2021 marks the 40th anniversary of Indiana Jones' cinematic debut in 1981. Celebrate one of the great Hollywood heroes of all time with this lively program, a globe-trotting adventure in which a real archaeologist tracks down the real history behind Raiders of the Lost Ark.
How much of Indiana Jones is real?
Raiders of the Lost Ark is a rollicking adventure and a Hollywood classic—but nobody would expect its creators to be particularly bothered about accurate historical detail. What does a bullwhip-slinging hero need with the pesky restraints of authenticity? With its Nazi agents on an archaeological quest and Egyptian monuments full of miniature cities and moving sunbeams, Indiana Jones’ first cinematic outing looks as fanciful as any other Hollywood confection. But there’s a big surprise here.
Paramount Pictures hired me to look into the facts behind Indiana Jones for a promotional piece they were considering. I became so intrigued that the project grew and grew until The Archaeology of Indiana Jones took me all over the world, tracking down not only the original shooting locations where Lucas and Spielberg filmed Indy's adventures in Hawaii and Tunisia, but the far-flung places where the “real” Indiana Jones was supposed to have been, in Peru and Cairo.
To my astonishment I found that despite its larger-than-life atmosphere, Raiders of the Lost Ark is based almost entirely in authentic history, due to extremely unusual circumstances behind the production. The movie therefore serves as an excellent popular gateway to discussion of a colorful and surprising variety of historical subjects, from the solar mechanics of ancient monuments to the pioneering of trans-pacific air travel by Pan American's China Clippers, and much more.
Stories of my first-hand experiences and sketches from my journal make this a uniquely personal adventure.
The program features an engaging mix of travelogue, cinematic detective work, and authentic history. Spiced with humor, the presentation is highly entertaining yet substantial in educational content. The talk assumes only passing familiarity with Indiana Jones, reprising relevant movie details.
Audiences have enjoyed this program at museums, archaeological conferences, universities, and official Lucasfilm Celebration events ever since I first completed the project. The enduring appeal of Indiana Jones makes this presentation perennially popular.
Archaeologists have a love-hate relationship with Indy. He’s our ambassador to the public, but he’s also a catastrophe on wheels for almost every site he visits. Fortunately, nobody watches an Indiana Jones movies to learn archaeological technique. Personally I think it’s a good thing to be frank about the fact that archaeology wasn’t always as sensitive as it is today. We can be proud of the progress we have made.
By the way, venues always ask, “Doctor Reynolds, can you crack a bullwhip? Ha ha.” Who’s joking? Of course I can crack a bullwhip—if you've got the space. Would I omit such an important part of the Indiana Jones experience? I curated the original whips of Indiana Jones for the Lucasfilm Archives, discussed the wisdom of the bullwhip as a personal weapon with George Lucas, and taught movie stars whip technique at Skywalker Ranch. My own bullwhip was braided for me by the same man who provided the stunt whips for Harrison Ford to use in the Indy films. When I introduce screenings of Raiders of the Lost Ark, it’s not the Ph.D in archaeology that impresses people; it’s cracking the whip on stage. I get it. So don’t worry: I’ve got the whip angle covered.
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