Partisan Cinema: INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL (2008) – Better Dead Than Red!

In a recurring feature called Partisan Cinema, A. J. Black looks at movies from a political slant, gleaning insight from them about how they relate to society then, and indeed now…
Politics and Indiana Jones have always gone hand in hand, despite the series being the epitome of adventure serial derring do extrapolated for a modern blockbuster audience.
Raiders of the Lost Ark and Last Crusade both featured Nazi villains in advance of the Second World War, seeking supernatural arcanum to help win a conflict they had yet to start. In the latter, Harrison Ford’s hero Indy even comes face to face with Adolf Hitler himself, amidst a terrifying Nazi rally in the burning cauldron of 1938 Berlin. While the films avoided any significant political commentary, opting instead for action, spectacle and mystery, the ideological differences between the Allied and Axis worlds were clear. The Nazis were grave robbing parasites determined to pillage history for their own pure blood gain, while Dr. Jones represented a noble America, a land of heroic saviours of antiquity.
“It belongs in a museum!” Indy would bark at corrupt inversions of himself. “So do you!” they would bark back, perhaps presaging his own irrelevance.

Steven Spielberg is not a creative who ignores history, or whitewashes truth. He has given us some of the more pointed political tracts about WW2 and the echoes of that conflict of the last fifty years. His Indiana Jones pictures are nevertheless simpler, designed first and foremost to entertain rather than convey polemic. Temple of Doom, the middle child film between two masterpieces, paints a picture of the British as colonial saviours in pre-partition India, saving poor locals from the murderous Thuggee cult. This is a pleasant fiction and one many audiences can accept, particularly American ones. Yet the most recent film in the series, Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, wears its politics more clearly, befitting perhaps its arrival in a more polarised era, in the shadow of a Great Recession, as opposed to the bombast of blockbuster Reaganite excess the original trilogy embodied in the 1980s.
Here, set toward the end of the ‘50s, Indy is painted as a suspected Communist as, for the first time in the series, the existential threat comes home.

Kingdom of the Crystal Skull has long been, to my mind unfairly, lambasted by critics and indeed fans, perhaps because in part it moved away from the template laid down in previous instalments.

With Ford and Indy both in their mid-sixties, almost twenty years on since Last Crusade, Dr. Jones’ adventures transition from the swashbuckling Captain America-style Nazi-bashing of the pre-war ‘30s into the science-fiction B-movie inspired Cold War era of the ‘50s, an era dominated by the spectre of the atomic bomb and the superpower sabre rattling between the United States and Russia.
Arguably the strongest scene in KOTCS is the opening sequence, whereby Indy is abducted by Russian spies and brought to the top-secret Nevada Air Force base Area 51 to help them track down wreckage from the infamous Roswell incident of 1947, only to escape and end up caught in an atom bomb test site, a fake American town where Indy hides in a lead-lined fridge to prevent being atomised by the cutout visages of the ‘perfect’ American nuclear family. It’s ridiculous but also a pointed reminder of how much America feared nuclear attack in this post-war period.
When Indy is recovered by the US Army, having miraculously survived the blast and indeed any serious radiation exposure from the fallout, he is questioned by the FBI and treated like an enemy within, given how he was forced to aide and abet the Russian officers. It doesn’t matter if Indy served during WW2, was highly decorated and worked for the OSS on top secret missions (can you imagine how amazing a TV series set in this period could be?). He nonetheless could be a ‘Red’.
“Not everyone in the Army’s a Commie and certainly not Indy.” So claims Indy’s wartime friend and high ranking General Ross, countering the suspicion of an FBI fuelled by the paranoia of their powerful leader J. Edgar Hoover and the influence of the Senator Joseph McCarthy HUAC hearings designed to smoke out suspected Communist insiders in American culture and society, a witch-hunt that saw numerous writers and academics blacklisted from working in their positions for many years, even without hard evidence. The FBI issues a warning they end up making good on: “Dr. Jones, let’s just say for now that you are of interest to the Bureau. Of great interest.”

Even despite a HUAC hearing, Indy too ends up blacklisted as the FBI target his profession and his colleagues at Barnett College, associate Dean Charles Stanforth (Jim Broadbent stepping in for a role that almost certainly would have gone to the late Denholm Elliott, had he survived to play it). Charles understands the bigger picture and is forced to resign: “The university isn’t gonna get itself embroiled in that kind of controversy, not in this charged climate.”
Charles is here referring to the spectre of Communist suspicion that remains rampant in American society at this time. “I barely recognize this country anymore. The government’s got us seeing Communists in our soup. When the hysteria reaches academia, I guess it’s time to call it a career.” Charles adds, lamenting how Indy is theoretically being ran out of America to teach in the more tolerant Europe, despite his years of service and professional record. This too seems prescient. Swop out Communists for Socialists or Activists and you could be describing the America of 2020.
Socialism and Communism are, of course, still regularly conflated today, with the latter’s effect in Russia often misunderstood in relation to Marxism across democratic nation states. The Russians make a logical villain for the year 1957, and in KOTCS they replace the Nazis step for step in the earlier pictures. Colonel Dr. Irina Spalko (a pantomime Cate Blanchett) could be Rene Belloq or Walter Donovan. Her aims are the same. She seeks power and secrets. She has no moral issue with working for dictators and mass murderers (she is described by Ross to Indy as “Stalin’s fair haired girl”) and she wears her Russian decorations with honour. “Three times I have received Order of Lenin. Also medal as Hero of Socialist Labor.” There’s that word again.

The difference with Spalko is that whereas Belloq sought the power of God, and Donovan sought immortality, she seeks pure knowledge. Blanchett probably intentionally invokes Greta Garbo as she begs the creature in the climactic moments how “I want to know! I want to know!” with a husky Russian accent. Like her forebear villains, she too is destroyed for her hubris, given the knowledge she seeks before the alien creature—quite malevolently—wipes her from existence before she can utilise it.
What’s interesting about Spalko’s aspiration is how it tracks with the basis of collectivisation at the heart of extreme Communist doctrine. She quotes Oppenheimer’s “I am become death” from the Bhagavad Gita back to Indy, suggesting while America have created the ultimate physical weapon, she believes the knowledge from the skull will bestow the Russians with the power to control minds. Stalin dreamed of a collectivised project of labour through pure Communist doctrine, with the people given the same level of resources, while he corrupted that system to give him exorbitant wealth, power and societal control, starving millions in the process.
This is what Americans were taught to fear. This is why Indy & his son Mutt Williams (Shia LaBeouf), fleeing KGB agents in Barnett College, drive through a counter-demonstration of nuclear disarmament students on the one hand and students with banners declaring ‘Better Dead than Red’ on the other. Spalko seeks the means of control. “Imagine. To peer across the world and know the enemy’s secrets. To place our thoughts into the minds of your leaders. Make your teachers teach the true version of history, your soldiers attack on our command. We’ll be everywhere at once, more powerful than a whisper, invading your dreams, thinking your thoughts for you while you sleep. We will change you, Dr. Jones, all of you, from the inside. We will turn you into us. And the best part? You won’t even know it’s happening.” The ultimate existential American terror encapsulated in what Spalko seeks to find. The erosion and corruption of self from within.

Remember, the very first scene in KOTCS is a car filled with exuberant ’50s American teenagers, careering across the desert to the sounds of Elvis’ ‘Hound Dog’ blaring from the radio, as they race the Russians–pretending to be Americans–for fun.
They are the epitome of youthful American expression and individualism at the beginning of an age of counterculture. We see it again with how Mutt stages a bar fight between his Marlon Brando-style comrades in their leathers and shades, riding their American steeds like they’re all in The Wild One, against the strait-laced college boys in their identical jackets. America breathes individualism. It’s telling that the excited Russian driver gets a shake of the head from his older passenger when promised with the chance to race these cocky, free American kids. But he does it anyway. He feels, in that moment, the pull of precisely what Spalko is here to destroy. Identity.
In the end, what Spalko finds in the lost city of Akator suggests the Russian Communist doctrine, what the creatures imbue. “They are a hive mind. One being physically separate, but with a collective consciousness. More powerful together than they can ever be apart.” One mind. One consciousness. One collectivised power controlled by a central source. The precise opposite of American freedom and liberty, and certainly Adam Smith’s economic doctrine of personal laissez-faire and individualist freedom.
In what is surely a joke by writer David Koepp, Ray Winstone’s swarthy British spiv George McHale suggests his reasons for betraying Indy are thanks to the Russians. “I’m a capitalist. And they pay”. The irony isn’t subtle, nor lost. It speaks to how you could, kindly, suggest Spalko is some kind of extremist renegade, as we never see her receive Russian orders from a superior, but there is no suggestion she isn’t. The Russians are seeking their way to tip the balance of the Cold War, to overcome Mutually Assured Destruction, and they almost manage to harness pseudoscientific psychic warfare—something the Russians and Americans genuinely experimented in during this period—to do it.

In this sense, Kingdom of the Crystal Skull might be the more political of the Indiana Jones films even while operating as the least historical and most secular, eschewing Christian mythology and belief in favour of red scares and the reality of “spacemen from Mars” as Indy wonders. “Inter-dimensional beings in point of fact” contradicts John Hurt’s Dr. Oxley.
Pseudoscience and pseudopolitics, it seems, are not mutually exclusive in the world of Henry Jones. Jr.

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