Beyond the Paper Screen / Indiana Jones and the Meandering Thoughts of the Politically Lost

The light begins to dim. Various sounds fill the air as people set their bags of popcorn aside and get themselves comfortable in the recliner seat. Then, the noise recedes. On the screen, iron doors burst open and our eyes zoom in on a man being dragged across a room full of frenzied activity. His head is covered by a cloth sack so we can’t see his face. But who else can he be but our daring hero?

I was in a movie theater with my friend to watch the latest Indiana Jones movie. The usual antics that made this movie franchise so popular are all there: A daring escape, a thrilling chase on a moving train, stolen treasures, a Nazi scientist who possesses half of a mysterious device built by Archimedes, and of course, the requisite hat, whip and bag that complete the “adventurer” look of the pop culture icon. The familiar theme song starts and we are all on board for the two-hour rollercoaster ride with Indiana Jones.

I won’t even try to deny it: nostalgia was definitely a factor. In the opening sequence, we see Indiana back in his heyday. As we marvel at the AI-generated de-aging effects on 80-year-old Harrison Ford, we, too, go back in time to our own youth, when we watched Indiana Jones’ adventurous exploits for the first time.

I watched the first Indiana Jones movie, “Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark” (1981), in a crowded theater in Yokohama with my high school friends. By the time “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” came out in 1984, I was starting to get serious about improving my English and tried desperately to follow the dialogue without reading the Japanese subtitles. I waited to watch “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” (1989) until it came out on VHS, though. By then, I had graduated from college in the U.S. and started my graduate work in anthropology. I had grown out of the franchise already but just had to see Sean Connery play Indy’s father.

As I looked around the theater, I noticed that the majority of the audience seemed to be in the age groups that would have seen Raiders in theaters (in their 50s) or maybe a few years later on TV or VHS (mid-late 40s). I imagined, perhaps, they were also reliving their own memories of their youth, with which Indiana Jones movies were inexplicably connected.

But then comes the rude awakening: our blissful nostalgia is interrupted when, barely half an hour into the movie, our hero’s current reality kicked in. He lives alone in a rundown apartment and drinks his breakfast of instant coffee and whisky. At the end of his legendary archaeological career, he, who once commanded the undivided attention of a packed lecture hall, hunches over his lecture notes and drones on as his students fall asleep one by one. He ducks out of his own retirement party and goes straight into a dive bar for a drink. In short, he turned into an old man called Dr. Henry Walton Jones Jr. — not Indiana — tired, alone, irrelevant, and doesn’t even care anymore.

All in all, it was not a bad movie (a bit of a spoiler): there was plenty of action, twists and turns in the plotline, and a hopeful ending for the iconic character. But something kept bugging me on my way home, like a pesky fishbone stuck in my throat. Then my brain, which works in strange ways sometimes, brought back a conversation from a few months ago when a younger friend of mine said, “I hate old white people.” I was startled because Chris is a kind, intelligent and thoughtful thirty-something, from whom I didn’t expect such a summarily negative sentiment against a group of people.

Chris is white; their (Chris’ preferred pronoun) parents are also white and have been retired for a few years. Does it mean they “hate” their parents, too? They quickly corrected my misconception. No, they didn’t hate every single white person of a certain age group. They just couldn’t stand the ones who take for granted their own privilege of being white, financially secure and socially accepted. And men are usually worse than women, of course, according to Chris.

I suddenly realized: Indiana Jones is one of those privileged white people Chris was talking about. He took it as the prerogative of his gender, class and racial privilege to go wherever he pleased, remove obstacles at all costs, take what he desired — whether a priceless artifact or a woman’s heart — and drop it unceremoniously when the next adventure came calling. From the viewpoint of Chris and many others in their generation, Indiana only deserved a lonely and meaningless old age — a fitting punishment for a lifetime of arrogance he was allowed to perpetrate only because he happened to be born white, male and middle-class.

I get that sentiment — even back in the 1980s, I thought Indiana Jones was a cocky male chauvinist. Well, sort of … but not really. As an anthropologist, I think of inequity as the product of a society that transcends individual choice or control. For that reason, I don’t believe he, or anyone else for that matter, deserves punishment in his old age. Besides, fighting intolerance with more intolerance seems depressingly futile. But who knows, maybe I’ve grown too privileged, or, worse yet, too old and irrelevant, to keep up with today’s progressive politics.

Sawa Kurotani

Kurotani is a professor of anthropology at the University of Redlands.