Why Indiana Jones is an emblem of Americanism.

After the first big action sequence in the new Indiana Jones movie, the camera stares from behind Jones as he regards, helplessly, one of the monstrous icons of the 1950s; after the last big action sequence in the film, the camera stares from behind Jones as he regards, helplessly, another. These parallel images bookend this presumably last episode of the hero’s career, and help us put him in his place as an example of lost American virtues, as well as an embodiment of fundamentally American archetypes. Now, a warning: in the column that follows, spoilers will pop out like so many booby-traps in one of Dr. Jones’s excavations.

Indiana Jones balances two of the essential American archetypes as defined by Constance Rourke in her 1931 essay "American Humor." With the broad-brimmed fedora, the bullwhip, and the six-shooter, he evokes the cowboy as frontier hero, the backwoodsman who stands casually ready to kill, if need be. Tall tales of frontiersmen erupted naturally from the American experience with the West. They were legendary figures like Davy Crockett, who boasted that he kept the sun in its path and rode the lightning. Jones’s adventures feature a cascading top-this quality sufficient to rival any Crockett brag. (In fact, a discordant note in the new movie is Indy’s skepticism about this latest supernatural treasure hunt. The guy’s seen some crazy things: At this point, would he really be so disbelieving?)

At the same time, Dr. Jones evokes another of Rourke’s archetypes, the savvy Yankee. The lean, shrewd bargainer, scholar of human affairs, he gets by because he knows more than you. Indiana Jones’s hat and jacket may have become icons, but Dr. Jones spends as much time wearing spectacles and tweeds, stalking libraries and classrooms, as he does dodging the living dead.

When Rourke defined her types of American, she believed they had failed to merge into a single national character. The frontiersman’s bravado remained distinct from the Yankee’s shrewdness, and the sections of the nation from which they sprang remained at odds. But Indiana Jones gives us the pleasure of both American types in one character. He has his reckless, casually violent side, which gets him both into and out of minor scrapes: but he avoids catastrophe only because he values scholarly wisdom.

Each of the films makes this point by using the same basic plot: occult artifact offers knowledge and power transcending normal human limits; baddies seek to exploit artifact for advantage; the heroic Jones could grasp the artifact for himself, but though tempted, he rejects it and thus saves his skin and his soul. In the first film, the French archaeologist Belloq wants the Ark so he can talk right to God, in the latest, the Ukrainian occultist Irina Spalko seeks the Crystal Skull because, as she says, “I want to know.” Some part of Jones--the frontiersman part--wants the same thing, to seize knowledge and power in one fell swoop; as Belloq tells him, “You and I are very much alike. ... I am a shadowy reflection of you. But it would have taken only a nudge to make you the same as me.”

Jones and the assorted good guys push back against that nudge. As Marcus Brody says in The Last Crusade, the point of the Grail is to seek it, not to get it; it is not the search for the divine per se, but “the search for the divine in all of us.” It is not that Jones and his friends don’t value knowledge--they are scholars who know their languages and history backwards and forwards. And their fieldwork is a part of their learning; one of the best moments in the fourth film comes when Dr. Jones delivers a disquisition on the need for an academic to get out of the library--shortly before he himself does so on a motorcycle.

But Jones also knows you can’t take short cuts to wisdom. The Jones fables, each and every one, punish those--Nazi, Thuggee, or Commie--who would seize otherworldly knowledge and power, and reward Jones for his slow and steady “digging in the dirt,” as his enemies contemptuously call it. Jones’s inner Yankee, a frugal hoarder of wisdom, keeps his adventurous alter ego in check.

The parallel images that bookend Kingdom of the Crystal Skull pit Jones not only against the inhuman, but the too-American. In the first, he stands before a mushroom cloud; in the second, a flying saucer. In the film, as in the United States of that era, both represent the awesome possibility of new technology and also its awful dark side--Spalko makes the parallel even more explicit by quoting Oppenheimer’s suggestion that the application of his intellect made him “Death, the destroyer of worlds,” just as she reveals the power of the crystal skull.

Offered the opportunity of forbidden knowledge by alien visitors, Jones says, “We don’t want to go that way.” And quite rightly, too, as the costs are too high. But, facing the atomic bomb, he can’t recommend against going that way: it’s too late. America already chose that path. The filmmakers clearly wanted to give Jones a cheerful send-off, and they do, but they provide no reason their hero would find himself welcomed back to a country that starts the movie persecuting him in the arrogant paranoia of its atomic power. Jones wouldn’t go that way, but we have.

Eric Rauchway is a professor of history at the University of California, Davis, and the author of The Great Depression and the New Deal: A Very Short Introduction, Blessed Among Nations: How the World Made America and Murdering McKinley: The Making of Theodore Roosevelt's America. He also blogs for The Edge of the American West.

By Eric Rauchway