Indiana Jones is returning to our screens. After the disappointment of The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull back in 2008 – a film widely critiqued for ‘jumping the shark’ or more specifically ‘nuking the fridge’ – Indy is now making a comeback in a more realistic manner. But rather than appearing on the big screen of movie theatres his reappearance within popular culture has come via the screens of our mobile devices and the digital objects of our social media platforms.
His return has been partly facilitated by the rise of the populist right, particularly in the USA during a year that ended with the election of Donald Trump thanks to a campaign strategy that involved courting those far right and neo-Nazi groups obsessed with re-defining themselves as a somehow more palatable alt-right. Indy, thanks to his staunch anti-Nazism, as illustrated by his words in the 1989 The Last Crusade: ‘Nazis, I hate these guys’, has grown in symbolic value for many of those seeking to resist these groups and the world’s political slide to the right.
The use of Indiana in this way can be traced, in an early instance at least, to Berlin-based Antifascist organisations. When I lived in the German capital on and off between 2006 and 2014 I regularly saw an Antifa sticker featuring Harrison Ford as Indy wearing his famous fedora punching out a large bare-chested and skin-headed Nazi. The featured shot comes from a fight scene in the 1981 Raiders of the Lost Arc and is accompanied by the aforementioned line from The Last Crusade.
The Street Art Graphics Collection curated by Catherine Tedford at St. Lawrence University’s Richard F. Brush Art Gallery, which I often use for research purposes (along with Catherine’s great research blog stickerkitty) dates the sticker to between 2008 and 2013 although it is fair to say it has been resurrected since then and its appearance on the streets is probably no longer limited to Germany. Of course there are also probably much earlier uses of Indiana Jones in this symbolic way (if you know of any please share them with me!). Occasionally the sticker turns up on Twitter but in general and more recently the symbolic use of Indiana Jones to convey a message of antifascism has shifted away from stickers on street corners to memes on mobile phone screens.
This was exemplified during Donald Trump’s inauguration when the video recorded actions of one anonymous anti-fascist protestor, who punched alt-right founder and white nationalist Richard Spencer in the face while the latter was giving a live interview, were quickly combined with a different still from Raiders of the Lost Arc showing Indiana Jones punching a Nazi and a cartoon showing Captain America punching Hitler.
Framed in this way – in other words that punching Nazis is a American patriotic duty – such memes also hint at Indiana Jones’ history as an adversary of not only Nazi Germany but also the Soviet Union. The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull reportedly drew the ire of the Russian Communist party who called for a boycott of the movie and indeed some have joked that Alt-Right members might also boycott the Indiana Jones franchise due to its anti-Nazi themes.
So where does this leave Indy and with him the generation of archaeologist that openly admit the influence of his cult films on their decision to pursue their interest in the discipline further (not to mention the discipline of archaeology itself)? I am among the latter and still vividly remember learning in my first year archaeology course about the Nazi regime’s abuse of the discipline in order to promote their racist ideologies – most famously through the ideas of Gustaf Kossinna. So it is reassuring to see that popular archaeological icons can be used in the opposite direction. And yet I cannot help but think that Indy’s use in this way may also contribute, at least on some symbolic level, to deepening the divides between those segments of ‘the public’ that are vulnerable to far-right ideologies and academics. Such cleavages were recently made evident by Turning Point USA’s Professor Watch List, which encouraged students to, in the organization’s words, “expose and document college professors who discriminate against conservative students and advance leftist propaganda in the classroom.”
When news of this initiative spread there was widespread criticism of it on social media with many demonstrating against it by spamming its website with fake reports – not least those that reported fictional characters including, yes you’ve got it, Professor Indiana Jones. Now I know Indy is not a character who is usually shown debating an opponent into submission and that sometimes when push comes to shove there can only be a number of reasonable responses and some of them are bound to involve violence but my concern is that before getting to that point the filtering of icons and their associated fans/supporters into right and left will close down opportunities for opinions to be changed for the better. In the four installments of Indy to date we may not have seen him use his intellectual skills as much as his fighting skills but we can presume (albeit as a fictional character) that he has them and as such I wonder whether he (but mostly us as actual academics) need to learn to land heavier punches through recourse to knowledge and not just violence.
As the video of Richard Spencer being punched continues to spread online some twitter users joked that if they were to begin an archaeology degree today they could begin fighting Nazis during Trump’s expected four year term as president. I hope that if this were the case they would sooner learn ways to help defeat the current rise of the right through the use of intellect and not necessarily violence. They might even do it by the time the fifth Indian Jones film is released in the summer of 2019, which who knows might see our hero converting Nazis with brain not just beating them with brawn!