Indiana Jones and the Cultural Patrimony of Doom

When I was in college, one of my favorite discoveries was How to Read Donald Duck, a clever, if heavy-handed, cultural critique of Disney´s comic book adventures. According to the authors, Dorfman and Mattelart, writing in 1971, all those wonderful stories where Uncle Scrooge, Donald and the triplets claimed floating islands in the Pacific, rescued golden crowns from Mayan cenotes, and thwarted revolutionary “dogs” that looked suspiciously like Che and Castro were pure American Cold War capitalist propaganda. I’d like to say I’m not so easy now (I’d love the authors to back up their take with an intercepted memo from Disney to his artists reading, “Boys, Kissinger called. How soon can Huey, Dewey and Louie make Chile scream?”), but I have a soft spot for this kind of pop-culture-as-politics criticism.

MovieposterindianajonesandthethelastcrusWhich is why I was a little disappointed that no one brought up Indiana Jones earlier this year, when Greece and Italy finally forced the Met and the Getty to admit that their collections contained looted and smuggled artifacts. I couldn’t help but think that that fight in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, between Indy and the looter over the Cross of Coronado, might really set us straight on the finer points of the debate over cultural patrimony and museums.

Looter: This is the second time I’ve had to reclaim my property from you.

Indy: That belongs in a museum

Looter: So do you.

The thought of a permanent exhibit on Indiana Jones at the
American Museum of Natural History is appealing, but who does deserve to keep it? The looter who dug it out of a cave in the U.S.? The archaeologist? (Apparently not Coronado or his ancestors.) Happily, McSweeney’s halfway took on Indy’s credibility on the subject this month with a wry mock letter titled, “Back From Yet Another Globetrotting Adventure, Indiana Jones Checks His Mail and Discovers That His Bid for Tenure Has Been Denied”: “Criticisms of Dr. Jones ranged from ‘possessing a perceptible methodological deficiency’ to ‘practicing archaeology with a complete lack of, disregard for, and colossal ignorance of current methodology, theory, and ethics’ to ‘unabashed grave-robbing’. Given such appraisals, perhaps it isn’t surprising to learn that several Central and South American countries recently assembled to enact legislation aimed at permanently prohibiting his entry.”

In honor of Harrison Ford’s recent
boast that he’s fit enough for a planned fourth Indiana Jones movie, maybe it’s time to take a stab at “How to Watch Indiana Jones.” Unless I’m mistaken, no one’s really tackled the narrative of archaeological collection and patrimony politics in the Indiana Jones movies. That’s a shame, as I believe that what’s most salient about Indy—and what prompts lazy reporters to dub people everything from “the Indiana Jones of Tomatoes” to “the Indiana Jones of Finance” (I just Goggled “Indiana Jones of” and got 40,800 hits)—is that he makes archaeology look like the perfect mix of scientific brain and globe-trotting brawn. Indy can take back one kaddam from the Staff of Ra “to honor the Hebrew God whose Ark this is”, and lay a smack-down on the Nazis.

Except that, as the McSweeney’s satire suggests, his archaeological ethics and skills leave a lot to be desired. As an archaeologist, he makes Heinrich Schliemann look good. Take that justly famous first scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark. Indiana Jones is in the jungle of the eastern slopes of the
Andes, searching for a hidden temple. After getting abandoned by his native guides (the Indy movies’ portrayal of native peoples is a rabbit-hole of its own), and betrayed by a young Alfred Molina, Indy literally brings down the house—the entire trap-laden death temple—to get that horrific golden fertility idol. He apparently left his plumb-bob and dentist’s brush at home.

Thankfully, his French nemesis Belloq  is waiting outside, with a coterie of armed “Hovitos” natives to help set Indy straight on why “Finders Keepers” just isn’t going to cut it this time.

Jones: Too bad the Hovitos don’t know you the way I do, Belloq.

Belloq: Yes, too bad. You could warn them… if only you spoke Hovitos.

So the American archaeologist destroys a temple and loses the artifact—to a French archaeologist, no less—because he failed to enlist the local peoples in the protection of their patrimony. Right? Had Indy gotten an advance copy of Patrick Tierney’s controversial Darkness in
El Dorado he might have pointed out that Belloq’s presence would likely destroy the Hovitos’ traditional political and economic organization (and give them measles, natch). We should cut Indy a little slack, though. As Raiders of the Lost Ark and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade made abundantly clear, everyone else in archaeology in the 1930s was a murderous Nazi! In the face of this obviously irrefutable fact, can we really get mad at American museums’ collecting practices?

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom
ditches the Nazi angle, but sharpens the specious critique—very much implied in “pro-museum” arguments this year—that “culture-rich” countries´ laws and protests are disingenuous political pander, and don’t represent the countries´actual will, or ability, to protect their monuments and artifacts.
Granted, Temple of Doom makes our great American hero a little seedier from the start, when Indy trades the ashes of a Chinese emperor to a Hong Kong gangster for a diamond. The real critique, however, starts when Indy gets to “India”. (I put “India” in quotes because when the Indian government read Temple of Doom’s script, it supposedly wanted to remove the word “Maharajah” and asked that their citizens not all be cast as, well, members of a Thuggee Death Cult. Thankfully, Lucas and Spielberg stayed true to their artistic vision and filmed in Sri Lanka instead.) Indy, his wince-worthy Chinese sidekick and whining girlfriend discover that an Indian village has lost not only its ancient “Shankara” stone, but also all its children to the predations of a great nearby palace. It turns out that the English-educated Mola Ram’s Thuggee Death Cult has brainwashed the boy maharajah, and co-opted the Shankara stone for bloody rituals!

As always, Indy is victorious, and returns the children and the stone to the Indian village.  What does it all mean? Sadly, I can’t meet my own aforementioned standards and produce a letter from Lucas to Spielberg reading, “Steve, what if in the next Indiana Jones movie, he intervened in another country’s struggle over the meaning of the past (some sort of stone thing) for the sake of the future (some starving kids) and rescued both from a hypocritical anti-imperial cultural elite (I´m thinking Thuggees)?” That letter does not exist.

But Secret of the Incas does. In 1953 Paramount Pictures flew Charlton Heston to
Cuzco, Peru to play the Ur/Indy, AKA Harry Steele, a square-jawed, unshaven explorer, complete with fedora and bomber jacket. As a few movie buffs have pointed out on-line, Paramount may never release Secret of the Incas on DVD, given the physical similarities shared by Steele and Indy, and a few lifted gimmicks. (Spielberg and Lucas’s explorer cannibalism was hardly unique: Secret of the Incas itself came from a producer who had read about explorer Hiram Bingham’s rediscovery of Machu Picchu, and Bingham’s right-hand man in Peru was the movie’s technical adviser). Which is really too bad, as Secret of the Incas is quite the mash-up of pulp exploring and archaeological ethics.

In a nutshell, Steele is a handsome rogue who’s been holed up in Cuzco, Peru for a few years, playing gigolo for visiting female tourists for money (“It’s the best kind,” he tells one. “It’s the hardest to get. It always smells sooo good.”), and waiting for “a line on that Incan treasure” everyone keeps talking about. He finally gets a clue, and with a beautiful Romanian blonde in tow (Indy, cover your heart, indeed!), he steals a plane, and flies to that famous lost city of the Incas,
Machu Picchu. Once there, however, he gets a rude surprise in the ruins. There’s a joint American-Peruvian-Mexican excavation going on, and local Andeans—along with the 1950s exotica singing sensation Yma Sumac—are dancing in the temples. Steele sneers. “Nobody comes here without a reason,” he growls. “The only reason is to dig. I don’t like the competition.”

Steele wants to find and steal the “Golden sunburst” of the Incan emperor Manco. His resolve falters, however, when he meets “Pachacutec,” a graduate of the
University of Cuzco fluent in English, Spanish and Quechua. Pachacutec tells Steele they are hoping to find “the tomb of our last Incan chief.” When the sunburst “is taken back to the Temple of the Sun, only then will the people of the Inca be great again.” Steele finds the sunburst, of course, but he guiltily returns it to the archaeologists and Pachacutec, admitting “I guess finding it meant more to me than keeping it.”

Incredibly, the film is loaded with asides on cultural patrimony (an American archaeologist on his Peruvian military escort: “His job is to see that we don’t appropriate any souvenirs.”) and references to what we might call “archaeological self-determination.” By the film’s logic, Steele doesn’t suffer a crisis of conscience because he realizes stealing is wrong; he gives the sunburst back because the treasure’s cultural value to the Andean peoples outweighs its monetary and scientific value.

If it sounds a little preachy, that’s because it is, as any argument over the idea of cultural patrimony must be. But in a “funny” last twist that shines a mirror on America’s ambivalence about those sorts of arguments, the producers show that our Ur-Indy is still the bad-boy explorer we want to root for. In the movie’s final minute, Pachacutec restores the sunburst to the Temple of the Sun and Yma Sumac caterwauls in the background. Steele turns to go. Before he does, though, he hands his Romanian blonde girlfriend a golden Inca shawl pin. “Must have fallen into my pocket while I was in the tomb,” he says with a wink. 

The music swells, ‘The End’ flashes on the screen, and we’re remindend once again that our favorite guy in a hat and his big-picture archaeological ethics are just fiction. Right?