I remember enjoying Raiders of the Lost Ark when it came out
in 1981; I hadn’t seen the matinee serials that inspired producer George Lucas
and director Steven Spielberg, but I did respond to the junky theme-park-ride
feel (actually it wasn’t so much a theme park ride [that came later] than a
traveling carnival, complete with walking freaks, lurid exhibits, the hint of
sex, thrills galore).
It shambled and lurched horribly (there wasn’t much of a
plot to speak of) but that was part of the charm, and it moved with agreeable
speed (the huge fiberglass boulder threatening to roll over Indiana Jones
[Harrison Ford] pretty much set the pace and tone of the picture).
So many decades later, the appetite for movies derived from
other movies has been satiated to the point of nausea (for me, at least);
Raiders has spawned many clones, some of them amusing (I’m thinking of
Romancing the Stone , which was basically Raiders but from the point of
view of the heroine, and ably directed by Spielberg protégé Robert Zemeckis),
most of them not (the Richard Chamberlain remake of King Solomon’s Mines 
Re-watching the picture, the question of racism comes to
fore: do South American savages, Nepalese grotesques and Tunisian thugs all
exist to be mere fodder for Indie Jones to whip, kick, verbally and physically
abuse, and - when in a particularly bad mood - simply shoot in the
chest to get it over with? The picture moves so fast one may miss the subtext,
unless one is South American, Nepalese or Tunisian - or if one simply
Raiders of the Lost Ark.
I’m sure plenty of non-whites missed the subtext (the movie was
an international hit) and I’m sure much of the racism was an accidental
side-effect (Spielberg was - still is, I’d argue - a political
naif, Lucas even more so), a carry-over from the serials of old with their ’30s
attitude toward race relations - but a racial slur is a racial slur, even
when not meant, even when the one being insulted never noticed.
Might as well throw in the observation that the climax,
involving the Ark of the Covenant sitting inside a "caldero"-like
structure shooting flames up into the sky, is partly inspired by the
"Night on Bald Mountain" sequence in Disney’s Fantasia (1940) (and
that the "Bald Mountain" sequence was in turn inspired by the opening
passages of F.W. Murnau’s Faust  - with Emil Jannings so much more
impressive in his horizon-spanning batwings than Disney’s rather sexless
Which reminds me of another grand adventure that trod
heavily on the racial lines, George Stevens’ Gunga Din (1939). Indians are
depicted as either ignorant buffoons or homicidal heathens (though the putative
villains, the Thuggee cult, did actually exist). It’s more difficult to condemn
the implicit racism in this case for several reasons: the producers are cunning
enough to present a sympathetic Indian character (the eponymous Din, played by
Sam Jaffee), and - better yet - they show the Englishmen to be
equal if not bigger buffoons in their slapstick antics.
The cries of racism probably weren’t strong enough; in
Spielberg’s next movie, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984), the attitude
towards foreigners - in this case East Indians - is even more
Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.
Jones helps a poor Indian village recover their magic MacGuffin*;
here it’s not the case of a white scientist-adventurer recovering a powerful
device for the free world, but of powerful and malevolent Indians oppressing
their poorer brethren (the white scientist-adventurer is merely a benefactor).
Spielberg’s view of India - a country steeped in dire poverty, ancient
architectural and cultural riches, and great natural beauty - is almost unredeemably
ugly, the ugliest I’ve ever seen in any picture supposedly set in that country
(actually shot in soundstages in Elstree Studios, England and in Sri Lanka [the
location scout must have deliberately chosen the least appealing, most
fly-ridden spots in that country], so it doesn’t look very convincingly Indian,
Offsetting this - well, other than the poor victimized village
and a spoiled brat of a prince who turns out to have been under hypnotic
control, there really isn’t much in the way of mitigating circumstances (Gunga
Din at least had Gunga Din). A royal feast is especially insulting, with
offerings of pregnant pythons, eyeball soup where the eyeballs are distinctly
human (and aren’t even cooked), and chilled monkey brains (actually an exotic
Chinese delicacy). The movie was for a time banned in India for its
"racist portrayal of Indians and overt imperialistic tendencies."
The sequel does exceed Raiders in number and quality of
inventive action setpieces. The Chinese dinner club sequence, for example, with
its diamond-delivering lazy Susan, giant bulletproof gong and Kate Capshaw
singing Cole Porter’s "Anything Goes" in Mandarin, is an Oriental
chop-suey wonder (here, it’s Capshaw’s song that sets the tone); the mine
scenes feature some nifty fights (and enough intense violence to force the MPAA
to invent the PG-13 rating); the battle on the bridge is genuinely thrilling
(and not for the acrophobic). If pure popcorn entertainment can in any way be a
justification for a picture’s cultural ignorance and insensitivity, this is one
of the better arguments I’ve heard from Hollywood in recent years, and it
almost - almost - makes its case.
The louder cries this time of racism and the ban in India
may have prompted Spielberg to reconsider his tactics and propose a more
radical change: with Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989), Spielberg
eschews using foreign cultures and aims at a ready-made, ever convienient
villain, the Nazis (when the swastika appears midway through the picture and
Jones slumps back behind a railing, saying "I hate Nazis," it’s
almost with a sigh of relief; at least there won’t be any protest letters from
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.
The Macguffin this time is distinctly European and
undisputably Christian (nothing less than the Holy Grail). This time Spielberg
took care to include at least a little local color: the incomparable canals of
Venice, of course, and the amazing stone facades of Petra, a desert city carved
out of a mountainside, which doubles as the ancient temple hiding the Grail
(for a series that features many exotic locations, I shudder to think what kind
of geographical picture of the world the movies present to millions of
children). Middle Eastern characters are at best loyal sidekicks (Sallah,
played by the Englishman John Rhys-Davies), ambivalent antagonists (The
Brotherhood of the Cruciform Sword, who at some points cross paths with Jones
but in the end seem to drop out of the picture entirely), or mere cannon
The action setpieces are - serviceable (maybe three
stand out: a young Indie Jones being chased by a gang of rogues, clambering his
way through a chugging circus train; a flagpole used against a motorcycle in
unexpected ways; a fighter plane and an umbrella in a deadly earnest
confrontation). The movie’s feature attraction is really Indiana’s ambivalent
relationship with his father (Henry Jones, Jr., played by a by-now legendary
Of the three, Raiders was perhaps the "freshest"
(considering much of its elements are taken secondhand from many older
pictures), Temple of Doom had the best action (and violence), Last Crusade is the most politically acceptable (at least it’s not out-and-out
offensive), and emotionally complex (which isn’t saying much, actually -
just some father-son angst).
The series as a whole is a fine example of popcorn
entertainment (if you can set aside the frankly racist content of the first two
pictures) but judged purely as popcorn entertainment, well - take Gunga
Din. It moves faster; it’s not as loud (or obvious). In terms of story, the
Indy movies barely have any - just a MacGuffin hidden away for Jones to
uncover; Gunga Din, which is guilty of its share of borrowings, borrowed from
the best: the basic plot and premise of The Front Page, where one officer (Douglas
Fairbanks, Jr.) threatens to marry and leave the British Army and two others
(Cary Grant and Victor McLaglen) scheme to keep him enlisted.
If the Indy
movies have at least one star turn (Ford, and at one point Connery), Gunga Din
has three (Fairbanks, McLaglen, a magnificently physical Grant); if the Indy
movies have all these Rube Goldberg action sequences,Gunga Din had a Rube Goldberg device of a plot, full of wonderfully inventive comic
set-pieces, and a rousing finale that builds on all that character detail and
comic goodwill. The Indiana Jones series isn’t bad at all; it’s just that
there’s better, if you’re willing to go out a little further and look for it.
*From Alfred Hitchcock: a "MacGuffin" is a plot
device (uranium, stolen secrets, ancient talisman, whatever) that is important
to the characters in the picture and helps drive the story forward, but which
we the audience couldn’t care less about.
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You can also email Noel Vera at firstname.lastname@example.org
First published in Businessworld, 05.23.08.