Indiana Jones is a failure.
Well, he is in Raiders of the Lost Ark, at least, and I think that's why it's the only one of the three films I like at all. Having said that, I like Raiders a lot. I think just about everyone does. Raiders is a movie that has passed beyond entertainment to become a fixture of our culture, like Marilyn Monroe and the Beatles.
Which is why it's so strange that it never even crossed my mind that Indiana Jones fails at nearly everything he tries to do. He fails to keep the Ark from the Nazis, he fails to rescue Marian (a couple of times), he fails to better the smirking, oily Belloc. It is literally only the grace of God that puts the Ark in the hands of the "good guys" -- that, and Indy's willingness to submit to what is superior to him.
Belloc has to see what's inside the Ark. Indy doesn't always know that he has to stay clear of it (we can say his scholarly zeal overwhelms him), but when the Bad Things start happening, he's willing to close his eyes and be the obedient mortal who dares not risk the Big Guy's wrath.
But as an action hero, Indy is singularly ineffective. For every triumph (defending Marian at the bar, getting the truck away from the Nazis, finding the Ark in the first place), he gets his smugness handed back to him with a failure. Even at the final confrontation, when he has the bazooka trained on the Ark, his bluff is called by Belloc, and he puts the weapon down. Again, a failure.
Who made this guy a hero?
Well, he is awfully dogged, you have to give him that. Nothing seems to deter the guy very much. And he's sure a lucky SOB.
It's hard to justify the plot of Raiders. There's a lot of whoppers in here, the whole thing with the submarine only the most obvious. But somehow we forgive it all those sillinesses. Why is that? Why does this film get such a tolerant reception but the other ones (which don't seem, on the surface, to be much sillier) get reviled (by me, at least)?
Part of it is that only Raiders, of all the films, takes Indy on any sort of journey. Indy suffers in this film. He goes down far enough that he's almost willing (when provoked, at least) to commit simultaneous murder and suicide. That's a dark place Indy's in when he confronts Belloc in the Cairo cafe. None of the other films take Indy that far down.
Marian is also the only woman in these films who's actually a fit partner for Indy, and we all know it. Marian's great. She scrambles, looks for alternatives, and doesn't put up with Indy's crap. She's not completely immune to his charm, but then neither are we. I think the scene that most illuminates the difference between this film and the inferior follow-ups is the bedroom scene on the boat, as Marian attempts to treat her beat-up champion.
"Dammit, is there anywhere that it doesn't hurt?"
Indy's hilarious surliness, and slow melting to Marian's love, is a wonderful thing to behold, and it's impossible to imagine such a scene in either of the following films.
There are limits to Indy in this film, human limits, and in the end, it is the things that Indy is NOT willing to do, the heights he refuses to scale, the mysteries he keeps hidden to himself, that save the day.
"Know your limits" seems to be what this film is telling us, but at the same time it's saying, "Never give up." Reminds me of the Stockdale Paradox from the book Good To Great -- in order to survive you must simultaneous be completely realistic in assessing your chances (without exaggerating your own abilities) AND have complete faith in your own eventual success. Indy manages this. He knows the things that he dare not meddle with (when the chips are down, at least), but he never ever doubts his ability to come through.
As he says, so famously and so appropriately, "I'm making this up as I go." That's faith.