What Happened to Truth When Indiana Jones Became an Adjective?

Indiana Jones was born to be a cult object. What does that mean nearly four decades later, when prestigious institutions have embraced this artifice?

A tow headed, prepubescent boy saunters on-screen and flexes his muscles boasting enthusiastically, “I’m Indiana Jones!” It’s a statement that is at once prophetic and a symbolically ubiquitous sentiment among children from my generation. That kid could be me, played back across the decades in scenes from a home movie archive of some family vacation spot in some not-too-exotic locale, but no less adventurous, that evokes the adventurous, whip-wielding icon to a ten-year-old mind.

The kid in question, a throwback vignette to childhood from some equally innocuous family vacation spot is actually Matthew VanDyke, the controversial subject of the documentary Point and Shoot (2014). VanDyke, the quintessential 20-something slacker son of helicopter parenting (he is literally living in his mother’s basement at the beginning of the film), sets off on a 35,000-mile motorcycle trip from Northern Africa and the Middle East that is initially more Quixotical than Lawrence of Arabia. Along the way, VanDyke becomes a documentary filmmaker in his own right, as well as freedom fighter, mercenary, and prisoner-of-war embroiled in the revolution to overthrow Gaddafi.

In Marshall Curry’s film, VanDyke is a vehicle to explore the modern American concept of masculinity, but outside that frame he becomes even more emblematic of a kind of imperial adventuring that Indiana Jones has become shorthand for identifying.

In other words, whether VanDyke is a de facto American propagandist caught up in exporting democracy to the Middle East through his involvement in the Syrian revolution or, as some of the more paranoid interpretations would have it, VanDyke was manufactured by a CIA spymaster with a copy of Christopher Vogler’s Mythic Structure in his lap and a narrative that smacks a little too close to Joseph Campbell’s hero cycle to be completely authentic, ultimately becomes irrelevant when the ideological result is the same.

VanDyke and I are not alone in worshiping Indiana Jones as icon, of course. He was one of the first action heroes at the helm of a summer blockbuster and engineered for such purpose. As a result, entire generations grew up in adoration. Over the years, I have bonded with numerous people based solely on a love for Indy (and little else). John Williams’ recognizable “Raiders March”, the Indiana Jones theme song, was vocalized on the muddy misadventures in junior high that resulted from a detour on our walk home, when my car broke down along the expressway in high school, and when a canoe trip I was leading while in my 20s took on a genuinely ominous turn of events.

As the movie tagline reads, “…if adventure has a name it is Indiana Jones”, it seemed to be true not only in conversation that frames everything from road trips to the American West to adventures overseas, but elsewhere, as well. What’s true of the shorthand for my bar chatter and small talk is also true of the shorthand of publishing and marketing departments promoting a certain kind of globe trotting adventurer traveling overseas, primarily outside of Europe, and for almost any reason.

As diverse a cast of real world travelers as author, television host, chef and professional curmudgeon, Anthony Bourdain; best-selling author, professional blogger, and lifestyle design enthusiast, Tim Ferriss; anthropologist, ethnobotanist, and cultural diversity promoter, Wade Davis; travel writer, Robert Young Pelton; paleontologist and professor, Paul Sereno; and, social change activist and New York Times columnist, Nicholas Kristof have all been branded the “real-life Indiana Jones”. While admittedly this tagline is derived from marketing teams, book promoters, reviewers and publishers, it’s the breadth of this list that is significant here. Essentially, the only thing these individuals have in common is that they are white, originally from North America, and they travel internationally.

Further, the label is not temporally bound. There are “real-life Indiana Jones” figures that date back to the 1800s — well, they’ve been retrofitted to the contemporary myth. As if the Spielberg/Lucas product were itself worthy of historical inquiry, the Smithsonian launched an investigation into the “Indy legend”, wherein it traced the lineage of the onscreen adventurer real to reel following the serials of the ’30s and ’40s that may have contributed to the living inspiration for the iconic Indiana Jones.

T. E. Lawrence, the real-life Lawrence of Arabia, who seems to have more in common with the aforementioned Matthew VanDyke narrative than Jones, and subject of his own classic film, makes the list, too. Gunslinging naturalist, dinosaur hunter, and 1800’s explorer Roy Chapman Andrew is mentioned. Lt. Colonel Percy Fawcett, the Royal Geographical Society explorer who mapped the Amazon and subsequently disappeared in search of a lost South American city was christened an inspiration to the Indiana Jones character. Percy also inspired Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to write The Lost World, influencing yet another Spielberg franchise Jurassic Park and in a meta-moment would meet his fictional counterpart in one of the Indiana Jones book series. Egyptologist James Henry Breasted, as well as, archeologist Robert John Braidwood, both from the University of Chicago, are considered inspirations for the character, too.

A couple months ago, the Atlas Obscura Society hosted an Indiana Jones themed prohibition-era party on the University of Chicago campus at the Oriental Institute, which Breasted had founded in 1919. In the character’s mythology, Dr. Jones would attend the University a year after the Institute — today dubbed the real life “Indiana Jones Museum” — first opened.

Nationwide, an Egyptian craze was sweeping the country, following the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb, and Breasted was in a position to help the University take advantage of it. On display in the lobby of the museum today — amidst artifacts from Egypt, Nineveh, Assyria, the Byzantine Empire and other ancient civilizations — are Indiana Jones relics. The journal of his mentor, Abner Ravenwood, some photographs, old money and additional authentic-looking memorabilia arrived at the University of Chicago as part of a misdirected eBay sale for a superfan, but since have become the centerpiece for an exhibit that tells the stories of Breasted, Braidwood, and the museum as “real Indiana Jones” figures.

My first expedition to the Oriental Institute was as a tow headed, prepubescent boy on a grade school field trip shortly after the release of the first film. It was an expedition into the mythology surrounding the “real life Indiana Jones”, something that at the time seemed to chafe against the Institute’s self-perception. Braidwood, ironically enough, is renowned for applying scientific rigor to the archaeological discipline, which moved it away from exploring, treasure hunting, and, let’s be honest here, imperialist theft. The lecture my childhood self received so cut enough against the fantasy that I still recall it decades later. Indiana Jones was a reckless thief, a treasure hunter, and completely disrespectful of other cultures. He was not a true archeologist, I was told in the hallowed halls of the Oriental Institute, probably near the lobby-area where the Indiana Jones display is arranged today.

The real, which is to say the fake, Indiana Jones was born on a beach in Hawaii in 1977. George Lucas was fresh from the explosive popularity of Star Wars; Steven Spielberg was reaping the success of Jaws. These two films already formed the foundation upon which the summer blockbuster would be built, but they would take this even further with an act of cinematic alchemy. Mixing elements of matinee serials from the ’30s and ’40s with Bogart in Casablanca and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, a dash of Charlton Heston in Secret of the Incas mixed with Stewart Granger in King Solomon’s Mine among numerous others ,Spielberg/Lucas would forge an American James Bond. In essence, Lucas and Spielberg were unapologetically engineering a formulaic cult classic from the beginning.

Umberto Eco would later mark this as the emergence of the intertextual collage in the pre-internet-era of 1984. Spielberg would put it at the time, with an equally uncanny prescience, “What we’re doing here, really, is designing a ride at Disneyland.”

I was among an entire generation that gleefully took that ride.

Eco declared Raiders of the Lost Ark as a film born to become a cult object. In his essay, “Casablanca: Cult Movies and Intertextual Collage”, he contends that Michael Curtiz comes by cult status honestly, as it were, with a film that is a tapestry of homage, pastiche, archetype, stereotype, and motif lifted from other genres. Spielberg and Lucas, on the other hand, are calculated in their symbolic coding. Eco contends that Raiders is “semiotically uninteresting” because viewers will find only the symbolic language put there by “semiotically nourished authors (Spielberg and Lucas) working for a culture of instinctive semioticians.” The result, Eco bemoans existentially, denies viewers a window into the Truth by supplanting it with a preprogrammed symbolism.

In a final stop on our tour of venerable academic institutions to embrace the mythology, the National Geographic Museum in Washington, DC, launched Indiana Jones and the Adventure of Archeology last year in May 2015. Following the chronology of the films the exhibit aimed to serve as an introductory primer to Dr. Jones’ chosen discipline. A “Fact or Fiction” feature was represented throughout the exhibition, offering a backstory on the various artifacts Indy has pursued (or the real life artifacts that inspired them). These facts are not the same as Eco’s semiotical Truth, but they expose the inherent danger in this type of narrative coding.

Indiana Jones as an adjective results from the formation of what Eco donned a metacult. His existence not only encapsulates cinematic influences, but erases them through his inclusion. As the mythological code becomes legitimized through the institutions that represent culture, its inclusion risks the same erasure globally.