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“We Will Change You, Doctor Jones”: “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” and a Unified Theory of Indiana Jones…

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is a movie with very real and very tangible problems.

Part of the problem is one of simple aesthetics. The original trilogy were products of a very particular moment in the history of American cinema, spanning the eighties. Raiders of the Lost Ark was very much a rollercoaster of a movie, a showcase for practical effects and impressive stunt work. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom was built around impressive physical sets, model work and location work. Even Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade took a great deal of pride in how tactile this world felt.

Crystal clear.

In contrast, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull was a product of a transitional decade for Hollywood. It is no coincidence that the film opened in the same summer as blockbusters like Iron Man and The Dark Knight, which heralded a new future for crowdpleasing spectacle. While The Dark Knight made a conscious effort to ground its storytelling in practical effects, Iron Man signaled that the digital effects revolution was going to be the cornerstone of the superhero genre.

As such, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull feels like a deliberate and conscious step into the uncanny valley. Many of the movie’s most decried action sequences are driven by green screen and computer-generated special effects, standing in start contrast to the weight and mass that defined the earlier set pieces. It’s unsettling and uncomfortable. The chase sequence in the Amazon is perhaps the most egregious example, but this detachment from reality is obvious from the early scenes inside the warehouse, as pixels guide our hero and his captors to their destination.

Blowing the roof off.

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull exists in another uncanny space, most obviously through the introduction of the character of Mutt Williams. Part of this problem is undoubtedly Shia LeBeouf himself, who has been candid about his work on the film to the point of alienating director Steven Spielberg. Much like it’s easier to recognise the “pre-sequel” of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom as a prequel with the benefit of hindsight, it’s easier now to see Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull as a rough draft of a “legacyquel”, like Creed or Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens.

Of course, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is too clumsy to really work in that way. The film’s closing moments dare to tease the idea of Mutt Williams succeeding Indiana Jones, the wind blowing Jones’ iconic hat into Williams’ clutches. However, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull lacks the courage of its commitment. Jones snatches the hat away at the last minute, prefiguring the way in which Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker would retreat from the idea of passing Star Wars to a new generation.

It’s not the years, it’s the mileage.

There are other ways in which Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull feels like it is caught between two eras. The film’s structure arguably suffers from the production team’s famed attempts to preserve the secrecy of the plot, which even extended to a sting operation and a high-profile lawsuit. The publicity around the film reportedly considered keeping Karen Allen’s return a secret, and the film’s structure conceals the presence of Marion Ravenwood for an hour. It’s a choice that muddies the film’s handling of its themes, denying it the clarity of how Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade handled Henry Jones.

Still, accepting these issues as problems, there is a lot of interesting stuff happening beneath the surface of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. In particular, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull feels like a very sincere and genuine effort on the part of everybody involved to figure out some grand unified theory of Indiana Jones, separated from the original three films by decades. What does it mean to look back on the trilogy? How has the world changed? How would the character wrap it all up?

It was admittedly a bit of a wash…

It should be fairly uncontroversial to state that Steven Spielberg had changed and grown as a filmmaker since the release of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, a movie that the director classified as “consciously regressing.” This was obvious even looking at Spielberg’s work in the decade that followed. Spielberg finally managed to win his Oscar for Schindler’s List. He would win another one for Saving Private Ryan. He directed Amistad, and launched the studio Dreamworks. That alone would make Spielberg a fundamentally different person than he had been making Raiders of the Lost Ark.

However, it goes deeper than that. After winning his two Oscars, Spielberg became a much more introspective and reflective filmmaker. A.I. Artificial Intelligence often feels like Spielberg grappling with his talent for emotional manipulation of an audience, to the point that it would feel like a fairly bitter attack on Spielberg’s influence on American cinema had it come from any other filmmaker. Even the movie’s title feels like a passive-aggressive invocation of Spielberg’s eighties success, with the acronym and the lack of a colon recalling E.T. the Extra Terrestrial.

Interrogating an icon.

Spielberg then doubled down with Minority Report, which occasionally feels like a darker companion piece to Raiders of the Lost Ark in its interrogation of the imagery and iconography of fascism. It is a story about characters who live inside a procedural cop show and have so internalised the tropes and mechanics of that story that they have lost the capacity to think critically or to interrogate their status quo. It’s notable that, while Minority Report was released during the War on Terror, its writing and production prefigured 9/11. Spielberg wasn’t just reacting to the mood of the time. He was ahead of it.

Spielberg’s twenty-first century filmography is very much a product of and a response to the War on Terror. It is hard to escape the imagery that informs and shapes movies like War of the Worlds and Munich. Spielberg was one of the quintessential American filmmakers, and so many of his twenty-first century movies became meditations on American ideals and identity, even later period pieces like Lincoln or Bridge of Spies. Spielberg was a very different director than he had been during the eighties, and so it makes sense that he approached familiar material from a different angle.

Whipping it into shape.

It is a cliché to suggest that a person can’t go home again or that they can’t step in the same river twice, but there is also some truth to it. The Steven Spielberg approaching Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull was not the same young filmmaker who had directed Raiders of the Lost Ark. While returning to Indiana Jones probably made a great deal of sense following the commercial and awards disappointment of Munich, Spielberg was never going to be able to fully recapture the mood and the texture of films he had made two decades prior.

So Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull positions itself as a coda and a response to the earlier films. It is notable, for example, that Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull opens where Raiders of the Lost Ark ended. Raiders of the Lost Ark closed with the Ark of the Covenant being wheeled inside a giant anonymous warehouse. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull finds Jones taken to an anonymous warehouse, which is revealed to contain the Ark of the Covenant. There is a clear sense of continuity there. It all comes around.

A complete Ark.

However, this is not simply a retread of Raiders of the Lost Ark. That is obvious even looking at the film. The original trilogy had been shot by cinematographer Douglas Slocombe, who had retired after Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Slocombe gave the films a very stark and very sharp look, with particular emphasis on shadows and light. Spielberg described Slocombe’s approach to shooting Raiders of the Lost Ark as “very dark and moody and atmospheric.” Director Steven Soderbergh would famously remaster Raiders of the Lost Ark in black and white to showcase how carefully it was shot and how sharp the contrast was.

This sharp contrast was more than just a visual aesthetic. Raiders of the Lost Ark was a movie about light and shadow, about good and evil. It was a movie about the idea of the Jewish God rejecting the Nazis, standing in divine judgment of them and recognising them as evil. It was a very stark and straightforward worldview. Its simplicity perhaps existed in response to Spielberg’s struggles with the ambiguity and nuance of 1941. At its core, Raiders of the Lost Ark was a story about how there was good and evil in the world, and how the United States stood for good against the Nazis standing for evil.

Shadows and symbols.

Although it is shot by Spielberg’s long-time cinematographer Janusz Kamiński, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is very aware of the work that Douglas Slocombe did. It is notable that the film reintroduces the audience to Indiana Jones through his silhouette projected onto a military car, directly invoking one of Slocombe’s most striking and most famous shots in Raiders of the Lost Ark. However, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull  is shot very differently to Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Raiders of the Lost Ark is a film that is very much about contrasts and outlines. Characters are constantly stepping into or out of shadows. Action is often depicted in silhouettes. Light literally guides Jones to final resting place of the Ark of the Covenant, while lightning shoots out from the depictions of the Ark. There are clear boundaries and delineations. There is “us” and there is “them.” There is “good” and there is “evil.” The barriers that separate those concepts are rigid and absolute.

Shades of grey.

In contrast, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is much less convinced of this sharp contrast. Kamiński pushes the film away from the clear black-and-white contrast of Raiders of the Lost Ark, towards something a bit less clearly defined. The colour palette of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is more washed out; bright lights, browns and greens, blurred outlines and familiar shapes. The look and feel of the movie rejects the smooth delineations of Raiders of the Lost Ark.

This is arguably reflected in how Kamiński returns to one of Slocombe’s favourite recurring visual motifs: the silhouette. In the original trilogy, those silhouette shots are always clear and sharp. However, in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, the silhouette is always a bit rougher and less distinguished. Repeatedly, Kamiński will actually overlay a silhouette with the object it is supposed to be overshadowing; Jones interrogated in the jungle, trapping in his own shadow on the netting; Oxley holding up the eponymous crystal skull so that the silhouette neatly outlines a still-visible cave painting.

A net gain?

As a result, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull doesn’t look like Raiders of the Lost Ark, but that’s the point. Much as the sharp contrast used in Raiders of the Lost Ark reflects the themes of the movie, the blurred boundaries in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull reflect the movie’s own perspective. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull constantly returns to the idea that sometimes “good” and “evil” (or “us” and “them”) are not as easily distinguished as people might like to believe.

This theme bubbles through the entire movie. It’s notable that the film makes a big deal that the central aliens – or “interdimensional beings” – aren’t from some external location. They are from “the space between spaces.” The parliament of beings in the throne room aren’t separate individuals, but combine to form a single entity. “They are a hive mind,” Ivana Spalko observes. “One being physically separate, but with a collective consciousness.” In a very literal sense, they are not aliens because the world “alien” implies something external or outside. Instead, these creatures are liminal.

Outlining the grand plan.

These blurred boundaries between “self” and “other” are the central crux of Irina Spalko’s evil plan, to collapse the difference between the United States and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. “We’ll be everywhere at once, more powerful than a whisper, invading your dreams, thinking your thoughts for you while you sleep,” she tells Jones. “We will change you, Doctor Jones, all of you, from the inside. We will turn you into us. And the best part? You won’t even know it’s happening.”

The original trilogy of films were set during the Second World War, the conflict that was known as “the good war” and which allowed for a rigid moral delineation between good and evil. Of course good and evil exist in that contrast, when the Nazis are engaged in the systemic extermination of an entire people. There’s very little introspection required to position the United States as heroes in that conflict, because it’s hard to refute or deny. Spielberg declined to recycle the Nazis as villains in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, feeling that he couldn’t return to them as “Saturday-matinee villains” after Schindler’s List.

Alien nation.

This makes sense. The original trilogy had been constructed as a loving homage to the classic adventure serials that Lucas and Spielberg had loved as children. They reflected a very simple and straightfoward view of the world populated by larger-than-life heroes and cartoonish villains. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull plays as a very deliberate response to this idea, perhaps even something of a deconstruction. In returning to this framework in a radically different context, Lucas and Spielberg are forced to confront the idea that perhaps such boundaries are more arbitrary than people want to believe.

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is set during the Cold War. It is set in the era of McCarthyism and the Red Scare. It is set during an era defined by the erosion of civil liberties and of suffocating conformity that seems at odds with the idealism that defines the American identity. This feels very pointed, given that the patriotic fervour of the War on Terror was often compared to the politics of the Red Scare era during the fifties. It’s worth noting that Spielberg’s previous film was Munich, a film very much engaged with the ethical challenges of the War on Terror.

Circle of judgment.

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull repeatedly parallels the Americans and the Russians. At the start of the movie, the Russians abduct Indiana Jones and drag him to an unknown location to identify an alien artifact in Area 51. They are only doing this because the United States had previously abducted Indiana Jones and dragged him to an unknown location to identify an alien artifact in Roswell, New Mexico. After the opening action sequence, Indiana Jones is interrogated by two FBI agents who challenge his loyalties. “We all served,” one notes. “No kidding?” Jones replies. “What side were you on?”

After Indiana Jones is abducted by the Russians, he is fired from his job as a college professor. It is a choice that has aged remarkably well in an era where the political right has engaged in a war on academia. Notably, Jones is not fired as part of some sinister plot by Spalko. Instead, Jones is fired because of presure from the Federal Bureau of Investigation. It is a fairly stark and bleak plot point, and one which skilfully underscores the gulf between the narrative of the Cold War and the reality of those caught in its crossfire.

McHale’s Red.

The entire character of George “Mac” McHale exists to demonstrate the absurdity of strong delineations between either side in the conflict. Jones is stunned at McHale’s first betrayal. McHale explains his logic, “Well, what can I say, Jonesey? I’m a capitalist, and they pay.” While it’s possible to read that moment as a sly mea culpa on the part of the film acknowledging its existence as a byproduct of the engines of capitalism, it is also an expression of how bizarre this situation is. The Russians are communists, but they subscribe to capitalism when it suits their interests to do so.

McHale switches sides repeatedly over the course of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, betraying the Russians to helps Jones at one point and then betraying Jones to help the Russians again. The screenplay emphasises the absurdity of these repeated betrayals. “So, what are you, like a triple agent?” Jones asks. McHale replies, “No, I just lied about being a double.” There’s a clear rejection of principled boundaries here. There is no sense of a clear ideological divide between heroes and villains in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, just ruthless opportunism.

“Look on my work, ye mighty.”

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull frames this as a very direct response to Raiders of the Lost Ark. The climax of Raiders of the Lost Ark features the Nazis opening the Ark of the Covenant, and then being completely destroyed by it while Indiana Jones and Marion Ravenwood are spared. Raiders of the Lost Ark has been read as a fairy tale about the origin of the atomic bomb, imagining a moral alternative to that weapon of mass destruction that does not kill civilians or innocents.

After all, it’s notable how Spielberg shoots Raiders of the Lost Ark to suggest an atomic bomb. Cameras short circuit. A fireball extends. A cloud reaches up to the heavens. Faces melt. The deployment of the atomic bomb against civilian populations in both Hiroshima and Nagasaki represents a challenge to the simplistic moral account of the Second World War, because surely the good guys don’t burn millions of people alive. Raiders of the Lost Ark occasionally feels like an attempt to rationalise or justify that, by presenting a magical and mystical alternative to the bomb that operates with complete moral authority.

“Melting, melting! Oh what a world!”

So it feels pointed that Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull returns to those ideas during its opening sequence. During the movie’s first action set piece, Indiana Jones is reunited with the Ark of the Covenant and confronted with the real horror of an atomic bomb as it destroys a model civilian town. Spielberg shoots the atomic bomb in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull in a way that mirrors the use of the Ark of the Covenant in Raiders of the Lost Ark, in a way that very deliberately parallels the two.

In Raiders of the Lost Ark, Jones witnesses a fantasy of the atomic bomb. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull confronts the character with something closed to the unvarnished reality, as civilian populations are consumed in a gigantic fireball and peaceful existence is interrupted by a monstrous force that exists almost beyond the boundaries of human comprehension. Raiders of the Lost Ark argues that God exists and wields this power with some autonomy. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull instead suggests that man has claimed this power for themselves and the consequences are horrific.

Fools Russia in.

One of the most divisive and controversial elements of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull was the decision to have Indiana Jones survive the explosion by hiding in a fridge, to the point that “nuke the fridge” briefly replaced “jump the shark” in the online lexicon. This is interesting, in large part because it’s not particularly unlikely that Jones could survive that way given the internal logic of the other films. After all, he managed to cross the Mediterrean on the back of a submarine and parachute out of a plane on a life raft.

However, the use of the fridge is interesting because it very directly invokes the original pitch for the time machine in Bob Gale and Robert Zemeckis’ Back to the Future, which would have seen Marty travelling through time in a fridge. (It also recalls the film’s original ending.) In a weird way, this ties Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull back to Spielberg’s work on 1941 before Raiders of the Lost Ark. After all, 1941 was a script from Gale and Zemickis, and reflected the same cynicism about American history that played into projects like Back to the Future. So the connection makes thematic sense.

Gopher broke.

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull pointedly collapses the boundaries between religion and science. The original three Indiana Jones movies are all movies about the character’s spiritual awakening, his engagement with the mystical forces at work in the world. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull suggests that religious awe and scientific power are not mutually exclusive. “‘Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds’,” Spalko quotes. “You recognize those words? It was your own Doctor Oppenheimer after he created the atomic bomb.” Jones replies, “He was quoting the Hindu bible.” It can be both.

This is key to understanding what Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is doing. The film is very consciously structured to reject clear “either/or” boundaries. Things within Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull are very rarely one thing or another. Instead, they are often multiple things that are seemingly mutually exclusive and incompatible. There’s a surprising sense of maturity to Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, with Spielberg approaching the character and the concept with a much less rigid and much more nuanced worldview than he had in the original film.

“I like Ike.”

This is perhaps most obvious in how Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull exists as a response to both Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. At their core, both of those earlier films were about the adventurous archeologist reconciling with the idea of family. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom was a prequel that was also a fairly harrowing divorce movie, which seemed to position the beginning of Indiana Jones as a character in his rejection the trappings of domesticity.

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade then served to close that particular book, with the plot hinging on Indiana Jones reconciling with his absent father. At the end of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Jones is faced with the choice of pursuing the Holy Grail and falling into a seemingly bottomless pit or coming home with his father. “Let it go, Indiana,” his father urges him. It seems like Indiana Jones has reconciled himself to a life of domesticity. There’s a finality to the structure and the plot of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, which suggests that this marks the end of the adventure and he can retire to familial life.

Marryin’ Marion.

One of the big challenges in writing a belated coda to a seemingly satisfactory conclusion to a beloved saga is finding a justification for extending the narrative onwards. After all, if Indiana Jones got his happily ever after in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, then what is the point of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. This is one of the challenges that faces the later Star Wars movies, with only Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi providing a justification for disrupting the happy ending of Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi.

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull proposes an interesting idea. If the arc of the original three films, from the prequel Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom to the conclusion Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade is about Indiana Jones first rejecting family for adventure and then choosing family over adventure, then Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull reveals the choice as a false dichotomy. Indiana Jones doesn’t need to conform to the idea that adventure and family are mutually exclusive constructs. Like religion and science, or the creatures from “the space between spaces”, they can coexist.

Tied up with family business.

It’s notable that the opening scenes of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull find Spielberg literally exploding the idea of blisful suburban domesticity. The fifties surban fantasy is consumed in an atomic fireball, melted down and dissolved. Indiana Jones is ejected from that setting with the force of an atomic blast. The nuclear family is not what the future holds for the archeologist. Instead, Jones winds up assembling an unlikely family unit while on one of his adventures, even reuniting with his old love Marion Ravenwood from Raiders of the Lost Ark.

It’s notable that Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull essentially tricks the protagonist into embarking on an adventure with his son and his ex-lover. Despite the film’s weird fear about possible spoilers, it’s very obvious from the outset that Mutt Williams is Indiana Jones’ son. After all, the character is literally named “Mutt”, serving as a wry punchline on the joke that Henry Jones “named the dog Indiana” at the end of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, and reflecting the fact that the character was named for George Lucas’ dog.

That sinking feeling.

Jones’ anxieties about becoming a husband and a father play through the film. It’s notable, for example, that Marion only reveals that Mutt is his son when Jones is literally trapped in a drysand pit. That sinking feeling seems like an accurate reflection of Jones’ fears about what might happen if he becomes a family man: that he might end up stuck in a single place and eventually suffocated. Jones’ journey over the course of the film is toward understanding that it doesn’t need to be that way.

This theme runs through Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, even reflected in the action. The big central truck chase in the Amazon finds the dysfunctional family unit starting together in the back of a truck, then separating and then reuniting to drive away. The family falls apart and comes back together, all while having a rollicking adventure. As clumsy as that closing moment of Indiana Jones stealing back his hat from Mutt Williams might be, it does at least suggest that Jones has not foresaken his love of adventure for his love of Marion. Sometimes, it is possible to have it all.

Indy-pendent.

There is something vaguely touching in this theme as a coda to the larger franchise, with Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull returning to the idea of Indiana Jones at an older age and greater remove, and perhaps having something new to say about the idea. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is steeped in nostalgia, featuring familiar music cues and returning characters, not to mention a cameo from the Ark of the Covenant, but it is also a clear departure from what came before. Like Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, it is not hollow and lifeless repetition of what came before.

Unfortunately, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull arrived at an interesting time for fan culture, as fandoms became increasingly vocal and entrenched in their idea of what a franchise should or could be. Some fans reacted to Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull like George Lucas and Steven Spielberg had murdered a beloved family pet, with South Park even likening it to Deliverance. Other fans began to throw around conspiracy theories about why film critics hadn’t been harsher towards the film.

Getting it into his thick skull.

It’s notable that, as with the divided reaction to Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Steven Spielberg was relatively quick to shift the blame to George Lucas, confessing, “I sympathize with people who didn’t like the MacGuffin because I never liked the MacGuffin. George and I had big arguments about the MacGuffin.” For his part, Lucas was once again relatively unapologetic, conceding, “You’re not going to get a lot of accolades doing a movie like this. All you can do is lose.” It’s notable that the next Indiana Jones film will feature no invovlement from Lucas and that Spielberg is not returning to direct.

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is far from a perfect film, but the reaction to it is still striking over a decade later. It prefigured a lot of the belligerence towards these sorts of sequels and spin-offs that would emerge in the years that would follow, particularly vocal outrages that treated movies like The Last Jedi as a fundamental betrayal of trust and concept. The result was an atmosphere that discouraged new approaches and experimentation, and which favoured dull repetition. Indiana Jones will fight Nazis in the upcoming sequel. Nostalgia wins.

Raiding the archive.

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is a mess, but it is a film that has very interesting things to say. It builds on and responds to the earlier trilogy, but it also updates a lot of the trappings of those movies to reflect a more complicated age and more mature director. Perhaps the best thing that can be said about Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is that it refuses to consign its protagonist to a museum.

2 Responses

  1. “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull repeatedly parallels the Americans and the Russians. At the start of the movie, the Russians abduct Indiana Jones and drag him to an unknown location to identify an alien artifact in Area 51. They are only doing this because the United States had previously abducted Indiana Jones and dragged him to an unknown location to identify an alien artifact in Roswell, New Mexico. After the opening action sequence, Indiana Jones is interrogated by two FBI agents who challenge his loyalties. “We all served,” one notes. “No kidding?” Jones replies. “What side were you on?”

    After Indiana Jones is abducted by the Russians, he is fired from his job as a college professor. It is a choice that has aged remarkably well in an era where the political right has engaged in a war on academia. Notably, Jones is not fired as part of some sinister plot by Spalko. Instead, Jones is fired because of presure from the Federal Bureau of Investigation. It is a fairly stark and bleak plot point, and one which skilfully underscores the gulf between the narrative of the Cold War and the reality of those caught in its crossfire.”

    I always enjoyed that side plot as a “reality ensues” follow-up to the original trilogy.

    In real life, if you had a person who was going out and proactively fighting Nazis, sometimes for the U.S. government (Raiders) but sometimes not even then (Crusade), not during World War Two but in the mid-1930s, when the war was still years away, when fascism was still a divisive topic with many in the West approving of it, and when fighting fascism was politically charged rather than uncontroversially patriotic? He wouldn’t be a hero to the nation, he’d be a Premature Anti Fascist, and exactly the kind of person to get caught up in the blacklisting frenzy of the Red Scare.

  2. “The entire character of George “Mac” McHale exists to demonstrate the absurdity of strong delineations between either side in the conflict. Jones is stunned at McHale’s first betrayal. McHale explains his logic, “Well, what can I say, Jonesey? I’m a capitalist, and they pay.” While it’s possible to read that moment as a sly mea culpa on the part of the film acknowledging its existence as a byproduct of the engines of capitalism, it is also an expression of how bizarre this situation is. The Russians are communists, but they subscribe to capitalism when it suits their interests to do so.”

    “Capitalist villain allies with the communists out of greed and attacks the West from within while they attack it from without” is also a pretty common movie trope from the Cold War era. The Bond movies especially are full of them. SPECTRE, Auric Goldfinger, Francisco Scaramanga, Aris Kristatos, and Brad Whitaker are all examples of that “capitalist who works with communists” main villains, with Max Zorin taking it to eleven by being a capitalist and a communist all in one. George McHale fits a proud tradition, especially given the James Bond inspirations of the Indy franchise.

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