Booty Calls: Hollywood’s Problem With Lost Treasure Yarns | Movies

“It means something brand new, never seen before, hasn’t been put on a card yet,” Mark Wahlberg tells co-star Tom Holland in a promo clip explaining the title of their new movie, Uncharted. “And that’s what this movie is,” Holland acknowledges. Well… even without seeing Uncharted, we all know that’s not entirely true. On the one hand, it is adapted from a popular video game series, but also, let’s face it, in terms of cinema, that territory is actually pretty well mapped out. The treasure hunt film is now a genre, usually involving an adventurous couple embarking on a globe-trotting quest for a valuable artifact, pursued by dangerous rivals, hostile natives, and the like.

This terrain has been mapped over the past 40 years by the likes of Indiana Jones, Romancing the Stone, The Mummy, National Treasure, Tomb Raider, the other Tomb Raider. Last summer we had Disney’s Jungle Cruise – starring Dwayne Johnson and Emily Blunt on a quest for the Amazon.

Next month we’ll have The Lost City, starring Sandra Bullock and Channing Tatum on a quest in Central America. A fifth installment of Indiana Jones is halfway through filming.

Clearly, this is a formula that works. But it is also a story with a legacy. There’s no getting around it: these are stories of white people traveling to lands populated by non-whites and stealing their belongings. As anyone who has visited a European or American museum over the last century knows, this is not pure fiction. In real life, however, the direction of travel is now more in the opposite direction. Institutions in Europe and the United States have begun returning looted items, such as the Benin Bronzes, which were taken from Nigeria by the British in 1897. Last year, the Belgian government agreed to return some 2 000 “stolen” objects in the Congo, and Unesco urged the British Museum to return the Parthenon Marbles (AKA Elgin) to Greece.

Uncharted is mostly an unchallenging popcorn dish, but like so many scavenger hunt films, its ties to the true story of colonial plunder are thinly disguised. The treasure in question here is that of the Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan, who led an expedition that circumnavigated the globe in the name of the Spanish Empire 500 years ago. According to the film, his loot-laden ships are still out there somewhere in the Philippines. (There is little discussion of where Magellan might have acquired such wealth, or who his rightful owners might be.) Holland’s character is Nathan Drake, son of an American archaeologist and self-proclaimed descendant of Francis Drake, England’s own sixteenth-century imperialist raider. . His rival in the race to find Magellan’s treasure is a scion of the Spanish family who originally funded Magellan. So not such a “brand new” story after all.

So many of these movies reference history for their mythos and MacGuffins, especially the British Empire. In Jungle Cruise, Emily Blunt is a chic and surprisingly athletic English botanist from the 1910s. Tomb Raider’s Lara Croft is of a similar pedigree: the well-educated daughter of a wealthy, aristocratic British archaeologist. In The Mummy movies, Rachel Weisz plays a bookish (but surprisingly athletic) 1920s Egyptologist named Evelyn Carnahan. She was modeled on Evelyne Beauchampdaughter of Lord Carnarvon, financier of the Egyptian excavations of Howard Carter which discovered the tomb of Tutankhamun.

Rather than actual history, however, the true origins of this genre lie in the history of cinema, and in particular, that Magellan of the Archaeological Adventure, Indiana Jones. As revealed in notes from a 1981 brainstorming session between George Lucas, Steven Spielberg and Lawrence Kasdan, they were mostly inspired by the movies they grew up on, such as King Kong, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and the exciting Republic series from the 1940s and 50s. Also mentioned are Ripley’s Believe It Or Not, Disneyland rides, and pseudoscientific books such as Erich von Daniken’s Chariots of the Gods. “I don’t think they even knew the name of a single actual historical archaeologist,” says Justin Jacobs, a history professor at American University and author of Indiana Jones in History. “It’s all recycling from previous pop culture. There’s no historical research in there.

Looking at the anachronisms and occasional racism of the Indiana Jones films, this is not surprising. In 1984’s Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, for example, the filmmakers took the Indian setting of the 1930s as license to present an all-you-can-eat buffet of Orientalist stereotypes. Literally into the Maharajah’s Feast scene, where live snakes, eyeball soup, giant beetles and chilled monkey brains are on the menu (none of which have anything to do with Indian cuisine). Further, the film peddles a brown-skinned death cult that rips out people’s hearts, kidnaps white women and enslaves children – until Indy becomes everyone’s white savior.

Harrison Ford in Raiders of the Lost Ark. Photograph: Ronald Grant Archives

Consciously or not, these films reflect real European colonial enterprises. Lucas initially imagined Jones as some sort of “outlaw archaeologist,” for example, but soon realized that his hero would need a veneer of academic legitimacy to justify his looting, where its catchphrase, “This belongs in a museum!” Real 19th century European looters used similar justifications, says Jacobs: “Basically it was, ‘We go out in the name of science. We will rescue evidence of grand and glorious civilizations that once existed in the distant past. You don’t care about that stuff anymore. We save it, preserve it, we will study it, expose it, then educate the world.

The whole exercise was underpinned by essentially racist assumptions. Foreign artifacts were often evaluated solely on their relevance to European history. Non-white superior craftsmanship was invariably seen as evidence of hidden European influence. Or even extraterrestrial influence in the case of Von Daniken’s theories of Central American civilizations (Indiana Jones, Part Four, Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, okay). The decline of ancient great civilizations has often been attributed to racial mixing diluting an original, empire-building white ancestry.

The colonial powers of Europe were often in competition. Italian explorer Giovanni Belzoni, for example, became a national celebrity when he shipped an enormous bust of Ramesses II from Egypt to London in 1818, succeeding where Napoleon’s troops had failed (it is still on display at the British Museum). “It wasn’t so much ‘This belongs to a museum’ as ‘This belongs to our museum,'” explains Jacobs.

You don’t have to look far to explain how Indiana Jones spawned an entire genre. Raiders of the Lost Ark was the highest-grossing film in the world in 1981. Its three sequels were equally huge. Joining Temple of Doom in the box office top 10 in 1984 was another treasure hunt: Romancing the Stone, which at least charted new territory, in that neither Kathleen Turner nor Michael Douglas were posh, British or even interested in archaeology. Yet they had a map and were on the hunt for a legendary emerald. When they finally found it, did they give it to a responsible Colombian cultural institution? Of course not. Douglas sold it and bought a yacht.

Romanticize the stone
Romancing the Stone, one of many such films where a reluctant woman (Kathleen Turner) takes advantage of the quest. Photography: 20 Century Fox/Sportsphoto/Allstar

In addition to replicating the cost-effectiveness and laid-back stereotypes of Indiana Jones, Romancing the Stone and its sequel, The Jewel of the Nile, cemented another trope of the treasure hunt genre: white women find these kinds of adventures quite liberating and transformative. Turner’s literary townswoman is initially disgusted with people, animals, the weather, etc. from Colombia. Then Douglas cuts off her high heels with a machete and she’s free! Many others have followed in her flat-heeled footsteps. At first glance, that includes Sandra Bullock in The Lost City: she plays another lonely writer “thrown into an epic jungle adventure” – along with the equally useless male role model of Channing Tatum.

There have been a few attempts to take this type of explorer material seriously. Fitzcarraldo and Aguirre by Werner Herzog, the wrath of God, for example. Or, more recently, James Gray’s The Lost City of Z, based on real-life British explorer Percy Fawcett, who spent nearly 20 years searching for a mythical Amazon city (coincidentally starring Tom Holland). Ciro Guerra’s Embrace of The Serpent offered a more bracing counter-narrative, looking at the Amazonian expeditions of two different white men through the eyes of their native guide. Also of note is the scene in Marvel’s Black Panther where Michael B Jordan’s Killmonger forcibly takes over an African artifact from a British museum. “How do you think your ancestors got them?” ” he asks.

Is it possible to revamp these cringe-worthy narratives for our more culturally enlightened time? May be. Disney’s Jungle Cruise has succeeded in part in concealing its own problematic origins. The original Disneyland ride took passengers on a faux British colonial ship through a mix of ‘exotic’ Asian, African and South American landscapes, complete with racist caricatures such as ‘Trader Sam’, an animatronic grass-skirted cannibal holding a shrunken head. Sam was quietly removed from the ride in preparation for the film. In Jungle Cruise, the treasure sought is not an indigenous artifact but a medicinal tree in the heart of the Amazon, first sought by the Spanish conquistadors. Blunt’s liberated heroine (she even wears pants) seeks out the tree in order to help heal WW1 soldiers. Rather than faceless enemies, the native inhabitants of the jungle are treated with respect (Trader Sam is a woman, not a cannibal), and the villains in the play are the ghosts of the Spanish conquistadors, in league with the Germans.

Uncharted navigates its own clumsy course through these waters, bizarrely involving two women of color (and no Filipinas), though its treasure hunters don’t even claim to have philanthropic or intellectual motives; they just want the loot. Let’s see how The Lost City and the fifth Indiana Jones fared. The trailer for The Lost City features no noticeable inhabitants. Indiana Jones’ story is said to involve the Nazis and the space race, suggesting that she also avoids issues of alien engagement. It will almost certainly be the last in the series – Harrison Ford turns 80 this year – if not the end of the era of treasure hunt movies, although now may be the time. There’s a moment in The Last Crusade where Indy says to the villainous panama who steals his golden artifact, “This belongs in a museum!” The villain replies, “You too.”

Uncharted was released in the UK on February 18.

This article was updated on February 11, 2022 to clarify that Magellan led an expedition that circumnavigated the globe – although he died before the journey was complete.

Comments are closed.