What is Indiana Jones Trying to Do?

There’s no denying that Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom is really, really racist.

Look at these weird foreigners. They eat monkey brains! They steal little children to force them to be workers for their cult of Kali! If you’re not good, they’ll rip your heart out… because, clearly, this is how people in North India act. Racism and sexism aren’t just present in Temple of Doom; orientalism of “weird” cultures and alienation of indigenous peoples occurs through all three (or four, if you count aliens as indigenous peoples, which I don’t) Indiana Jones movies. With so much blatant racism and a clearly Anglo-centric worldview, why is the Indiana Jones franchise so popular? Better yet, why do I love it so much?


Part of the reason is that, admittedly, I’m not above ignoring inconvenient realities in order to enjoy myself for a bit. Another part of the reason is that without obvious, screaming racism and sexism, Indiana Jones wouldn’t be what it’s mean to be; a rebirth of the adventure serials from the early part of the century, and a depiction of a 1930’s worldview. The Indiana Jones films are interesting because besides being fantastic adventure stories, the films allow the viewer to relive what is sometimes thought of as sort of a “golden age,” a time when the American dream was alive and an average professor could fight Nazis while recovering ancient artifacts sneaking onto blimps (sorry, Dr. Welky, but I don’t think it’s going to happen). The first film in the franchise was made in 1981, in the wake of the seventies and in the midst of the rapidly changing eighties. At this point, American morale was starting to raise but wasn’t quite there yet. America, to many, seemed like it was weakening. People yearned for the “good old days,” and the media reflected this. This is the same time period that brought us the “Little House on the Prairie” TV series and A Christmas Story. Why shouldn’t nostalgia be injected into an adventure movie? Viewers wanted to see a time when Americans, living in a nation healing from the Great Depression, were a vital force in the world and knew the difference between good and evil. If this film were actually made in 1938, there’s no way that Indy would be shown fighting off Nazis; in the world recreated by Spielberg, however, Indy’s intuition led him to know that the Nazi were worth fighting even if the American Government wasn’t sure yet. By re-creating the adventure serial, maybe Americans could think back to a day when illegal archaeology was okay and the hero always won. An interesting quote (which I admittedly pulled out of Wikipedia) reflects how I feel about the art style and feel of Indiana Jones:  ‘Roger Ebert praised the scene depicting Indiana as a Boy Scout with the Cross of Coronado; he compared it to the “style of illustration that appeared in the boys’ adventure magazines of the 1940s”, saying that Spielberg ‘must have been paging through his old issues of Boys’ Life magazine… the feeling that you can stumble over astounding adventures just by going on a hike with your Scout troop. Spielberg lights the scene in the strong, basic colors of old pulp magazines.’”


So, the purpose of Indiana Jones goes beyond pure racism– is this still okay? I think this could be argued in a lot of ways, just like any controversial film. Is CSI wrong for depicting detectives as magical crime solvers in a way that hurt a lot of real CSI labs? Should Pocahontas be removed from the shelves? Perhaps the difference here is that Spielberg and Lucas seem to be channeling a bygone era, where Pocahontas aims to tell viewers exactly what Native Americans are like. The average viewer, however, might not know that Indiana Jones is supposed to be modeled after adventure B-movies, and could take the films at face value. It’s also difficult to decide what is and isn’t offensive for a member of a group to which you don’t belong; while I can argue all day that Indiana Jones’ racism and orientalism provides a historical setting rather than reflects Lucas’ and Spielberg’s actual views, my Indian boyfriend will probably never think that Temple of Doom is acceptable, family-friendly entertainment. To him, the Indians in the films are used like props, reminiscent of the use of blacks in early cinema. I’m not proposing any direct answer to this question. Personally, I’m still conflicted when it comes to films like this because the line is so blurry. At what point does a caricature of a southerner or an American become less entertaining and more offensive to me? I’ve still got a lot of pondering to do, but for now, I’ll leave the worst of the Indy films, Temple of Doom, out of my DVD player and stick to watching Nazi sympathizers shrivel up from drinking from the wrong holy grail.