“Nazis. I hate these guys.”
Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) famously says these lines in 1989’s “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.” Nazis were easily able to stand in as the 1940s epitome of evil that works within the time period of earlier Indiana Jones films, “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and “Last Crusade.” Whenever the franchise veers away from having Nazis as the bad guys it starts to stumble, as it does with the racist undertones of the indigenous peoples in “Temple of Doom” or the goofy Russians of “Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.”
The genesis of Indiana Jones came out of movie serials of the ’30s and ’40s. George Lucas came up with the character and persuaded his friend Steven Spielberg (who wanted to do a James Bond movie) that this was a better character. Spielberg warmed to the idea of “James Bond without the hardware,” and since the film was rooted in the ’30s and ’40s, it allowed Jones to take on the real villains of that era, the Nazis, who were depicted as antagonists in Hollywood films starting with 1939’s “Confessions of a Nazi Spy.”
Nazis have always been effective antagonists for Indiana Jones simply because of the time period. “Raiders of the Lost Ark” takes place in 1936, which wisely places Indiana ahead of the curve in thwarting the Third Reich’s plans even though World War II had not yet begun.
The war still hasn’t begun in 1938 when “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” happens, but again, these dates allow Indiana Jones to be an enemy of the Nazis while not forcing the audience to ask why Indiana hasn’t joined the American war effort. It should also be noted that in these two movies, the Nazis find willing accomplices in French archeologist Dr. René Emile Belloq (Paul Freeman) and American businessman Walter Donovan (Julian Glover), and it’s not Indiana Jones who “beats” them but their own rashness and greed.
But Nazis have never been closer to America than they are in Dr. Jones’s latest outing, “Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny,” which arrives in US theaters on June 30.
In this new film, director James Mangold (the child of Jewish artists) starts from an uneasy place where Nazi scientist Dr. Voller (Mads Mikkelsen) is ascendant (after working for NASA, he has his own CIA agent backing him and an invite to the White House from the president) and noted Nazi-puncher Jones is down in the dumps. The film, a reflection of our current era — where white supremacy and antisemitism are now virulent strains in American politics — asks, “How did we get here? Didn’t we beat these guys?”
The year is 1969, and a tired and weary Dr. Jones is coming up on his retirement. He’s had his adventures but doesn’t seem to have much to show for it other than a tiny apartment and a world that’s looking to land on the moon rather than searching for treasures here on Earth.
But who helped get us to the moon? The film invents one of those Nazi scientists with Dr. Jürgen Voller, a physicist who now has the protection of the US government and seeks out the eponymous Dial of Destiny, which he believes will “correct” Hitler’s mistakes. Not the mistakes of, you know, the Holocaust, World War II, and so on. Rather, Dr. Voller believes that Hitler had some good ideas, but they need Voller’s bright mind to better execute them and ensure the Third Reich doesn’t fail. Like all “Indiana Jones” movies, it’s a bit of a race to the treasure with Indy both enchanted by and wary of its power, but certain that it must not fall into the wrong hands.
What sets “Dial of Destiny” apart is how it shows Nazis as part of America. Voller’s henchmen are coded as violent white supremacists, perhaps not Nazis in the literal sense of having served in Hitler’s army, but likely KKK or some other form of American bigotry. The Indiana Jones series has had some memorable villains (it’s hard to forget a guy who rips people’s hearts out of their chests) but “Dial of Destiny” has one of its most memorable villain moments when Voller asks a Black waiter where his people came from. The waiter politely responds that his family is from the Bronx, but Voller, cruelly and knowingly, asks where they came from before that. It’s a line of questioning that’s become far too familiar among the anti-immigrant surges across nations: “We are the land’s true inhabitants, and you don’t belong here.”
Of course, this racism is rooted in an imagined past of former glory, and this longing for the past puts Voller and Jones on parallel thematic trajectories. The film’s opening prologue, which is set during the end of WWII and utilizes a digitally de-aged Ford (an effect that isn’t entirely convincing, which often seems to be the case when youth-enizing our stars these days), puts us into the perspective of an Indiana Jones movie we never got and the rock-em, sock-em adventuring we used to see. Is it any wonder that Jones feels like a man out of time 25 years later? Just as “Raiders” had the villain Belloq telling Indy that they were all moving through history and that the Ark of the Covenant was history, both Voller and Indy harbor a desire to move backward through time to a world they could better understand.
Into all of this, you get Indiana Jones’s goddaughter, Helena Shaw (Phoebe Waller-Bridge), who feels like she’s coming out of a different movie (specifically, “Temple of Doom” with her “fortune and glory” attitude and a young sidekick played by Ethann Isidore in tow).
Once Shaw enters the picture, you almost wish the movie belonged entirely to her. That’s part of the conflict of Indy being a franchise hero — there’s only one Indiana Jones (unlike James Bond), and while his adventures show him to be strongest when he’s with friends and family, he also doesn’t necessarily bequeath anything. For a man looking at an uncertain future, we shouldn’t be surprised that an archeologist longs for the past.
As he always does, Indy learns that the real treasure isn’t an object, but wisdom. While director Steven Spielberg has stepped back to serve only as a producer on “Dial of Destiny,” you can feel his oversight and respect for the character so that even in 1969, an older Indiana Jones still has room to grow and see that the future can hold as much beauty as the past. The fascism of Dr. Voller and his ilk can only retreat further into the past where they see themselves as the sole true heirs of history and humanity. Now that they’ve crossed the Atlantic and sought to ruin America, it feels great to see Indy still socking them on the jaw.
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