Manchester Metropolitan University
Indiana Jones and Ben Gates: Imperial Heroes and the American Marvelous Post 9/11
In this paper I examine recent archaeological/ exploration adventure narratives in
films such as Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skulls (2008), National
Treasure (2003) and National Treasure: Book of Secrets (2007). These films owe their
narrative structure and their archetypal imperial/colonial heroes to medieval quest1, the
British ‘ripping yarns’ of Rider Haggard and Conan Doyle amongst others and also the
frontier hero of American myths2. Rider Haggard and Conan Doyle’s heroes Professor
Challenger and Allan Quartermain were constructed within late nineteenth, early twentieth
century imperial, Boys Own adventure yarns. In these narratives the protagonist turns his
back on the hearth and, nailing his masculinity firmly to his gun belt, ventures forth into the
heart of darkness to uncover secret knowledge: the mysteries of eternal life and the historical
validity of biblical tales such as the Ark of the Covenant or King Solomon’s Mines. These
1 Susan Aronstein, “Not exactly a knight”: Arthurian Narrative and Recuperative Politics in
the Indiana Jones Trilogy.” Cinema Journal 34, no. 4, Summer (1995). See also Steve
Neale, “Action-Adventure as Hollywood Genre” in Yvonne Tasker, The Action and
Adventure Cinema. (London, Routledge, 2004: pp.71-83) which provides an overview of the
categorisation of action adventure films and M. Nerlich, The Ideology of Adventure: Studies
in Modern Consciousness, 1100-1750. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987)
which situates the genre within western literature.
2 Richard Slotkin, Fatal Environment: The Myth of the American Frontier in the Age of
Industrialization, 1800-1890. (New York : Atheneum, 1985.); John Shelton Lawrence and
Robert Jewett, The Myth of the American Superhero. (Grand Rapids Michigan, Cambridge,
UK: William B. Eedmans Publishing Company, 2002).
tales articulate jingoistic expressions of race, colonialism and masculinity3 through moral
values of liberty, justice and freedom4.
Imperial heroes in literature and subsequently on film and in the mass media form a
bridge between the known and the unknown, civilisation and the wilderness and civilization
and otherness. The imperial hero reaffirms national and cultural identities through the
juxtaposition of the ‘dialectic antitheses of civilization – i.e. ‘home’ with the wilderness5. As
JanMohamed6 notes, the mirror image of the spectacular ‘other’ is allegorised in order to
construct one’s own ‘cultural perspective’. However, where the imperial hero, and also
earlier archaeological heroes such as Lara Croft, earlier Indiana Jones and Allan Quartermain
films ventured forth into Africa, the Orient, the Middle East, these latest films feature the
heroes unravelling intricate Da Vinci Code-style puzzles that interweave fantasy with half-
baked conspiracy theories. Furthermore, an interesting departure in the three films analysed
in this paper is that the hero does not venture forth into the wilderness outside, but Indiana
Jones and Benjamin Gates delve into the very heart of America and the American continent
3 Steve Neale, “Action-Adventure as Hollywood Genre.” in Yvonne Tasker, The Action and
Adventure Cinema. (London, Routledge, 2004: pp.71-83).
4 Brian Taves, The Romance of Adventure: Genre of Historical Adventure in the Movies.
(University Press of Mississippi, 1992).
5 Hayden White, Tropics of Discourse: Essays in Cultural Criticism. (Baltimore; London:
John Hopkins University Press, 1987).
6 Abdul R JanMohamed, “The Economy of Manichean Allegory” in Bill Ashcroft, G.
Griffiths, and Helen Tiffin (eds.) Post-colonial studies: the key concepts. (London:
Routledge, 2007: pp.19-27).
Like earlier novels and films, the imperial hero tends to straddle the borders of
realism and fantasy. This juxtaposition of the known and the unknown, reality and fantasy
arises from the antecedents of such narratives in archaeological and exploration narratives of
the 18th century which collected knowledge of ‘other’ races and places bringing them under
the imperial gaze. However in this case the heroes are uncovering the mystery that is
America, imagined through fantasy and ideology from the late fifteenth century and imagined
through the European colonial and imperial gaze7. I examine the characteristics of the heroes
and their antagonists in these films and how they function within the American landscape to
‘construct the audience in such a way that they, like [the protagonists], will choose the films’
rhetorical construction of the American citizen over other possible constructions’8. My
argument is that the representations of heroism and landscape within the fantasy, action-
adventure genre act as comfort in uncertain times. Using a Foucauldian approach, I
contextualise the gathering of knowledge within scientific and western discourses which
serve to construct the hero against his negative, and often racialized, ‘other’9. My analysis of
the films locates the hero within medieval, national and European discourses constructing
American history and culture as a land of ‘marvelous possessions’. I conclude the paper by
reflecting upon the ways the hero acts as saviour to the nation in a post 9/11 landscape.
Knowledge, the construction of the imagined other and fantasy
The European encounter with its ‘other’ was, as Marina Warner10 (Warner 2002)
claims, the heightening of European awareness of otherness and the fantasy of other
7 Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of
Nationalism. (London, New York: Verso, 1983).
8 Susan Aronstein, “Not exactly a knight”: Arthurian Narrative and Recuperative Politics in
the Indiana Jones Trilogy”. Cinema Journal 34, no. 4, Summer (1995): p.26.
9 Michel Foucault, The Archaeology of Knowledge. (London: Routledge, 2002).
landscapes. This fantasy scenario resulted from the clashing of discourses constructing
European notions of America and its peoples. These discourses were formed at a pivotal
moment in the changeover from a supernatural to a scientific epistemological epoch in which
traces of medieval knowledge could be identified within new scientific approaches. White
uses a Foucauldian approach to list four eras of ‘epistemic coherency’; the late Middle Ages
until the sixteenth century, the seventeenth and eighteenth century, 1785 to the twentieth
century and the present day11. Knowledge in the Middle Ages was based upon religious and
supernatural discourses. These, however, were replaced (but not completely eliminated) by
scientific methodologies in the second epistemological epoch in the seventeenth and
eighteenth centuries. Sciences such as physics, medicine and archaeology which were
supposedly objective were no less ideologically objective than medieval discourses based
upon religion and the supernatural. Scientific knowledge was underpinned by, ‘the
possibilities they generate[d] for producing or transforming reality…’12 seemingly objective
but ideologically driven sciences such as anthropology and biology attempted to trace the rise
and development of humanity and civilizations. In archaeology there was an interest in
validating biblical and classical myths and in the construction of an evolution of civilizations
and peoples13. These scientific imperatives were intensified with the acquisition of
knowledge through colonial and imperial discourses. As Kaplan notes, ‘The imperial gaze
10 Marina Warner. Fantastic metamorphoses, other worlds: ways of telling the self. (Oxford:
Oxford University Press, 2002).
11 Hayden White, Tropics of discourse: essays in cultural criticism. (Baltimore; London: John
Hopkins University Press, 1987: p.235).
12 Graham Ward (ed), The Certeau Reader. (Malden, Massachusetts, Oxford: Blackwell
13 Pratt, M.L. Imperial eyes: travel writing and transculturation. (London: Routledge, 2008).
reflects the assumption that the western subject is central, much as the male gaze assumes the
centrality of the male subject’14. Colonial lands were regarded as valid sources of plunder
reinforced by the rhetoric of imperial texts which inferred land as either empty, peopled by
savages little better than animals or by despots who deserved to be overthrown15. Exploration
and scientific discourses in Europe developed substantially in the cusp of these two epochs
and so much exploration, for instance, was constructed by Medieval and scientific discourses.
When European ‘voyages of discovery’ from the late fifteenth century landed in America
these new worlds were rapidly imagined through European representations as fantastic realms
of the marvellous filled with impossible and mystic possessions and peoples. These
fabulations were constructed through biblical and classical discourses. Colonial fantasies
adopted these magically imagined places and scientific endeavour validated their
European explorers’ expectations of this ‘new world’ were of the validation of
Medieval stories of cities of gold, the fountain of eternal youth and a land inhabited by the
monstrous races such as anthropophagi, Amazons, and three legged men described by Pliny
the Elder in his Natural History . Throughout the sixteenth century, America was regarded
in Europe as an exotic land filled with feather wearing inhabitants, strange flora and fauna.
The lack of easily transportable goods from America meant that representations could only be
formed from the imagination of artists relying on descriptions or badly drawn pictures. If, by
some chance, an artefact did make it to Europe it was often re-envisaged or repackaged in
wonder cabinets or cabinets of curiosities. Thus America was conceived through hyperbole
14 Anna Kaplan, (1997) Looking for the other: feminism, film, and the imperial gaze.
(London: Routledge, 1997: p.78).
15 David Spurr, The Rhetoric of Empire: Colonial Discourse in Journalism, Travel Writing,
and Imperial Administration. (Durham, London : Duke University Press, 1993.).
and fantasy and reimagined as a European narrative. Sir Walter Raleigh, for instance
describes how he had, ‘seen things as fantastic and prodigious as any of those [foreign lands]
once thought incredible’16. The marvellous was a significant element of the representations
of America, and, this fantasy constituted an empty space, a tabula rasa upon which many
Americas might be reimagined.
These discourses of America as a land of fantasy, founded upon the notion of a blank
space and the possibilities of fabulous treasures and mysterious origins permeate the
narratives of the three films analysed. In the remainder of the paper I discuss how the values
of the protagonist, antagonist and America as a fantasy land interact in resolving national and
cultural concerns in troubled times.
The three films I examine depart from previous action/adventure narratives; the hero
in these films ventures forth not to some distant wilderness but into the very heart of America
itself to uncover its secrets and encounter the American marvelous. In all three films, like
early archaeological explorers, the aim is to discover treasure located in the American
continent such as the lost treasure of the Knights Templar or fabulous golden cities such as
El Dorado in The Kingdom of the Crystal Skulls once assumed to be located in America by
the Conquistadors. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, is set at the height
of the Cold War in the 1950s, a time of social concerns over invasion and threat to ordinary
people not unlike our own period. Indy travels to Latin America to find the fabulous secrets
of the crystal skulls chased by a band of Russian communists. In both National Treasure
films Ben Franklin Gates, a treasure hunter, has spent his entire life as his forebears before
him, searching for the lost treasure of America, hidden by the American Founding Fathers,
16 Stephen Greenblatt, Marvelous possessions: the wonder of the New World (Oxford;
Clarendon, 1991: p.22).
principally Ben Franklin, Gates’s namesake. Franklin has hidden the treasure which can only
be found through a profound understanding of American history and culture, knowledge
which only Ben Gates possesses.
In such imperialist tales although artefacts constitute the central driving force of the
plot17, the real treasure in all three films, is knowledge, knowledge of America’s ‘real’ past
and how it can help the present. This is not institutional knowledge as the frontier hero acts
outside of institution, in this case academia. Both heroes are distrusted by academia and they,
in turn are sceptical about the knowledge achieved in institutional contexts. Both achieve
more valuable knowledge by going outside academia. To an inquiry from a student in the
university library, Indy, for instance barks, ‘get out of the library and into the field’. This is
where archaeological knowledge is collected and analysed. Paradoxically however, he
advises his son to pursue his education. Ben Gates, too, is mistrusted by academics. He is
regarded, like Indy, as a maverick, yet his knowledge and access to American historical
artefacts is nonpareil. Where Abigail Chase collects memorabilia for academic purposes
such as George Washington’s campaign badges, she is shown as an amateur compared with
Ben who can access secret knowledge to gain access to items previously thought lost.
However, once these artefacts are recovered, Indy and Ben aim to protect and bestow
them to the community at large. Ben aims to protect the national treasure from falling into the
hands of those who would plunder and use it for selfish purposes. In the second National
Treasure, Ben aims to clear his ancestor’s name as a patriot. In both films he is forced to
take action which is superficially treasonable; stealing the Declaration of Independence and
kidnapping the president. In both cases these actions are rationalised; Ben calls himself a
17 Alex Worley, Empires of the Imagination: a Critical Survey of Fantasy Cinema from
Georges Méliès to The Lord of the Rings. (Jefferson, North Carolina and London: McFarland
and Company Inc., 2004).
‘treasure protector’ rather than hunter. He links his actions with those of the founding fathers
whom, he claims, proposed that it was the duty of the stronger to act for the greater good. So
he too acts for the greater good by stealing the Declaration of Independence arguing that if he
did not, Howe would destroy it. Indy too is forced to commit treason when he helps the
communists find a legendary crystal skull. Indy’s aims in wishing to discover the location of
El Dorado are to save his colleague, Oxley, taken prisoner by the communists. Both Indy and
Ben, therefore, are true to the core values of America and the American hero who will protect
friends and family against evil, even when friends and family prove unworthy.
Very quickly in all three films the protagonists learn they cannot trust those they had
assumed were their allies. Indy is betrayed by Mac with whom he has fought against the
Nazis in WW2. He comes under the scrutiny of the FBI because he is suspected of working
with the communists. In this Cold War paranoia, nobody is safe from mistrust, Indy, who
earned medals for patriotism, loses his job. In National Treasure, Ben is betrayed by another
British close ally, Ian Howe (it is pushing the analysis too far to suggest that the betrayers,
both Brits who supposedly share a special relationship with America, is a political metaphor.
I would suggest that the choice of British others goes back to a mixture of British actors as
good villains and also in National Treasure, the revolutionary theme of the film.)
The protagonists understanding of history and knowledge of America is juxtaposed
with the lack of knowledge of American history and the despoliation of the landscape by the
antagonists, who tend to be outsiders, British, Russians. In National Treasure, Ian Howe
achieves his goals by stealing other people’s ideas and brute force. In Indiana Jones and the
Kingdom of the Crystal Skulls Irina Spalko also uses violence and threats to achieve her ends.
The Russian soldiers show a flagrant disregard for the landscape, cutting into the rainforests
with heavy machinery. The map is an important weapon in the search for knowledge. Maps
drive the narrative in National Treasure they cover the walls of the National Archive. In
Kingdom of the Crystal Skull Indy is lead by the directions of Oxley who draws a map18.
Like the hero, maps negotiate the borders of the known and tabula rasa. Through a series of
imaginary lines they delineate boundaries between the real and the unreal, between
civilization and chaos. Maps confer ownership of the land and as such are symbolic.
Indeed, the land is a source of treasure as in both Kingdom of the Crystal Skulls and National
Treasure 1 and 2, the treasure is stored in the body of the land; underground, behind a
waterfall, hidden inside Mt Rushmore and thus is part of the history and fabric of America.
As Indy and Ben Gates are also aligned with America through their reverence for America,
its heritage, its values, and by dint of their names, they are regarded as the saviours of
American values in uncertain times. As his sidekick, Riley Poole declares when Ben finds
the treasure, ‘You did it Ben, for all of us.’
As I discussed earlier America is an imagined nation, constructed out of fabulation.
In the films America is shown as constructed by wise or supernatural beings, pan dimensional
aliens from the remote past who have the power to bestow untold knowledge on people, wise
founding fathers who construct intricate puzzles and riddles to safeguard America’s heritage
for its inhabitants. Only those who are worthy can access this knowledge either through their
love of America and its past or through their humility and care of their friends. Indy and Ben
constitute archetypal American frontier heroes existing in uncertain times where friends who
might have been regarded as absolutely loyal cannot be trusted. In conclusion, as Hayden
White proposes, in times of social and cultural unrest, cultural identities are reaffirmed
through the ‘dialectic antitheses of civilization – i.e. ‘home’. (Hayden White, Tropics of
18 However, unlike western maps based on measurement and the arbitrary designation of land
boundaries according to ownership, this is a map based upon landscape features and similar
to those of Australian indigenes. The differences between maps and the mapping process
will be analysed in more depth in the development of this paper.
Discourse) Home, however, is a land of fabulation, bearing layers of sedimented
representations19. It is imagined through European constructions of the sixteenth century,
Cities of Gold, crystal skulled aliens, cunningly designed Da Vinci Code plots. It is the job
of the frontier hero to venture into the unknown past, rediscover and unravel the truth of these
ancient fantasies. Where Indy makes the unknown known, Ben makes the known strange.
Both heroes act as flaneurs, tourists striding through history. Ben acts as a tourist guide
teaching us about America but reinventing the story of America through its most iconic
artefacts. This is a past we do not recognise but is a reassuring past – he, and by extension,
his namesake Ben Franklin and the Knights Templar, act as guardians of America’s past and
present. The destruction of Irina Spalko through her greed for knowledge (she says at one
point she knows everything before everybody else) reassures us that good can triumph over
evil. The audiences are encouraged to adopt the ideological values and position of the
protagonist. The American past can save us and reassures us, in a post 9/11 world, that all is
19 Frederic Jameson, The Political Unconscious: narrative as a socially symbolic act.
(London : Metheun, 1981).