Decent Films Mail > Mailbag #7

Re: Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

I am writing in hopes that you will reconsider the your moral/spiritual value rating for Raiders of the Lost Ark.

I was twelve when Raiders first was released and I have been thus a nearly lifelong fan of the film. But having watched it again recently I have discovered that it is morally problematic. In a nutshell, this is because of the number of German soldiers Indy injures or kills whose only crime seems to have been — participating in a archaeological dig and guarding it and the retrieved relic as was their duty as soldiers. The Nazis on the other hand kill — nobody.

They do attempt to kill Indy and Marion, but fail, true. But the only culprits who are really responsible for that are the three principle baddies.

Consider Indy’s situation on escaping the Well of Souls. The Germans have the ark. From Indy’s point of view the ark is merely a grand prize. No one is harmed by it being in the German’s possession. There is nothing heroic about retrieving it from them. Yet Indy attacks the airplane, killing the pilot, two mechanics and possibly some other ground crew in the explosion — none of whom were established to be in any way villainous. They were just a bunch guys doing their rather ordinary military jobs until attacked by Indy. What is the moral difference between that and the attack by the Russians on the gate guards in the opening of Crystal Skull?

Even at twelve I felt bad for the big bald German, who was just trying to protect his airplane from an unknown enemy, and doing so in the kind of fairplay manner reminiscent of, say, the Lone Ranger.

Then we have the same situation with the truck chase and battle. There is no morally compelling for Indy to go after them. They are at worst thieves, but most or all of the ordinary soldiers involved are ignorant of any wrongdoing. They are threatening no one. No one is any danger if Indy lets them go. But he attacks them and kills a number of them.

Belloc’s statement in the bar that they are not so very different rings true. “Men will kill for it. Men like you and me.”

You make an interesting argument, and I appreciate the style of thinking you’re pursuing. I’m not convinced, though. Some thoughts:

  1. You say Belloq’s statement in the bar that Indy isn’t so different from him “rings true.” Yes. It’s meant to, as the subsequent lines from Indy and Belloq suggest. Indy is not a pure hero; the movie doesn’t lift him up as an exemplar of virtue. The locus of holiness in the film is not Indy or Marion, but the ark. That Indy is a morally flawed hero doesn’t amount make Raiders a morally flawed movie.
  2. Certainly we’re meant to root for Indy as he goes against the Nazis to regain the ark. But I think that’s at least partly because we look at the Nazis from our post-WWII point of view as the ultimate villains, and also because we believe the ark to be more than a mere historical artifact. Indy’s moral grounds in undertaking the action are not identical to our moral grounds in rooting for him.

Those points noted, I think Indy’s use of deadly force may be less unjustified than you suggest:

  1. As you note, the villains leave Indy and Marion to die in the Well of Souls. True, it’s the main bad guys who are responsible here; the rest of the Nazi soldiers are just following orders. But it could equally be said that if Indy and Marion were caught after escaping, there isn’t a soldier in the group who wouldn’t shoot Indy and Marion on orders from those same villains. Indy and Marion are in deadly peril at every moment after they escape from the Well of Souls, and Indy responds in kind.
  2. As further context, it was the Nazis who made the first use of deadly force in Nepal. Indy’s first resort there, as elsewhere, is his non-lethal whip (even the famous gag with the swordsman was originally supposed to be a sword-whip duel, but Ford wasn’t up to the physical challenge that day); thus he disarms Toht to prevent him from permanently disfiguring Marion — and urges him to let her go. The Nazis escalate and Indy and Marion are forced to defend themselves with deadly force. The villains later made further use of deadly force by trying to poison Indy.
  3. You say “From Indy’s point of view the ark is merely a grand prize. No one is harmed by it being in the German’s possession. There is nothing heroic about retrieving it from them.” It’s not entirely clear to me that this is true. Certainly Indy has “been to Sunday school.” He glibly brushes off Marcus’s cautions as “a lot of superstitious hocus-pocus” — perhaps too glibly. And when the time comes, he knows enough to tell Marion to close her eyes, not to look. It may be that on some level at least Indy has not entirely discounted the possibility that if the Nazis possess the ark it could be disastrous for the world.
  4. Granted a level of sporting spirit, the big bald German is a sadistic bully whose death is not on Indy’s head. He could easily have subdued Indy with minimal force any time he wanted to, which is certainly what the Lone Ranger would have done in such a situation. He chose fisticuffs instead, toying with Indy cat-and-mouse style, because it was more fun. Indy stood up to him as best he could, and while he could have warned the German before the other man’s gruesome death, to do so would almost certainly have ultimately resulted in Indy’s own death.
  5. Indy’s one-man assault on the Nazi caravan differs from the Communist ambush of the U.S. forces at Area 51 in several key respects. Indy, desperately outnumbered, “making it up as he goes,” kills no one who isn’t a clear and immediate threat to his own life — who wouldn’t quickly cause his own death. By contrast, the Communists at Area 51 in Crystal Skull, following a well-prepared plan, have the drop on the U.S. forces, and could probably capture them unharmed had they wanted to; conversely, were they themselves to be captured, I’m not sure they would face capital punishment (although perhaps they might). In any case, the massacre was their plan going in.

I don’t say that these considerations entirely alleviate any moral concerns regarding Indy’s behavior. But as per the earlier points I don’t think it is necessary to clear Indy of all wrongdoing. The morality of the hero doesn’t automatically carry over to the moral implications of the film.

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