Of Bond, Batmobiles and Bullwhips

Why heroes in film are darker than ever. And why the latest Indiana
Jones film reminds us that Raiders of the Lost Ark, with its biblical
thematic heft, is still the greatest adventure of all time.

James Bond is back. Quantum of Solace, opening in theaters this month, is the 22nd film in the official Bond series (not counting a few stray independent productions). More notably, Quantum of Solace represents the second installment in a bold new direction for 007, a direction begun with the previous film, Casino Royale (2006). Eschewing the tongue-in-cheek irony and winking bawdy of previous incarnations, the new Bond (played in both films by Daniel Craig) is callous, ruthless and cold.

Batman is also back—and, like 007, the Dark Knight is darker than ever. Currently scheduled for DVD and Bluray on December 9, The Dark Knight was easily the year’s biggest hit, and, like Quantum of Solace, follows its groundbreaking predecessor, Batman Begins (2005), in charting a dark new direction for an established hero. More than one critic has compared The Dark Knight to The Godfather Part II. These are films for adults, with a moral ambiguity startling in what are essentially pulp adventure movies.

Indeed, there is room in these films to wonder whether the protagonists are still truly heroes at all. I would say that The Dark Knight’s Batman, though compromised, remains a hero, though others may disagree. As for James Bond, I’m not sure he was ever really a hero to begin with; the new fi lms are simply franker about issues that earlier films winked at. We may identify with this new Bond, as we identify with Michael Corleone in the Godfather films, because it’s his story and we see what he goes through. But we don’t idolize him in the adolescent way that we might have earlier incarnations—which, as far as that goes, is a good thing.

All of this is new territory in a genre traditionally dominated by the escapist entertainment that has been Hollywood’s bread and butter for some three decades. Michael Corleone’s moral trajectory in The Godfather is emblematic of the gritty, sophisticated Hollywood cinema of the late 1960s and early 1970s—a period usually regarded as antithetical to the nostalgic popcorn blockbusters dominating Hollywood in the wake of Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark. Movies like Die Hard, Independence Day and Pirates of the Caribbean may do well what they do, but the style of movie making they represent hasn’t normally been known for its artistic daring and moral seriousness.

By rights, pulp heroes like Batman and James Bond belong to this world of escapism, not the world of The Godfather. Bond was even one of the original inspirations for Indiana Jones (“I’ve got something better than James Bond” was how Lucas pitched the character to Steven Spielberg).

Now, though, the boundaries are becoming less clear. Action thrillers eschew simple moral verities for tough questions and grey areas. Creative filmmakers push the limits of what is expected or possible in a genre film. Guillermo del Toro’s Hellboy II: The Golden Army is as visionary (and demented) as his acclaimed Pan’s Labyrinth. The Bourne films find redemption only through an angst-filled journey of selfdoubt, with ferocious action sequences anchored by a subtext of thoughtful humanism. In a completely different genre, Pixar has increasingly brought astonishing sophistication and daring to the world of family entertainment, not only with this summer’s Wall-E but also in recent efforts like Ratatouille and The Incredibles.

The popcorn blockbuster will never die, of course. If anything, the nostalgia market is bigger than ever; we even have nostalgia for nostalgia, with 1980s popcorn franchises returning to the big screen for new adventures: two more Terminator films, a fourth Die Hard, a fourth Rambo, a seventh Rocky, and so on.

Coming anywhere from a dozen to a score of years after their most recent predecessors, these latter-day installments have a somewhat apocryphal feel. With the passage of time, the series increasingly seems to belong to the past, so that a sequel at a sufficient remove is no longer truly a sequel.

Then again, few if any of these franchises was ever really of a piece with the original film that inspired the sequels to begin with. A dramatic rule of thumb holds that a story should be about the most important event in the protagonist’s life. Films like Rocky, Raiders of the Lost Ark and First Blood arguably do this. Once such a defining story has been told, anything else will almost necessarily be anticlimactic. Do the Rocky sequels add to the original, or do they diminish it? Did any of John McClane’s subsequent exploits ever rival that terrible, unforgettable night at the Nakatomi Plaza locking wits with Hans Gruber?

A few iconic heroes, like James Bond and Batman, may be larger than any one adventure, any one film, even any one actor. They can be recast, reimagined, created anew for each generation. Other heroes, though, are defined by what happens to them in a single crucial episode, and no sequel can ever live up to the original. In fact, in a strange way, the latter-day sequels with their historical distance may be an asset as well as a limitation. With a bona fide sequel, we want more of the same; with these recent films we know it can’t be the same. Sequels ask: “What happened next?” With these latter-day homages, the question is: “Where are they now?”

Not incidentally, this summer also saw a fourth entry in the 1980s era franchise that arguably did more than any other to give shape to modern-day Hollywood escapism. The sequel, recently released on DVD, is Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, and the original film, possibly the greatest and most influential action-adventure film of all time, is Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Like the Paramount logo mountain peak in the now-famous opening dissolve, Raiders of the Lost Ark towers over the surrounding landscape. It is the apotheosis of its genre, the Citizen Kane of pulp action–adventure, defi nitively summing up all that came before and setting the indelible standard for all that comes after.

While it offers lovingly elaborate homage to the swashbuckling serials of the past, Raiders transcends them as absolutely as Star Wars transcends the exploits of Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon. It does not merely express, but embodies nostalgia, for like nostalgia it remembers the past as it never was, all the dross forgotten and all the best parts impossibly heightened, perfected, bathed in a warm golden glow.

Nostalgia can carry a lesser film, for audiences who bring to it the sentiment it presupposes, but it makes no converts. Raiders is self-contained; newcomers with no prior interest in the world of Danger Island and King Solomon’s Mines are as irresistibly swept along in its rushing course as those who grew up with such pulp fantasies.

To call Raiders much imitated would be a gross understatement. Along with Star Wars, Raiders essentially inaugurated the whole popcorn-blockbuster genre that gluts the summer market every year. Yet while Star Wars is widely credited (or blamed) with returning fantasy and nostalgia to the Hollywood mainstream, and Spielberg’s Jaws is sometimes cited as the fi rst modern blockbuster, it was their collaboration on Raiders that established the template for future excess.

What made Raiders so influential was simply that it seemed easier to copy than Star Wars. Star Wars set the agenda, but Raiders provided the template. Despite its sci-fi trappings and technical achievement, Star Wars was too close to myth and fairy tale, a form Hollywood never had much of a feel for—as subsequent efforts like Dragonslayer and Lucas’s own Willow and Labyrinth bore out. (It took Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings to finally give the genre its due.) Few sci-fi films after Star Wars (Alien, Blade Runner, the Star Trek films) show much sign of Star Wars infl uence in other than technical matters. (A few exceptions—The Last Starfighter, Flight of the Navigator—weren’t very successful.)

Raiders, on the other hand, suggested a formula other fi lmmakers could replicate, or borrow elements from to mix and match: a rugged but not invulnerable hero in exotic locales, barely surviving one hideous threat only to be confronted with another; an ancient treasure or some extraordinary phenomenon, possibly involving taboos, curses or other paranormal elements; screwball-style romantic tension with the leading lady; villains meeting horrible deaths.

From Romancing the Stone to Spielberg’s own Jurassic Park, from Lara Croft to National Treasure, from The Mummy to Pirates of the Caribbean, the influence of Lucas and Spielberg’s classic entertainment is everywhere. Yet, going on thirty years later, scarcely any of those imitators come close to even rivaling the original. Almost without exception, they’re more or less disposable alsorans in the shadow of a masterpiece.

That includes those imitators that happen to have the name “Indiana Jones” in the title and key fi lmmakers on both sides of the camera in common. As with Die Hard, among others, there was never a persuasive series there. There was only Raiders of the Lost Ark, followed by a couple of Indiana Jones flicks. There was a kind of ironic symbolism in the revisionistic DVD packaging that retitled the original film Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark: It was an effort to suggest that the original was more like the sequels than it actually was.

Ironically, it turns out that what made Raiders special was even harder to replicate than the Star Wars magic. Few would question that the second Star Wars movie, The Empire Strikes Back, is equal or superior to the original, but Indiana Jones never came close to matching his first and greatest adventure.

Roger Ebert, in an excellent essay, credits the film with two achievements, one perhaps associated more with Lucas, the other with Spielberg. First, reflecting Lucas’s love of pulp adventure, Raiders “plays like an anthology of the best parts of all the Saturday matinee serials ever made.” (Screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan also wrote Silverado, which similarly plays like an anthology of the best parts of all the Westerns ever made.) The whole film is one brilliant action set piece after another, with practically every shot impeccably composed by Spielberg. Second, Ebert says, in its satiric, gleefully vengeful treatment of the ultimate movie villains, the Nazis, Raiders connects on its own level with Spielberg’s deep feelings about the Holocaust.

These are important and insightful observations, but in addition to the dazzling set pieces and the ultimate villains, Raiders depends equally on a third major element. It isn’t Indiana Jones himself, Harrison Ford’s quintessential action hero, with his broad-brimmed hat reminiscent of Allan Quatermain’s, bullwhip as versatile as Zorro’s—and pistol for backup. Nor is it Karen Allen’s Marion Ravenwood, a new breed of heroine (along with Princess Leia) as tough and resourceful as the hero, and more than capable of putting the hero in his place. It isn’t even John Williams’ indelible score, with its swashbuckling main theme and eerie Ark strains. All of these contribute mightily—but the sequels had most of them, and lightning never struck twice.

What elevates Raiders from great entertainment to transcendently great entertainment is the lost Ark itself. Lucas has called the Ark of the Covenant a “MacGuffin,” but this is profoundly mistaken. Hitchcock defined a MacGuffin as something that the characters care about but which doesn’t otherwise matter to the story. The mark of a MacGuffin is that it could be anything; the details don’t matter. Allan Quatermain went to King Solomon’s mines, but once he got there neither Haggard nor any of his adapters had much interest either in the mine or in King Solomon. Make it a lost gold shipment from a plane crash, and it’s substantially the same story.

In Raiders, by contrast, take out the Ark of the Covenant and you have—an Indiana Jones sequel, or at least a much less effective fi lm. The Ark blends the numinous awe Lucas strove for with the Force in his Star Wars films with the quest for Jewish identity and imagination pervading Spielberg’s work. It is because of the Ark that Raiders is not just about “blowing up the Nazis real good,” as Ebert puts it. That could have been accomplished with the hero’s bazooka, say, or by any number of other means. Countless action films end with blowing up the villains real good.

What this story offers is the ultimate antisemitic villains getting blown up by the Jewish God, for daring to desecrate a Hebrew sacred artifact. The 20th century persecutors of the Jews are undone by the same numinous power that destroyed the firstborn of the Hebrews’ Egyptian slave-masters, that smote the Philistines when they captured the Ark in 1 Samuel 4–6. (Compare the holy fire from the Ark with the similarly ethereal heavenly destroyer of Egypt’s firstborn in DreamWorks’ much later The Prince of Egypt. Compare, too, the foreshadowing of the shot in which the Nazi swastika is burned off the crate holding the Ark with the biblical story of the statue of Dagon which falls on its face before the Ark in the Philistine temple: In the presence of the Ark, heathen images are thrown down.)

In this story, even the hero pales beside the mystic artifact he seeks. Indy may be an archetypal hero, as smart as he is tough, both principled and worldly- wise, attractive but rugged, not invulnerable (susceptible to pain, afraid of snakes) but doggedly incapable of giving up—the total package, seemingly.

Yet, as my friend and fellow critic Jeff Overstreet has often pointed out, Indy is something of a paradox: a quintessential hero whose defining characteristic, at least in his first, great adventure, is that he consistently fails. Like Tolkien, who honored the classical heroic tradition while also subtly infusing it with a veiled Christian critique, Raiders at once honors and subverts the swashbuckler by suggesting that even the quintessential action hero may not be enough.

Throughout the film, Indy repeatedly fails to achieve his ends. From the rip-roaring opening act in a booby-trap infested temple, to the moment of his greatest triumph in the Well of Souls, to the tense standoff in which Indy holds a bazooka on the bad guys, Indy loses out again and again to his unprincipled rival Belloq (Paul Freeman). Indy fails to rescue Marion from her kidnappers, needs a parade of children to rescue him from a tight spot, and is badly losing a fistfight with a hulking German before a grisly accident befalls the latter.

Every so often Indy achieves a temporary victory—most notably the bravura sequence in which he goes after the Nazi caravan on horseback, which surely ranks among the top five action sequences ever filmed. But it’s not long before the bad guys have the upper hand again, as they do (spoiler warning) right up to the climax of the film, when any action hero worth his salt ought to be finishing off the bad guys, but which Indy spends tied up and helpless. Even after that, in the denouement in Washington, Indy again fails to get what he wants.

Some critics and commentators, overly wedded to academic theories of dramatic structure, have pronounced the climax of Raiders dramatically flawed, on the grounds that the protagonist fails to perform the climactic action. This is the classic critical fallacy of the small-minded, rule-oriented critic failing to discern the freedom of a great work of art to flout the usual rules for dramatic effect. The whole point is that Indy is out of his depth—a point foreshadowed in the early scene in which Indy exuberantly packs for his expedition while his friend Marcus Brody (Denholm Elliott), a museum curator who often buys Indy’s fi nds, awkwardly beats around the burning bush: “For nearly three thousand years, man has been searching for the lost Ark… It’s not something to be taken lightly… no one knows its secrets… It’s like nothing you’ve gone after before.”

Indy scoffs, perhaps a little too cavalierly. “Marcus, what are you trying to do, scare me? You sound like my mother. … I don’t believe in magic, a lot of superstitious hocus-pocus. I’m going after a fi nd of incredible historical signifi cance—you’re talking about the bogey man.” Then, with deliberate understatement, he adds, “Besides… you know what a cautious fellow I am.” Underscoring his words, he casually lobs a revolver across the room into his suitcase. A revolver. Right. In the end, all he can do is close his eyes.

This motif of awe of biblical mystery, of fear and trembling, of venturing where angels fear to tread, links Raiders to the best tradition of Golden Age Hollywood. It was a motif the sequels never managed to capture again with the same success.

Biblical mystery is missing entirely in the second film, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, which tries to supply a sense of numinous awe with occult like rituals of a fictionalized Thuggee cult in colonial India and the sacred sankara stones venerated by Indian villagers, which the Thuggee steal along with local children.

In Temple of Doom Lucas tried to duplicate the strategy that had worked so well with the second Star Wars film, The Empire Strikes Back: Take the second chapter in a darker direction before concluding with a triumphant third chapter similar in tone to the original. It didn’t work. For one thing, Lucas miscalculated just how much darker he could take the story while still entertaining the audience.

Although everyone remembers the infamous heart-ripping scene, that’s not the worst of it — nor are the creepycrawly bugs and the monkey brains. Rather, any sense of joy in Temple of Doom is smothered by the kidnapped Indian children forced into slave labor in the Thuggee cult’s underground mines, the drugged Indy brutally smacking his child sidekick Short Round to the ground and lowering the love interest, unpleasantly shrill singer Willie Scott (Kate Capshaw, who became Spielberg’s second wife), into the lava, and the oppressive darkness of the Thuggee cult in the absence of any countervailing element of light or hope such as the Ark, or even the Grail.

The third film, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, attempts to return to Judeo-Christian tradition for the obvious counterpart to the Ark of the Covenant, the Holy Grail. While a marked improvement on Temple of Doom, Last Crusade falls well short of the towering standard set by Raiders.

In theory, the Holy Grail holds out hope for transcendence, but in the end the vision offered by Last Crusade is something of a disappointment. Whereas the filmmakers clearly knew how to make effective dramatic use of the Ark of the Covenant, there seems to have been no clear idea what to do with the Holy Grail. Where Raiders had the Well of Souls scene, in which the Ark is found, midway through the film, while the Ark itself provided the climax, Last Crusade relies on silly deathtraps in the repository for the Grail for its climactic tension.

In the end, rather than possessing the power to defend itself, the Grail is protected by subterfuge, by a baffling array of chalices and vessels from which the would-be Grail seeker must select the true cup of Christ. Perhaps the filmmakers might have drawn on the suggestion in 1 Corinthians 11 about sickness and death befalling those who drink unworthily, as Raiders drew on 1 Samuel 4–6.

Partly, perhaps, the problem is simply that the Grail of Christian legend is a hazier property than the Old Testament Ark—and also a more spiritual one. Last Crusade reaches for “illumination,” but that’s harder to pull off than melting Nazi heads.

Although dramatically a letdown, thematically the Christian climax to the original Indiana Jones trilogy provides an interesting shape to Indy’s spiritual journey. The second film, Temple of Doom, is actually a prequel to Raiders, which means that Indy’s adventures take him from paganism (the Thuggee cult and sankara stones) to Judaism (the Ark of the Covenant) to Christianity (the Holy Grail).

This progression is regrettably undermined by the fourth, latter-day entry to the series, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, where pitfalls of New Age gooeyness lurk on all sides of the subject matter. Of course, it’s been nineteen years since Ford donned that iconic fedora— a span of time that seems to confirm the sense of finality and closure suggested by that title. (It was already a misnomer, of course; “crusade” here seems to mean “Grail quest” rather than “battle for the Holy Land,” but many viewers took the title to mean more or less “Indy’s last ride.”)

Kingdom of the Crystal Skull seems to accept its limited significance from the opening shot. Once again the Paramount logo mountain peak dissolves to a roughly similar shape, but one considerably smaller than any of the previous pinnacles in the earlier films. This shouldn’t necessarily be taken to suggest that Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is the least consequential of Dr. Jones’s adventures (Temple of Doom retains that dubious distinction); but perhaps it is the most aware that it will never rival the original.

Like John McClane in Live Free or Die Hard, Indy can’t pretend to be the man he once was, and Lucas and Spielberg have allowed Indy to age into the Eisenhower era. Russians, obviously, are the new Nazis, but it’s more than that. Indy’s roots are in 1930s pulp fiction; the pulp fiction of the 1950s had different concerns, from science fiction to spy stories. If Die Hard 4 made the point that McClane has become “an analog cop in a digital world,” perhaps Indy has become a combustion-engine hero in a space-age world, or even a gunpowder hero in an atomic-age world.

Well, yes—to an extent. The iconography of 1950s Americana is here, from the startling image at the end of the bravura first act to the sense-overloading special-effects extravaganza of the finale. At the same time, the title is enough to tell you that Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is still a 1930s Republic serial at heart, with some 1950s window dressing. Ancient temples and deathtraps, vehicular fight scenes, lost cities, creepy-crawly vermin and literal cliffhanging remain very much the order of the day.

The title, alas, is also an indication of the film’s key weakness, signaling that the mystical artifact du jour and the cultural context it represents—like the sankara stones—don’t ring any bells for the average moviegoer. After the Ark and the Holy Grail, of course, almost anything would have been anticlimactic, but surely they could have done better than going back to mystic stone artifacts from some tribal culture.

Crystal skulls really exist, though they don’t look anything like the ones in the film, and enthusiasts tout them as pre-Columbian Mesoamerican artifacts, exceeding the capacity of premodern craftsmanship and possessing psychic or healing powers—claims connected with New Age beliefs in ancient visitors from the stars, premodern super-technology, and the paranormal properties of crystals. (Experts believe that crystal skulls are of modern origin.)

The movie plays with this iconography, with black-bobbed Soviet villainess Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett), a parapsychologist researcher searching for magical MacGuffi ns with potential military applications against Western democracy. But there doesn’t seem to be any particular worldview hiding in the wings, even when Spalko sneers, “Belief, Dr. Jones, is a gift you have yet to receive.”

“Oh, I believe, sweetheart,” Indy shoots back, but the “belief” he has in mind seems limited to the notion that his adventures tend to end in paranormal pyrotechnics, and it’s best to stay out of the way of that sort of thing. Whatever “illumination” he may have received at the climax of Last Crusade doesn’t seem to have changed his worldview in any fundamental way.

Actually, there is one way Indy has changed, though perhaps it’s more due to age than spiritual insight. If Crystal Skull is the least spiritual of the Indy films, it’s also the most family-oriented, with (spoiler warning) Indy returning once and for all to his true love, Marion Ravenwood (welcome Karen Allen)— and taking responsibility for the child he unknowingly fathered many years earlier.

In this, perhaps, can be seen the shifting priorities of the aging Spielberg, who has commented in interviews that since becoming a father he could never have made a movie like Close Encounters of the Third Kind, in which the protagonist abandons his wife and family to pursue a journey of personal discovery.

If the biblical thematic heft of Raiders was never recaptured in the sequels, the same is certainly true of Raiders’ countless imitators. This doesn’t mean Christian imagery is entirely lacking in more recent popcorn entertainment. The 2004 comic-book movie Hellboy, for instance, made extensive use of rosaries, holy water, relics and other sacramentals in the fight against the forces of darkness. Christian imagery can also be found, though less effectively used, in similar but more problematic fi lms like Constantine and Ghost Rider.

On the other hand, the more creatively satisfying sequel, this year’s Hellboy II: The Golden Army, substantially diminishes these elements in favor of mythological infl uences. If the recent trend of more artistically sophisticated interpretations of pulp iconography continues, it will be interesting to see whether or how religious themes and imagery appear in such fi lms.

The 2003 X-Men sequel X2 could be a hopeful early harbinger. The first two X-Men films, directed by Bryan Singer, were among the early signs of a more mature pulp cinema, eschewing the camp backbeat of earlier Superman and Batman movies as well as the glossy stylizations of the Spider-Man films, among others.

Among the film’s large ensemble cast is a character named Nightcrawler, a blue-skinned outcast whose Catholic faith fi gures prominently in his characterization. Nightcrawler prays frequently (the rosary, Psalm 23, the Our Father), and tells another character that he pities those who fear his strange appearance, since “most people will never know anything beyond what they see with their own eyes.” Told that anger can help one survive, he replies, “So can faith.”

In a more allegorical vein, the 2006 film Superman Returns drew on the implicit Christological resonances, deliberately emphasized in the original 1978 film, of the comic-book tale of a father in the heavens sending his only son to earth, a godlike being who becomes a kind of savior. The latter-day sequel raises the question whether the jaded, cynical modern world still wants or needs a savior, a Superman.

These movies aren’t simple escapism. They are something more complex and challenging: something capable of being more rewarding—or more problematic— or even both at the same time. Films like The Dark Knight go even further in this direction.

Crosses and rosaries and such, even when little more than talismans, still tacitly attest to the historical hegemony of Christianity in Western culture. We may live in a post-Christian civilization, but it is still post-Christian, and the place of Christianity in the collective imagination remains unique. Americans may increasingly prefer vague “spirituality” to organized religion, but crystal skulls and sankara stones still don’t do it for us like the Ark of the Covenant and the Holy Grail, or the cross.

There will never be another Raiders, just as there will never be another Citizen Kane. Doubtless Hollywood will continue to churn out pulp fare offering little more than popcorn thrills—if that much. For that matter, bad films of all types will continue to outnumber good ones. At the same time, innovative filmmakers seeking to tell new kinds of stories will continue to find ways of using genres—and images—with connections to our past.

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About Steven D. Greydanus 39 Articles
Steven D. Greydanus is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle, a permanent deacon in the Catholic Archdiocese of Newark, and the founder of DecentFilms.com. He has degrees in media arts and religious studies. He and his wife Suzanne have seven children.