Celebrating Indiana Jones 40 Years After ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’

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.

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