Can Indiana Jones overcome its Orientalist past?

7 min read
31 March, 2023

Growing up, I didn’t watch the Indiana Jones series. The first one I ever saw was in high school when I saw Kingdom of the Crystal Skull with a friend in the cinema. 

It wasn’t the best movie, but it thankfully did away with the series’ Orientalist tradition of portraying the East as a dangerous, exotic, and barbaric place needing to be tamed by the white saviour Dr Jones, who wants to “save” their cultural artefacts to place them in British museums.

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Unfortunately, with the new trailer for Dial of Destiny, this film series seems to be continuing to embrace its Orientalist roots just as enthusiastically even after so many years.

 "Temple of Doom rightly has a notorious reputation for its racism and Orientalism, but this nature is ingrained throughout the franchise"

When I finally watched the original Indiana Jones series a few years ago, the Orientalist depictions of the region didn’t shock me as much as they should have. Perhaps that was because I was so used to such depictions before I started researching more of the depths of Orientalism.

But as I watched the second instalment, Temple of Doom, which takes place in India, the racism against South Asian people was staggeringly obvious.

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The Indian royals at the Pankot Palace in Mayapore ate baby snakes, monkey brains, eyeball soup, and beetles, and practised human sacrifice (attempting to with stolen children from Mayapore), and overall showed a farcical depiction of South Asian royals as “backwards” and “barbaric” for Dr Jones and the audience to be repulsed at.

Even if Steven Spielberg intended the dinner scene as a “joke”, it continues to repulse brown audiences to this day and is a depiction the filmmaker hasn’t apologised for, despite his overall regret about the quality of the movie.

It’s up to Dr Jones to save the innocent children from forced labour (and presumably human sacrifice) leaning more into the white saviour trope of the franchise.

Temple of Doom rightly has a notorious reputation for its racism and Orientalism, but this nature is ingrained throughout the franchise.

The depictions of Arabs and SWANA aren’t quite as cartoonish and outlandish but perpetuate racist Orientalism nonetheless.

Along with the yellow filter, when you bring up “Arab” and “Indiana Jones,” people likely think of the Arab swordsman working for Nazi intelligence (played by white British actor Terry Richards in heavy brownface) who superciliously swings his shamshir in front of Jones before the protagonist promptly shoots and kills him.

“Silly Arab, bringing a sword to a gunfight!” the film says.

The very premise of the film the swordsman appears in, Raiders of the Lost Ark, requires Jones and Marion Ravenwood to claim the titular Ark from its resting ground in Egypt.

The use of Egypt and its people as “barbaric and wild window” dressing for this plot makes Raiders of the Lost Ark a relic of Western Orientalism all on its own.

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But another, and perhaps more longstanding severe, element of the Indiana Jones franchise’s racism towards Arab peoples was in the very casting of his Egyptian and Arab ally, Sallah Mohammed Faisel el-Kahir, played by white Welsh actor Jonathan Rhys-Davies.

The conception of this character is rooted in Orientalist stereotypes of an exotic brown helper man to the white saviour, with Spielberg saying in an interview with Empire Magazine, “Sallah was originally written as a Sam Jaffe or Gunga Din type — almost a small creature from the Star Wars cantina in an earthbound adventure film. I had originally offered the part to Danny DeVito, who wanted to do it but couldn't fit it around his schedule for Taxi.

For those that don’t know, “Gunga Din” is a reference to a poem by The Jungle Book author Rudyard Kipling, and depicts an Indian man subservient to a British coloniser during the British Raj.

Besides the troubling colonialist aspect of this comparison, Sallah is Egyptian and not Indian. But even besides that, conceiving an Egyptian character as “a creature from the cantina of Star Wars” is even more dehumanising, even if Spielberg thought he was being harmless in the comparison.

"As much as I'm open to franchises evolving from their Orientalist past, I don’t think we’ll be seeing much progress on this front with Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny, which has no creative involvement from Arab or other North African peoples  and no Arabs or North Africans in the main cast"

While Sallah, the character, maybe thankfully be more benign in his actual overall depiction with Rhys-Davies giving him some actual interiority (though he is still very much a sidekick to Dr Jones), the casting of a non-North African and non-Arab in this Egyptian role is troubling enough but becomes more severe back in 2015 with Rhys-Davies’ Islamophobic comments about Muslims on CNN.

“There is something in Islam that is belligerent, offensive, insidious and ideologically opposed to the values that we believe,” he said, referencing Islam as a core reason for terrorism, and blaming Muslims writ-large for not condemning or stopping such terrorist acts — when Muslims make up nearly two billion worldwide and are not all to hold accountable for the acts of a microcosm of a percentage of those who claim to share their faith.

In contrast, Rhys-Davies said: “There is something in Christianity that offers hope,” and “the jewel in the crown is the abolition of slavery,” neglecting to mention or consider how many millions suffered and died under British colonialism justified in the name of the European Christian faith.

While not all Egyptians are Muslim of course, over 90% of the country is, along with most of the SWANA region. So, for Rhys-Davies to make these comments and not apologise for them while continuing to feature an Egyptian character that has conceptions in these Orientalist stereotypes is rather deplorable.

The trailer for the new film that came out last December features a voiceover by Sallah. “I miss the desert,” he says as we see a Moroccan street bathed in the yellow filter, with him bidding his friend Dr Jones to come back to the Orientalist playground.

Every flash of Morocco also has a yellow filter.

The last scene in the trailer shows Dr Jones and his goddaughter Helena Shaw (Phoebe Waller-Bridge) in a Moroccan room filled with, what are presumably dangerous criminals, again, all lighted with that Orientalist yellow filter.

“Get back!” he yells at them while cracking his whip. Except for this time, all of the people here, including some North Africans, have guns as well.

Again, the film depicts North Africa as a dangerous and exotic place, steeping deeper into the Orientalism that is seemingly so inherent to the franchise, and arguably one that has been useful in selling it.  

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As much as I am open to franchises evolving and improving upon their Orientalist pasts, I don’t think we’ll be seeing much progress on this front with Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny. 

It has no creative involvement from Arab or other North African peoples (director James Mangold and script by Mangold, Jez Butterworth, and John-Henry Butterworth) and features no Arabs or North Africans in the main cast.

Of course, as more trailers, synopses, and reviews come out, there might be more than initially meets the eye, but based on the history, what marketing has chosen to emphasise first, and the continuation of the casting of a certain Islamophobe, I fear that North Africa’s image in mass entertainment will suffer once again — although, I sincerely hope I’m wrong.

Swara Salih is a writer and podcaster who has written for The Nerds of Color and But Why Tho?. He co-hosts The Middle Geeks podcast, which covers all things SWANA/MENA representation, and is a co-host of the Spider-Man/Spider-Verse podcast Into The Spider-Cast.

Follow him on Twitter: @spiderswarz