After the film’s underwhelming opening on Thursday, the makers of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull are hoping the film will do better over the weekend. We should hope so, as the film exemplifies an improving cultural attitude toward communism and America’s role in its eventual defeat.

Screen image from 'Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull'

The film deserves to do well, as it’s a good entry in the series. It reprises all the great themes of the series and acknowledges the many recurring characters in addition to Indy, while creating the possibility of a new series featuring a character played by Shia LaBeouf. A nice touch is Indy’s reference to his father and his good friend Marcus Brody, both of whom have died by the time the film begins, with the story set in the mid-1950s.

There is somethinng of an elegaic feel to the film, especially with the presence of Karen Allen, Ford’s costar in Raiders of the Lost Ark, the first film in the series, plus some plot points that I won’t reveal, in deference to those who have not seen the film. In addition to this interesting sense of seriousness and concern about roads not traveled, the film also has a strong sense of fun and good cheer, perhaps more than in any Jones film since the first.

The film bursts with allusions to the earlier films in the series, as well as to other films and cultural items. For example, Mutt (Shia LaBeouf) stops to comb his hair regularly, including at decidedly inappropriate times, like the character Kookie in the 1940s-’60s TV show 77 Sunset Strip. The villainous Soviet agent Irina Spalko sports a brunette pageboy hairstyle clearly modeled after that of Louise Brooks’s Lulu character in G. W. Pabst’s silent film Pandora’s Box. (Brooks and the film are widely admired by cineastes.) Despite a faintly absurd (though probably fairly accurate) accent, Blanchett’s performance is quite diverting. 

Allen gives a strong performance and is a great asset to the film. Although she is no longer hot stuff in the looks department (if she ever was), her performance and her chemistry with Ford as Indy Jones are spot-on, even to the extent of creating some rather poignant moments.

The 1950s time setting helps explain Ford’s age (the actor is 65) as he plays the adventurous character (although how he has retained his ability to perform amazing athletic feats goes unexplained, being, well, inexplicable). The film does a very good job of capturing the atmosphere of the 1950s, including the Cold War, the burgeoning youth culture and delinquency problem, the fear of atomic warfare, the concern over communist infiltration of American institutions of power, and much more.

The story line resembles those of the Indiana Jones novels even more than those of the prior films, especially in going so far as it does in imagining that various legends are true.

In distinct contrast to the crazy mythological mishmash that constitute’s the film’s central premise, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull includes some nice moral implications, such as the conclusion that knowledge is more important than gold. That has been a common theme in films and TV dramas of this decade (such as in the National Treasure films, the most obvious follower of the Indy format), and one certainly can see the Indiana Jones character and film and book series as having laid the groundwork for cultural treatments of the issue. (The popularity of the theme, however, rests very much on changing values in American society, not just the great popularity of the Indiana Jones films.)

The greatest contrast with the earlier films in the series is that in the present case the enemies are not Nazis but communists. Moreover, the film essentially endorses the idea that the Soviet Communists were a very bad lot and could imagine nothing better than the destruction and subjugation of the United States. At one point Indy even says, "I like Ike," and does not convey irony when doing so, miracle of miracles.

This attitude is in highly distinct contrast to the common Hollywood treatment of communism since the early 1950s, which basically held that however bad communism might be, Americans’ opposition to it was much worse, and which strongly questioned the notion that there was anything particularly bad about communism anyway.

The attitude toward communism in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is particularly significant because we happen to be in the midst of a rising cultural acknowledgment of the war on communism and the essential rightness of our part in it. For it to be taken up by Steven Spielberg, one of Hollywood’s most successful and influential filmmakers, can only cement the trend further in the national consciousness.