Who was the real Indiana Jones? -- EXCLUSIVE


Image Credit: Courtesy of National Geographic Society; Lucasfilm Ltd.

Almost from the day Raiders of the Lost Ark premiered 30 years ago on June 12, 1981, fans have speculated about who the real-life model for Indiana Jones had been. While researching his forthcoming book, Turn Right at Machu Picchu: Rediscovering the Lost City One Step at a Time (June 30; Dutton) journalist Mark Adams (brother of EW editor Jason Adams) investigated the background of one of the prime suspects — a dashing young Yale history professor, Hiram Bingham III, who found the ruins of Machu Picchu nearly 100 years ago. Here is an exclusive excerpt from the book: 

Even before controversies sent Bingham’s reputation as a hero into steep decline, his role as America’s greatest swashbuckling explorer had been superseded by an even more indelible adventurer: Indiana Jones. There have been any number of attempts to prove that Bingham’s life was the source material for the movie hero: Both are university professors who dabble in archaeology, both search the blank spots of the map looking for important relics, both wear fedoras. The opening scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark, in which Indy outruns a gigantic rolling boulder, takes place in a part of Peru that looks like it could be within walking distance from Machu Picchu.

The most direct connection between Indy and Bingham is a 1954 B-movie titled Secret of the Incas. The movie features two good-looking stars: Charlton Heston, who plays Harry Steele, a hard-boiled treasure hunter based out of Cusco; and Machu Picchu, playing itself. Deborah Nadoolman Landis, who designed the costumes for Raiders, has said that she and her team watched Secret of the Incas multiple times and based Indy’s look on Harry Steele’s; both treasure hunters have a weakness for earth tones, leather jackets and, of course, fedoras. The most obvious connection between the two films, however, is Raiders’ famous map-room scene, in which Indy holds the staff of Ra and catches a beam of sunlight to reveal the location of the Ark of the Covenant on a scale model of the lost city of Tanis. In Secret, Steele consults a tabletop reproduction of Machu Picchu — which, much like Indiana Jones, he happens to possess the key missing piece of — then employs an ancient Inca reflector to direct a shaft of light to the spot where the coveted golden sunburst is hidden.

The link from Indy to Harry Steele is obvious — the beam-of-light trick in Raiders is pretty clearly a winking homage to the earlier film, the sort of thing Quentin Tarantino fans applaud in their favorite auteur. This hasn’t prevented cinema conspiracy buffs from pointing out that Secret and Raiders were both produced by Paramount and that Secret has never been released on DVD. (Producer George Lucas and director Steven Spielberg have always maintained that Indy was inspired by innumerable old adventure movies, a claim that is largely backed up by the transcript of the meetings in which they, along with screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan, hashed out the film’s plot.)

The leap from Harry Steele to Hiram Bingham is a little harder to make. What puzzled me the first time I watched Secret of the Incas was that it was loaded with slightly off-key references from actual Inca history, remnants from a not-quite-erased earlier story peeking through like a palimpsest. The American archaeologists’ Quechua helper is named Pachacutec; the foreigners are excavating at Machu Picchu in hopes of finding the tomb of Manco Inca; everyone in the movie is searching for the sun disk, the holiest relic from the Koricancha, which supposedly has been buried at Machu Picchu. Bingham’s Lost City of the Incas would have been far and away the most accessible source of this information(From LCI, chapter nine: “The great golden image of the Sun which had been one of the chief ornaments of the temple in Cusco was probably kept here at Machu Picchu after Manco escaped from Cusco.”) The screenwriter Sydney Boehm, however, told the San Francisco Chronicle that he got the idea for Secret after meeting the Peruvian-born chanteuse Yma Sumac, who also appeared in the film, at a party.

The full story is a bit more complicated than that. Buried in Beverly Hills amid the hundreds of thousands of files in the archives of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences are the production notes of Secret of the Incas. In late 1951, Boehm (who had just written the screenplay for the noir classic The Big Heat) and a partner submitted three loose ideas to the head of production at Paramount. One of them was titled “Lost City of the Incas.” The film was planned as an adventure yarn set in Peru. Bingham’s widely publicized book of the same name had been published less than three years earlier. In another memo written a few months later, Boehm’s lead character had been fleshed out. Stanley Moore was a Yale-trained archaeologist, “a tall, slender man with an abstracted face” who was carrying out excavations at Machu Picchu.

By 1953, for whatever reason — a potential lawsuit from Bingham doesn’t seem entirely out of the realm of possibility — Boehm’s story emerged from the Hollywood sausage grinder with a new title and a new lead character, the rough-edged Harry Steele. Stanley Moore was stripped of his Yale credentials and relegated to a supporting role as the sap that doesn’t get the girl.

So in a roundabout way, Indiana Jones almost certainly had been inspired by Bingham’s discovery of Machu Picchu. Unlike Bingham, however, Indy knew his archaeoastronomy.

Comments (36 total) Add your comment
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  • banana

    Cool article.

  • Michael

    “Secret of the Incas” is available on netflix streaming! Right now!

    • JPX

      Cool, thanks for the tip!

    • barock

      It’s a good movie 50’s style

    • Tracey

      Thanks for the tip! I will watch it tonight.

    • Myra

      Thanks, just added it to my queue! Might be a good way to celebrate Indie, watching one of the inspirations used by the film makers.

      Loved #1&#3 and even though I liked #2&#4 less, I still own all of them. I liked #2 the least. I liked #4 because it was an homage to Marion! Glad they wrapped up her story that way. It was actually what my fantasy of their future was after #1…they were together for a while, broke up, Marion had a son & Indie doesn’t find out till 20 years later. I even wrote it down in one of my story idea notebooks many years ago. So I have a soft spot in my heart for #4!

  • ‘gate alum

    There’s an exhibit in a museum at Colgate University that states that Indy was based on Dr. Andrews. Andrews was the head of the American History Museum in NY and a Prof. at Colgate. He is credited with discovering one of the first dinosaur eggs in the Gobi and leading numerous explorations backed by the Colgate family.

    • George

      Roy Chapman Andrews! I remember reading his book, “In the days of the Dinosaurs” about the Gobi discoveries. It was the first “real” book I read as a child. Looking back, it did seem like an Indiana Jones adventure story. :)

  • donald

    I had always heard Indiana Jones was based on Professor Robert Braidwood from Chicago’s Oriental Institute.

  • donald

    I had always heard that Indiana Jones was based on Professor Robert Braidwood from Chicago’s Oriental Institute.

    • LG

      That’s what I thought too

    • gak

      I’m pretty sure you’re right. And, from what I know, there really isn’t much controversy about that claim…

  • Emoney

    Off topic, a little, but I just gotta say it. How smokin’ hot is Harrison Ford in that picture?? Today’s movie star men, IMHO, could learn a lot about what’s attractive from that guy. Fit, but not grotesquely ripped. Chest hair. He looks like a real man and it’s hot.

    • Sara

      I totally agree!

    • erin

      Yep! The ultimate movie star in my book!

    • kookabera

      agree 100%. not waxed buffed and styled. I would take him over 99.% of what’s out there today. Let’s bring masculinity back.

      • m

        masculinity isn’t a thing to be brought back like acid wash jeans. masculinity is a product of the media and society, forcing us to have some odd view as to how men should be. we need to move away from archetypes of masculine and feminine; they’re not healthy ideas.

      • crapshot

        @ m – get over your PC babble. There is nothing wrong with a man to be be masculine.

      • anne

        m–not sure we can get rid of archetypes since they’re archetypes, after all. Ford’s brand of masculinity seems pretty healthy and organic to me, not just a product of the media.

    • BLT

      Harrison Ford was the sh!t. Hans, Indy, even Jack Ryan. Where has the “movie star” gone? Except for Pitt & Clooney, else?

      • BLT

        meant to say: who else qualifies as a bona fide “movie star” today?

      • bigbri

        I would put Matt Damon in that list.

      • Pete

        Pitt lost it with boinking Morticia Jolie .Clooney was never a movie star-still can’t open a film. Ford is the Man-His closet contempories are Liam Neeson and Daniel Craig

  • Chris

    Um, Indy doesn’t “dabble” in archaeology. That’s like saying Vader “dabbles” in The Force.

    • Michael

      Good point, nerd! ;)

    • Michelle


  • Jake

    Good for Bingham that he didn’t know his archaeoastronomy. Then he would have been the inspiration of a crappy movie.

  • jack fenton

    Anyone know what happened to Yma Sumac,(Amy Cumas) WEhat was her voice range????

  • biphindy

    As an FYI, in the Young Indiana Jones tv show, the Indy character actually mentioned Hiram Bingham’s discovery of Macchu Pichu to his girlfriend’s father, Edward Stratemeyer.

  • Bob Dustrude

    Until now I was under the impression that Indiana was based on the life of Roy Chapman Andrews, an archeologist from Beloit, WI and the discoverer of the first dinosaur eggs in China, and a true adventurer.

  • James Byrne

    I’m looking forward to this book – just pre-ordered it today. SECRET OF THE INCAS was probably the last movie Hiram Bingham saw at a cinema, he died a couple of years later, and I doubt he enjoyed it. There is one scene in it that actually advertises Bingham’s book though. Heston reaches Machu Picchu and says to Nicole Maurey “There it is … Machu Picchu …. The Lost City of the Incas”. Bingham seeing Giesecke’s name in gold Inca walls as the credits rolled must have really hurt.

  • L

    I also thought Roy Chapman Andrews was the inspiration.

  • Donna

    Idk who the real Indiana Jones was/is but, I do know that was the best movie of all time. Action,suspence,romance,adventure,comedy, all rolled into one! A kind of sitting on the edge movie!!!!

  • ahmed

    it is mre nice movie ad actors i love this movie

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