May 19, 2008

Jingoism in Indiana Jones

The latest Indiana Jones movie seems to be somewhat politically correct when it comes to the theft of archaeological artifacts. Whether it's equally correct about its portrayal of Indians remains to be seen.

Back in an 'Indiana' State of Mind

'The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull' meets every expectation—without ever exceeding them.Coherent plots have always been secondary to the action in the series. That said, this one feels particularly unnecessarily hokey and complex. As in past installments, the back story is explained by Jones in passages of leaden exposition that slow the action to a halt. In "The Crystal Skull" the characters stop, the good professor mouths some mystic mumbo jumbo about ancient civilizations and purloined antiquities, everyone nods, and then they're off again to battle Soviet bad guys or contend with a swarm of flesh-eating ants. The story line concerns Indy's attempts to locate the skull of the title, which allegedly contains supernatural powers, before a band of villainous cold war Soviets gets it, and return it to its rightful home deep in a South American jungle. (It's interesting to trace the films' treatment of the civic-minded archaeologist's handling of antiquities. In the earlier films he insisted the looted artifacts belong in museums, but here, perhaps in response to recent controversies about real-world museums' ill-gotten collections, the emphasis is on returning the pieces to their native lands.) A certain political correctness pervades this story on the whole; the xenophobia so rampant in the past movies (especially "Temple of Doom," with its monkey-brain-eating Indians) has been considerably toned down (though there are still too many grunting natives), and the anti-Orientalism of the first two films, in which almost every villain had a turban and a thick, generic Middle Eastern accent, has been completely jettisoned. But the West Is Best jingoism remains; Indiana taunts the Soviet evildoers by sneering "I like Ike."Comment:  I've read several reviews and no one has said much about the Indians. Perhaps their role is relatively minor.

Or perhaps people don't think twice about seeing barbaric tribes in the movies. Perhaps the Indiana Jones films have done their job: teaching us that Western civilization is best.

The reviews may not dwell on the Indians, but check out the poster below. What a surprise to see spearchucking savages chasing Indy...not.

Anyone want to bet that Crystal Skull will imply that aliens or Atlanteans built the "lost kingdom"? I.e., that Indians were too primitive to do anything that sophisticated?

For more on the subject, see The Best Indian Movies.


dmarks said...

"But the West Is Best jingoism remains; Indiana taunts the Soviet evildoers by sneering "I like Ike."

The reviewer complains about that, but not about the anti-Nazi stuff from the previous movies. And the Soviets were as bad as the Nazis. And no, I don't complain about anti-Nazi or anti-Soviet sentiment in movies whatsoever. After all, that's two of the worst three political movements/regimes of the 20th century.

Come to think of it, I think that villains with German accents in the first three movies outnumber the turban villains. Then comes the realization that the main villains on all three movies are Caucasians. White Caucasians in #1 and #3. Swarms of gun-toting Nazis with a lasting screen presence longer than that of the blow-dart Natives and chasing Egyptians in #1.

They don't do a great job at "teaching us that Western civilization is best" when Western Civilization at its worst (followers of Hitler and Marx) in the time-period of three of the four films is shown. A lot.

fishgills said...

Right, I don't think the race or ethnicity of the "main villain" matters as much as the consistent portrayal of non-white civilizations as backwards, culturally and morally inferior, and existing solely as a function for the objectives of white people, as opposed to having their own motivations. Every turban-wearing, spear wielding character in the Indiana Jones series so far has been a stereotype at best and a racist caricature at worst. It's telling that the most positive portrayal of a person of color is Sallah, who is played by John Rhys-Davies, who is white.

The whole concept of Indiana Jones - that it is morally right for a Western invader to pillage the land of non-white savages, killing anyone who gets in his way, for their traditional treasures and heirlooms (for the ogling pleasure of audiences back in the mother country) - reeks of colonialism. And just like colonialism, the players are all white (the Nazis or the Soviets), and people of color become the pawns. Indiana Jones represents a continuation of Western wars of imperialism - the US fighting other White nations to see who can subdue and control the most non-white nations.

dmarks said...

I think you make some good points (aside from the use of the modern variant on "colored people"... remember, all people have color). The "the players are all white" especially.

The last part is a bit of a generalization of the stories. The first movie started with white guys "pillaging", but the main plot of the Ark did not really involve that. The Grail also was not a matter of pillaging something from non-white savages. "Heirlooms" were not in the 2nd movie, but perhaps you could instead argue that it involved the West intervening in the internal affairs of India: white hero riding in to set right the affairs of brown people who can't do things on their own.

Elegance said...

This was a great post. I used to love the Indiana Jones movies, but they were all made before I was about 8 years old. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom was one of my favorite movies. But I'm more educated now ans I can see the colonialism and imperialism and racism now. Before I didn't see it. All those people who took treasures and artifacts out of Brown and Black countries to bring to Western museums really disgusts me now. All the Brown people who died in the films and were shown so negatively. I don't support this kind of things anymore. There might be many people who saw such films in the past who don't realize these negative things, even as adults.

Suzanne said...

I just saw this film yesterday. There was definitely a lot of what you would expect--more action than plot.

The main villains were Soviets who wanted to return the scull to the lost city, which would somehow give them the power to practice mind-control over the Americans and turn them into Communists. To the film's credit, McCarthyism was also shown in a bad light; however, the "West is Best" mentality certainly permeated most of the film.

There's a brief market scene in Peru where Indy speaks the indigenous language with some villagers, but all indigenous people who live in the forest are portrayed in the classic "savage" sense. They all grunt or make strange noises, and can jump out of nowhere with animal-like ability. And frankly, it was not clear to me whether the indigenous people in the two scenes where they are shown are meant to shown as living people guarding their people's graves and sites or if they're meant to be some kind of undead army powered by mysterious ancient magic. The indigenous people guarding the lost city are the only humans in the film who are afraid of the crystal scull, and our white heroes are able to enter the pyramid by warding off the restless natives with the scull. The same guards are later murdered by the Soviets; we're given about 3 seconds to see how horrible this is, and then we're brought back to the "important" action.

And yes, you are right: it turns out that the aliens taught the Mayans everything they know about irrigation and the Universe. At least that's what Hollywood is telling us now.

Rob said...

Good comments, everyone.

It sounds as though Crystal Skull will meet my low expectations for cultural sensitivity. ;-)

Regarding the Nazi and Soviet villains, you have a point, DMarks. My response is this:

1) The good white-skins always beat the bad white-skins as well as the bad brown-skins, which sends a pro-Caucasian and pro-Western message. It might be different if the good guys sometimes lost, but they never do.

Moreover, good and bad Caucasians share the same Western ideology. They believe it's okay to plunder archaeological relics because, well, they're Westerners. Their might makes it right.

Who cares what "savages" think about the objects they own legally and morally? If they're too primitive to win an (un)fair fight, too bad. Finders keepers, losers weepers.

2) Most Americans don't associate Nazi Germany or Soviet Russia with Western civilization. By "Western civilization" they mean everything done by good (American and British) Westerners and nothing done by bad (Nazi and Soviet) Westerners.

If the West's defenders and apologists ever said, "We've done great things except for the terrible things we've done," my work would be done. Then we'd know that they'd given up their shortsighted myopia and begun to see themselves as the rest of the world does. Then we'd know that they traded their monocultural perspective for a multicultural one.

Let me know when the George W. Bushes, Rush Limbaughs, and David Yeagleys of the world agree that the West has done evil as well as good. Not just when they pay lip service to the notion, but when they embrace it wholeheartedly. I'll declare it a Blue Corn Comics holiday with prizes for everyone.

Rob said...

George H.W. Bush once famously said, "I will never apologize for the United States—I don't care what the facts are. ... I'm not an apologize-for-America kind of guy." I'll know we're no longer hearing pro-Western propaganda when he and his ilk turn around and say the opposite. When they say, "I'll keep apologizing for the United States until everyone realizes we're sincere about it. I don't care whose feelings it hurts or egos it bruises. The day of blindly worshiping sacred cows, of 'America, love it or leave it,' is done.

"When we're wrong, we're wrong. We were wrong to kill Indians and enslave Africans. We were wrong to nuke Japan and invade Iraq. We were wrong to plunder the Third World's treasures--and by 'we' I mean everyone from multinational corporations to Indiana Jones."

Again, let me know when the West's apologists say something like that. Until then, anti-Western messages aren't the problem. Pro-Western messages are.

Anonymous said...

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primitive can teach us much happiness to me this fig leaf in simple things, the suspicion has always pursued a guilty conscience, the thief sees a shadow in each police
people are afraid to take a relasão for this day is in the soul that I have not put a queque I do not know where he was born, how come I do not know, it hurts and I do not know why this secret in these civilizations, in happiness in confidence and not explicitly q lead in material objects at great temptations qo world behind and provides a pro-sink destruction of humanity
the egypt would drive me to bring the roots and essence of that need-to bring my ideal where you can have a broad trust and harmony as in egypt the tribes of Indians in the West and the animals of Africa as elephants are happy being q his family

Rob said...

Don't fall for Crystal Skull's anti-Soviet propaganda, DMarks!

Indiana Jones makes Russian communists see red

By Denis Pinchuk
Fri May 23, 4:21 PM ET

ST PETERSBURG, Russia (Reuters) -- Russian Communist Party members condemned the new "Indiana Jones" film on Friday as crude, anti-Soviet propaganda that distorts history and called for it to be banned from Russian screens.

"Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull" stars Harrison Ford as an archeologist in 1957 competing with an evil KGB agent, played by Cate Blanchett, to find a skull endowed with mystic powers.

"What galls is how together with America we defeated Hitler, and how we sympathized when Bin Laden hit them. But they go ahead and scare kids with Communists. These people have no shame," said Viktor Perov, a Communist Party member in Russia's second city of St. Petersburg.

The comments were made at a local Communist party meeting and posted on its Internet site

The film, the fourth in the hugely successful Indiana Jones series, went on release in Russian cinemas on Thursday. Russian media said it was being shown on 808 screens, the widest ever release for a Hollywood movie.

In past episodes Indiana Jones has escaped from Nazi soldiers, an Egyptian snake pit, a Bedouin swordsman and a child-enslaving Indian demigod.


"Harrison Ford and Cate Blanchett (are) second-rate actors, serving as the running dogs of the CIA. We need to deprive these people of the right of entering the country," said another party member, Andrei Gindos.

Though the ranks of the once all-powerful Communist Party have dwindled since Soviet times, its members see themselves as the defenders of the achievements of the old Soviet Union.

Other communists said the generation born after the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union were being fed revisionist, Hollywood history. They advocated banning the Indiana Jones outright to prevent "ideological sabotage."

"Our movie-goers are teenagers who are completely unaware of what happened in 1957," St Peterburg Communist Party chief Sergei Malinkovich told Reuters.

"They will go to the cinema and will be sure that in 1957 we made trouble for the United States and almost started a nuclear war."

"It's rubbish ... In 1957 the communists did not run with crystal skulls throughout the U.S. Why should we agree to that sort of lie and let the West trick our youth?"

Vladimir Mukhin, another member of the local Communist Party, said in comments posted on the Internet site that he would ask Russia's Culture Ministry to ban the film for its "anti-Soviet propaganda."

Elegance said...

Yeah, these types of films are totally American propaganda.