Many an elementary school child has been asked: “what do you want to be when you grow up?” It is only later, however, when they discover the challenges that come with being a space explorer, a princess, or a marine biologist (I just wanted to swim with dolphins, but noooooo, I had to take advanced statistics). The future (8-year-old me was certain), was full of the same possibilities I saw projected up on the silver screen. After my parents broke the news that I might not make “Jedi Master” by the time I turned 18, I next considered going into archeology. After all, I looked good in Dad’s fedora, and learning how to sling a whip seemed like a lot of fun.
Judging by the myriad adult males I saw dressed as Indiana Jones last weekend at PAX, it seems I am not alone in my admiration for the titular hero of 1981’s Raiders of the Lost Ark. This film, as they say, is the one that started it all (although it draws inspiration from other adventurers like Tarzan, Tintin and Allan Quartermaine). Here is Harrison Ford at his finest; Steven Spielberg at his funnest; and John Williams… well, John Williams is amazing as always. As summarized on the film’s IMDb page: “In 1936, archaeologist and adventurer Indiana Jones is hired by the U.S. government to find the Ark of the Covenant before Adolf Hitler’s Nazis can obtain its awesome powers.”
Although he is a little rough around the edges (what adventurer isn’t?), there are worse role models for a child than Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford). He’s an academic with a strong moral center, who (for the most part) understands that friends and family are more important than gold and glory. Moreover, one of the core messages of this film, which Indiana himself demonstrates, is the importance of pursuing knowledge for knowledge’s sake. The unpleasant alternative is: get greedy, get dead. Many times we’re told that “nice guys finish last,” but one of the great things about movies is that they are a place where the good guys win. I also enjoy how Indiana Jones is a multidimensional character. He is brilliant, but can take a punch (which he does again, and again, and again). He is the film’s hero, but unlike some of his literary predecessors, he really has to struggle for things. In brief, Indiana is imperfect (he can be a real idiot with the women in his life), but he tries. And ultimately, he “wins” in a way that is different than what he envisioned for himself. At the film’s conclusion, he might not have obtained the Ark, but he walks away with Marion (Karen Allen) and the knowledge that he stopped the Nazis from conquering the world through supernatural means.
Marion is another “strong female character” of my youth; she was resourceful, determined, and could hold her own against drunkards, Nazis, and snakes (she was smart enough to get away from them by climbing on top of Indy’s shoulders). One of the clearest memories I have of this character is the moment when she grabs a super-heated medallion with a cloth napkin, because she’s watched one of the bad guys snatch at it, and receive horrible burns as a result. Details like this, which show us something about a character rather than telling us, are a staple of good storytelling; Marion is clever. She gets frightened, she complains, but she also gets stuff done. She is a key part of the narrative, rather than mere eye-candy or “just” a love interest. I also delight in how her victory in the drinking contest near the film’s beginning comes back later in the narrative, when she drinks one of the villains under the table and makes her escape.
Raiders is another beloved film set in or around World War II. This time period not only has great cinematic value, but is also still quite educational. If you’re looking for a real-world example of “good versus evil,” where nearly everyone faces tough decisions, WWII is an excellent narrative choice. And although some may view it as cliché, having Nazis as this film’s villains is particularly powerful when viewed in relation to the theme of faith that runs throughout the story. The rise of the Nazi party was powered, in part, by blind faith in its ability to make Germany a vital nation once more. And then Hitler and his regime abused that belief, twisting it to their own ends. In the film, the Ark of the Covenant is powered by belief, but it’s a power that will not let itself be used for evil. It’s incorruptible, inspiring, and awesome (in every sense of the word).
In closing, here are a few lessons from Professor Jones and Raiders of the Lost Ark:
- Sometimes the search for knowledge is difficult, but if you persist and let yourself be guided by your own moral compass, you will succeed
- Characters like Marion and Indiana are important because they show us that we can be both messy and good
- While evil may always seek power, it cannot triumph, so long as there are people willing to make sacrifices and be better
Head’s Up: This is a PG-13 film that has some violence and language, which means I recommend watching it with your kids when they are a little older (the first time I recall watching it in its entirety was when I was 11). There are fist fights, car chases, explosions, snakes, and some creepy-crawlies, so if you or your child is sensitive to that kind of stuff, viewer-beware. Parents watching this film with their little adventurers should also be prepared to discuss World War II, Christianity, Judaism, and basic moral conflict. Also, spoiler alert: there are faces that get melted in this film (but the special effects are quite clever).
What Memories do you have of this film? Do you have Suggestions for my next post? Additional Resources to share on this one? Please, Comment below!
As always, “Here’s looking at you, kid.”