2 Surprising Ways Audiences Relate to Indiana Jones
Indiana Jones possesses two key attributes that make him one of the most beloved characters of all time, and they both revolve around his character development:
- Indiana Jones learns to value people over things.*
- Indy consistently starts out as a skeptic, but in the end comes face-to-face with the spiritual in a way that disproves his skepticism.
Why do so many people (myself included) love Indiana Jones? Because he struggles with these two core issues that most human beings also struggle with. We see Indy in ourselves, and in doing so, we share a powerful human experience.
HOW (ALMOST) EVERY INDIANA JONES FILM STARTS
In every Indiana Jones film, Indy begins the film on an adventure that’s somewhat removed from the main storyline that follows:
- In Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indy explores South America in the hunt for a fertility idol.
- In Temple of Doom, Indy battles Lao Che over a diamond.
- In The Last Crusade, a younger Indy steals the Cross of Coronado from a group of grave robbers.
What’s true about Indiana Jones in each of these opening sequences (and actually isn’t true in Crystal Skull)? He’s a skeptic who focuses on obtaining a valuable item over and above protecting the people around him.
The Setup of Raiders of the Lost Ark
In Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indy doesn’t seem to care about his South American guides. In fact, they have an adversarial relationship throughout the opening sequence. As they either abandon him or die, he doesn’t experience much emotional discomfort. All of his emotion relative to their misfortune is related to his own mortality as opposed to any sense of empathy he has for them. Then, when Indy visits Marion–a former love interest of his–in Nepal, he wastes no time in explaining he’s only there for the headpiece to the Staff of Ra. He’s not interested at all in her.
At the same time, Raiders portrays Indy as a skeptic. As the South American guides find evidence of tribal spiritual warnings, Indiana Jones treats those spiritual practices as if they’re irrelevant and inconsequential to his objective. Nothing he encounters has spiritual significance to him. He pushes forward as if the spiritual entities serve as a ludicrous reminder of primitive tribal beliefs. And that’s critical to his actions later in the film.
The Setup of Temple of Doom
In the opening sequence of Temple of Doom, Indy meets with Lao Che to receive payment for collecting the remains of Nurhachi, the first emperor of the Manchu Dynasty. In exchange for finding those remains, Indy was supposed to receive a diamond called the Eye of the Peacock. But when the negotiations go sour, Indy does whatever he needs to do in order to get the diamond, putting dozens of people’s lives at risk. Short Round–a young kid Indy seems to have a deeper connection to–drives the car Indy escapes in, which puts Short Round in immediate and mortal danger. Even when Indy values another human being like Short Round, he still puts them in danger during his quest to obtain valuable items.
Later, when Indy, Willie, and Short Round find themselves in India, the local people tell them about the Thuggee Cult kidnapping the village children and stealing the Sankara stones. As Indy begins to investigate, he remains skeptical that the stones or the cult have any real spiritual influence over the physical world.
The Setup of The Last Crusade
When Last Crusade opens, Indy abandons his boy scout troop to prevent a group of grave robbers from stealing the Cross of Coronado. His focus remains on the Cross of Coronado no matter what happens to those around him. And, when we first see Indy deal with his father, we start to get a feel for why Indy is so focused on things, because his own father seems to care more about his work than he does about his son.
Later, when Indy arrives in Venice, he sees Elsa as more of a thing to be conquered than a valued collaborator in the hunt for a precious artifact. And as Last Crusade plays out, it’s evident that Indy doesn’t see the Holy Grail as a spiritually-relevant item of power, but rather as an artifact of historical significance. Even when others try to convince him of the cup of Christ’s power, he remains skeptical.
A Note on Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
Now, it should be noted that in Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, Indy feels… different. First, Indy attempts to prevent the Russians from getting access to the remains of an alien creature. That’s a reversal of what we see in the previous films. In Raiders and Last Crusade, Indy is trying to prevent Beloq and the grave robbers from getting the items of power, but note that he does so by seeking out the item for himself. In other words, he’s trying to get it so they don’t get it. But what’s interesting about the opening sequence of Crystal Skull is that it breaks from the traditional portrayal of Indiana Jones. Indy isn’t attempting to gain an item of power, he’s just attempting to prevent others from getting it. And two, he indicates to the government officials that he’s aware of the alien autopsy. In other words, he’s not much of a skeptic. He’s already seen the alien body…
The Setup of Indiana Jones’ Character Development
In all the Indiana Jones films except Crystal Skull, the following two things are true about Indiana Jones at the beginning of the film:
- He’s more focused on items and artifacts than he is on people.
- He’s a skeptic who doesn’t believe that any of these items have spiritual significance.
At the start of the first three films, Indy wants to capture an important item that he doesn’t believe holds any spiritual power.
INDY’S CHARACTER ARC IN (ALMOST) EVERY INDIANA JONES FILM
What happens to Indiana Jones throughout each of the first three films?
Indiana Jones realizes that people are more important to him than valuable items, and he has to acknowledge that there are spiritual powers he doesn’t understand.
Indiana Jones ends up putting people over conquest and is forced to become humbled as evidence of the spiritual forces he doubted become manifested before his very eyes. And both factors often come together to solidify Indy’s character arc and satisfy the needs of the plot.
Indy’s Transformation in Raiders of the Lost Ark
In Raiders, Indiana Jones surrenders to the Nazis rather than blowing up the Ark of the Covenant. Why? Two reasons: (1) By attempting to fight, he risks harming Marion, and (2) He has become curious about the power of the Ark. Notice how many people criticize Indiana Jones in Raiders by saying, “If you remove Indy, everything plays out in the same way!” And while that’s partially true, the fact that Indy learns to “let the Ark work” solidifies one of the core perspectives of the franchise: there are metaphysical forces at work that we don’t fully understand. At the end of the film, Indy acknowledges this change in his character when he turns to Marion and tells her not to look when the Ark is opened. He puts aside his desire to see the item of power, and simultaneously acknowledges that the Ark has a spiritual power he doesn’t understand. With that one line, we now know he values Marion over the Ark, and he realizes that he’s no longer a skeptic.
Indy’s Transformation in Temple of Doom
In Temple of Doom, Indiana Jones rescues all the kidnapped children who have been enslaved by the Thuggee Cult. And he also comes to believe in the power of the Sankara stones, even telling Mola Ram that he betrayed Shiva. Indy’s newfound faith (albeit a shallow one) activates the Sankara stones in order to overcome Mola Ram and the Thuggees. He values the children and accepts that the stones have spiritual power.
Indy’s Transformation in The Last Crusade
And finally, in Last Crusade, Indy embraces the stories about Jesus Christ by choosing the cup of a carpenter and then uses that cup to heal his father, Henry Jones. And the storytellers double down on Indy’s character development by showing Indiana Jones choose to let go of the Holy Grail and choose his father as the entire building collapses down around him.
WHY DO MANY CONSIDER INDIANA JONES TO BE ONE OF THE BEST CHARACTERS OF ALL TIME?
Many will come up with different answers as to why Indiana Jones is a great character. But, as a storyteller who believes that stories help us understand and interpret the world around us (shoutout to Lisa Cron and Wired for Story), I believe the reason so many audience members resonate with Indy is two-fold:
- Many of us realize that people are far more valuable than things. Yet, all too many times, we behave as if the opposite is true. When we see Indy learn that people are more important than some of the most cherished items on the planet, we remember that the things we’re pursuing are not as valuable as those around us.
- Faith isn’t easy. For some reason, skepticism feels far easier to fall into than faith does. Doubt occasionally plagues even the most faithful people. And yet, the world around us remains complex and mysterious, and we don’t have answers for all the deeper questions we encounter. And, like Indy, many of us have experiences we simply can’t explain that force us to ponder the spiritual.
The premise guiding the character development of Indiana Jones resonates on a deeper level. Yes, Indy is cool. He has a fedora. He has a whip. He rejects the nonsense of regular society in order to go on extravagant adventures. But, he’s also like us. He’s a skeptic who realizes he doesn’t have all the answers, and he has to be reminded that people are more important than things.
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Jay Sherer is the co-writer of the full cast audiobook and novel, Death of a Bounty Hunter, and the time travel serial story, Timeslingers. If you enjoyed this resource and would like others like it, please support Jay on Patreon.
*Screenwriters Craig Mazin and John August break this down related to Raiders of the Lost Ark on the Scriptnotes podcast.