Five real-life adventurers who may have inspired Indiana Jones

Percy Fawcett
Percy Fawcett

In June 1981, the classic action-adventure film The Raiders of the Lost Ark was unleashed upon cinema audiences. It was the first appearance of Dr Henry Walton 'Indiana' Jones, Jr., the intrepid archaeologist who is undoubtedly one of the most famous and recognisable characters of the film world.

Indiana Jones, played by Harrison Ford, is a fictional creation of American movie maestro George Lucas. Though Lucas has never said whether Dr Jones is based on a real-life figure, many have speculated that certain historical figures may have inspired the famous whip-cracking adventurer.

Here we take a brief look at the life and work of five men whose names have often cropped up in discussions about the ‘real’ Indiana Jones.

1. Percy Fawcett (1867-1925?)

Possibly the individual most often touted as an inspiration for Indiana Jones is Percy Harrison Fawcett. A British Army officer, surveyor, and daring jungle explorer, Fawcett’s life story reads like the plot of an adventure novel or action film.

He served all over the world as an artillery officer, worked at one time for the British Secret Service, and was also active in uniform as a surveyor, explorer, and cartographer.

He spent much of the last two decades of his life exploring the deep and unknown jungles of South America, going on frequent, long expeditions there while still finding time to serve on the front line in the First World War.

For the last ten years or so of his (known) life, stemming from his research and his studies in archaeology, he became convinced that in the depths of Brazil’s mighty Amazon rainforest was a lost city. He believed this to be the ruins of an ancient and one-mighty civilisation.

He called this city ‘Z’.

In May 1925, Fawcett, his son Jack, and his son’s friend Raleigh Rimell left Dead Horse Camp, in the middle of the Mato Grosso region in the heart of Brazil, to find ‘Z’. They were never seen or heard from again, and theories about their fate range from them living out their days with a remote tribe, revered as kings, to them being murdered.

An educated man and a decorated soldier, Fawcett was also friends with H. Rider Haggard and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Doyle’s character of Professor Challenger is alleged to have been partly based on Fawcett, or at least the setting of the Professor Challenger novels on some of Fawcett’s jungle forays.

2. Hiram Bingham III (1875-1956)

The most recently released Indiana Jones film, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008), sees the eponymous hero searching for ancient artefacts in Peru.

A real-life adventurer who successfully located and retrieved important relics from Peru is American historian, adventurer, and First World War aviator Hiram Bingham.

Bingham is famous for having reached the ancient Inca city of Machu Picchu in 1911, though whether he was the first to ‘rediscover’ the city in the modern era is disputed by some.

Machu Picchu was an important city of the ancient Inca Empire, built in the 15th century high in the Andes mountains, 50 miles from the Inca capital Cusco.

Bingham studied at and worked for several of the most prestigious universities in the US, including Yale. It was Yale University where Bingham took many of the precious objects he unearthed at Machu Picchu, and over the past decade or so Yale has begun the process of returning some of these items to Peru.

3. Langdon Warner (1881-1955)

Darting across the globe to East Asia, where Indy had several adventures, we find ourselves in the old stomping ground of American archaeologist and expert in East Asian art, Langdon Warner.

A Harvard-based museum curator and professor, he undertook many exploratory missions to China and Japan in the early years of the 20th century. Between 1906 and 1952, Warner embarked on eighteen expeditions, mostly to Asia, including missions in the 1920s that penetrated deep into Western China. He was made a US Vice Consul at one point during the First World War and made secret reports from Siberia and Japan.

Warner acquired rare and priceless artefacts for museums and taught Japanese to American officials after the war. During the Second World War, he was a principal advisor to the ‘Monuments Men’ of the Pacific Theatre and was highly regarded in Japan.

4. Roy Chapman Andrews (1884-1960)

If Lucas did indeed draw upon a flesh and blood man for inspiration for ‘Indy’, then many might put their money on that man having been Roy Chapman Andrews.

From his early twenties, Andrews’s career was Indiana Jones-like: he was a museum-based academic with a thirst and talent for adventurous fieldwork.

Andrews trained in mammalogy and for much of his life worked for the American Museum of Natural History in New York, collecting specimens for them and eventually becoming the museum’s director in 1934.

Andrews undertook many long and arduous expeditions through China and Mongolia during the 1910s and 1920s. On these adventures, Andrews collected fossil remains of dinosaurs and mammals, as well as searching for remains of early humans in central Asia.

A marksman, horseman, and prolific writer, he wrote in 1935 that he was ‘born to be an explorer’.

5. William Montgomery McGovern (1897-1964)

What New Yorker McGovern managed to squeeze into his sixty-seven years seems almost unbelievable. In fact, McGovern could easily have been an inspiration for Indiana Jones, James Bond, Jack Ryan, and just about any other accomplished hero.

In his youth, he travelled extensively, including to Mexico, South America, and Tibet, before collecting degrees from prestigious universities in Japan and Europe.

McGovern was a professional academic for much of his life, holding a professorship in political science, lecturing at various times in government, Far Eastern Studies, and military intelligence, as well as being a linguist able to speak a dozen languages.

He served as a covert officer in the US military during World War II and he also worked as an anthropologist based at a Chicago museum.

His scrapes in the Far East of the 1930s, his popularity among his university students, and his language abilities are all strongly reminiscent of the intrepid Indiana Jones.

Written by:

James Brigden