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Indiana Jones and the magic of the Macguffin: Ranking 'em all!

The magic, the mystery, the coolness - looking at the key items from the Indiana Jones movie franchise

Indiana Jones
Image credit: Lucasfilm

The Indiana Jones franchise is famous for its MacGuffins – ancient relics imbued with immense mystical power that Indiana Jones has to keep from falling into the wrong hands. Each of these MacGuffins is impressive in its own way, and obviously, they also hold tremendous cultural and religious significance to many people around the world today. Because of this, it’s impossible to say which Indiana Jones MacGuffin is the best in terms of sheer 'coolness' – but what about from a purely storytelling perspective?

After all, each MacGuffin – from Raiders of the Lost Ark’s Ark of the Covenant to Dial of Destiny’s Antikythera – carries its respective installment’s narrative and emotional weight. They aren’t just meant to provide Indy with sufficient motivation to embark on a perilous, globe-trotting quest; they’re supposed to reveal something about the intrepid archaeologist himself, as well. So, which of Indiana Jones’ MacGuffins performs this dual function best? Read on to find out!

Note: This list is only concerned with MacGuffins; to qualify as a MacGuffin, a relic has to be responsible for moving the story in question forward. So, don't expect to see the Chachapoyan Fertility Idol, Nurhachi's Ashes, the Cross of Coronado, the Roswell Specimen, or the (fake) Lance of Longinus anywhere here, since they don't drive the wider narrative of their respective movies. Similarly, none of the artifacts from The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles made the cut, as that show relies on its bookend sequences and other storytelling devices (rather than MacGuffins) to set events in motion.

5. Crystal Skull of Akator from Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

Indiana Jones
Image credit: Lucasfilm

It’s fitting (inevitable, even) that the least satisfying Indiana Jones movie is saddled with the least effective MacGuffin. Admittedly, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull’s Crystal Skull of Akator makes for a strong visual, and its psychic powers and extra-dimensional origins are novel – albeit polarizing – expansions to the franchise’s canon.

So why doesn’t it rank higher on this list? For starters, the moment when the Crystal Skull’s true power is finally unlocked is essentially a do-over of Raiders of the Lost Ark’s finale, which means it loses points for originality. But what really makes the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull’s MacGuffin so underwhelming is that it doesn’t tie into Indiana Jones’ growth as a character or the real issues at the heart of the story.

Indy contends with everything from his advancing age to fatherhood in the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, and his mission to safeguard the Crystal Skull connects to virtually none of it, either literally or symbolically. It’s a MacGuffin in the most basic sense of the word: an object designed to drive the plot forward that becomes increasingly irrelevant as the movie continues. That’s fine for other big screen blockbusters, but by Indiana Jones’ standards, it simply doesn’t cut it.

4. The Antikythera from Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny

Indiana Jones
Image credit: Lucasfilm

On paper, the Antikythera that lends Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny its name is the ultimate MacGuffin. On a superficial level, it represents a readily comprehensible danger – tinkering with the timeline is risky business, especially when deranged Nazi scientists are involved. And deeper than that, the Antikythera embodies Dial of Destiny’s core theme of being both haunted by the past and left behind by the future.

However, in practice, the Antikythera doesn’t quite deliver the goods. This is mostly because director James Mangold and Dial of Destiny’s other co-writers take too long to establish exactly what the ancient time machine is actually capable of. Sure, the Indiana Jones franchise is built on puzzle-solving and wonder, however, Mangold and co. overplay the air of mystery surrounding the Antikythera. We only get vague hints at its true purpose throughout the first half of the movie, and they’re just barely enough to keep us invested in Indy’s last-ever escapade.

In that sense, the Antikythera is almost a reverse of the traditional MacGuffin: its true significance becomes increasingly more apparent the closer to Dial of Destiny’s end credits we get. Your mileage will also vary on how well-executed the Antikythera-powered time travel sequence is – the paradoxes are cute if nothing else – as well as the device’s grounding in science fiction instead of the mysticism of classic Indiana Jones MacGuffins.

3. Shivalinga from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom

Indiana Jones
Image credit: Lucasfilm

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom’s Shivalinga gets a lot right, as MacGuffins go. It’s clear from the get-go what it is (a sacred relic that brings prosperity to the Indian village of Mayapore) and why Indiana Jones needs to retrieve it (to restore the village’s fortunes). More importantly, Shivalinga and the other Sankara Stones act as the catalyst for Indy’s transition from a good-natured mercenary chasing “fortune and glory” to the more overtly heroic figure seen elsewhere in the franchise.

If the Sankara Stones have a major weakness, it’s that they’re occasionally overshadowed by everything else going on in Temple of Doom. What with all the human sacrifices, hypnotic trances, and voodoo dolls, it’s easy to lose sight of what the primary supernatural item at play is here. Original Indiana Jones franchise architects George Lucas and Steven Spielberg also fail to fully sell the potential threat the Sankara Stones pose on a global scale – resulting in a MacGuffin that lacks the world-in-peril punch of the top three entries on this list.

2. The Ark of the Covenant from Raiders of the Lost Ark

Indiana Jones
Image credit: Lucasfilm

The first-ever Indiana Jones MacGuffin and easily the most iconic, the Ark of the Covenant comes so close to being the perfect storytelling device. Not only does Raiders of the Lost Ark immediately establish the Ark as a credible risk to humanity’s future – “invincible Nazi army” is incredibly effective shorthand – but the film just as efficiently links the legendary artifact to Indiana Jones’ character arc.

Indy hasn’t fully kicked the fortune-seeking mentality he displayed in Temple of Doom (which is set prior to Raiders of the Lost Ark, despite premiering later), and his relationship with the Ark reflects this. Throughout the film, he’s at least partly motivated by the prospect of being the one to discover the Ark’s secrets and can’t even bring himself to destroy it for the greater good. It’s only at the end that our hero finally accepts that some knowledge isn’t meant for mortals, sparing him and his love interest Marion Ravenwood from the carnage that ensues.

However, this climactic scene also underscores the Ark of the Covenant’s main shortcoming as a MacGuffin, which is that Indiana Jones’ role in keeping it out of Hitler’s hands is utterly superfluous. As many a pop culture commentator has pointed out in the 42 years since Raiders of the Lost Ark’s release, had Indy opted to sit out the events of the movie, the Nazis would still have opened the Ark and been consumed by the divine forces within. Of course, this doesn’t diminish Indy’s arc itself, but it does undercut the overall impact of his debut outing somewhat.

1. The Holy Grail from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade

Indiana Jones
Image credit: Lucasfilm

While the Ark of the Covenant almost edged its way to the top of this list, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade’s Holy Grail was ultimately the only choice for the number one spot. Funnily enough, the Holy Grail shares all the Ark’s storytelling strengths and weaknesses. It’s just that in the Grail’s case, the former more resoundingly outweighs the latter.

As with the Ark, Lucas and Spielberg do a great job communicating the Holy Grail’s literal importance, and it once again boils down to 'Nazis could use it to conquer the world.' But where the pair really outdo themselves is by presenting the MacGuffin as a symbol for Indy’s relationship with his estranged father, Henry Jones Snr. Tracking down the cup of Christ is about more than just defeating the Third Reich – it’s also about bringing the Joneses back together.

No other relic in the Indiana Jones franchise is able to match this level of narrative/emotional synergy, and that’s what makes the Holy Grail the best MacGuffin of them all. Indeed, the Last Crusade’s MacGuffin is so good, it even steamrolls over the Ark-like cracks in the film’s internal logic (including nagging questions such as: 'If the Grail’s powers are limited by geography, what did it matter if the Nazis beat Indy to it?').

It's high time you revisit Indy - in order - with our guide to how to watch Indiana Jones.

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About the Author
Leon Miller avatar

Leon Miller

Contributing Writer

Leon is an Australian freelance blogger based in the UK. His writing credits include articles on film, TV, video games, and comic books for Popverse, Polygon, PanelxPanel, Screen Rant, CBR, Cultured Vultures, The Things, and Taste of Cinema.

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