Often flying by the seat of his pants, the famed adventurer Indiana Jones is a hallmark of action cinema. Harrison Ford imbued the character with a penchant for curiosity and danger. Ever since the character’s debut film in 1981, Raiders of the Lost Arkthe archaeology professor has lived in the hearts of countless fans.
However, Indy wouldn’t be the man he is without the obstacles that get in his way during his most harrowing adventures. Villainous conspirators attempt to thwart the rogue adventurer at every turn often in hopes of claiming the treasure for themselves. These villains are as maniacal and colorful as a retro comic book, and the films wouldn’t be what they are without them. In honor of Indy’s latest adventure in Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destinylet’s take a look back at the best villains in the Indiana Jones franchise.
7. Irina Spalko
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Much like the Nazis that came before her in Raiders and Last CrusadeIrina Spalko, portrayed by Cate Blanchett (Tár, Elizabeth: The Golden Age), is simply an agent of a regime bent on world domination. In Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, the Soviets are vying to control the tension between nuclear powers and Spalko leads an outfit of soldiers to locate and harness the power of yet, another ancient artifact. Located deep within the Amazon is a city of legend and myth known as Akator. It’s there that Spalko intends to use extra-terrestrial artifacts (the crystal skulls) at a mystical altar in order to obtain whatever power it offers in the Soviet’s conflict with the Western world.
While just as maniacal as her other villainous counterparts in the Indiana Jones series, Spalko was mostly a Soviet replica of the ambitious and overzealous Nazis that Indy contended with decades ago. Her drive to obtain power to crush her geopolitical foes was wholly reminiscent of Arnold Ernst Toht (Ronald Lacey), the villainous Gestapo commander in Raiders of the Lost Ark. And just like Toht, her cavalier approach in the presence of unknown supernatural forces became her own undoing. When reuniting the crystal skull with the other alien artifacts in Akator, she is offered a reward. Spalko requests to become all-knowing. The infusion of unlimited knowledge is too much for her corporeal form to bear and she disintegrates. While entertaining, it’s a villainous storyline the Indiana Jones series has done before making it a tad underwhelming.
6. Mola Ram and the Thugee cultists
When Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom hit theaters in 1984, the film’s dark themes and grisly imagery tested the bounds of the MPAA’s PG rating, ultimately giving way to the creation of the PG-13 designation. Interestingly, the film is a prequel to Indy’s debut cinematic adventure in Raiders of the Lost Ark. Set in the year 1935, Indiana Jones and his circumstantial companions, Willie Scott (Kate Capshaw) and Short Round (Everything Everywhere All at Once‘s Ke Huy Quan), find themselves aiding the small Indian village of Mayapore in retrieving a sacred artifact and their children from an evil, bloodthirsty cult.
Mola Ram, the high priest of the Thuggee cult, is introduced in the most sinister fashion as he uses the stolen power of Hindu gods to rip out the heart of a victim who is miraculously kept alive long enough to be burned in the magma below the cult’s place of worship. Mola Ram not only looks frightening with his horned headpiece and devilish stare, but he also sows plenty of chaos in the surrounding region. He uses his power to manipulate and brainwash local leaders, enslaves the villager’s children to mine for other mystical gems, and ultimately kills in the name of Kali. He even brings the titular hero under his control at one point nearly forcing him to sacrifice Willie until Short Round saves the day. Ultimately, Mola Ram receives his just deserts when he falls into a river and is torn apart by crocodiles.
5. Elsa Schneider
Ever the wolf in sheep’s clothing, Elsa Schneider aligns with the Nazis and their bid for power much to the disdain of the scorned Indiana Jones. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade sees the hapless hero fall for Elsa’s charade, and even make love to her while seeking the grail diary that will lead to the Holy Grail relic. Even though Indy’s father, Henry Sr. (Sean Connery) reveals her treachery to Indy, he doesn’t want to believe it until he disarms himself and she takes the diary for herself.
Indy is a true romantic, and if there’s one way to muddy up his senses, it’s through an insatiable dalliance with another fortune hunter. Elsa played on this weakness, but the hero ultimately won the day. Even after everything, Indy attempts to protect her from a sure death, but her greed and lust for power supersedes logic resulting in her own demise.
4. Colonel Ernst Vogel
History rightly dictates that the Nazi Party is ultimately one of the greatest villains in modern human history. So it stands to reason that villainous archetypes in cinema are sometimes centered around the fascist regime. The Nazi element returns in the third film Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Colonel Ernst Vogel has literally been tasked by the Führer himself, Adolf Hitler, with locating the ancient relic known as the Holy Grail.
In fact, this may be the sole reason Vogel is such a highly despised villain. He is, in effect, a stand-in for Adolf Hitler. Without actually placing the Führer in the film directly, Vogel acts on Hitler’s every word and eventually goes toe-to-toe with Indiana Jones. But he is depicted as a sadist and has the license to commit various atrocities under the Nazi banner. Vogel lives and dies by the sword as he plummets to his death following a clash with the titular hero. Good riddance!
3. Walter Donovan
What’s worse than Nazi? How about a traitorous American aristocrat who defects and aligns himself with the Nazis in pursuit of more riches, antiquities, and power. That’s where Walter Donovan (Julian Glover) comes into play. He knows that all the wealth in the world can’t bend the will of time to circumvent death. But what if he had a mystical relic that is alleged to grant immortality to anyone who drank from it? Donovan is in league with Vogel and Schneider in an attempt to claim the Holy Grail for himself.
At the end of the day, Donovan is betrayed by Schneider who tricks him into drinking from the wrong vessel. The punishment for doing so is rapid aging and death. Actor Julian Glover is a standout in the role who clearly embodies the fascist regime’s bid for power. In fact, you’ll see Glover among the ranks of another Nazi-inspired faction in cinema, that of the evil Empire in The Empire Strikes Back. In the legendary Star Wars sequel film, he portrays General Veers, the man who is leading the Imperial assault on Hoth. Glover is no stranger to portraying villainous and greedy totalitarians on the big screens, and his heel turn in Last Crusade is his most memorable performance.
2. Major Arnold Toht
As a member of the SS and sadistic executor of Nazi high command, Major Arnold Toht is the prime Nazi leader in league with Rene Belloq to seek out the Ark of the Covenant in a bid to gain supernatural power over the Allies. Ronald Lacey’s performance of the character is most unsettling as he displays a measure of emotional disconnect with the death and carnage he leaves in his wake. In fact, there’s a sinister glee behind the madman’s countenance that has us all rooting for his demise. What makes Toht truly evil is that he never actually believes in anything that he is doing. He’s a skeptic when it comes to this supernatural business and simply follows orders making the fact that he kills and maims with ease along the way all the more psychopathic.
Toht’s inevitable demise is, perhaps, the most memorable death in the entire Indiana Jones saga. After the Ark of the Covenant is opened, the spirits that rise cause the horrific deaths of all who look upon it. Toht’s own face is melted away as he screams in terror. Just imagine the young PG crowd witnessing that on screen back in 1981 and then trying to go home and sleep at night.
1. René Belloq
In Raiders of the Lost ArkRené Belloq was an occupational nemesis of Dr. Jones. He, too, is an archaeologist that often thwarts Indiana Jones at every turn. The beginning of the film sees him stealing an ancient fertility idol from Indiana Jones under the threat of death. He uses his multi-lingual skills to convince the native Hovitos that Jones is a threat. He shows no regard for human life in the pursuit of his own discoveries and ambitions.
This becomes all the more apparent when the French archaeologist aligns with the Nazis to track down the Ark of the Covenant. Belloq believes the relic will enable him to gain an audience with divinity. Though, like the rest of the Nazis who looked upon the power of the Ark after it was opened, Belloq perished quickly and brutally as his head pops like a grape crushed in the hands of a two-year-old. Belloq might be the most memorable villain simply because he’s ultimately Indiana Jones’ dark mirror image. He’s representative of what Indy could become if obsession ever takes over.
You can watch all four Indiana Jones movies on Paramount+ and Disney+. Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny is in theaters June 30.