Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark (Paramount Pictures, PG)

There are a handful of films I haven’t seen that raise eyebrows among my peers. This includes, surprisingly, all of the Indiana Jones films (I know, I know). I was a child of the ‘80s so there’s really no reason I shouldn’t have. I mean, statistically speaking, I should have accidentally watched a couple of them by now. But at some point, this anomaly became almost a point of pride, like somehow I made it through to adulthood without giving my attention to such a well-known and beloved franchise. This was something I could claim. Something that set me apart.

This may seem a juvenile pursuit, but I actually don’t think it is. While flaunting abstaining from cultural events is a pretty weak brag, the act of avoiding certain content or at least to approaching it with an eye toward questioning the basic assumptions it operates under, is practice at personal cultivation. In a very real way, we are what we watch.

So, knowing I’d be writing about it afterward for this #SocialDistancingCinema piece seemed like the perfect time to finally dig in and unearth this buried treasure (see what I did there?), to redeem my social and critical distance from the films once and for all, starting at the beginning of course with 1981’s Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark.  The verdict? I think it’s an endlessly clever film with action set pieces that mostly still hold up to modern viewing, and while it’s totally the kind of imperialist male fantasy machine I suspected it would be, its more ambitious symbolic content elevates it beyond the pulp it takes as its aesthetic compass.

It’s tough for me to accept that the implied lovemaking scene on the boat happens sometime after the car chase scene in which Jones (Harrison Ford) dangles behind a truck by a whip that drags him a good quarter mile down a bumpy dirt road while his junk seems to take most of the trauma. Other than a few gripes though, the action comes off as mostly realistic, or at least justified. (I will accept a man frozen in terror as a propeller blade approaches, for the satisfaction of knowing it chopped him into bits.) While man-vs.-boobytrap action doesn’t hold the same excitement for me that it once did, it still kinda does.

Ford as Jones plays the character he usually does: jaded, gruff, skeptical, independent with shades of Bogart from Casablanca. He’s a white man in an exotic land with two fists and a whip that tames all around him, including the leading lady (Karen Allen) who spends her first few minutes in the film acting tough, but much of the rest screaming for help. Find him in the jungle exercising his American/British birthright to pillage tombs and punch a few brown people in the meantime. But in case you thought there might be shades of moral grey area to be considered here…THE NAZIS ARE STEALING THE TEN COMMANDMENTS!!

It’s a goofy pulp premise, but it’s also played as symbolic of the rise of nuclear weapons. Consider too that this is a Jewish filmmaker making a film about World War II that evokes the biblical story of the liberation of the Israelites from Egypt and you’ll realize there’s a little more here to unpack. Spoiler alert (as if you haven’t seen it!): It’s an American, Jones of course, who saves the day and keeps nukes out of the hands of Nazis. But Steven Spielberg/George Lucas’ third act light show is all good ol’-fashioned Old Testament pyrotechnics. Jones’ skeptical academic distance from such superstitious hoopla is collapsed when biblical ghosts come out to melt Nazi faces and their European enablers. The otherworldly magic of Old Testament prophecy stands in for the dramatic shift in the cultural psyche with the emergence of nuclear power and mushroom clouds. But also, Spielberg is clearly telegraphing: Do. Not. Fuck. With. The. Jews. Of course that ancient Jewish power, like Spielberg himself, ends up in the coffers of U.S. hegemony and military might among all those endless warehoused boxes. (We’re still in the Cold War Era here.)

It should be noted that Indy saves himself from death-by-Ark by closing his eyes. He misses the spectacle and of course its underlying power dynamic. Just like all those tales from the Bible and Greek mythology, if you can keep from looking right at a thing (a debauched city being destroyed, say, or a monster lady with snake hair), you might save yourself from the effect it could have on you. What you watch matters. See, Spielberg gets it. | Mike McCubbins

To see where you can stream Raiders of the Lost Ark (and the rest of the Indiana Jones film series), visit Reel

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