A couple days ago, a friend of mine brought up “What Can’t Adam Complain About?” a segment of Adam Carolla’s podcast where they give him a series of ridiculous things and see if he can bitch about them. Marc said that whenever he hears that he snorts and thinks, “Amateur.” Because I can complain about fucking anything. Avatar. The obnoxious way Joey Crawford calls traveling. Whatever the fuck happened to the Coen Brothers. People who say “nice” every other word. I can see the mulleted heads of both my readers nodding. “Of course,” they say, “these things should be are objectively terrible and should be shot in the face at the first opportunity.” But here’s the thing: I’ll complain about things I like. Case in point: this weekend I watched the Indiana Jones trilogy. All three movies. Because there were ONLY THREE MOVIES MADE. I like these movies a great deal. I’ve watched them many times. I’d happily recommend them to people who haven’t seen them, which at this point has to consist entirely of Amish teenagers on rumspringa. But all three have certain flaws that make pedantic nitpickers like me go nuts.
Before this weekend, I held the borderline heretical opinion that Temple of Doom was the best of the trilogy. The redheaded stepchild of the series, Temple of Doom is slammed for its pervasive racism, too-dark tone and Kate Capshaw. Oh, god, Kate Capshaw. No actress has done more to fuck up a movie than Capshaw in Temple of Doom. She’s the turd in the punchbowl of that entire series, if not ‘80s cinema as a whole. Granted, her character is shallow, shrill, useless, vain, and at times seems to be working for the enemy, but Capshaw’s performance would have to be quite a bit better to qualify as unappealing. There are some folks who don’t like Short Round either, but really, disliking him with Capshaw fluttering around is a little like dinging the Klan for their ugly white robes.
So whenever I trotted that one out as my favorite, Capshaw was the first thing I had to deflect. No, I don’t like Willie Scott. Yes, I was totally cheering for Mola Ram to rip out her heart, which he inexplicably refused to do. Yes, she was unquestionably the worst Jones Girl, even worse than the secret Nazi in the third one, proving that it’s possible to be so horrible as to come in second to a Nazi. Yes, Marion is far and away the best. It’s not even close. Rewatching all three films made me realize something: we’d been viewing Marion Ravenwood through rose-colored glasses. Not that she’s bad, but she’s pretty far from the two-fisted action heroine we seem to remember. In terms of badassery, she’s not even fit to polish Princess Leia’s blaster (yes, that’s prison lingo). Marion gets a great introduction but spends the rest of the film imprisoned and/or screaming, usually wrapped in nothing more than what passed for sexy in the early ‘80s. Hardly a paragon of proto-feminism. She beat out a secret Nazi and one of the top five worst characters in film history. So let’s not go nuts with the Marion love here.
Temple of Doom does have indisputably the best bad guy, but again, this isn’t a crowded field. Belloq qualifies as the main villain in the first film, but how menacing is he really? Sure, he’s tough when he has a horde of Hovitos (South America’s favorite snack chip!) at his back. But later? He looks a like a French director on vacation with his German crew, as though he could stop at any moment and just film some bizarrely avant-garde propaganda. Donovan is a little better, since he has the element of betrayal as well as being generally evil, as opposed to just creepy and French. Their villainy is more Grand Moff Tarkin than Darth Vader: they hide behind stormtroopers so Indy doesn’t punch the evil right out of their smug faces. Neither one of these men ever ripped someone’s heart out of their chest and probably wouldn’t even know how to start, even if you gave them an industrial drill and rib-spreader. My point is that if you want to live in a Temple of Doom, there’s a pretty stringent background check. If they find that you’re less than committed to the cause of evil they make you look elsewhere. I had to live in a Temple of Inconvenience for six months before my paperwork cleared.
Willie Scott and the specter of racism are the justified reasons that Temple of Doom gets a bad rap, but there are other reasons. First, it’s based on Hindu mythology, so it’s not going to have the same cultural resonance with western audiences. While many Americans, even those who are not Christian, accept the Jesus myth as partially based on fact they don’t extend the same leeway to the legends of other cultures. So let’s get something out of the way right at the word go: Temple of Doom is as accurate to Hinduism as Last Crusade is to Christianity. Look, at least in Hinduism there are gods named Shiva and Kali. That’s more than can be said for the Holy Grail, which was the invention of some French poet not named God. As for whether or not there was a real guy named Jesus, well, there’s just as much archaeological evidence to support the existence of a man named Rama. Which is to say none at all.
It also suffers from the problem of scale. In the other two Indiana Jones movies (remember, there are ONLY THREE), the villains are Nazis. There’s a misconception that Nazi Germany had a chance of taking over the world. They did. It’s the same chance I have of crapping a new species into existence. As soon as Hitler attacked Russia, he was essentially bending over and asking history to treat him like Madonna in “Like a Virgin.” But because we believe that the Germans were only one magic item from victory, the other Indiana Jones movies much higher stakes.
Temple of Doom is a smaller film. Indy doesn’t travel much. The only people in trouble are a tiny village of brown people, so how would a predominantly white audience find any form of empathy? Mola Ram threatens once to take over the world and destroy Christianity, but it comes off as insane ranting, and the actor’s thick accent garbles the line almost beyond recognition. Mola Ram is a dreamer, but he lacks the warmachine of one of the most terrifying modern cultures at his back. For Shiva’s sake, his minions still use bows and arrows.
Mola Ram, despite being the best of Indy’s villains, is the only one that Indy actually defeats. He squares off on that perfect scene on the bridge (the one that really only seems fit to transport fear), winning when he finally invokes Shiva. This moment is significant: the Indy mythology acknowledges the power of the Hindu Gods. This isn’t going to sit well with Judeo-Christians. A talking snake is one thing, but a magic rock? That’s just silly. Indy doesn’t even defeat Donovan in Last Crusade. The secret Nazi tricks him with a bejeweled cup, because Donovan apparently thought that “carpenter” was Aramaic for “pimp.” Belloq’s defeat is even worse. Indy’s plan? Get tied up and shut his eyes real tight. Seriously, that’s how Indy wins. He doesn’t even get out of his ropes: God unties them. There’s a very basic concept in writing known as deus ex machina, which is when a plot gets magically resolved by a suddenly discovered object, ability or event. It’s the cavalry coming over the hill in the nick of time. It’s the main character learning she had a new power she never knew about before. It’s a vital fact changing at the last moment. Writers are supposed to avoid it at all costs. Deus ex machina means “god from the machine” and stems from a tradition in which plays would be resolved by an actor playing God descending from the top of the stage and arbitrarily fixing everything. The opening of the ark is, quite literally, God from the machine. The bad guys explode and the good guys don’t, because they were smart enough to remember they had eyelids. It’s this scene that will never make me embrace Raiders, even if the rest of the film is damn near perfect.
And Raiders is close to perfection. Even that scene I hate carries with it the subversive implication that the God of the Bible is a Lovecraftian entity whose mere presence will kill the evil and righteous alike. Had Indy actually, you know done something in that scene, the entire movie would be the greatest action film ever made. As it stands Indy could have merely stayed home and everything would have turned out fine. What’s the worst that would have happened? Belloq finds the ark and explodes. You know, if he ever realized he was digging in the wrong place – something that Indy helpfully pointed out to him.
Watching the films, I was struck by just how much was on Harrison Ford’s shoulders. We love Indiana Jones as a character because he manages to walk the difficult line between indestructible action hero and vulnerable human being. Ford alternates between a cocky smirk and a gobsmacked expression of disbelief as things go from bad to worse. There’s never the impression that Indy knows what he’s doing. He’s making it up as he goes. He reacts along with the audience, somehow transforming a handsome college professor/two-fisted adventurer into the perfect audience surrogate. He singlehandedly turned the bullwhip, once the weapon of choice for – no joke – Zorro the Gay Blade, into the one of two things that every hero needs.
Calling Indiana Jones the greatest protagonist of the silver screen is, if anything, an understatement. Harrison Ford isn’t just part of that, he might be the main reason. Could anyone else have played Indiana Jones? Even stacking up the all time greats, folks like Henry Fonda, Cary Grant, Humphrey Bogart, could anyone step into the fedora? I say no. Though Indy’s character is on the page, it was Ford that made him human. This is why we love him and why the movies remain classics despite weak endings, nonthreatening bad guys and Willie Scott.
Oh yeah, and the part where he shoots the swordsman. That might be the greatest thing ever put on film.