Raiders of the Lost Ark
The “Imperial Film,” is the global spread of white supremacy through the intrusive lenses of filmmakers from imperial countries, namely, Britain, the U.S., Germany and France, as they invade “foreign” lands within fictional or nonfictional narratives. Imperial Films usually focus on the process of expanding science, and involve white characters from imperial countries traveling and exploring, usually to the perceived “enlightenment” of the native peoples they encounter. “Such exhibitions gave utopian form to White supremacist ideology,” writes Ella Shohat and Robert Stam in The Imperial Imaginary. “Legitimizing racial hierarchies abroad and muting class and gender divisions among Whites at home by stressing national agency in global project of domination.”
“Domination” describes almost every white characters’ intention and action throughout Raiders of the Lost Ark, Steven Speilberg’s 1981 picture about scholar-anthropologist and continent-hopping adventurer, Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford). From the film’s first shot in which Indiana, a white man in a South American jungle, leads the natives through the lush forest – rather than the other way around – Raiders sets a tone in which white men are the dominant figures, and everyone else plays second fiddle, sometimes into startling subservience.
Take for example the action sequence in Cairo in which Indiana literally murders numerous Egyptians, and walks away without a single consequence. The sequence starts off with a monkey and his spy owner offering “sieg heil” salutes to a German commander. Apparently, the Germans are so fully entrenched in the Middle-Eastern city, even the local pets have converted to Fascism. The imperialist Germans send their Middle-Eastern henchman out to kill Indiana and his female companion, Marion (Karen Allen), and what ensues is a mad dash through the cityscape that includes a great deal of violence in which Indiana sends bullets through three locals. During the sequence, Marion is kidnapped and screams, “You can’t do this to me! I’m an American!” A more perfectly delivered imperialistic line you’d be hard-pressed to find.
Further along in the sequence, Indiana is overcome by local beggars imploring his charity, and he grabs a handful of coins and tosses them, causing the beggars to drop to their knees, fighting over the pocket change, while Indiana turns to murder two henchmen and explode a truck. The next scene depicts Indiana drunk in a pub with the Nazi monkey draped over his shoulder. No one seemed to care that he killed a bunch of people and blew up the marketplace minutes earlier. Of course, this anomaly is explained away by Indy as he stands surrounded by Egyptian onlookers and exclaims, “These Arabs don’t care if we kill each other, they’re not gonna interfere in our business.”
Indeed, the Middle-Eastern men (there’s a not-so-surprising lack of women represented in Cairo), seem to be nothing but props for Spielberg to manipulate throughout the film. At Beloq’s (Paul Freeman) dig site, they are treated as slave labor to serve the German mission. When Indy invades the site and figures out where the Ark is actually buried, he doesn’t do the digging. Instead, we see a majestic shot of Ford’s regal silhouette draped in magic-hour sunlight as he places his iconic hat atop his head. At his feet, the locals dig and sing in unison, conjuring images of slave-labor prison chain gangs.
Spielberg attempts to show the Ark as the Middle Easterner’s prized possession when the Nazis load it onto a truck and the locals protest, only to be once again dominated by the Germans, who fire their weapons in the air, sending the natives to their knees. The adventure eventually leaves the dig site, but not before Indiana can steal and make off with a horse – once again, to no consequence.
From there, the action moves to the high seas, where we are again reminded of German dominance when an officer tells the pirate captain, a black man, “Savage, you’re not in the position to ask for anything. We will take what we wish, and then decide whether or not to blow your ship from the water.” The white man controls the black man’s destiny.
One final point of consideration in Raiders is how the film treats Marion in terms of gender representation. Throughout the film, she is passed from male character to male character as a possession. Her destiny is not in her control, despite the courageous characteristics Spielberg attempts to provide in her. Instead, her bar is burned, she is kidnapped, held hostage, made to change into a dress to please her captor, rescued, kidnapped again, and finally, saved on the stake, as Indiana tells her to close her eyes as the Ark wreaks its supernatural havoc. Although Spielberg attempts to define her as a brave, she is ultimately defined by the men around her.
Another example of an Imperial Film is Martin Scorsese’s Silence, which tells the tale of two Portuguese Jesuit priests – played by white men, Adam Driver and Andrew Garfield – as they travel to 17thCentury Japan to locate their mentor and convert the Japanese locals to Catholicism. Although it is a film in which the white characters are degraded by the native population, the film is spoken through the eyes of the Anglo invader, and through its tone, preaches the virtues of Western religion, depicting the Japanese as savage and brutal in their atheism. Although the Imperial interlopers suffer, and ultimately die, the perspective and message of the film is decidedly pro-Catholic, as the missionaries manage to spread their message to a small group of Japanese Christians, who presumably spread the religion further going forward.