As the new Indiana Jones film hits our cinema screens, Giles Gough unpacks the Christian iconography used in the film franchise. It’s a great way to start a conversation about Jesus, he says

Indiana Jones

Source: Lucasfilm

Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny was released last week to a collective sigh of relief from fans. While critical opinions were mixed, it debuted at the top of the UK box office on it’s opening weekend, and virtually no-one was arguing that it was the worst instalment in the franchise, at least.

Since Indiana Jones first appeared on our screens in 1981, the films have captured the imagination of moviegoers. Inspired by the serialised matinees of their childhoods, film directors Steven Spielberg and George Lucas created Indy, part bow-tied archaeology professor, part whip-cracking treasure hunter, to be the star of an action adventure that was “a James Bond film without the hardware,” said Spielberg.

The latest film is the fifth in the franchise, but perhaps the most beloved by fans are the first, Raiders of the Lost Ark and the third, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Both movies make memorable use of Judeo-Christian religious iconography in their story lines, featuring relics that are either in, or somehow related to, objects in the Bible.

Both the Ark of the Covenant and the Holy Grail are used in the Indy films as plot devices, referred to in cinema as a ‘macguffin’. The term, coined by Alfred Hitchcock, describes something that the characters care deeply about, but which the audience may not; a device used to propel the narrative and carry the story.

The Ark of the Covenant

Early on in Raiders of the Lost Ark there’s a line about how, when the Israelites carried the Ark of the Covenant, they were “never defeated”. This, in one quick line, explains to the audience why the Nazis want it so badly – they see it as their guarantee of victory in war. But with just the slightest biblical understanding, this reasoning falls apart.

In the Old Testament, the Israelites were only undefeated when they had God on their side; the presence of the ark became almost irrelevant. 1 Samuel 4:1-11 chronicles how, even with the Ark of the Covenant, the Israelites were beaten by the Philistines. These fictional Nazis really need to do more thorough research!

Viewers of the first film will remember the climax, when Indy and his love interest, Marion, are captured. The Nazis open the Ark of the Covenant to be confronted by some kind of spirits - perhaps demons, perhaps avenging angels; the audience is never told. Either way, the Nazis are destroyed in a memorable face-melting scene that will no doubt have scarred a few childhood viewers. Indy and Marion are saved by simply closing their eyes.

There is, of course, no scriptural basis for such a depiction. The closest thing we might find is in Exodus 33:20 when God says to Moses: “You cannot see my face, for man shall not see me and live.” No-one explicitly states that your face will start to melt off, but it is a great bit of creative license. Similarly, when Indy and Marion close their eyes, we see some similarities with the story of Lot’s wife in Genesis 19:26. When God is destroying Sodom and Gomorrah, Lot and his wife are fleeing the city; Lot’s wife looks back and is turned into a pillar of salt. Lot keeps his eyes from the disaster and is saved. It’s not quite the same, but with a healthy smattering of movie logic, it just about works.

The Holy Grail

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade sees the Holy Grail presented as the macguffin - an object which may appear to have religious connotations, but never really appears in the Bible. The earliest reference to a ’grail’ pops up in the 12th century writings of Chretien Du Troyes, a poet who became famous for penning Arthurian romances, charting the unsuccessful quest for the Holy Grail by King Arthur’s knights which, eventually, contributed to the decline of his kingdom. 

Chretien never fully explains what the ‘grail’ is, which is a gift to later writers like Sir Thomas Malory, who, in the 15th century, presents it as the cup Jesus drank out of at the last supper, later used to catch some of his blood as he hangs on the cross. More recently, it appeared in Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code.

The Holy Grail is perhaps one of the most enduring bits of Christian fan fiction. The Last Crusade may help to perpetuate the grail myth for a few more centuries.

So what does it mean?

The Ark of the Covenant and the Holy Grail may just be plot devices but it is clear that, in the world of the Indy films at least, they do have real, tangible power. The Ark of the Covenant can melt people’s faces. The Holy Grail has the capacity to heal the dying. Both objects have a supernatural power, and both are explicitly linked to the Jehovah of the Old Testament and the Christ of the New Testament. Whether the audience believe in God’s supernatural power or not, the internal world of the films certainly do.

The Indiana Jones films have the kind of lasting legacy that most film franchises can only dream of. They also contain rare examples of a mainstream story that directly points to the power and authority of God. For anyone hoping to start a conversation about Jesus with their non-believing, Indy-loving friends, they provide a brilliant starting point.