Indiana Jones and International Law: Hero or Looter? – A review by Lucas Lixinski

indianaThe iconic Indiana Jones quadrilogy, particularly the first three movies, have been highly influential in nurturing generations of archaeologists. Those movies are pop culture, and thereby speak to a more general audience, but they are highly influential in communicating ideas about heritage and international law around it. They focus more on the figure of the archaeologist as an adventurer, and the ethics of that profession, but they also portray the ethics and law around cultural artefacts. But the relationship between the whip-wielding, fedora-wearing iconic action character and the law is more complicated. From the perspective of international law, if Indiana Jones were around today he would be likely characterized as a looter, yet one whose activities would be condoned and even encouraged by the politics of the field of international cultural heritage law.

The first Indiana Jones movie, Raiders of the Lost Ark (Steven Spielberg, 1981), set in pre-World War II United States, establishes Indiana Jones as a hero. But it also portrays him very clearly as a looter (even if he loots in the interest of science, or, more specifically, to acquire objects for his museum). The movie opens with Indiana Jones exploring a Central-American historical site in the hopes of finding a certain artefact. He employs a local guide (a young Alfred Molina) who betrays Indiana Jones and is killed by a trap in the site. This brief encounter with the Indigenous population places it at the service of the white westerner, whose interests seem to be paramount.

Subsequently, a discussion between two archaeologists ensues about the importance of local knowledge for archaeological practice, but only as an instrument of the western archaeologist’s (scientific) goals. Tomb-raiding by non-archaeologists (mostly locals) is promptly condemned. In this way, the role and rule of the expert is reinforced as paramount to the needs of the local community, and its relationship to its own heritage. Cultural heritage, it is made clear, is for study at a museum in the developed world.

Back at his university, Indiana Jones is greeted by his colleague and Dean, Marcus Brody. When discussing Indiana Jones’ successful fieldwork and extraction of the artefact, Brody quickly dismisses any concerns about the legality and morality of Indiana Jones’ actions, by stating that “I am sure everything you [Indiana Jones] do for the museum conforms to the International Treaty for the Protection of Antiquities”. This fictional international treaty, to which the United States is seemingly a party in the movie, is the only mention of the law in the entire movie, and works to legitimize Indiana Jones’ activities and banish any discussion about the legality, legitimacy or morality of his actions.

But the morality stakes are raised when the movie shows the Nazi campaign to collect cultural and religious artefacts around the world, which is based on true and (fairly) well-documented events, particularly by shows like the History Channel’s Myth Hunters (2012-current). That campaign triggers the quest for the Ark of the Covenant. A deal is struck between Indiana Jones and the US military establishment that, if Indiana Jones can stop the Nazis from acquiring the Ark, it will be on display in the museum, for study. At no point are the interests of parties other than Germany or the US considered, but the Ark is revered by Indiana Jones as “everything we got into archaeology for in the first place,” exculpating the lack of consultation of other countries. The logic seems to be that, if the Ark is in a western museum for study, it is automatically available to the whole of mankind, through the neutral discipline of archaeology.

As the search for the Ark proceeds, the hero is taken to the Himalayas to locate an artefact needed to locate the Ark, before heading to Egypt. There is no discussion of the fact that the talisman was taken by one archaeologist and gifted to his daughter, which is looting in its own right. But that daughter, Indiana Jones’ romantic interest in this and the fourth movie of the series, ends up playing an important role in unpacking some of the undertones of how the mandate of archaeologists is perceived. In dialogue with her, one of the villains of the movie states that “with the right connections, even in this part of the world [Egypt] we aren’t totally uncivilized.” With this quote, the local community in whose territory the Ark is buried is characterized as uncivilized, and thus undeserving of the Ark. The taking of the Ark, either by the Germans or the Americans, seems to be justified, and the struggle remains as one only between those two countries.

After the Ark is safely rescued by the hero, it is turned in to US military authorities, who then do not fulfill their promise of allowing the Ark to be put in a museum and studied. Brody reinforces the imperatives of research in protest, but to no effect. The necessities of wartime and its politics prevail over the interests of science and archaeology. The movie then ends with a shot showing a large warehouse filled with crates, supposedly containing more cultural artefacts. One must wonder, then, whether the Nazis are in fact the looters in World War II, since so many artefacts are in American hands. In other words, what this scene helps highlight is that history (to which heritage is a vehicle) is written by the victors, who get to cast characters in the roles that shed the best light on the narrator.

The second Indiana Jones movie, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (Steven Spielberg, 1984), challenges the portrayal of Indiana Jones as primarily at the service of western museum interests. More specifically, Indiana Jones is tasked by a community in an impoverished part of India to return their sacred artefact. So, Indiana Jones works here in favor of local communities, the owners of the artefact, and not in the name of science that would have the artefact put on display and studied. This concern is best showcased at the end of the movie, when Indiana Jones says that he could have kept the sacred stone from the community, but that then the stone would have just been another rock gathering dust in a museum. Because the stone is more important for the community than for the museum, it should remain with the community.

However, many of the colonial overtones of the first movie are replicated here, at least when it comes to the movie’s dealing with the villains. In the banquet scene, for instance, only foods that would be considered “primitive” and “uncivilized” are served, thus characterizing the villains in the movie as “uncivilized”. Indiana Jones’ love interest’s reaction (she fainted in the presence of the food) is telling of the repugnancy she experiences, and the viewer is also invited to feel, towards that group. Empire also permeates the movie in that the colonial enterprise in India is validated when the British colonial army ultimately saves the day by defeating the rogue state that was trying to establish itself in their territory (and who are the villains in the story). Indiana Jones films, as examples of popular culture, display a lack of critique (or even awareness) of the colonial enterprise’s negative impacts.

The idea of ownership of cultural artefacts is also played out in the third instalment of the series, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (Steven Spielberg, 1988). This movie opens with a debate about whether a private collector can actually be the rightful owner of a cultural artefact, when a young Indiana Jones confronts some looters. The question of private (individual) ownership is central to this movie, instead of community ownership (Temple of Doom), or ownership by a museum (on behalf of humanity, Raiders of the Lost Ark). Specifically, in this movie Indiana Jones sets out on his adventure as an archaeologist hired by a private collector to find the Holy Grail (and in the process find his father, who went missing in his own quest for the Grail on behalf of the same collector).

Heritage matters help articulate the morality of the story. For instance, the Nazi heritage expert is moved by book burning, thus professing her interest to be primarily in archaeology for its own sake, rather than in collaborating with her ruler. But she still collaborates with the Nazi regime, thus evidencing that the role of the heritage expert, even if self-professedly neutral and uninterested, can still work in favor of political forces. Expert role is also prominent in the movie when the main Nazi villain tells the Nazi heritage expert “I am not a historian, I can’t choose”, and defers to her judgment as to which one is the real Holy Grail. She cons him, thus redeeming herself momentarily, but the main point here is that of deference to expert rule in making decisions about the value of heritage (an issue I have explored elsewhere).

Some tensions also come to the fore in The Last Crusade around heritage sites unlike previously. The fictional kingdom where the Holy Grail is hidden helps shed some light on certain understandings around heritage law. More specifically, the Nazis negotiate with the ruler of the kingdom saying they are willing to provide “suitable compensation” for removing the Grail from that country. The ruler asks merely for a Rolls Royce, and offers full logistical support to the Nazis in finding the Grail. This scene recalls how the movie treats cultural artefacts as private property, and items that can be in the stream of commerce, if one reads the ruler’s reaction as simply one of dealing with his (cultural) property within his kingdom. On the other hand, one can read this scene as reminiscent of the way many archaeological expeditions have been run, by bribing elites and rulers into turning a blind eye to the taking of artefacts that belong to an entire people, without giving a second thought to how the people actually relate to the heritage.

While the first three movies explored different dimensions of the ethics (and law) around cultural heritage (the role of the western museum in Raiders of the Lost Ark, the protection of community interests in Temple of Doom and the role of private actors in The Last Crusade), the fourth movie of the series, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (Steven Spielberg, 2008), takes a very different direction. For the most part, it would seem that the movie is not really about cultural heritage, but rather about aliens (and their crystal skeletons). Set in 1957, the movie highlights the imperatives of the Cold War (which, again, can push heritage concerns into the background), and plays them mostly in the context of the presence of extraterrestrials on Earth (even the aliens themselves are characterized as archaeologists).

The movie takes the viewer back to the warehouse where a myriad of artefacts was stored by the US military during World War II (which is the final scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark). However, the lead Soviet villain discards cultural artefacts as insignificant early on, sending a clear message that this movie is not really about cultural heritage. So, questions of morality around tomb-raiding, opening of mummies, and destruction of artefacts are all secondary in the movie, in favor of some higher (cinematic and narrative?) objective.

The Indiana Jones moves have been largely successful, and their portrayals of archaeology and the ethics behind cultural heritage have influenced a generation of heritage professionals. Nevertheless, they have sent some mixed signals as to how, why and for whom heritage is protected. These mixed signals reflect and inform perceptions of international heritage law, too, which oscillates between a cosmopolitan commitment to protecting heritage for all of humanity, on the one hand, and allowing for colonial patterns and power structures to be reinforced and replicated at the expense of heritage holders, on the other.

Lucas Lixinski

Senior Lecturer, Faculty of Law, UNSW Australia

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