to go through with his threat. Indie slowly lowers the grenade launcher as this information dawns on him as well.
Marion, our American Heroine, is a strange combination of tough-woman, I-don’t-need-a-man independence and the ditzy oops-I-did-it-again girl in need of rescuing. We see both sides in every scene she is in. We first meet her in Nepal, where she sits at a table in a drinking game with a big tough-looking man. They’ve both had numerous shots of alcohol, as can be seen from the mass of upturned empties littering the table and counters. She drinks him under the table, then throws everyone out, and begins to soberly clean up. She yells at men that work for her in their own language and gives the appearance of being a woman that doesn’t take any guff. In blows Indiana Jones, a lover from her past that broke her heart, asking for a gold medallion, one of a series of clues and plot devices leading to the Arc of the Covenant. She throws him out and pulls the medallion from around her neck. It’s at this moment that we first meet one of our anti-heroes, a sleazy German with a penchant for giving pain. She finds herself in a bind, as the boogie-men hold her down while Sleazy German slowly brings a hot-tipped fire poker close to her face. At this moment she goes from Tough American Heroine to Helpless American Girl. Indie jumps into the scene, coming to her rescue and she thereafter gives him the medallion on the condition that she also becomes his partner. Her own Call to Adventure – she makes it herself.
She is strong and clever and helps Jones get out of tough spots on their adventure but unfailingly gets them both into a bigger tough spot that somehow only Jones can get them out of. One example is in the middle of the film: Indie and Marion have escaped a secret pit of snakes and have come upon a Nazi plane that is preparing for take-off. Indiana gets into a fist fight with someone on the ground and the pilot sees this, pulls out his handgun and waits for his shot. Marion, in an American Heroine move, pulls the wheel stoppers out, climbs onto the plane and bonks the pilot in the head who then falls forward onto the controls. She holds the stoppers up in pride for the fighting Indiana to see, only to be knocked into the cockpit from the pilot’s accidental starting of the engine. The cockpit locks and she can’t get out. Ever the American Heroine, she makes the most of her predicament and uses the automatic rifle to kill encroaching Nazis with guns… but then blows up a tank which notifies the entire Nazi camp of their presence.
The American Heroine of the early 1980s, with Raiders breathing fresh life into her, was bridging the feminism of the times with the femininity and expected feminine ideals of the past. She doesn’t need a man but … ok, maybe sometimes she does. She can save herself from almost anything, but ok, sometimes she can’t.
Where does a culture get its gender definitions? Not only from parents, teachers, friends, and consumer products, but, of course, from media. From films and TV shows and now, from the internet. The American Hero and Heroine were redefined and polished in Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Arc. We went and saw this movie and thought, yes, that’s how I’m supposed to be. That’s the best of me. Whether I am a man or woman, boy or girl.
In Raiders of the Lost Arc, there are not only the Good Guys and the Bad Guys (Americans and Germans), there are also the Others. The characters that aren’t given names or depth, the ones that speak a different language and have dark skin or funny accents and clothes. The porters and diggers and the fighters that give their lives falling off cliffs or getting gunned down by an American or German. The natives in whose land our story takes place, whose artifact is being tirelessly sought. Be they Nepalese or Egyptian, in 1980s film and American culture they didn’t matter. The stereotype of an uncultured, uneducated, simple folk is re-instated as normal in Raiders of the Lost Arc.
This is introduced in the very first scene. When Indiana Jones escapes the cave in South America, he emerges into the sun, breathing heavy and holding onto the gold statue, when he looks up and finds he is surrounded by spears and unfriendly, brown and local faces, clad in exotic loin cloths, face paint and bone jewelry. Out of this emerges Belloq, that corrupted French archaeologist, and Jones’ nemesis. He speaks the natives’ language and holds up the statue as they all fall prostrate on the ground. Jones takes this opportunity to make a run for it and Belloq, with just a few hand gestures, indicates that the Jovidros [the tribe that has the real claim to the gold statue] should kill Jones. Jones somehow easily escapes their arrows and is faster than they are in their own forest. This stereotype is strengthened continually throughout the film. Whatever country or culture the lead characters are in, the locals are no match for the brains or brawn of our single American Hero. Not only is the xenophobia bolstered by Raiders but also the disrespect Americans have sometimes been known to show other cultures is lauded and cheered in this movie. One of the best examples is a street skirmish in Egypt. Jones becomes entangled in a brawl with a scepter-wielding turbaned man. The turbaned man artfully and skillfully flourishes his weapon and Jones, after a beat, pulls out his gun and shoots the man in the head. Raiders is teaching a new generation and strengthening the belief of an older generation that this is the kind of respect you pay to a country that is not your own. You play by your own rules. You are the best fighter. You deserve the girl, the prize, the booty, the victory. You are the American Hero. They are nothing. They are the Other.
Raiders of the Lost Arc is a culturally relevant, culturally revealing film of the early 1980s. It catapults the idea of the American Hero, the American Heroine, and the Other into a deep and accepted part of the American psyche.