“I don’t know. I’m making this up as I go.”–Indiana Jones, “Raiders of the Lost Ark”
Can you imagine Arnold Schwarzenegger saying these words? Or Dwayne Johnson? Maybe as an ironic one-liner, tossed out between improbable displays of badassery. But to say that and mean it? It’s totally outside the capacity of the standard-issue Hollywood action hero, who vaults over physics, morality, and other daily preoccupations of mere mortals without a second thought. In doing so, of course, they also tend to leave any possibility of audience identification far behind. Love him or hate him, that’s one thing our dear Dr. Henry Jones Jr.—A.K.A. Indiana Jones—never does.
Now, I’m not critiquing that superhuman style of characterization—necessarily. There’s something to be said for aspirational figures (especially if one’s aspiration is to outrun fireballs and headshot enemies of democracy with unerring accuracy), and of course, Hollywood is in the business of providing wish fulfillment. But for me escapism is most effective when there’s something human there for the audience to latch onto. Heroes that are too flawless, too impervious to injury, too ready with a perfect quip for each moment end up feeling more like plot devices than people in whose shoes we can realistically imagine ourselves. This is why the escapism of Indiana Jones is so much more exciting than any other comparable franchise I can think of. It comes down to this:
Indy screws up.
Pop culture may have built him up as an ultra-tough paragon of the Adventurer Archaeologist, but look back at the movies, and you’ll wonder how on Earth the man is still alive. In his first outing, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indy climbs onto the hull of a Nazi submarine and only survives because they seemingly traverse the entire Aegean Sea without ever submerging. In the second movie, he drinks poisoned champagne offered him by a known Shanghainese gangster who immediately blackmails him in exchange for the antidote. The list goes on. It’s safe to say these movies would be much shorter if our hero did not constantly make rash choices that inevitably backfire horribly. Who hasn’t been there?
He’s as good at getting out of scrapes as he is at getting into them, though—often by the skin of his teeth. At his best, he’s all of us when we’ve messed up badly and are working extra hard to make up for it. From the dizzying horseback chase after the Ark of the Covenant he unknowingly delivered right into the Nazis’ hands in Raiders to the escape from the castle he’d previously failed to save his father from in Last Crusade, the series is full of action sequences that rank with any feat accomplished by any other superhuman action hero. But they’re made all the more thrilling by being performed by someone with recognizable human flaws; even the brazenly physics-defying stunts, like that mine cart jump, feel like the crazy bits of luck life sometimes throws at us rather than screenplay contrivances.
All this is, of course, entirely intentional. Steven Spielberg and George Lucas conceived of Raiders of the Lost Ark as an homage to the film serials of the ‘40s, which shared the Indy films’ preoccupation with propulsive storytelling, death-defying perils, and exotic far-flung locales. The difference, though, is that those serials’ heroes were inevitably square-jawed tough guys, prototypes for the Schwarzenegger-Stallone model to come. Even the undeniably talented Charlton Heston in Secret of the Incas, Raiders’ closest inspiration, can’t inject any humanity into his strictly archetypal character. Doc Savage, the most famous of that brand of pulp hero, was a genius scientist with a superhuman physique, specialties in every conceivable field, and bottomless riches to draw from to fund his exploration (it’s easy to see how Savage influenced the first superheroes). Indy, by contrast, is merely an academic in fairly good shape who relies on his university to fund his expeditions. And has a crippling fear of snakes. Still not everyone’s day-to-day, but a lot more relatable, right? Lucas, who had already modernized the Flash Gordon-style space opera for a more cynical ‘70s audience, knew exactly what he was doing here.
However, it must be said that Harrison Ford deserves as much credit as Spielberg or any of the films’ writers for the success of this approach. Unique among the great movie stars post-Golden Age, he has an everyman quality undoubtedly born of his unlikely path to fame. Not only was he cast in Star Wars, his first leading role, at the comparably late age of 35, but he had also all but given up on acting by then and turned to carpentry to pay the bills. That no-nonsense, blue-collar sensibility gives him a genuine, down-to-earth charisma quite unlike most of his media-schooled contemporaries. The only real competitor I can think of is Bruce Willis, whose John McClane approaches—but still falls short of—Indy’s profoundly believable folksy heroism. As the Die Hard sequels wrote on, though, Willis fell more into the mould of the machine-tooled action hero—whereas the latter-day Indy installments, for all their questionable quality, can still count on Ford selling it every second he’s onscreen.
Given the enormous cultural influence of Indiana Jones, it’s a bit surprising how little the series’ central innovation in characterization has penetrated into other works. Sure, every action hero is now equipped with self-deprecating quips and some token character flaws, but these are merely window-dressing. It seems most writers are too afraid to have their heroes fail as often and spectacularly as Indy does, perhaps afraid that they’ll lose cred (or perhaps their star’s contract forbids it). What they don’t realize is that allowing for that vulnerability and humanity only benefits the high-flying, absurd action setpieces everyone hungers for. Because we recognize these qualities in ourselves, we can almost imagine that we, too, can sucker-punch Nazis through windshields.
Hey, I can always hope, right?