Indiana Jones and the Roma Woman

We are approaching the release of Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny, Harrison Ford’s fifth (sixth, actually) outing as the titular archeologist and adventurer. After this, the character is said to be retired, but Lucasfilm head Kathleen Kennedy has hinted at the possibility of the franchise continuing in a Disney+ series, centered around other characters. There are some pre-existing characters in the Indiana Jones franchise who could have a series centered around them. One of them happens to be a Roma woman.

1989 saw the release of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. The character would return to the big screen 19 years later, in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. However, the franchise had not been idle during those 19 years. 1992 saw the start of TV series The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles on American television, which dealt with Indiana’s life between 1908 and 1920. It was canceled after two seasons, due to high costs, with some episodes never airing. Lucasfilm founder (and Indiana Jones/Star Wars creator) George Lucas took the existing episodes and brought back some of the actors (and actors playing new characters) and had them shoot additional scenes and stories. Using the existing episodes, and the new material, Lucas edited them into 22 feature-length movies under the title The Adventures of Young Indiana Jones.

The 17th movie was given the title Masks of Evil, and consists of ”Istanbul, September 1918” and ”Transylvania, January 1918”. ”Transylvania, January 1918” was an unaired episode (in Masks of Evil, its events get moved to right after ”Istanbul, September 1918”). It had Indiana Jones (then working as a spy during the first world war) being sent on a mission to Transylvania in 1918. He joins forces with several other Allied agents, including a 24-year-old woman named Maria Straussler, who might be Roma (the 22 movies feature very diverse supporting casts: Chinese, Indians, Native Americans, African Americans, different African ethnic groups, Arabs, Italians, Jews, etc.).

While a male agent that she’s working with is identified as a Romanian national, Maria is not. Strangely, Maria is the only character in the story whose nationality is left unsaid. All the other characters (even minor ones) have their nationalities said explicitly. When one looks at the first half of Masks of Evil (”Istanbul, September 1918”), it also features several Allied spies working in Istanbul, who all have their nationalities established. Maria, on the other hand, nothing. Indiana Jones meets her in Romania, but her last name is German. Despite that German last name, she works as a spy for the Allies and is engaged to a Frenchman. The evidence suggests that she is not simply some Romanian woman, who has been recruited by the Allies as a spy. In fact, the evidence points to her not being from there, but went to Romania/Transylvania, after the disappearance of her fiancé.

Together with the other Allied agents, Indiana and Maria investigate a mysterious Romanian General named Matthias Targo. The whole thing is a Dracula story, with Dracula being reimagined as this vampiric Romanian WWI General.

Romani characters are no strangers to Dracula stories. However, they are usually framed as loyal servants and hench people of the vampire (i.e., villains). Which is what they get to be in Francis Ford Coppola’s film Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992), produced around the same time as ”Transylvania, January 1918”. In ”Transylvania, January 1918”, Maria gets to be one of the heroes (even saving Indiana’s life, thanks to her skills as a knife expert). In line with some Roma stereotypes, Maria is framed as a masterful pickpocket. A skill that is used to demonstrate that she can handle herself, after a sexist American colonel expresses uncertainty about bringing a woman along on such a dangerous mission, by stealing his knife (and then throwing it within an inch of his head, to get the point across).

Maria is not like the two Roma girls in From Russia with Love (1963), who are indicated to have a three-way with James Bond (which might be the only time that Bond’s implied to have a three-way), right after they had both been shown passionately in love with another man (to the point that they were willing to fight over him to death). Maria is neither romantically nor sexually interested in Indiana Jones. She is the fiancée of a French spy (who had previously been sent to investigate General Targo), whose disappearance is her motivation for being there. Maria is chronologically neither the first nor the last Romani person to cross paths with Indiana Jones. In the film Travels with Father, a younger Indiana Jones runs away while visiting Russia in 1909. He joins forces with fellow runaway Leo Tolstoy, with the two getting a lift from some Roma people. They attempt to stay the night at the camp but are forced to
flee when the Tsar’s forces attack the Roma camp and massacres the Roma. In the film Hollywood Follies, Indiana attends the same Hollywood party in 1920 as Pola Negri (Polish Roma). And those are just two examples from these 22 films, and related media.

It is never established how Maria became an expert with knives. However, the tenth film in the series, Phantom Train of Doom, had featured another character with the same expertise: Zoltan, a European circus performer who joined the 25th (Frontiersmen) Battalion, Royal Fusiliers. It is not uncommon in Europe for Roma people to be involved in the circus (1), making it possible that Maria and Zoltan (who makes a passing mention of Romanies) are both Roma/Sinti who have been involved with the circus.

Maria represents many kinds of women (not just Roma women). She is one of the women who went to work during WWI, be it in factories or elsewhere (intelligence work, in Maria’s case), and would now be leaving that world with the war over (and attempting to adjust). She is one of the women who either married or were going to get married to one of the men who were killed during the war (throwing her planned future out the window). These are stories not often told, but they could be with Maria, alongside whatever type of adventure story (espionage or other) the writers would give her.

There are other candidates within the Indiana Jones franchise for a potential series centered around them, of course. However, one of the candidates should be Maria Straussler, a Roma character. Or have I seen a Roma character/hero (in both Maria and Zoltan), where none exist? (At times, I’ve doubted my gut feeling on this.) Born out of a desperate need for positive Roma images?

A break from all the stereotypical fortune tellers found in mainstream media. The stereotypical depiction of Roma people as stealing children (an image even found in more recent depictions of Roma people, ex. in the Criminal Minds episode “Bloodlines”). Or the image of the “evil Roma” throwing curses on everyone from the main character in Stephen King’s Thinner, to Homer Simpson and Barney Stinson’s ancestor.

Mainstream cinema and television need more positive Roma representation, and more Roma protagonists. This is where most people will come across images of Roma people. The mainstream media teaches other people how to view and feel about Roma people, while it sometimes also teaches us how to feel about our heritage and ourselves.

John Dalmas

1. Romer och cirkus i fokus


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