I don’t ever really need an excuse to watch Raiders of the Lost Ark. But it’s not every day the greatest adventure film cinema has ever produced turns 40—as Raiders does today—and it seemed a fitting celebration to watch the movie again for the umpteenth time. It is a perfect film—with the possible exception of removing the Wilhelm Scream played as one Nazi is thrown out of a truck, there is not a single thing I’d change. So many things come together to make this film great: the well-crafted set pieces, director Steven Spielberg’s insistence on using practical effects instead of CGI, cinematographer Douglas Slocombe’s elegant use of shadows and silhouettes, Harrison Ford’s perfectly cocky and heroic take on Indiana Jones, the list goes on. But the movie doesn’t just stand out for its technical brilliance and its strong writing. It’s beloved 40 years later because in Indiana Jones Raiders gave us one of the most iconic American heroes cinema has ever created.
You can learn a lot about a society based on the stories it tells about itself—the virtues it espouses, the vices it ignores in short, what the civilization believes about itself. Think of ancient Greek myths or, for a modern example, how James Bond has become a symbol of Britishness—a hero who can commit violence but does so in a suit and with genteel aplomb. Societies love and elevate figures they think represent their best qualities, and we have chosen to elevate Indiana Jones, in large part because in Jones we see a truly American hero.
Americanness was deeply built into Indiana Jones’ DNA from the start. The character was intended as an homage to the pulp action heroes of the 1930s, figures pulled from Westerns and space fantasies and inspired by cowboys and soldiers and treasure hunters who had pushed through frontiers in America only decades earlier. It’s this ancestry of uniquely American figures that led to not just Indy’s personality but even his outfit—inspired by Charlton Heston in Secret of the Incas and Humphrey Bogart in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.
Indiana Jones is confident and competent, but a bit cocky and rough-and-tumble too. He’s more inclined to drink straight liquor than cocktails, and more inclined to wear his favorite leather jacket than a suit outside the 9 to 5. Indiana is, in other words, a distillation of American stereotypes and heroic archetypes, a living embodiment of the American ideals of grit and self-reliance.
In an essay some time ago, novelist and semiotician Umberto Eco argued that, though it sounds paradoxical, Casablanca’s strength was its heavy-handed use of clichés and archetypes. “When all the archetypes burst in shamelessly, we reach Homeric depths,” said Eco. “Two clichés make us laugh. A hundred clichés move us. For we sense dimly that the cliches are talking among themselves, and celebrating a reunion.” There is something similar at play in the character of Indiana Jones, someone who is, rather blatantly, several different types of American heroes smushed into one. Such figures are so ingrained in our culture that they render Indiana immediately identifiable as a heroic figure in the American tradition. The number of archetypes that his character references elevates Indiana from being a figure of mere parody or homage to one who takes his place alongside those iconic characters, or rather, surpasses them, having become more memorable and beloved than the figures that inspired him.
George Lucas and Steven Spielberg didn’t set out to create an icon of American exceptionalism in filming Raiders of the Lost Ark. They wanted to make a tribute to the adventure films they loved growing up. But, as with Casablanca, all those tributes they wanted to pay, all those archetypes they drew from, led to something that transcends archetype and moves beyond being merely two-dimensional. The character of Indiana Jones and the franchise that’s been built around him is rich and fascinating and exciting. Which is why 40 years later, nothing about Dr. Jones or Raiders itself seems passé or uninteresting, and why we’re gearing up for yet another Indiana Jones sequel. “It’s not the years, honey, it’s the mileage,” Indiana quips at one point. Raiders of the Lost Ark and Indiana Jones may both have some years on them now, but there’s still not a bit of mileage to worry about.