Why Indiana Jones still matters

Harrison Ford: the one and only Indy?

When the announcement of a fifth Indiana Jones film was made in March 2016, the reception from fans was mixed. While some were excited about the prospect of another adventure for the man in the hat, many others reflected on Kingdom of the Crystal Skull’s poor reception and Harrison Ford’s age, and wondered what the point was. Four films in, isn’t it time for Indy to retire his bullwhip and fedora and call it a day, or at least, change format and find new life in an ongoing comic book or animated TV series? When the chatter calmed, what ultimately emerged from the discussion about Indiana Jones 5 wasn’t really about Indiana Jones 5 and became about Indiana Jones himself: does the character have a future and if so, what is it?

In a time when franchises rule and talking trees and raccoons can make successful transitions to the cinema screen, it seems odd to be asking a question like this of an icon like Indiana Jones, but it’s a relevant one nonetheless. While I’ll staunchly defend Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, it’s certainly not a perfect film and failed in a way that even the Star Wars prequels didn’t. While they alienated adults, they also struck a chord with kids, giving the franchise fresh life. Crystal Skull didn’t chime with anyone, so older fans seemed to distance themselves from the series and younger ones weren’t brought on board with a new, thrilling adventure. Lucasfilm and Disney’s seeming hesitance to create comic books, novels, and animated series around the character has only exacerbated this.

Ford will be pushing 80 by the time Indiana Jones 5 is released and obviously he can’t go on forever (sadly). So some (including myself) believe that the new film should be a dual-timeline narrative in which we see the elder Ford-Indy in the 50s or 60s with a younger Indy played by a different actor in the 20s or 30s. This isn’t to say that Ford is incapable of leading a film like Indy 5 (he proved he can still do that in Star Wars: The Force Awakens), or that he should be sidelined. While he’s still with around, it would simply be disrespectful to Ford’s dedication to and obvious love for the character to diminish his role in comparison with another actor.

However, while Ford has a unique blend of matinee idol charm, weathered good looks, and devil-may-care wit that simply can’t be replicated, he’s not irreplaceable. If we took the attitude that the first actor to take on an iconic role should be the only one to occupy it, Bond would have ended with You Only Live Twice, the TARDIS would have lain unoccupied since 1966, and Batman would have never begun again with Christopher Nolan. The casting of Roger Moore, Patrick Troughton and Christian Bale was no criticism of their predecessors, but a chance to revitalise a classic character, keeping it fresh for new generations to enjoy. And that’s a vitally important thing. Think of how impoverished our culture would be if Sean Connery, William Hartnell, and Michael Keaton hadn’t been succeeded. Think of a world without The Spy Who Loved Me, Genesis of the Daleks and The Dark Knight. Bit rubbish, isn’t it?

Of course, those characters are very different to Indiana Jones. None of the original actors were in the role as long as Ford has been Indy, and reinvention is written into their DNA in a way it’s not with Dr. Jones. What’s more, Bond and Batman were pre-existing characters long before Connery and Bale got their hands on them, and indeed, had already been represented by different actors either on screen or radio. When Ford travelled to Tunisia with Steven Spielberg and George Lucas to shoot Raiders of the Lost Ark, he was embarking on something entirely fresh that he could craft from the very start. In other words, Ford is so inextricably connected to Indiana Jones because he contributed to the character’s conception as much as Spielberg, Lucas, Philip Kaufman, and Lawrence Kasdan did. It’s little wonder he has so much love for the character.

Indy’s held in similar affection by thousands of others though and he has a cultural value that isn’t heralded enough. The series seems to get lost in the Death Star-sized shadow of Star Wars, but scratch beneath the dusty surface and Indiana Jones is every bit as inspirational and important a character as Luke Skywalker or Obi Wan Kenobi. Indeed, he goes through many of the same journeys as those characters. In Return of the Jedi, Luke fights against his emotions to forgive his father. Indy does something similar in Last Crusade, coming to empathise with his life and stand-offish parenting, rather than continuing to blame him for their estrangement. As for Obi-Wan, his journey takes him from a brash young Jedi in The Phantom Menace to a wiser elder statesman seeking to impart knowledge to his young charge in A New Hope. Indy in Temple of Doom is no different, with his early lust for “fortune and glory” giving way to an understanding of the value of community at the end of the film.

Raiders of the Lost Ark brings all the moral lessons the series has to impart together in one film. Made after Spielberg’s indulgent flop 1941, Raiders is an exploration of good, evil, and the proper use of power. During the film, the eponymous ark is described as a weapon and a “transmitter for talking to God”: a “source of unspeakable power”. Indy’s task is to stop this incredible tool from falling into the wrong hands, but whose hands are the ‘wrong hands’ exactly? The Nazis? Of course, but they’re not the only ones. The American government and their shady ‘top men’ are too, as is Indy himself, and the drama of the film lies in his battle with himself, as much as it does the battle with Belloq, Toht, and their army.

Our hero starts the film as nothing more than a thief. He ventures through the depths of Peru looking for the golden fertility idol, and despite the obvious importance it holds, he steals it, replacing it with a bag of sand. It’s a ridiculous moment, almost comically so — the priceless replaced with the worthless — and to emphasise its immorality, Spielberg echoes the moment later on when Belloq opens the Ark only to find it filled with sand. The film proves Belloq’s point that it would take just a nudge to push our hero out of the light and into the dark along with his opposite number. Could he really be trusted with something as powerful as the Ark of the Covenant? The Indy we see at the start of Temple of Doom certainly suggests not, and the fact that he’s grown so much by the end of Raiders that he’s not only not aiming to seize the Ark as he had the Idol, but looking away from it, respectful of its power, speaks volumes for the significance of the character’s evolution and importance.

Children aren’t ignorant to such powerful storytelling. Quite the opposite in fact. Fascinated by the world around them, kids see adventures like this as more than just a fun escape; they see them as a chance to learn. It’s why so many current directors cite Star Wars as a key influence on their career choices. They grew up watching the films and they ignited their imagination so much that they felt compelled to explore more about them — their spiritual elements, their mythic elements, their filmic elements. The same thing happened with me and Jurassic Park back in 1993. I’m not a film-maker, of course, but I certainly wouldn’t be writing this had I not left the cinema besotted by Steven Spielberg and the world he created on Isla Nublar all those years ago. I simply had to know more about it — and that meant getting my head in a book and learning.

There are plenty of other films that do that now, of course. Peter Jackson’s Middle-Earth series, Disney’s recent output, and the ongoing Marvel saga are all shining examples of the kind of films that will grip today’s youth the way Star Wars gripped ’70s kids, Indy gripped ’80s kids, and Jurassic Park gripped me. But as good as those films are, there’s still nothing out there quite like Indiana Jones. Sure, there have been imitations (Romancing the Stone, King Solomon’s Mines, Sahara), but nothing has replicated the unique blend of adventure, wonder, and morality that Spielberg, Lucas, and Ford nailed in the ’80s. Three decades on, the Indy franchise is still a true one-off.

The same is true of Indy himself. We have plenty of swaggering male heroes (too many, in fact), but few of Indy’s nature. Superman is tremendously powerful, Iron Man is fabulously wealthy, Thor is a God, Hulk is… well, Hulk’s Hulk. Where are the powerless characters who rely on their intellect? The Doctor, perhaps; though regeneration is a superpower in itself. Sherlock? Maybe, but in his current incarnations (both on the big and small screens) he’s far too sociopathic to be child-friendly or aspirational. After his self-sacrifice in The Force Awakens, Finn’s got great potential, but who knows what could happen in the next two Star Wars films.

Indy’s just a regular guy, a guy who’s “just making it up as I go”, but who is nonetheless heroic, noble, and fantastically smart — smart enough to understand the people of the Indian village in Temple of Doom, smart enough to know to close his eyes in Raiders, smart enough to work out a path to the Grail in Last Crusade. In our world of dark, intense, punch-’em-up superheroes, where characters tend to act before they think, a character as smart and accessible as Indy is important. Kids need to be told that there’s more to heroism than physical strength; power isn’t power, knowledge is. In amongst all its action spectacle, Indiana Jones communicates that clearly.

Hey, I like it ok?

Chris Pratt and Bradley Cooper have both been rumoured as potential new Indys in recent years, while I myself would like to see Karl Urban (handsome, earthy, good line in charming grump). Whoever does pick up the fedora, though, Indiana Jones has to remain a part of our cultural landscape. There are so many stories to tell, so many points in history to visit, so many opportunities to learn that continuing the adventures of Dr. Henry Jones Junior isn’t just a choice; it’s an obligation. So when we think of Indy 5, we should heed the words of Henry Jones Snr, and “let it go”: move on from the past and let new generations enjoy what’s to come. A descent into a deep, dark chasm awaits those who don’t.