How Much Of The Indiana Jones Films Are Based On Fact?

The adventures of Henry Jones Jr. have involved the search for some spectacular and mythical things from a biblical Ark to crystal skulls. But just how authentic were Indy’s quests across the four film saga? We look at some of the quadrilogy’s key elements and compare them to real-life.

‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’

Set in 1936, Indiana’s first adventure sees him attempt to get his hands on the Ark of the Covenant before the Nazis. According to religious history, the Ark is a wooden chest built by Moses following instructions by God, which contains the tablets on which the Ten Commandments are hewn. As such, it’s imbued with divine power and any army in possession of it is invincible.

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The Well of Souls

Much of the first half of the movie involves frantic attempts to locate the Well of Souls, which is where the Ark is supposedly buried. It’s also where we find out Indy is terrified of snakes.

But is there a real Well of Souls and is it in Egypt like in the movie? Well, depends on who you believe. There are hundreds of theories as to where the Ark may have ended up, from a cave on Mount Nebo near Jerusalem to the Herdewyke Estate in Warwickshire, England.

By setting the film’s location outside Cairo, creators George Lucas and Steven Spielberg (though it was initial screenwriter Philip Kaufman who introduced the Ark as a plot device) are probably alluding to the story that suggests the Anubis Shrine found in Egypt in 1922 inside Tutankhamun’s tomb is actually the Ark of the Covenant, though archaeological scholars have said it is too large.

Hitler’s search for the Ark

Did the Führer want to find the Ark? Again, maybe, according to who’s talking. Some historians argue it was simply a plot device – a great Macguffin and the ultimate baddies.

But in Trevor Ravenscroft’s 1972 book ‘The Spear of Destiny’, he claimed Hitler was obsessed with possessing another piece of biblical history – the weapon used to pierce Jesus’s side on the cross. And certainly the leader was the ultimate narcissist – it’s not ridiculous to believe he wanted to demonstrate that he was anointed by God to rule the world by owning something Moses himself built.

There is another theory – that Hitler was actually more interested in Noah’s Ark. Certain Internet conspiracy theorists suggest there was a secret Nazi programme to photograph Mount Ararat using a spy balloon. That was supposedly where the ark ended up post-flood.

Does it melt faces?

Well, it helped to part the Red Sea and when a man named Uzzah accidentally touched it, he was struck down by God for his impertinence.

Electricity pioneer Nikola Tesla thought it was a super-condenser – something which can generate intensely powerful vibrations. That’s why the walls of Jericho collapsed with just a single shout after the Levites paraded it in front of them. It might also suggest Uzzah was electrocuted.

‘Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom’

A prequel to ‘Raiders’, the second movie sees Indy travel to India where villagers ask him to retrieve their sacred Sankara stone, which has also resulted in the disappearance of their children.

Do the Sankara stones exist?

Er, no. In the movie, five stones were given to Sankara by the Hindu god Shiva. If they were brought together, they could be used for happiness and wealth, or destruction.

This is sort of made up from various strands of Indian iconography. What the stones are essentially are sivalinga, or lingam, which are a cylindrical pieces worshipped as a symbol of power in Hindu temples.

Who are the Thuggee?

In ‘Temple of Doom’, the filmmakers introduce the Thuggee, a group who worship the goddess Kali and are led by the terrifying Mola Ram who’ve kidnapped the local kids to dig for the remaining two Sankara Stones. They also practice human sacrifice (living heart removal caused millions of 80s nightmares).

While their association with the occult is unlikely, the Thuggee did exist – Hindu literature makes note of them from around the mid 1300s. Thuggee is actually Hindi for deceiver and the gang were known to infiltrate groups of travellers before murdering and robbing them. Their murder count fluctuates between 50,000 and two million.

The power of the sivalinga

Mola Ram believed that united the five stones would make Kali Ma rule the world. She’s the Goddess of Time, Change, Power, Creation, Preservation, and Destruction, but the filmmakers most likely looked to traditional etchings and stories which painted her as somewhat bloodthirsty.

In reality, the lingam certainly represent power, but not in the corrupted way the Thuggee see it. In other words, the film in this regard is a load of nonsense.

‘Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade’

Teaming up with his father Henry Sr., Indy fulfils his dad’s life work to discover the Holy Grail, the cup used by Christ at the Last Supper, which then collected his blood as he was being crucified.

The Grail grants you eternal life

When Sean Connery is dying, he’s magically cured when water from the cup is poured on his chest.

According to biblical legend, after Jesus’s death the grail’s owner Joseph of Arimathea was imprisoned and left to starve, but the grail somehow provided him with food and water during his incarceration. It was then taken to Glastonbury where Joseph settled.

The likelihood is that the immortality tale actually began when Arthurian stories began to circulate, as it became symbolic of the ultimate quest. This tied in with the Greek myths of Hermes and Thoth, who are said to have drunk liquid gold and lived forever.

However – all the disciples drunk from the cup during the Last Supper. If it granted you eternal life, don’t you think one of them would have announced themselves during the last 2000 years?

There’s a knight guarding the temple of the Grail for eternity

This all comes down to a bloke called Percy. Or more strictly, Perceval, or Parzival in German.

Featured first in a 12th century poem by Chrétien de Troyes, he shows up in dozens of stories, most prominently in Celtic legends about King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table.

He’s the original hero of the Grail quest who finds the sacred cup. In later literature, his role is taken by Sir Galahad, although Percival, along with Sir Bors, is said to have found the Grail.

This ties in somewhat with the movie, in which an unnamed knight at the temple says he is one of three brothers who found the cup and he – the bravest – was left to guard it. Interestingly, in an early draft of the script, he called himself Lord de Bauvis, better known as William the Lion, Duke of Brittany.

There was a William the Lion – he was king of Scotland between 1165 and 1214. He isn’t known to have been a Grail adventurer (too busy reigning), but he is said to have cured a child of tuberculosis just by touching him, so maybe he does have some Christ-like powers.

‘Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull’

The most recent film saw the ageing archaeologist battling Commies in 1957 to discover the origins of a crystal skull, which was removed from the body of an alien being now sitting (alongside the Ark) in the mysterious Hangar 51. The Russians, led by Dr. Spalko (Cate Blanchett), believe the skull will grant them psychic powers, thus winning the Cold War.

Do crystal skulls exist?

Definitely, though Damien Hirst’s version doesn’t count.

One that’s actually mentioned in the film is the Mitchell-Hedges Skull, discovered in 1924 by Anna Mitchell-Hedges. Or so she said, In fact, it was bought at auction in 1943 by her father, made of quartz and possibly up to 12,000 years old. It was thought to be Mayan in origin.

There are other crystal skulls in the British Museum and the Quai Branly Museum in Paris (see below). The latter, known for its great purity, it has long been considered an Aztec masterpiece representing Mictlantecuhtli, or Mictlancíhuatl, who reigned over Mictlan, the land of the deceased.

The movie’s skull comes from the ancient city of Akator, which doesn’t exist, although Akakor does and is a mythical underground dwelling between Bolivia, Peru and Brazil.

Did the Russians want to find them and wage psychic warfare?

Irina Spalko claims to be psychic and eventually dies after linking to the aliens with her mind and begging them to fill her with their knowledge.

But there are actually real-life equivalents of Dr Spalko – kind of. Nina Kulagina, born in Leningrad in 1926, said she could perform psychokinesis. It’s thought the USSR used films of her as part of a so-called Psi Race – trying to be the first to definitively prove the existence of psychics and use them to influence the Cold War.

In February 1960, a story appeared in a French science magazine which claimed both sides were experimenting with telepathy.

Apparently, the USSR’s Dr LL Vasilev said in a secret meeting with fellow scientists, “We carried out extensive and until now completely unreported investigations under the Stalin regime. Today the American Navy is testing telepathy on their atomic submarines. Soviet scientists conducted a great many successful telepathy tests over a quarter of a century ago. It’s urgent that we throw off our prejudices. We must again plunge into the exploration of this vital field.”

Are crystal skulls really aliens?

Well, strictly speaking, the film describes them as ‘inter-dimensional beings’.

But they have been linked to life on Mars and Anna Mitchell-Hedges once claimed to have seen a premonition of JFK’s assassination thanks to hers.

In hippie culture, they hold spiritual weight and some researchers have claimed they come from the lost city of Atlantis.

In fact, it’s most likely they’ve been called alien because their shape resembles one of the traditional shapes associated with extra-terrestrials in popular culture.

A skull discovered in Guatemala in 1906 and now owned by collector Joke Van Dieten Maasland has actually been dubbed ‘E.T.’

But despite claims of incredible feats of healing and suggestions the skull at the British Museum moves of its own volition inside its locked case, nothing has been definitively proven.

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Image credits: Rex_Shutterstock, Paramount