The Politics of Archaeology

The Politics of Archaeology

Published June 18, 2008

As if to complete the role reversal, in Raiders of the Lost Ark,
Indiana Jones falls asleep just as Marion is kissing him. In The Mummy,
Evelyn falls asleep just as she is about to be kissed by Rick. In both
cases, it is a sign of strength to need love less than the other party.

There seems little doubt, give or take Batman’s imminent return, that Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull will be the biggest movie of the summer. The success of the original series inspired copycat franchises, such as Romancing the Stone/Jewel of the Nile, set in modern day (the 80’s) Columbia and the Middle East, and the Mummy series, starring Brendan Fraser. This year, Fraser seems more determined than ever to grab a hold of Jones’ man bag and hope to be pulled on by him to fortune and glory. For as almost as soon as Indy IV ends its theatrical run, The Mummy will return again on August 1st.

King Tut
Both series are inspired by action heroes of the 20’s and 30’s, from real life as well as the movies. A craze for Egyptian archaeology (called Egyptomania) originally started in 1922, following Howard Carter’s discovery of Tutankhamen’s tomb. Not only did he discover previously unheard of treasures, but adding to the sense of mystery was the fact that several of the members of his party soon died during mysterious circumstances, prompting rumours of a “Curse of the Pharaoh.” Carter himself died of cancer in 1939 at the age of 64. Indiana Jones’ debt to him was paid in 1992, when he appears as a character in the first TV episode about the adventurer, called “Young Indiana Jones and the Curse of the Jackal.”

Interest in Ancient Egypt was renewed when the exhibition “Treasures of Tutankhamen” toured the United States in the years 1976-79, prompting Steve Martin to write the song “King Tut.” Perhaps not quite coincidentally, in 1977 George Lucas and Steven Spielberg met on a beach in Hawaii and started discussing Egyptian archaeology and a fictional adventurer by the name of Indiana Smith. Renamed Indiana Jones, this character first appeared on the big screen in Raiders of the Lost Ark in 1981. The film is set in 1936, and here Indy must travel to an excavation site in Egypt to find the Lost Ark of Moses.

Spielberg vs. Europe
It sometimes seems that, apart from Oscar Schindler, Spielberg doesn’t really like Europeans very much. In Raiders, the all-American hero is confronted by an unholy alliance of French and Germans, in the form of evil archaeologist Belloq and his Nazi friends. Indy, however, prefers to ally himself with the locals in the form of the burly Egyptian Sallah. The point seems clear, the Americans and the third world form a united front against European Imperialism.

What the film lacks in subtlety regarding foreign affairs, it makes up for in feminism. Marion Ravenwood is a new breed of heroine, even more macho than the Blaster wielding princess Leia. In her first scene, we see Marion out drinking a big Tibetan, and she greets Indy with a punch in the face. However, as the film progresses, it is still Indy who has to repeatedly save her, be it from a snake pit, a burning plane and even the Wrath of God.

Indy vs. the Indians
The next instalment, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, came out in 1984. Here there is a complete role reversal, so much so that the film is set the year before Raiders, in 1935. This time, Indy has no luck with the natives. In Shanghai, everyone (apart from the waiter) is against him, and the barely survives being killed by hordes of locals. Once over in India, it is up to him to save the locals. However, he is not about to join Ghandi and march on the British. Instead, he helps to crush a revolt against Imperial rule by a resistance group called “The Thugees.” Their intent is not only to liberate India but take over the world. Sankara Stones notwithstanding, it is not quite clear how they are going to do this. Once out in the open the Thugee archers are easy prey to the firearms of His Majesty’s forces, and the closing sequence seems to be more at home in the film Zulu, which came out 20 years earlier.

Nightclub singers vs. ballbreakers
As if this wasn’t enough, the female character is also a far cry from Marion. Willie Scott is a nightclub singer who does little besides scream her way through the entire movie, and whose biggest concern is breaking a nail. It seems to have worked for Spielberg, though, who wound up marrying actress Kate Capshaw. She has not acted since, instead concentrating on raising their six children.

When Indiana Jones finally returned in 1989, things were back to normal. He beds a European broad who, as in most American films, turns out to be “easy,” having also previously bedded his father. Inevitably, she also turns out to be a Nazi. The bad Europeans are back as the Nazis but this time they are aided by an American millionaire, while Indy is helped by a Turkish secret society as well as by the Egyptian Sallah.

In Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, there is yet another unholy alliance, this time consisting of the Russians and the British, the latter in the form of the treacherous Mac. Indy, however, does not bed the Russian babe Spalko played by Cate Blanchett, but is instead reunited with Marion Ravenwood. Spalko is probably the most capable woman in the series and is represented as a ballbreaker, even crushing a giant ant between her thighs. Her perhaps unfeminine thirst for knowledge, however, proves her undoing.

Men vs. women
The Mummy’s Rick O’Connel is everything that Indiana Jones is not. Whereas Indy relies on his whip and wits, and rarely uses firearms (except, of course, to get out of swordfights,) Rick is armed with four pistols and a shotgun. And his problem solving technique usually consists of shooting at things, even things such as resurrected mummies that are obviously impervious to gunfire. Even though the connection to the Jones films is obvious, the film is a semi-remake of a 1932 horror classic starring Boris Karloff, and came out in 1999.

By this time the women had taken over. Instead of Indiana and Dr. Jones being two sides of the same person, here the wits are provided by Evelyn Carnahan, played by Rachel Weisz. Evelyn is a librarian who of course solves the puzzle, as well as falling for the tall, handsome and dim-witted adventurer. As if to ram home the point, a bad guy says: “They’re led by a woman. What does a woman know?” Cut to: Rachel waxing philosophical about ancient Egypt in front of a statue.

Americans vs. Brits
As if to complete the role reversal, in Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indiana Jones falls asleep just as Marion is kissing him. In The Mummy, Evelyn falls asleep just as she is about to be kissed by Rick. In both cases, it is a sign of strength to need love less than the other party.

Fun is had with the nationalities too. The story starts in 1923 with Rick and his French foreign legion being overrun by Arabs. The American Rick later teams up with the English Evelyn and her brother. It seems almost like a story Blair and Bush (remember them?) could cuddle up to. But this is before 9/11 and care is taken to insult no one, or at least everyone equally. A group of swashbuckling American cowboys are found to be greedy and killed off one by one, the evil Mummy is Egyptian but so is the secret society that fights it. Surprisingly for an American film, and one set in colonial times at that, it’s actually the Brits that come out best.

The Mummy vs. Indiana Jones
The Mummy spawned a sequel two years later, a spin off sequel in The Scorpion King, a sequel to which is in turn in production. The next film is called The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor, and is set in China.

But for all its political correctness, The Mummy series is not as engaging as the Jones’ films. The Spielberg movies have sometimes been accused of being roller coaster rides (literally in Temple of Doom), but The Mummy takes that to another level. The archaeology provides the flimsiest pretext for a shoot-’em-up, while the mystery is more or less done away with by the voice-over in the beginning, just in case someone in the audience doesn’t get it. Perhaps movie goers were more discerning in the early 80’s than in the late 90’s after all.



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