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The Real Indiana Jones: Courage & Perseverance

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Indy’s heroism stems in part from his simple determination to not give up.

“The Real Indiana Jones” is a series that explores the man behind the fedora. Indiana Jones is many things to many people in his world, from a friend or enemy, to an esteemed professor or rival treasure hunter. As viewers of Indy’s big screen and television adventures, we have a unique perspective on the life of this hero, whose own weaknesses are often as important as his strengths.

As we’ve explored elsewhere in this series, Indiana Jones is not a fearless man. But he doesn’t overcome adversity in spite of his fears. Indy is a courageous hero because he is afraid. He isn’t a superhero with a last trick up his sleeve. There is no secret to Indy’s triumphs. He simply does not quit, and with a bit of luck (or quite a lot of it), he breaks through.

“I’m like a bad penny, I always turn up,” Indy tells the duplicitous Elsa Schneider in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. After Indy manages to trail his foes all the way to a secluded island in Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark, an exasperated Rene Belloq tells his adversary that “your persistence surprises even me.”

When a much-younger Indy becomes embroiled in a murder mystery while visiting Egypt’s Valley of the Kings, he and his companion T. E. Lawrence (the real-life “Lawrence of Arabia”) attempt to solve the crime. “Play up! Play up and play the game,” the elder Lawrence tells the hesitant boy (borrowing his line from a 19th century poem by Henry Newbolt). From Lawrence and others like Theodore Roosevelt, Indy develops confidence, even a dash of bravado.

In The Adventures of Young Indiana Jones, we see the character consider many different possibilities for his life. He might stay in the military after his World War I service, or become a diplomat, or study at Princeton University as his father wishes him to do. When Indy and his friend Remy discover a clue to an ancient diamond known as the Peacock’s Eye, they cross the globe in search of it. But when clue after clue leads them no closer to their prize, and ever closer to danger, Indy decides he’s had enough of treasure-hunting.

Though Indy learns the value of passion from characters as varied as Pablo Picasso and Giacomo Puccini, he also learns thoughtfulness and compassion from people like the humanitarian Albert Schweitzer and the anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski. These thinkers inspire Indy to not just follow his dreams, but to do so in a way that can make a difference in people’s lives and bring him a sense of fulfillment. Returning to America after his fruitless treasure hunt, Indy decides to study archaeology at the University of Chicago.

Of course, Indy continues to struggle in balancing his zeal for “fortune and glory” and his reverence for life. We can imagine him running doggedly into many adventures, earning his somewhat dubious reputation as a graverobber. “Indy was never intended to be a perfect, flawless hero,” the character’s creator, George Lucas, would explain. “He bumbles quite a bit. He gets into dangerous situations, but not because he bravely looks for them. He falls into them headfirst, often because he leaps before he looks–or before he thinks.

Though he makes mistakes, Indy doesn’t quit, nor does he give up on making things right. Journeying deep below Pankot Palace in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Indy teeters between different motivations as he searches for the prized Sankara Stones. Yes, he courageously wishes to do the right thing and help those in need, but he also seems tempted by the mystical treasure and its alluring qualities. It is only after enduring great suffering (and the help of one all-important young friend) that his mind clears, and a resilient archaeologist learns what it means to be a hero.

With the children freed, Indy is cornered on a precarious bridge where only his grit and a bit of that “leaps before he looks” daring-do sees him escape alive. In The Last Crusade he must take a literal step into the unknown. Walking onto the first path of the Grail Temple, he is as afraid as the headless soldiers lying at his feet. But he isn’t solely afraid for his own sake, but for that of his father, lying helpless from a gunshot wound. Indy is the only one with a chance to help him. Sometimes, even though we aren’t sure what will happen, we have to go ahead and do it anyway. That’s one definition of courage, and perhaps it’s the one that best suits Indiana Jones.

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