In 1977, George Lucas shared his concept for a movie about a daring and roguish archaeologist who goes on a quest for the mythical Ark of the Covenant. His friend Steven Spielberg was captivated. He saw it as a chance to make a “Bond film without the hardware”, since he had always wanted to direct a 007 movie. The result was Raiders of the Lost Ark, the first instalment of the Indiana Jones franchise, which became a global phenomenon and spawned four sequels. The latest, Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny, has just been released.
The first clue to Indy’s Jewishness is the actor who plays him. Harrison Ford has said, “As a man I’ve always felt Irish, as an actor I’ve always felt Jewish.” Spielberg was even going to give Indy a Jewish girlfriend when he considered Barbara Hershey for the role of Marion. He offered it to Debra Winger who declined.
Part of the reason for casting Ford was that Spielberg tended to aim for the broadest mass appeal as a filmmaker. The actor was Jewish, but not obviously Jewish. Even the great Stanley Kubrick referred to “a Harrison Fordish goy”. Despite associating himself with Jewish charities and causes, Spielberg largely avoided Jewishness as subject matter. By casting Ford he put a seeming Wasp in the lead role, drawing attention away from his and the director’s ethnic background.
The name, Indiana Jones, is also a clue. It was originally Indiana Smith but Lucas changed it to make it more interesting. Like James Bond, Indiana Jones is one of those names that, to paraphrase novelist Michael Chabon’s remark about Clark Kent, only a Jew would pick for himself. And Indiana isn’t even his real name: it’s Dr Henry Walton Jones, Jr. Indiana Jones is a fantasy figure, the Jewish wish-fulfilment of a bright, nerdy kid, tinged with a touch of nebbishness.
For starters, Indy is an academic. Described as a “brilliant nerd who is also a badass”, he is an unlikely fusion of archaeologist, soldier of fortune and playboy — albeit a reticent one. As Sean Connery, who played his father in the third installment Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, pointed out: “Aside from the fact that Indiana Jones is not as well-dressed as James Bond, the main difference between them is sexual. Indiana deals with women shyly. In the first film, he’s flustered when the student writes ‘I love you’ on her eyelids. James Bond would have had all those young coeds for breakfast.”
Jewishness underpins all five films. Back in 1975, George Lucas approached fellow filmmaker Philip Kaufman. It was that Jewish director’s idea to have Indy search for the lost Ark of the Covenant. “There was an old doctor I went to [as a boy] in Chicago who was obsessed with the lost ark’s legendary powers,” recalled Kaufman. “And books have been written about Hitler’s search for occult artefacts, which he thought would make him omnipotent.” This set up the hero vs Nazi villains storyline. Jewish screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan was then brought in to write the script.
Spielberg and Kasdan had grown up reading Mad magazine, which peppered its irreverent “sick” humour and smart movie parodies with Yiddishisms and other Jewish in-jokes. This influenced the movie. The scene in which Indy faces off a sword-twirling Arab was meant to be much more elaborate until Spielberg decided to have Indy abruptly end the duel by pulling out his pistol and shooting his opponent. He said it was inspired by Mad feature Scenes We’d Like to See.
There is also the Jewish revenge fantasy of the Ark meting out biblical justice, melting its Nazi captors and disintegrating them into nothingness. The third instalment, The Last Crusade, ends with a Nazi crumbling to dust after he tries to drink from the Holy Grail. And this is before the war and the Holocaust have even begun, as both films are set in the 1930s. “It’s not Jews who foil the Nazis’ plans,” Gabriel Sanders has written, “it’s the spirit of God Himself.”
There was also an element of autobiography. Part of Indy’s look was modelled on the director’s. “One thing that was really unusual,” one of Spielberg’s teachers recalled, “he occasionally wore a fedora similar to the one that Indiana Jones wore. It was something you’d expect from another generation.” Spielberg himself admitted that felt he was “playing a role” when directing Raiders of the Lost Ark. “I was the Indiana Jones behind the camera,” he said in an interview with Victoria Geng in Film Comment. “Indy the hack adventurer is a bit of a self-portrait, with touches of both vanity and self-loathing.”
And who could mistake the Jewishness of the title of the new film, Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny? Call your mother!
Nathan Abrams is Professor in Film, School of Arts, Culture and Language at Bangor University