Hello friends. It’s Justin again. Today, I want to talk about something else.
Who are the villains in the Indiana Jones movies?
Most people would probably reflexively answer—and I would too, if you sprang the question on me—“the Nazis.” This is sort of funny because now, fully half of the Indiana Jones movies don’t have Nazis at all. (And if Spielberg carries through with his threat to make a fifth one, there will presumably be more entries without Nazis than with.)
But of course, when we say, “I am a fan of the Indiana Jones movies,” what we usually really mean is that we love Raiders of the Lost Ark and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, and we are very fond of the bits of Temple of Doom that are not actively irritating or offensive, and you take the aspects of Kingdom of the Crystal Skull that you are feeling charitably about at the moment and sprinkle those on top.
So the two movies most of us agree are the solid “good ones”—Raiders and Last Crusade—both notably have Indiana Jones fighting the Nazis. There are the many German soldiers that serve as generic cannon fodder in fights and chases, and both movies have a lead Nazi officer who is nominally in charge of things but is really just there to look imposing in the uniform and armband. (Do you remember those characters’ names? I don’t.) Raiders also has Toht the Gestapo agent, who is the film’s sinister lead henchman in the manner of Jaws or Oddjob from the world of 007.
But none of these characters are what I would call the proper “villain” of the movies—the primary antagonist, the top-billed enemy, the “main bad guy.” Not necessarily the bad guy Indy fights, but the bad guy Indy talks to. The one you want to see get it in the end. In Raiders, the primary antagonist is Indy’s old rival, René Belloq, the French archaeologist who is helping the Nazis recover the Ark of the Covenant. In Last Crusade, this role is filled by Walter Donovan, the American businessman and philanthropist who is secretly working with the Nazis to recover the Holy Grail.
To put it another way, the primary antagonists in the Indiana Jones movies are not Nazis, but Nazi collaborators.
This is a distinction, notably, that both characters insist on themselves. Indy asks Belloq when he plans to hand over the Ark to “your boss, der Fuhrer,” and Belloq says, in a somewhat dismissive tone:
“All in good time. When I’m finished with it.”
He sets himself apart here, you see. The Nazis want the Ark because they think it will make their army invincible. But Belloq has his own individual motivation—he wants his “radio for speaking to God” —and when he’s gotten what he wants out of it, he is quite happy to hand over whatever remains to the Nazis. When talking to the officers, he refers to Hitler as “your Fuhrer,” not “my” or “our” Fuhrer. He sets himself apart; in his mind, he is not one of them.
Donovan makes this point at even greater length. As before, Indy accuses his enemy of being a Nazi—a “stooge,” at that—to which Donovan replies:
“The Nazis? Is that the limit of your vision? The Nazis want to write themselves into the Grail legend—take on the world. Well, they’re welcome. But I want the Grail itself, the cup that gives everlasting life. Hitler can have the world, but he can’t take it with him. I’m going to be drinking my own health after he’s gone the way of the dodo.”
Like Belloq, Hitler and the Nazis are merely a means to an end for Donovan. He does not seem to think very highly of them; in the long term, they will be gone and he will endure. For now, they are merely the ones with the resources he needs and the power he needs, and he will use them to achieve his own objective. The rest of the world, by his own admission, is just collateral damage. Donovan seems a bit more ruthless than the occasionally squeamish Belloq, but at their core, they have the same belief that they can work with the Nazis without becoming Nazis themselves. I do wonder if this was an intentional choice on Spielberg’s and Lucas’ part—the idea that there is evil in the world, but that allowing said evil to work for you while looking the other way is a unique, perhaps even more insidious evil in itself.
But of course, in both cases, this is proven to be a delusion at the end of their respective movies. Belloq may consider himself apart from the Nazis, but he dies standing over the Ark at the head of a trinity with Toht and The Main Nazi Officer Whose Name You Don’t Know. While Toht comes to perhaps the most gruesome end of the three, Belloq’s exploding head is the most brutal; everyone remembers Toht’s melting face, but Belloq is the death they save for last. Perhaps because it is the most satisfying?
Donovan comes to his own special-effects-heavy end, aging into a skeleton and crumbling into dust after drinking from a false grail. But when the dust blows away, it exposes the Nazi insignia that Donovan must have been keeping on his person all this time. In the end, I suppose, the film reveals him for what he truly is and not what he thinks he is.