Film Analysis: Indiana Jones, or the Redemption of a Jack Morm*n

“It’s time to ask yourself–what do you believe in?”

Did you know that Indiana Jones, the quintessential embodiment of 20th century masculinity and one of the most recognizable characters in cinematic history, is also a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints? It’s true. And while this fact has long been overlooked by film scholars and YouTube critics, to not understand Indy’s spiritual foundation is to miss the most important themes of his movies.

The Indiana Jones trilogy is clearly the story of a lapsed Latter-day Saint (what we might refer to as a “Jack Mormon”) grappling with his lost faith and finally reconciling with God through the Atonement of Jesus Christ. For those who may have missed this, the following are some of the details that reinforce this thesis:

Point 1: We are introduced to Indiana Jones in the opening shots of Raiders of the Lost Ark as a man wandering through a Mesoamerican jungle amid the ruins of some lost Aztec or Mayan civilization.

These ruins evoke a Book of Mormon setting. Apart from the adventurer’s search for archaeological treasure, the scene is an allegory for modern man’s search for religious truth–specifically, the truth about the Book of Mormon. As the explorer wanders among the ruins and decay of the destroyed civilization, he asks himself: were there really Nephites and Lamanites? Is the Book of Mormon scripture, or is it all just a made-up fantasy? One must travel into the depths of the jungle of the soul to find out. The ruins abound in deadly pitfalls and traps and are not easy to navigate. Only the most cautious and prepared heart will emerge victoriously.

Although not explicitly touched on, a young Indy would have been captivated by the story of Mormon’s book. The tale of the prophet Joseph Smith, golden plates inscribed in ancient tongues, long-forgotten tribes and destroyed civilizations in faraway lands–for all we know, it was the Book of Mormon that got Indiana interested in archaeology in the first place.

Point 2: The Last Crusade opens with a young Indiana Jones in Utah in the year 1912. Utah was founded by members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and in 1912 church members made up the vast majority of the state’s population. This was especially true of rural Utah depicted in the opening scene.

Point 3: Young Indy is also shown to be a Boy Scout. The Boy Scouts of America is an organization with very deep ties to Church history and culture. Until very recently, most Latter-day Saint boys raised in the church joined the Boy Scout program at age twelve, usually after several years of Cub Scout training started at age eight.

Point 4: Indiana Jones is the son of a man who appears to be a Scottish immigrant (or, perhaps, the son of one). Thousands of Scottish immigrants arrived in Utah in the mid-to-late 1800s. These immigrants heard about the Book of Mormon from missionaries preaching in the British Isles. Once baptized, they set out to cross the Atlantic to settle in Utah where they could practice their religion in peace.

Henry Jones Sr., featured in Last Crusade, is painted as a believing Christian man on a life-long quest for religious truth. Considering the character’s age, one could safely assume he was the son of one of those pioneers from Scotland who settled in Utah. Alternately, he may have simply heard of the Church of Jesus Christ as a young man in the United Kingdom and desired to live in Zion.

Something must have happened that caused the senior Jones to become a less active member. The film suggests he went inactive after the death of Indy’s mother, who passed away when Indy was still a young man. Henry’s lack of church activity does not damper his religious convictions, though, as evident in a moment in The Last Crusade when he slaps his son for speaking the Lord’s name in vain.

Point 5: Despite his father’s inactivity, Indiana Jones obviously remembers the church lessons of his youth. In one of the opening scenes in Raiders, Professor Jones teaches the government agents about the Ark of the Covenant from the Old Testament. He acts abashed when the men appear to have no idea what he is talking about, perhaps forgetting that most modern people don’t receive much religious instruction. “Didn’t you ever go to Sunday School?” Indy asks.

Any boy who grew up a Latter-day Saint in turn-of-the-century Utah would have been taught all about the Bible, spending many hours in the minutiae of the Old Testament. The Ark of the Covenant was probably one of the most exciting and enticing pieces of Biblical lore to Indy, and likely stood out to him.

However, like many lapsed members (or lapsed Christians in general), Indy struggles to reconcile his skepticism and his childhood’s faith. He appears to have a desire to believe in something, but, for whatever reason, has a hard time getting there. When viewed in this light, the trilogy as a whole becomes a Latter-day Saint pilgrimage.

The first film, Raiders of the Lost Ark, is where Indiana Jones first encounters the reality of God the Father or the power of the divine. He learns from first-hand experience that the world is more than just the materialist, dead-rocks-and-lost-artifacts he teaches about as a professor: the sublime force of the Ark shows him there is a higher power in the universe.

The Temple of Doom, with its demonic sacrifice, child slavery, and all manner of human suffering, acquaints Indiana Jones with the reality of evil. He starts the film a cynic, shrugging off stories of cults and secret combinations as primitive superstitions. By the end of his journey, however, he has come face to face with the devil. His experiences fighting the battalions of darkness teach him that morality is not merely a social construct; no one who’d seen what he had just seen could think so. The powers of good and evil are the real thing.

Finally, in The Last Crusade Indiana Jones learns that only through the atonement of Jesus Christ can all wounds, physical and emotional, by healed.

After Indy’s spiritual awakening in the first two films, he must confront his father in the final chapter. Indiana desires the Holy Grail (the symbol of Christ) and the promised riches that come with it (eternal life). The film starts with a young Indy grasping for a different symbol of Christ, Coronado’s Cross, and ultimately losing it. Interestingly, the cross is an emblem of Christ’s death–a symbol not often used in the restored Church. “It belongs in a museum!” Indy repeatedly exclaims, asserting his testimony in the restoration.

In his later years, Indy undertakes a quest to rediscover the Lord. But after attempting (and failing) to reach the grail on his own, he accepts the fact that he cannot acquire it without further light and knowledge. This knowledge must come from a higher source: his father.

Initially, there is friction between Indiana and his dad, as Indy is not used to following anyone else’s instructions. In time, however, he tentatively accepts his father’s wisdom (a resigned “I will go and do”). The scenes of Indy returning to the dark city in disguise to acquire his father’s book of sacred knowledge are evocative of Nephi’s journey into Jerusalem; instead of Laban, Indy faces Hitler. With the “scriptures” in hand, Indy escapes and can finally make contact with the divine.

At the climax of the film, Indiana confronts two final tests within the ancient temple: the booby traps guarding the grail, and the imminent death of his father. The traps, which represent the trials of earthly life, are indeed terrifying. But they can be successfully dealt with because Indy has access to his father’s book (i.e. the scriptures, light and knowledge, revelation). Equally terrifying is his father’s impending doom, which echoes every man’s knowledge of mortality and inescapable death.

Using the book as his guide, Indiana retrieves the grail. His father is miraculously restored to life by the sacramental water drunk from Christ’s humble cup. A chasm opens up at Indiana’s feet, illustrating the divide between himself and God. But his father is now there, alive and offering a saving hand to lift him up. “Indiana–let it go,” his father urges him, as he lets the grail fall into the darkness. Indy’s testimony is rekindled, and he accepts that faith in God doesn’t require holding on to material objects as proof. As he is lifted up, he embraces his father and knows for a surety that He lives.

In the end, it is not a coincidence that these climatic scenes take place within an ancient temple. Father and son emerge from the desert tabernacle changed. Indiana Jones, who started the trilogy lost in a jungle of doubt, is now alive and reconciled, his testimony changed to a sure knowledge. He leaves the temple sealed to his father in unity, and they ride off into a Celestial sunset.

Supplemental Reading:

You can follow Giordano Lives on Twitter at @giordano_lives.

Leave a Reply