Is it true that Indiana Jones is an example of a cinematic character that has no character arc?
When we talk about character arcs, we’re referring to the transformation or inner-emotional journey that a character goes through throughout the story. The character is one type of person at the beginning of the story and eventually evolves into a different kind of person as a result of the conflict that they have been dealing with throughout the plot.
The loser turns into a winner.
The weak turn into the strong.
The reluctant turn into men or women of action.
The unloved or unloving finds love.
The arrogant or ignorant are humbled or awakened.
The skeptic becomes a believer.
However, some movies are not written to teach their protagonists lessons in life. Some movies aren’t meant to have their characters change for the better or the worse.
There are plenty of fantastic and entertaining cinematic tales that focus on bringing a particular arc-less protagonist through ordeals of conflict for the mere purpose of seeing how that type of character fails or prevails by the end — The Wolf of Wall Street, The Big Lebowski, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, and No Country for Old Men are a few possible examples (although arguments could be made) of films that have protagonists with no character arcs. They don’t transform or go on an inner-emotional journey that changes them.
They simply react to the conflict, struggle their way through it, or the intriguing aspect of the story is watching how their type of character deals with whatever conflict is thrown at them.
And usually at the top of the No Character Arc list is one of the greatest cinematic heroes — Indiana Jones. Many pundits are adamant that Jones has no arc. He doesn’t change throughout the course of a movie. He doesn’t learn anything, and he certainly doesn’t apply that gained knowledge and experience to prevail at the end. He’s just Indiana Jones on another adventure — and it’s thrilling to watch.
Here we’re going to briefly dive into the character of Indiana Jones and find some arc to debunk the naysayers.
And hopefully you, the screenwriter, can use this as a lesson to find ways — big or small — to inject at least some character arc into your stories that, on the surface, may not require any. For the better stories are the ones that have as much character depth as possible — even those that may not require it to create an otherwise entertaining film.
“I Hate Snakes, Jock. I Hate ‘Em!”
If we didn’t have anything else to write about, this character arc could be perceived as a stretch. But if so many are going to say that Indiana Jones has a flat archetype with no character arc, then we have to point out even the thinnest example.
At the beginning of Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indy has escaped a war group of natives as he climbs into his pilot Jock’s airplane. He’s horrified to find Jock’s pet snake in his lap.
“There’s a big snake in the plane, Jock!”
“Oh, that’s just my pet snake Reggie.”
“I hate snakes, Jock. I hate ’em!”
“Oh come on, show a little backbone.”
While this is clearly some subtle foreshadowing to the crypt we’ll be talking about; it also sets up a slight character arc.
Later on in the story, Indy, Sallah, and the diggers open the entrance of the crypt that holds the Ark of the Covenant.
Sallah notices something about the floor.
“Indy, why does the floor move?”
Indy looks down and throws a torch to the bottom, illuminating an endless floor of deadly snakes. Terrified, Indy rolls away from the entrance to his back.
“Snakes. Why did it have to be snakes.”
Despite everything he’s been through, he still has no “backbone” when it comes to facing snakes.
However, he faces them once Sallah and Indy go down into the crypt.
After they send the Ark back up, Sallah climbs the rope out of the crypt, leaving Indy alone with hundreds of snakes still slithering. But then there’s a twist. Belloq and his Nazi friends toss the rope down and eventually send Marion down into the crypt as well.
They seal the entrance, entrapping Indy and Marion for what they believe will be an eternity.
So while Indy did survive the threat of his greatest fear successfully, he now has to protect Marion from the snakes while finding a way out of the crypt — all while their fire is fading and the snakes are closing in on them.
Despite this adversity, Indy prevails. In fact, he takes on the snakes fearlessly and finds a way out.
By definition, this is a character arc. Indy has transformed from a person that previously had a fear of snakes, and into a person that could face that fear head-on. He still may very well fear them, but he has grown a little backbone when it comes to dealing with them.
Learn the best way to structure your screenplay with this free guide.
From Skeptic to Believer
In Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indy is approached at the university by two Army Intelligence agents. Long story short, they want to offer Indy the job of going to find the Ark of the Covenant before the Nazis do.
While a lot of biblical supernatural myth is talked about, Indy isn’t a believer. He’s a skeptic. It’s present in his discussions with the Army Intelligence agents as he explains what Abner Ravenwood and the Nazi foes are after.
“Yes, the actual Ten Commandments. The original stone tablets that Moses brought down out of Mount Horeb and smashed… if you believe in that sort of thing.”
As Marcus discusses the supernatural power of the Ark, Indy paces in thought and excitement, dismissing the talk of the “hocus pocus” and, instead, focused on the thrill of being able to find the Ark of the Covenant — what would be a historically significant archeological find.
Later on in the film, Indy even dismisses the hesitation of Marcus and, then, Sallah, as they both warn Indy that the Ark might be too dangerous to find.
Indy is on the hunt for an archeological find — another historical artifact. He has no interest in the biblical warnings or threats of any supernatural power falling into the wrong hands. He wants to get the Ark.
However, when he and Marion are tied to a post behind the Nazi soldiers watching the opening of the Ark during a ceremony led by Belloq, Indy chooses to believe in the Ark’s power. He sees that something is happening and tells Marion to close her eyes, no matter what.
The power of the Ark is unleashed, and Indy quickly learns that the supernatural forces centered in and around the Ark are real.
This transforms him from a skeptic to a believer.
Fortune and Glory
In Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, we see an earlier version of Indiana Jones, as this film is a prequel to the events of Raiders of the Lost Ark.
Indy is a treasure hunter. He seems more interested in fortune and glory than the actual artifacts themselves. He’s materialistic as well. The film opens with him trying to exchange a Chinese artifact for a diamond.
Much like in Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indy is a skeptic. He doesn’t believe that the bad luck the village has had since the stones were stolen has anything to do with supernatural forces. To him, he doesn’t care. He tells his sidekick Short Round that the stones represent nothing more than fortune and glory.
But by the end of the story, when Indy has recovered them, he gives them back to the village. He doesn’t keep them and cash them in for that fortune and glory.
That’s a transformation. He’s changed internally due to the events that he and those villagers have been through. He frees the children and returns them and the stones to the village for something more representative of inner-emotional fortune and glory.
Note: The events of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom actually refute Indy’s From Skeptic to Believer arc somewhat, because, in this prequel, he has clearly experienced real supernatural events. But we’ll let that slide because the prequel’s concept and story were conceived after Raiders of the Lost Ark debuted.
For the Love of Women
In Raiders of the Lost Ark, it’s revealed that Indy and Marion had a previous relationship, years prior. He left her broken-hearted. Their relationship has now come full circle as Indy needs Marion to help find the Ark.
While they initially bicker, they soon begin to show feelings for one another. We see this relationship unfold.
When Marion supposedly dies, we see the heartache that Indy feels as he drinks away his sorrow.
When he finds her alive — a prisoner of Belloq and the Nazis — he showcases love for her.
By the end of the film, they’re off on their way to a new life together, arm in arm.
If we retroactively apply Indy’s relationship with Willie Scott in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, we see that a year prior, he was a womanizer of sorts. While the character of Willie was written as a damsel in distress, Indy never showcased any love towards her, as he did with Marion. There’s an attraction, yes. But he actually treats Willie quite poorly throughout.
So by the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark, we see that he’s found the love of his life. If we account for the much-maligned fourth installment of the franchise (this will be that film’s only mention), Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, we see where the two end up finally — married.
So Indy has transformed from somewhat of a womanizer to a loving and caring significant other.
And in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, he meets another woman during a period where he and Marion have gone their separate ways. However, Indy is courting her as more of a fling. There’s not as strong of a connection. Yet by the end of the film, despite discovering that Ursa is working with the Nazis, Indy shows remorse for her character and struggles to save her life.
He goes from choking her to death in a rage as Nazis burn books in the background to clasping into her hand, begging for her to forget about the Holy Grail and help him pull her up.
The true romantic and emotional arc of Indy and his love interest is most present in Raiders of the Lost Ark. And when teamed with the story of the prequel, that arc is even more present and later comes full circle in the fourth installment.
He goes from a womanizing professor and adventurer to a dedicated husband over the span of four films.
Indy’s Last Crusade
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade title had a double meaning back in 1989. The title referred to the last crusade in search of the Holy Grail and hinted as the last installment of the Indiana Jones franchise.
And it’s this film that gave Indy his most character depth.
We meet him as a young teenager, soon learning where his signature items and fears came from.
We are then introduced to his relationship with his father, who has now gone missing while searching for his ultimate goal in life — finding the Holy Grail.
There wasn’t much love shown between the two in Indy’s youth and when we first see them together. We even watch as Indy turns to his father, hoping for some proud recognition as he defeats the Nazis around them. He doesn’t get it from his father.
It’s not until the zeppelin ride that we see the arc of their relationship changing.
And as Indy comes closer and closer to the Holy Grail, Indy understands his father’s obsession with it. He sees himself in his father’s eyes and actions.
The Indiana Jones Adventures Didn’t Need Character Arc, but…
The mythos of each McGuffin, the adventures, and the thrills would have been more than enough to offer audiences a fun ride in the theaters.
But because the writers gave just enough character depth and arc for the protagonist, we were left with an iconic name that has stood the test of time.
Match these transformations and inner-emotional journeys of Indiana Jones with his emotional connections to other characters, as well as clear human tendencies of failure and vulnerability (physical and emotional), and you have one of the best characters in the history of cinema — complete with depth and arc.
Ken Miyamoto has worked in the film industry for nearly two decades, most notably as a studio liaison for Sony Studios and then as a script reader and story analyst for Sony Pictures.
He has many studio meetings under his belt as a produced screenwriter, meeting with the likes of Sony, Dreamworks, Universal, Disney, Warner Brothers, as well as many production and management companies. He has had a previous development deal with Lionsgate, as well as multiple writing assignments, including the produced miniseries Blackout, starring Anne Heche, Sean Patrick Flanery, Billy Zane, James Brolin, Haylie Duff, Brian Bloom, Eric La Salle, and Bruce Boxleitner. Follow Ken on Twitter @KenMovies