Indiana Jones – cracker of whip, finder of antiquities, Raider of Lost Arks, winner of recent poll for the greatest screen character of all time, seeker of fortune & glory – there’s no-one quite like him. Heroic, funny, smart, industrious, decent, it’s not hard to see why he won. Although there continues to be a wide range of opinions about the merits of the fourth film in the series, the prevailing view is that it was a significant down-tick compared to the original trilogy.
Likewise, the jury is still out on whether the handing over of the reins for part 5 to James Mangold is a positive or negative step – needless to say it will be longer than any of us could originally have envisaged before we see anything resembling an end product on which to pass formal judgement.
What cannot be reasonably argued against is that the original trilogy is one of the great film trilogies and that Indy himself is a compelling, all-time fantastic character. Which brings us to the task at hand – to consider the moments in the franchise that have created and defined who Indiana Jones is and the moments that have cemented in the collective consciousness just what a milestone character he is.
- Eyeing up the gold figurine – Raiders of the Lost Ark
As Indy’s ill-fated companion nears the final approach to the gold figurine during Raiders’ iconic prologue he is about to race across an innocuous-looking floor but Indy knows it is too good to be true. He identifies the pressure-triggered tiles on the floor and slowly creeps towards the altar and the waiting treasure. But then he pauses, running his hand across his stubble and considering his next move. He looks again, weighs out a bag of sand and makes the careful swap.
Now of course, none of this helped in the end – the temple collapses around Indy and he barely escapes with his life, but it sets out an important stall early on. Indy is careful and considered. He doesn’t go wading in, sprinting into danger where angels fear to tread, he considers his moves, looks around, weighs it all up. We see exactly the same thing at the end of Last Crusade – each of the three trials considered carefully, even as his father fades fast behind him.
2. I don’t know, I’m making this up as I go along – Raiders of the Lost Ark
As Joker put it best in The Dark Knight, “do I really look like a guy with a plan?” Indy is asked by Sallah what the plan is and he responds with, “I don’t know, I’m making this up as I go along”. As careful and considered as he is, he is also terrific at (quite literally at times) rolling with the punches, adjusting to wrinkles and pot holes with aplomb and always with something unexpected in his back pocket.
It might be lashing himself to a rope bridge before taking a machete to it, it might be pushing a giant statue through a wall to escape an increasingly inhospitable snake pit, it might be stealing a plane that he doesn’t know how to land. The point is, he keeps going – moving forward towards his objective without necessarily being able to explain how he ultimately got there.
3. It’s not the years, it’s the mileage – Raiders of the Lost Ark
As early as three quarters of the way through the first film in the series, Indy is acknowledging how world-weary and care-worn he is. When Marion Ravenwood tells him he’s not the man she knew 10 years ago, he replies with “It’s not the years, it’s the mileage”.
Indy is as perfectly cast as anyone in film history – it’s not just getting the right actor, it’s capturing him at the right point in his life. Not actually that old, but looking bedraggled and tired and believable as someone aged not by the years he has lived but by the adventures he has had and the places to which he has journeyed. That’s what he means when he says that line to Marion. It’s not the passage of time that has changed him, it’s where he’s been, what he’s done, what he’s seen.
When Belloq says Indy’s about to become part of one of his archaeological sites, he’s not far off the mark – long before Indy looking genuinely old in Kingdom of the Crystal Skulls (which is the second and final mention of that instalment that we’ll have here) we recognise that he already has plenty of miles on the clock. To be honest it is an indispensable part of what makes Indy work as a character.
His versatility, his resourcefulness, his accumulated wisdom, all of this would make little sense if he was still wet behind the ears. He can get through the prologue to Last Crusade (on which more shortly) on the strength of his energy and wits, but his later adventures required there to be a lot more under the hood.
4. Creating an Icon – Indiana Jones & The Last Crusade
In terms of establishing a character and putting in place the iconic elements (hat, whip, fear of snakes) that define him, it is hard to imagine a sequence more intelligent, enjoyable and economical than the prologue to Last Crusade. Not only does he try out the whip for the first time (with limited success) but we also witness the creation of Ford’s chin scar. We see his hatred of snakes formed in a hilarious but entirely plausible fashion and he even gets presented with the hat which forms the transition to Indy as an adult in the 1930s.
It is breathtaking stuff and a feather in the cap of Spielberg, screenwriter Jeffrey Boam and (of course) the late, great River Phoenix. Without wanting to spend too much time on a negative heading, when you consider Lucas spent three prequel films trying (and failing) to adequately create a believable, compelling and effective back/origin story for Darth Vader, the breathless achievements of the opening eight and a half minutes of Last Crusade shine even more brightly.
5. Don’t Lose The Hat (or the whip)! – Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom
Despite the villain’s best efforts to trap them in the same room for a second round of lethal spikes and falling ceilings, Indy, Willie and Short Round manage to get out of the booby-trapped chamber just before the door comes slamming down. In Raiders, Indy reached back for his whip as the stone door came down, this time it is a last-ditch grab for his fedora.
It is such a small moment, such a simple touch, but vital again in establishing and reinforcing character traits. Indy really likes his hat (as he does his whip) and although he could get another just like it, he likes that one and doesn’t want to lose it. In a film (and indeed a franchise) of near misses, close calls and last minute rescues it is a great moment of making the time for one last thing and reinforces the significance and importance of these accessories.
6. Indy shoots first – Raiders of the Lost Ark
As hopefully everyone knows by now, the delightful scene in Raiders where Indy, after fighting off countless henchmen in the Cairo bazaar, finds himself face to face with a grinning, scimitar-wielding Egyptian was improvised in the moment. Originally scripted as a mammoth fight, showcasing Indy’s resilience and resourcefulness, no-one counted on Ford (and most of the rest of the cast and crew) succumbing to the trots on set and so Ford improvised ending the fight before it started by shooting his antagonist, so he could get to the toilet in a hurry.
What was originally thought up as a matter of expedience turns out to have been a master-stroke of character work. Yes, Indy is resilient and resourceful, but we already saw that as he fought off multiple assailants earlier in the scene and he would go on to get pummelled by a Nazi adversary a few short sequences later. What this scene gave us instead was something else – quick wittedness, a willingness to take a gun to a sword fight, a man with limits in terms of how long he can keep going (he’s not Rama from The Raid) and someone who will find the quickest, easiest answer to any problem.
Is it cheating to shoot someone who is expecting a sword fight? Thankfully Indy is perfectly happy with that (Han Solo was too, but that’s a point for a different article altogether).
7. Didn’t you guys ever go to Sunday School? – Raiders of the Lost Ark
Before we know where we are, Raiders has given us a breathless prologue, established the character as an adventurer and now we are shown the other string to his bow – intellectual ability, knowledge and academic rigour. Those may not sound like ideal traits for a charismatic hero, but stick with me.
Indy has been brought by Marcus Brody to see a couple of guys from US military intelligence who want to talk to him about a former mentor, Abner Ravenwood and a communique that refers cryptically to Tanis and the headpiece to the Staff of Ra. These gentlemen are confused but Indy is immediately on the ball, describing the map room in Tanis, the form and function of the staff and its headpiece and all of the associated history and mythology of the Ark of the Covenant. When they question whether he’s talking about the actual Ten Commandments, Indy starts talking about Moses coming down from Mount Horeb and as Indy encounters blank faces, comments “didn’t you ever go to Sunday School?”
Indy may be a dauntless explorer, but he has also put in his time in the library. He studied, paid attention and knows his stuff, making him the ideal resource for the US army to rely on here – equipped in every way for what lies ahead of him. Swinging across chasms and avoiding booby-traps is no help on its own, if you don’t know what you’re looking for and where to start searching. As Henry Jones (Snr) says in the Last Crusade, “goose-stepping morons like yourself should try reading books instead of burning them”.
8. “I love you” sends him all a-fluster – Raiders of the Lost Ark
Although it is clear that Indy rolling up to Club Obi-Wan in a tuxedo at the beginning of Temple of Doom was a not-at-all subtle nod towards the beats of James Bond (straight into the action, the end of the previous mission before plunging into a new one), Indy is very much not Bond and this crucial, quiet moment at the beginning of Raiders reinforces that.
One of his students quietly blinks and as he peers closer it transpires that she has written “Love You” on her eyelids. Rather than taking a pass at her though, he becomes flustered and hesitant, clearly not knowing quite what to do with himself. Yes, he gets the girl in each of his adventures (even if they don’t always survive to the final curtain), but he is not some globe-trotting stud. The attention and affections of his student (and she is clearly not alone in how she feels) genuinely throw him and he remains largely oblivious to the sheer volume of his students who are quite smitten with him.
9. Good in a fist fight – Raiders of the Lost Ark
Cast your minds back to what was said earlier about Indy’s resilience and resourcefulness. Well, this is one of the many places he demonstrates this. He’s not as well-trained as Bond (or any number of other filmic heroes), but he will keep going and always makes use of what’s around, whether it is a rolling rock crusher, a ship’s rotor or an aeroplane propeller.
There’s something almost magical about the way he seems to be wearily saying “okay, I’m coming” as he climbs down from the aeroplane wing in Raiders to fight the Nazi soldier, who as best we can tell just emerged from his tent because he loves a good punch up. As was often the case with Bond, Indy cannot match his foe for brute strength, but sand in the eye, sucker punches and ultimately a helpfully timed propeller all work just as well in his favour. We can see that he can take a good punch and dish them out too, but as always, it’s a combination of perseverance and going with what works.
10. If Adventure Has A Name – Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and the Last Crusade
In keeping with George Lucas having named Indy after his own dog, we see things come full circle in Last Crusade, as we discover that Indy in fact named himself after his own dog. “Henry. Jones. Junior. I named the dog Indiana”, says Henry Senior. Sallah laughs, but Indy just says, “I’ve got a lot of fond memories of that dog”.
How much does a name matter? Think Marty McFly or George for your protagonist. Henry or Indiana. Peter or Maverick. Johns McClane, Matrix, Rambo and Utah, rather than a load of Alans or Garys (apologies to all of the Alans and Garys out there – you are fine men, just underrepresented amongst screen heroes – if it makes you feel any better, there aren’t many Davids either).
Indiana sounds adventurous, exciting, dynamic. It certainly sounds more so than Henry. A name can and does matter so much and can help to establish character before you’ve heard them utter a word or seen them take a step. Why do you think all of the heroes in The Matrix call themselves Neo, Trinity, Morpheus, Cypher, Tank? Because they sound cool, that’s why. Indiana Jones is a great and evocative name. So great I named one of my kids after him. And not one of my sons.