Indiana Jones Is a Great Hero Because He Is a Total Failure
If you asked 100 people to name one moment from an Indiana Jones movie, I would bet at least 95 of them would pick the exact same one: Indy, with a golden idol tucked under his arm, chased through a tunnel by an enormous boulder in the opening sequence from 1981’s Raiders of the Lost Ark.
The boulder scene is one of the classics of American action cinema. As directed by Steven Spielberg — who helmed the first four Indiana Jones movies — it’s pure cinema kineticism. The boulder used in this scene was made made of wood, fiberglass, and plaster and supposedly only weighed a couple hundred pounds. With frenetic editing, sweaty close-ups, and booming sound design, Spielberg makes it look like it weights about 20 times that.
The sequence immediately establishes several core aspects of the Indiana Jones character, including his courage and the dangerous nature of his profession. It also establishes perhaps the single most important component of Indiana Jones’ personality, albeit one that is rarely acknowledged or discussed.
Indiana Jones, the guy we will follow throughout the film and then eventually four other movies, is a complete failure.
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The boulder coming to smoosh Indy in that tunnel is no one’s fault but his own. He’s the one who triggered its release when he tried and failed to swipe a Chachapoyan fertility idol without triggering a booby trap. He attempted to replace the idol with a bag of sand, but bungled the exchange, releasing the boulder.
Indy manages to narrowly escape the boulder. But in doing so, he winds up captured by a local tribe and rival archaeologist René Belloq, who takes the idol and chases Indy some more. Our hero escapes — but he doesn’t recover the fertility idol.
And in fact, he never retrieves the fertility idol. Instead, Indy spends the rest of the movie pursuing the Ark of the Covenant, the famed carrying case of the original stone tablets upon which Moses supposedly carved the Ten Commandments. Hired by the Army, Indiana Jones hopscotches the globe, hoping to locate the Ark before it can be acquired and exploited by the Nazis, who are working with Belloq.
Indy fails again. Miserably.
Not only does he not stop the Nazis from getting the Ark, he essentially leads them right to it. Having interpreted a clue incorrectly, the Nazis are searching for the Ark in the wrong spot. Jones finds the Ark’s true resting place, locates it, then is forced to hand it over to the Nazis when they catch him in the middle of its excavation. Indy manages to recover the Ark, then loses it again, and ultimately refuses the chance to destroy it because of his own fascination with it. He survives the Ark’s opening, but then loses the Ark to a government warehouse where it will presumably be stored for eternity.
That’s Raiders of the Lost Ark. The only sliver of a victory you might find in the film is Indy’s renewed relationship with Karen Allen’s Marion — but in true Indiana Jones fashion, Marion was gone by the next movie, a prequel, and didn’t return for the third. (She did at least reappear in the fourth.) And every Indiana Jones film to date has repeated this pattern: Indy, the dogged historian adventurer, wandering the globe in search of ancient artifacts that he almost never recovers, joined by beautiful women who almost inevitably leave him before the next adventure begins.
In Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, for example, the cold open sees Indy double-crossed by a Shanghai gangster. Jones only barely survives the encounter, and escapes without the diamond he had been promised.
Indy makes a getaway — on a plane that turns out to be owned by the gangster, who sabotages the flight and leaves Indy and his companions stranded in India. There, Indy agrees to help a village recover a sacred stone and their missing children — ostensibly in the pursuit of “fortune and glory.” Indy returns the kids and the stone, and walks away with nothing; no fortune, no glory. The movie’s final image is Indy embracing the movie’s heroine, Willie Scott (Kate Capshaw) — who was never seen in the franchise again.
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade reveals the title character’s origin as an adventurer; it too involves a colossal failure. As a teenager (River Phoenix), Indy tries to keep Coronado’s cross out of the hands of a gang of thieves. He nabs the cross and leads the crooks on a wild chase, but is eventually caught and forced by the local sheriff to give the cross back to the men who took it.
The Last Crusade jumps forward in time; Jones, now played once again by Harrison Ford, has tracked down the cross decades later. Improbably, he does manage to reclaim it, in basically the only moment in any of these movies that Indiana Jones successfully returns home with one of his treasures. But then the remainder of the film sends him off on yet another quixotic quest, this one to rescue his father (Sean Connery) and recover the Holy Grail.
Eventually, the Joneses find the Grail. You’ll never guess what happens next. Jones retrieves the Grail and even uses to it to heal his wounded father. But then Indy leaves the Grail unattended — after all that work, Indy, you just leave it sitting on the ground?!? — where a Nazi picks it up, and tries to leave with it. That triggers a massive booby trap, collapsing the temple where the Grail was hidden. Indy, his dad, and their allies escape — but Indy once again lets an object of unimaginable value slip through his fingers — in this case, quite literally.
When Indiana Jones returned almost 20 years later in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, he was reintroduced already defeated; captured by Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett) and her Soviet soldiers. They force him to find an alien corpse hidden in an enormous government warehouse. (It’s the same one where the Ark of Covenant is stored; the audience finds it once again but Indy, in typical Indiana Jones fashion, does not.)
Indy escapes the Russians, but they get the alien. He heads to Peru and finds a crystal skull with strange powers, setting off a back-and-forth chase for this extra-terrestrial MacGuffin that recalls the tug of war over the Ark in Raiders. The outcome is familiar as well; Indy and his allies survive and the bad guys are defeated, but the skull eludes Indy, and all traces of the ancient city it led his party to vanishes in a massive flood. The only treasure Indiana leaves South America with this time is “knowledge.”
Watching these movies back to back, it’s kind of shocking how often Indy screws things up. Perpetual setbacks are almost as intrinsic an aspect of his persona as his fedora and his bullwhip. But Indy’s tendency to fail doesn’t seem to get talked about very much; the only example of someone identifying something like this I could find online was a 2007 Entertainment Weekly article by Marc Bernardin where he calls Indiana Jones a “loser.” He’s not wrong; Indy loses much more than he wins in his movies. He gets beat up, trapped, brainwashed, and nuked in a fridge, and then staggers out of each film with a bunch of new scars and a love interest who probably won’t be back for the sequel.
But Bernardin also writes that Indiana Jones is ”not a hero… he’s a bystander” because, at least in Raiders of the Lost Ark, “if you remove Indy from the film, the outcome is the same.” On that count, he’s not wrong either. Technically, if you took Indiana Jones out of Raiders of the Lost Ark, the Nazis would still get the Ark and they’d still open it and they’d still die. (On the other hand, without Jones there to hand it over to the U.S. government after the Nazis’ faces melt and/or explode, the Germans might have found the remains of the Ark and Belloq, figured out how to harness its power, and won World War II...)
Regardless, I don’t think Indy’s ineffectualness makes him less of a hero, but more of one. In fact, I think it’s one of the essential aspects of his appeal: He is a fallible human constantly confronted by superhuman threats he is in no way equipped to handle. And yet he keeps on fighting. Even when he loses the Ark or the Crystal Skull, even when his love life is in shambles, he never quits.
This tendency to fall short — and to push on regardless — is the same quality that makes long-running characters such as Spider-Man so enduringly popular. It can be fun to watch a hyper-efficient, ultra-successful, totally poised badass for a little while. But for most of us, that’s not a relatable character.
Indiana Jones speaks more languages than we do, and he’s a very resourceful guy. He’s also a lot braver than we would be in his well-worn Alden model 405 boots. But beyond that, he’s not some gifted warrior. He’s a college professor! Even his cool name is not as cool as it seems; he stole it from a dog! What do we expect this guy to do up against dozens of Nazis or cultists or aliens?
I know some people scoff at the idea of Harrison Ford playing Indiana Jones in his 80s. They insist the character doesn’t work as an older man. To me, aging makes Indy’s endurance even more poignant. That’s why I’m looking forward to Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny. I just wouldn’t bet on Indy walking out of the movie with that dial hidden in his satchel.