Primitive savages in film

*spoiler alert for Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull*

For me, I think the straw that broke the camel’s back was 2005’s King Kong.  Before then, I’d certainly noticed that the jungle people in these “explorer” movies were, brown primitive savages, while the heroes were always white men, but it had always just been some short “hmm,” footnote in the back of my mind.

I don’t know what is was about King Kong in particular that made it click (maybe it was the fact that they pulled out all the stops to make the natives look extra extra “tribal”), but the whole primitive savage thing in that movie quickly wore thin and just thoroughly pissed me off.

The next time I could remember grimacing at the Primitive Savage Issue was Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest (Savages: see above).  “Ha ha, look…the stupid island savages are fooled by Captain Jack Sparrow.  It’s funny!  Oh look, they want to eat Orlando Bloom!  Because they’re cannibals!  How ever will the white good guys escape?!”  Um, no. 

From an interview with Ve Neill, Oscar-nominated Pirates make-up artist: “The trinkets used for the cannibals makeups were accumulated during prep by either my team or myself during a trip I took to Africa earlier in the year.”  Uh…last I checked, this was Pirates of the Caribbean, not Pirates of the continent of Africa.  But you know, those tribal Africans have all the right stuff for the making of scary brown cannibals.  Eyeroll.

[I’m just gonna leave out Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto for the sake of brevity, because that in itself is a whole ‘nother can of worms.]

Which brings me to my current target: Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull.

Considering how he’s an explorer and all, Indy is no stranger to Primitive Savages and the delights they have to offer (monkey brains, anyone?).

But Christ, could Spielberg have gotten any more offensive with this movie?

Here’s what I don’t get about these types of films.  The (typically white) hero(es) are always in search of an ancient treasure of some sort, usually more than just unlimited gold (i.e., the fountain of youth, all the knowledge in the universe, etc.), right?  So these ancient peoples had to be pretty damn smart in order to know these secrets AND figure out some pretty hardcore boobytraps to guard these treasures.

Centuries upon centuries later, along comes the white man trying to be a badass and figure out if the myths about ___ are true, and he encounters the Primitive Brown Savages, presumably descendants of those really smart ancient peoples (because why else would they be so keen on guarding the loot?).  Except the centuries must’ve really taken a toll on these formerly-brilliant natives, because they’ve gone all vicious and shit; they have nothing better to do than sit around all day perfecting the art of poison dart-blowing.  Or something.  They have no civilization or culture, they’re just cannibalistic, savage rock-dwellers.

But I think what really was the last straw for me was when the other bad guys showed up (you know, the ones who didn’t speak like Americans…the Russians or whatever).  While Indy et al were inside staring at the aliens, the Russians were outside gunning down the Savages, and Spielberg made it a point to show the dead Savages riddled with bullets, which I read as a grotesque symbol of imperialism.  Nothing kicks savage native ass like a big Western gun, huh?

These images of the Primitive Savage so incredibly played out and based on racist stereotypes.  Then when it comes to recent news like the photographs of the Amazon Indian tribe, some of the commentary is abhorrent (along the lines of “look at those stupid Indians, thinking they can shoot down a plane”).  It’s striking to see some of the ignorant commentary describe presicely the roles seen in Hollywood films: stupid, uncivilized, warring savages. 

A coincidence?  I think not.


About Melissa

I love donuts. Chocolate iced, hold the sprinkles.
This entry was posted in cultural insensitivity, film, racism and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Primitive savages in film

  1. Jessica says:

    Also (regarding the Crystal Skull), what’s with the “theory” that South Americans couldn’t possibly have accomplished all they accomplished without help from (dramatic pause) … aliens? What’s that about? Really, is that the best they could come up with after 20 years?

  2. dee says:

    excellent post. you should read the tarzan inspired issue of a comic called “planetary” i think you’d quite like it. yeah, the whole outdated pulp notion of savages does my head in no end. it totally misses the great, diverse and wonderful differences that could be used in a story by using so many other cultures rather than framing the story only through the most simplistic and offensive shorthand we’ve been handed down from some forgotten and often best left forgotten pulp-fictional sources.

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