Wednesday, August 08, 2007

DAY 9: Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

There is a moment in Raiders of the Lost Ark when Indiana Jones, having confessed to a friend that he’s really just “making this all up as he goes,” rides into frame atop a white horse and takes off after a truck full of Nazis while his rousing theme music swells to epic proportions. It is in this scene, I would argue, that the character of Indiana Jones officially achieves mythic status. Like John Wayne or Clint Eastwood, Indiana Jones, famous archaeologist and rugged adventurer, is a hero in the tradition of great larger-than-life heroes (including Odysseus, Sherlock Holmes, James Bond and Superman). He is probably the most significant cultural hero to emerge in fiction over the last 30 years (with the exception of Harry Potter) and yet, unlike all of these other heroes, who all had their genesis in literature, Indiana Jones is a purely cinematic creation, with his origins deeply rooted in American movies and its language.

I doubt that director Steven Spielberg and writer/producer George Lucas intended to create such a significant archetypal character when they made Raiders of the Lost Ark. They just wanted to fashion a fun-filled popcorn flick (Spielberg has always reffered to it as a B-movie done on an A-movie budget) that recalled the kind of enjoyable cinematic experiences they both loved in their youth. Indeed Raiders is very much based in the "thrilling days of yesteryear." The image of Indy riding the horse, and the ensuing truck chase, owes much to the mythology of Hollywood Westerns (particularly Stagecoach), the episodic format of Raiders is heavily inspired by the matinee serials of the 40’s and 50’s (especially Zorro’s Fighting Legion), the action and stunts derive from films like 1950’s King Solomon’s Mines (including the boulder in the cave) and the character of Indiana Jones finds inspiration from a variety of sources such as Treasure of the Sierra Madre and the Paramount picture The Secret of the Incas (whose main character Harry Steele, played by Charlton Heston, wears a leather jacket, a felt fedora and a gun holster). In fact, author Omar Calebrese claims to have detected 350 references in Raiders of the Lost Ark. Rest assured I will not go into all of them here. I was simply elaborating on the level of passion and love for movies shared by the creators of Raiders and the fact that is shines through in every frame of the finished film.

Raiders began as a project conceived by George Lucas prior to his making of Star Wars. Spielberg got involved because of a vacation spent on the beach of Hawaii where he and Lucas awaited news of the box office returns for Star Wars (which, happily, turned out to be extremely favorable). When Lucas asked Spielberg what he planned to do next, Spielberg confessed that he had always wanted to direct a James Bond picture and Lucas modestly told him that he had something “even better than Bond.” Lucas proceeded to tell Spielberg all about the epic adventure he envisioned for Raiders and after hearing Lucas’ idea Spielberg enthusiastically offered to direct it when the project got underway. Years later, after the debacle of 1941, Spielberg’s career was in jeopardy and had the two of them not been good friends, had it been any other typical Holywood relationship, it’s possible—even likely—that Spielberg would not have gotten the opportunity to direct the film. Fortunately, Lucas honored their agreement and Raiders was to become the next movie helmed by Steven Spielberg.

Lucas and Spielberg approached talented writer (and future director) Larry Kasdan, co-author of The Empire Strikes Back, to pen the excellent script and then began the process of casting the picture. Obviously the most important role to fill was that of the film’s hero: Indiana Smith (Spielberg later admitted he didn’t care for the name and suggested a change). Spielberg suggested Harrison Ford but Lucas was hesitant having already worked with Ford on American Graffiti and cast him as Han Solo in the two Star Wars movies. Lucas was not hesitant due to any doubt of Ford’s talent or ability to work well with other people; he just didn’t want, as he put it, Ford to be his “Bobby DeNiro” (referring to the frequency with which DeNiro worked with their fellow director-friend Marty Scorsese). So, the two began searching for another actor eventually deciding on Tom Selleck, who had to pull out because of a contractual obligation to film a TV show called Magnum P.I. that was launching shortly thereafter. Left without an Indy, Spielberg suggested Harrison Ford once again. Lucas agreed. Ford was sent the script and he signed on not only for Raiders but for two sequels should the first one prove successful. Now, of course, Ford has become so indelibly associated with the character that it's impossible to imagine anyone else wearing that hat.

The film was shot, among other places, in Tunisia (at some of the same locations used for Star Wars) and at Esltree Studios in England. Because of the history of the ballooning shooting schedules for Jaws and Close Encounters (and the press surrounding the massively overblown budget of 1941) Spielberg had gained a reputation as a self-indulgent, over-schedule and over-budget director. Thus, Steven knew that he was going to have to prove that he could work quickly (but still effectively) bringing the movie in on time and under budget. Spielberg drew on the experience from his television days to accomplish this, never sacrificing the quality of the finished product but always thinking on his feet and sometimes improvising on the set. He managed to bring the movie in on time and under budget and the resulting movie crackles with energy and spontaneity.

Raiders is the roller coaster ride that 1941 had hoped to be, a virtual machine of thrills and laughs, carefully planned, expertly shot and beautifully constructed. Like Jaws it is a “perfect” movie for its genre. Many have faulted the film for being simply an exercise in technique and mechanics, for lacking any personal touch on the part of Spielberg, for not possessing the “heart” or human element that something like Close Encounters (or even Jaws) did, for having a “coldness” at its center. First off, while it is true that a great deal of the substance of Raiders lies in its style and execution, I think it is somewhat unfair to say the film has no warmth, humanity or any sense of the director’s personality in it. As I will hopefully demonstrate here there are numerous elements in Raiders that reflect Spielberg’s unique hand, heart and mind. Secondly, whatever little bit of Spielbergian “heart” manages to come through in the film is really just a bonus given that it was never intended to be anything other than a good old-fashioned serial. To fault it for being primarily a collection of exciting and suspenseful set pieces (however masterfully handled they may be) is to not understand nor appreciate what Spielberg and Lucas intended to create all along. Raiders of the Lost Ark is a romp (though not a parody), a “grand old time” at the movies in the best sense of the term and it ought to be approached and enjoyed primarily as such.


Spielberg sets the stage perfectly for Raiders with the film’s opening image. The Paramount logo appears on screen but it is not the contemporary studio logo. It is the old-fashioned logo and it hopefully gets the audience into the proper frame of mind. We are about to watch an “old” movie that will just happen to feature new actors and special effects.


Spielberg then begins building the spontaneous nature of the film with a dissolve to an actual real-life mountain that resembles the shape of the Paramount logo (this was a last-minute decision on the part of Spielberg during shooting). A small group of men, the first one wearing a leather jacket and hat, walk into frame as the main title appears.


The credits continue to roll over images of these men making their trek through a South American the jungle in the year 1936. At one point the leader stops by a river to examine a map and what follows is a fantastic little sequence (done entirely in montage) that both introduces Indiana Jones fittingly as well as establishes the pace that the movie will follow. One of his subordinates comes up behind him, slowly pulls out a gun and cocks the hammer. Indy’s head turns slightly as he hears the sound. The man raises his gun, Indy turns, grabs his bullwhip, raises it up in the air and brings it down with a snap. The gun flies out of the man’s hand and drops into the water, the man turns and runs away as Indy emerges from the shadows and we see his face for the first time.


The entire sequence is composed of twelve separate shots (spread out over a period of about twelve seconds) and it is indicative of the kind of rapid, action-cutting that will be seen throughout Raiders. It should be mentioned that Michael Kahn won an Oscar for his editing in Raiders and I have long felt it to be one of the best cut films I’ve ever seen. This is not to suggest that there aren't any editing errors in it because there are tons, but as I said in my post on Jaws, there is more to editing than simply "not making mistakes." Editing is an art and Mike Kahn employs that art beautifully in the creation of this film. Every shot and cut is exactly what/where it needs to be to achieve maximum effect. Kahn proves, once again, that in art there is a difference between doing the "correct" thing and doing the "right" thing.

Indy and his companion Satipo (a young Alfred Molina) enter a dark cave and encounter a series of threats and booby traps (including spiders, a bottomless pit and an array of spikes, arrows and darts that fly out of the walls). Eventually, after a suspensefully drawn-out sequence, Indy retrieves the object of his search, a small golden idol, triggering a massive mechanism in the process that proceeds to destroy the entire temple. As he and Satipo flee, Satipo is soon killed by another trap but not before he tries to betray his employer--in another brilliant extended sequence where they end up on opposite sides of the pit--by tricking him into giving him the idol in exchange for the whip Indy needs to cross the chasm. Thus, a certain moral code is established. Like a lot of escapist entertainment, this is a world where “good” guys survive and “bad” guys don’t. As Indy races for the entrance of the cave a large boulder, in what is one of the many iconic images from the film, chases him. He manages to elude it but ends up face-to-face with a group of hostile Hovitos pointing weapons at him right outside the cave's entrance. This is typical of the kind of situations Indy finds himself in: always going from one bad scenario to the next. “Out of the frying pan and into the fire” seems to be the governing law of Indy’s existence.

Indy looks up at a French archaeologist named Belloq (Paul Freeman) and in their exhange the audience learns that the two are rivals. Belloq takes the idol from Indy and sets the natives on his tail as Indy runs away. As the scene foreshadows, Belloq will prove to be the main antagonist to Indy in Raiders and although he will be, for the most part, a fairly formidable foe, this does illustrate one of the flaws that all of the Indy films seem to have: the lack of a truly great central villain. Typically Indy finds himself going up against whole groups of people (Nazis, the Thuggee cult, etc) rather than having an excellent personal opponent, worthy of his own tenacious personality, with which to combat. Belloq is perhaps the best of all the main villains seen so far in the Indy films but, as fine an actor as Freeman is, even he often comes off merely as an Aristocratic “poser” than an actual threat to Indy, his equal in evil. Perhaps it was inevitable that such an interesting, complex and charismatic protagonist couldn’t possible find an equally good “bad guy” to match, but it does remind us of the importance of having a truly interesting and despicable heavy to go up against in these kind of stories.

After escaping the natives by flying away in a plane piloted by a fellow named Jock, Spielberg caps off this extraordinary opening with a marvelous gag. Indy sees a snake in his lap and Jock informs him that it is his pet snake Reggie. Indy angrily shouts that he hates snakes and Jock sneers “Come on! Show a little backbone, will ya?” This is a wonderful exchange (and one that I didn't "get" for the longest time) because after having just bravely survived an absurd number of extreme dangers, Indy reveals that he is terribly afraid of snakes and his pilot (clueless as to what Indy just endured) admonishes him for being a coward. It is the perfect ending to the film's beginning because it adds humor to a sequence that was composed entirely of scares and shocks. Indeed the entire opening of Raiders is perhaps one of the best opening scenes of any movie. It sets up the tone and tenor of what is about to follow by demonstrating what kind of a character Indiana Jones is and what kind of adventures he tends to have, but it also has very little to do with the actual story of Raiders. It is just another among a series of isolated incidents Indy confronts often in his life. It is almost like it’s own "mini-movie" within a much bigger movie. If the audience is paying attention than they should know by now that they are in for a tremendous amount of fun.

In the following scenes, the plot of Raiders is finally revealed. Hitler is after the Ark of the Covenant hoping to use its power to conquer the world and Indy is more or less recruited by the American government to get to it first. This introduces another fascinating trait about Indy: he is essentially a mercenary "grave-robber" working for the state, and yet his own intentions in going after the Ark are quite different from that of his benefactors, they are more noble. Indy loves archaeology. Indy has a tremendous affection for the mysteries of history and his search for the Ark (and other comparable artifacts) is a very personal one. How he resolves in his own mind the conflict between these two very different pursuits is never made clear but it is typical of the kind of multi-faceted character that Indiana Jones is. In contrast to the film’s opening, for example, these academic scenes show Indy as a much more scholarly individual. We almost don’t recognize him as the same dirty, globe-trotting explorer we saw in the previous scenes. He is clean, neatly-dressed, eloquent and educated (even to the point of wearing spectacles). This dichotomy between the different “Joneses” (“Indiana Jones” the bold adventurer vs. “Dr. Jones” the intellectual college professor) is another one of the fascinating aspects of the character. Both seem to be equally true and yet both seem to be a lie at the same time. In his performance, Harrison Ford emphasizes this contradiction and in the process a character of intriguing complexity is created.

In the scenes where Indy and two government agents discuss the Ark of the Covenant another important element of Raiders is introduced: religion (particularly Judaism). Although Spielberg utilized religious imagery in Close Encounters, Raiders becomes the first film to deal explicitly with the subject. Spielberg is once again demonstrating that he is essentially a metaphysical storyteller. The existence/non-existence of the supernatural is a key question to all of the Indiana Jones films. These are not just purely thrill-seeking adventures; there is always some greater truth, moral law or secret of the universe at stake. The quest that Indy undertakes is not just a physical one but also a spiritual one. As he explicitly states in a conversation with his friend, and the curator of the museum, Marcus Brody (Denholm Elliott) Indy doesn’t believe in “magic and all that superstitious hocus pocus.”

Indy boards a plane bound for Nepal to seek out an old colleague and mentor named Abner Ravenwood--from whom he is currently estranged--in an effort to find a medallion he needs to locate the Ark and, again, Spielberg employs an old movie convention: a red line that stretches across a map chronicling Indy’s journey to his destination (it is a touch that would reappear in every Indy film). In a bar in Nepal, we meet the other major character in the film: Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen) the woman that will become Indy’s sidekick/heroine/leading lady in this adventure. The manner in which Marion is first glimpsed is a perfect introduction to her character. She is engaging in a drinking contest with a man and she wins. This shows that Marion is not the typical “damsel in distress” found in these types of movies. She is a “tough cookie;” a strong, fiery, independent woman not afraid to fight anyone for anything. Marion is a very fitting companion to Indiana. She is also one of the most interesting female characters to be found in a Spielberg film.

"Always knew some day you'd come walkin' back through my door."

Furthermore, as we shortly learn, she is the daughter of Abner Ravenwood and has a history with Indy. Apparently he de-flowered her in her youth and that was the cause of the falling out between Abner and Indy. The conversation between Marion and Indy is dialogue-writing at its best as the details of their background are not made explicit but the clarity of what occurred is nonetheless fully expressed. It is also, at times, utterly hilarious. After punching him in the face and admitting that she "learned to hate him over the years," Indy apologizes to Marion for his past transgressions saying, “I never mean to hurt you.” She exclaims: “I was a child. I was in love. It was wrong and you knew it!” to which Indy replies: “You knew what you were doing.” Although the two start out totally at odds at the outset of this whole thing, watching the progression of their relationship (as clichéd as it may be) is another very satisfying aspect of Raiders and it is handled with such sincerity (by the actors as well as the filmmakers) that it boggles my mind when people say Raiders has no humanity in it.

Soon, Nazis enter the bar, led by a particularly greasy character named Toht (Ronald lacey) whom Spielberg hired because he resembled Peter Lorre, and a gunfight breaks out. The scene is both exciting and funny (thanks, again, to little touches like Marion stopping for a drink in the midst of the chaos). One particularly humorous bit--where Indy shoots someone who is about to kill him and the shadow on the wall shows the victim recoiling with each blast--balances both of these elements very well and demonstrates the influence Michael Curtiz, a well-known afficianado of shadowplay, has over Raiders. It should also be mentioned that not one single note of music is heard throughout the shootout. Despite having composed a fantastic music score for the film (at the center of which is the now instantly recognizable Raiders March, a hero's theme if there ever was one) Williams wisely allows the scene to proceed unscored. In fact, before the fight, the music builds in intensity right up until the moment (literally) that the very first shot is fired. Then, the music cuts off and isn't heard again until the next scene. Ultimately, the bad guys are all killed (except for Toht who flees after having his hand burned by the medallion) and Indy and Marion agree to become partners.

Another red line takes us to Egypt and Indy meets with a big-hearted digger named Sallah (John Rhys Davies)--in a scene where the supernatural nature of the Ark is again discussed--and subsequently, after a brief coversation between Indy and Marion in the marketplace, Spielberg throws us into yet another action sequence: a chase through the streets of Cairo. Again, drawing its inspiration from the matinee serials of old, Raiders is clearly embracing its episodic nature. With very little plot and/or exposition inbetween them, Speilberg is putting the audience very much into the constantly active and in-motion world of Indiana Jones. As with the bar shootout, the chase sequence is both thrilling and humorous.


The most memorable moment for me, of course, comes when at one point during Indy's search for Marion, the crowd separates (like the parting of the Red Sea) and Indy is confronted by an Arab, dressed entirely in black, waving an enormous scimitar around.

This moment has all of the makings of the beginning of another large--typically Spielbergian--action sequence. And yet, knowing our expectations, Spielberg cleverely subverts them by having Indy look at the fellow with an expression that just says:

"I don't have time for this."

So, he pulls out his gun and shoots the guy.

It's a scene that never fails to make me laugh out loud (no matter how many times I see it) and yet the story of how it came to be is just as interesting as the scene itself.

Apparently, an elaborately choreographed fight was originally intended to go there but on the day of filming Ford felt terribly ill (everyone on the crew got sick at one point, except for Spielberg who insisted on eating canned food shipped from England). Harrison approached Steven and said that he didn't have it in him to shoot for more than an hour and he desperately needed to get back to the hotel. Since it was a very complicated scene with numerous camera set-ups Spielberg said that the only possible way he could shoot it in an hour was if Indy just blew the guy away. When the crew started to laugh, Spielberg realized that it could be a fantastic joke and decided to use it. Once again, this demonstrates Spielberg's improvisational approach to Raiders, his willingness to recognize a better idea when it comes along even if it doesn't align with his original vision.

Eventually the sequence ends with a truck, presumably carrying Marion, exploding in front of Indy and he is so distraught that he subsequently drinks himself into a drunken stupor. He then has another encounter with Belloq (where, once again, the religious themes of the movie are explored) and almost kills him were it not for Belloq being surrounded by armed "guards." Indy is escorted out by a group of children (another Spielberg staple) and is brought by Sallah to a wise old man who interprets the markings on the medallion. Indy learns from Sallah that Belloq has his own copy of the medallion (made from the scars in Toht's palm) but because he only has one side of it, his information is incomplete and his calculations erroneous. Throughout the scene Indy holds a date in his hand, which the audience knows has been poisoned, and comes very close to eating it several times. This keeps the conversation from being merely expository and adds an extra element of suspense to it. The scene even ends with a very Hitchcockian shot (an overhad angle of a dead monkey seen through the spinning blades of the ceiling fan).

The following sequence where Indy is lowered into the map room in order to use the staff of Ra to determine the location of the Ark's hiding place is an inherently cinematic scene. There is no dialogue. The methodical process by which Indy figures out which hole to place the staff into is done all in pantomime and as the music builds (prominently featuring Williams' memorable "Ark theme") so does the audience's anticipation of what will occur. Finally, at the appropriate time a beam of light (another Spielbergian trademark) strikes the spot that Indy was looking for. It is a marvelous marriage of images and music and, like a lot of the set pieces in Raiders, functions both in context of the story and as its own "mini-movie."

After discovering that Marion is actually alive but being held prisoner by Belloq (in a very funny scene where Indy refuses to rescue her as it could endanger the "mission") Indy, Sallah and a group of workers labor feverishly to unearth the Well of the Souls, the resting place of the Ark. Later that night, as they uncover the entrance, the sky rumbles, lightning strikes and all of creation seems to be shaken by the activities of this small band of humans (there is even an eerie, almost human-sounding moan that occurs at the very moment they unseal the tomb). Indy soon discovers that the entire floor of the temple is covered with the one creature he is deathly afraid of: snakes. Once again, Spielberg finds the humor amidst the scares. Indy is lowered down into the pit but is accidentally dropped and faces down a hooded cobra. At this point, if one looks carefully, one can see the reflection of the cobra in the glass that separates it from Harrison Ford. Even as a young child I noticed this and instead of ruining the "illusion" that what I was seeing was actually real, paradoxically, it made it even more "real" for me. I thought to myself, "Of course they needed a piece of glass there: to keep this actor from getting killed by this dangerous animal." It might even have been my first introduction to the fact that there was a whole world that existed beyond the camera working to create the images that end up on screen. That was a world I wanted to be familiar with.

While Sallah and Indy work to retrieve the Ark (being very careful not to touch it) Marion attempts to break free from Belloq's grasp by drinking him under the table as she did in her introductory scene. Unfortunately, before she manages to escape, she runs right into Toht who produces what seems to be an instrument of torture but proves only to be a coat hanger (this was a gag Spielberg originally attempted to use in 1941 but felt that it didn't work). As the sun rises Belloq notices a lot of activity at the top of the hill and immediately orders soldiers up there to investigate. Inside the Well of Souls, Indy places the Ark in a crate, has it lifted out of the pit (followed by Sallah) and is about to be pulled out himself when the rope falls limpy at his feet and Belloq peers in gloating over the fact that, once again, he has claimed for himself what Indy has done all the work to retreive. So that Indy doesn't have to die "all alone in that awful place" the Nazis toss Marion (now wearing a white dress that vulnerably exposes her) into the pit with Indy and seal it up. Thinking quickly, Indy manages to uses the giant statue of the Jackal to break through the temple wall and effect an escape for he and Marion.

At this point the movie is now starting to move directly from one action sequence to the next without hardly a respite inbetween. After escaping their burial, Indy sees that the Nazis are planning to fly the Ark out of Egypt. He decides to hijack the plane but unfortunately ends up engaged in a vicious fistfight with a rather large, muscular soldier. Interestingly, the Nazi is played by the same actor who fought Indy earlier in the bar shootout. He will appear again briefly in both the second and third Indy films as well. It's sort of an amusing cosmic joke that wherever Indy goes, he has to keep killing an incarnation of this large man (in Raiders he is dispatched by the propeller of the plane). What makes the scene especially exciting is that while Indy fights the Nazi, Marion ends up locked in the cockpit of the plane, which will shortly explode due to leaking gasoline approaching a nearby fire. It is yet another example of Speilberg's gift for concocting elaborate, suspenseful set pieces.


After the Nazis' plan to fly the Ark away are foiled, they load the Ark onto a truck and drive it away. Indy pursues the truck on horesback and what ensues is not only what has become perhaps the signature sequence in the movie (although there are so many to choose from) but one of the greatest chase scenes ever filmed. Indy boards the truck, throws off all the Nazis, takes a slug in the shoulder, gets thrown out the windshield, has to seek refuge under the truck, gets pulled along the ground behind it, reclaims the truck and eventually drives to safety. The whole scene is a masterpiece and yet very few people know that Spielberg didn't shoot most of it himself. Trying desperately to keep his promise of coming in on time and under budget, Spielberg found himself, for the first time in his career, handing over a major sequence to his second unit. Although Spielberg had the entire thing storyboarded--and later shot several inserts himself--the majority of the truck chase sequence was shot by Mick Moore, whom Spileberg put a lot of faith and trust into. It was a big step for Spielberg to be able to relinquish so much control over his film but through the process he learned that being a director doesn't always mean being the one behind the camera. Sometimes it means knowing when to designate tasks.

After three successive action scenes, Spielberg finally gives the characters and the audience a chance to catch their breath with a sweet, and funny, exchange on a boat between Marion and Indy. It is the closest thing Raiders has to a love scene and although it is very romantic it is entirely sexless. This brings up another criticism that is often directed as Spielberg: his lack of sex. While some might be inclined to think that a Victorian or puritanical (perhaps even "prudish") approach to sex on screen in popular, mainstream entertainment might be preferrable, others see it as an indicator of Spielberg's immaturity and childish outlook on life; that until he is ready to "grow up," the characters in his movies are never going to go beyond simply kissing and no Spielberg movie will reach higher than a PG rating. Again, as with a lot of criticisms aimed at Spielberg, there is legitimacy to this, but at this point in his career Spielberg was happy to produce clean, predominately family-oriented (arguably "juvenile") entertainment. This decision might have haunted him for a while, but Spielberg would eventually address a lot of these issues much later in his more "grown-up" films like Schindler's List and Munich.

After a series of events, which ultimately result in the the Nazis reclaiming the Ark and tying both Marion and Indy to a large pole (almost as sacrificial lambs) as they open the Ark, the film arrives at its climax. It is in this scene, which features superb special effects, that all of the religious and metaphysical themes of the story express themselves in a visually stunning, extremely violent and immensely powerful way. Using the biblical story of Lot's wife transforming into a pillar of salt (for turning to look at the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrha) as inspiration, Lucas and Spielberg envisioned the opening of the Ark and the emerging of the "Angel of Death" from within as a sort of divine judgement upon anyone who looks on the face of God. Thinking quickly, once again, Indy closes his eyes (advising Marion to do the same) and the two of them are the only survivors of this supernatural manifestation (the rest of the Nazis either melting or exploding in gruesome fashion).


In a brilliant bit of screenwriting, Indiana Jones (a confessed atheist) must accept the truth of the situation in order to survive it. Although he can't indulge his empirical side by actually looking at the event, through the mere act of closing his eyes he is acknowledging the reality of it. It's the concept of "believing is seeing" (that one can't completely know something to be true simply by looking at it; one must first recognize it as true and then one can actually see it) and it goes very much hand-in-hand with Spielberg's familiar "sight" theme (previously seen in the Night Gallery episode, Close Encounters and even, to some extent, Jaws). In the end, the man who started out as, at best, an agnostic "not believing in all that hocus pocus" has become a believer. However, if there is another major flaw in the Indy films (outside of the villains) it’s that with the commencement of every new adventure, Indy seems to be always back at square one, having witnessed incredible “acts of God” in the previous movie but apparently forsaking his knowledge and experience at the start of his latest endeavor. It would be nice if Indy didn’t have to keep learning the same lesson over and over again.

After bringing the Ark back to the states and learning that the government never had any intention of studying or researching the Ark (nor even allowing people to see it or know where it is) a frustrated Indy walks off arm-in-arm with Marion. And yet, despite the swelling of the film's love theme, it is not the happy, romantic ending it appears to be. As Indy and Marion descend the steps of the govenment building, Indy gives one last glance behind him. He may have gotten the girl but, in the end, Indy doesn't really want the girl. Female companionship is not his main priority. That is not where his heart lies. Indy's real love is the search for history. Archaeology is his true mistress. That's what he is ultimately committed to. It is for this reason that each subsequent adventure would, despite the strength of Marion as a character, feature a different female ally for Indy. It is not that Indy doesn't want to love, he may be inacapable of it. In the film's final, and wonderfully ironic, shot (reminiscent of Citizen Kane), the Ark is seen being loaded by some anonymous janitor into yet another wooden crate and carted to an undisclosed location inside of an impossibly large government warehouse, buried among a collection of other unknown treasures. All along the government was only interested in the possession of the Ark. Now that they have it, they want to ensure that nobody else can. The Ark has simply moved from one secret hiding place to another, lost forever in a bureaurcatic Well of Souls.


With the enormously positively box office reception of Raiders of the Lost Ark, Spielberg was back on top again. 1941 might have instilled doubt in the minds of many, but it was now clear that the success of Jaws and Close Encounters was no fluke. Spielberg was a master filmmaker, an entertainer of the highest caliber, a talent of such supreme cinematic sensibilities that he was going to warrant attention for a long time afterward.


TOMORROW: Close Encounters of the paranormal kind

31 comments:

Joe Valdez said...

I like how Indy gets pummeled for the entire movie, but somehow, Spielberg keeps the spirit and tone of the film out of the realm of comic book. Unlike the sequels, Raiders of the Lost Ark never stops to make fun of itself.

Karen Allen is so radiant in this. I only just realized that her first and last lines of dialogue concern getting a drink. I can see the whole movie as a metaphor for the perils of Marion Ravenwood's drinking.

I'll admit that I think Tom Selleck would have been a sensational Indy.

I thought it was great you mentioned Michael Kahn and the editing in your review, Damian. That sort of contribution tends to get ignored by most people.

Edward Copeland said...

Raiders was a seminal film for me in my early adolescence. I loved it to death and I still like it a lot, but it's actually grown weaker to me over the year. As much as I love Pauline Kael, she seldom changed my mind about a movie I liked or disliked but her review of Raiders was one that actually got me to thinking and agreeing with lots of her points.

Damian said...

Joe:

I've long been of the opinion, Joe, that Raiders is the best of the Indy movies so I agree with you. Oh, and you're absolutely right in that Karen Allen is wonderful in the film. I'm so glad she's coming back for the fourth one.

As for Tom Selleck: well, if the screen test included on the "Indiana Jones trilogy" bonus DVD indicates anything it's that the guy might actually have made a decent Indy. One can see why Lucas and Spielberg were interested in casting him. Still, I think it all worked out for the best. :)

Incidentally, I have a hard time understanding how anyone can talk about Raiders and not mention Michael Kahn's editing. That would be like talking about Manhattan while ignoring Gordon Willis' photography.


Ed:

That's interesting, Ed, because Raiders was a seminal film in my childhood as well (as I mention briefly in my post) but to me it just seems to improve with age.

Dan E. said...

This film, in typical Hitchcock fashion, is a lot more sexual than it first appears. The rope lands limp at Indy's feet when Belloq steals the ark. Indy and Marion are tied to a pole as a bunch of white ghosts kill the Nazis. The scene where the Nazis open the ark seems to be set strongly against the rampant masculinity that has, for the most part, defined the whole film. And then there's the whip...

But seriously, this was a very well written article. The combination of behind the scenes stories with detailed analysis makes for both an entertaining and thought-provoking read. Keep up the good work, Damian

Sheamus the... said...

this is great man...really enjoying your blog.

Moviezzz said...

Great series Damian.

I have to admit that, even as a kid, RAIDERS was a film that I wanted to like more than I did. I always found Ford to be a very wooden actor (I would have also liked to have seen Selleck in the role).

I felt the pacing of the film was off. Parts of it were very slow going. And, having seen it many times since the early 80's, I can't say it is a favorite of mine.

I know it isn't a popular opinion, but as a kid in the 80's, TEMPLE OF DOOM was a lot more fun.

J.D. said...

I agree with others who said that this film was one of the formative experiences of their childhood. I loved this film when it came out and feel that it still holds up today. What the subsequent sequels and imitators didn't seem to understand was that Raiders is so much more than one breathtaking action set piece after another. It's about characters and they interact with each other. I always think about that line where Indy tells Marion, "Its not the years, it's the mileage." That line used to mean very little to me when I was younger now as I get older it resonates more and more. And that's one of the things that makes this film so special and the enduring classic that it is.

Great job on this article! I really enjoyed reading it.

Memo2Self said...

I always felt that it would have been great if the rival artifact-hunter at the beginning of "The Last Crusade" -- the one who gives River Phoenix the signature hat -- had been played by Tom Selleck.

These are great articles -- and thanks to Matt Zoller Seitz for linking to them!

Flower said...

vI don't think that the film lacks "humanism" or heart, I think Spielberg just doesn't underline those qualities quite so heavily as he does in other films. Certainly the look on Ford's face when he thinks Marion's been killed, and then again when he discovers that she's still alive, communicates a great depth of feeling and humanity. That those moments are more carefully parceled out makes them more effective in the moment, for me.

I was all of five months old when Raiders was released in theaters, and I didn't actually catch up with it until *after* I had seen The Last Crusade and The Temple of Doom. It has, as a result, always been the film in the series that has meant the least to me in terms of sentimental attachment, though I have begrudgingly come to accept that it is the best of the series.

And before I ramble on too long, just wanted to say, this is, along with Close Encounters, another movie that is fundamentally the work of the Young Spielberg. I'm pretty sure he's said in the last few years that, since completing Schindler's List, he could never again make a movie that presented the Nazis as run of the mill adventure-picture heavies.

Burbanked said...

Another great analysis, Damian, and another terrifically entertaining read.

Raiders has always been My Movie - the one that informed and inspired my young mind and vaulted me into the realm of fantasy movie-making wannabe. As a kid, I was impressed by Star Wars - but Raiders made me fall in love. I agree with you, Damian, that it only gets better with age.

Thanks for the mention of Mick Moore - I had never known this element of the making of Raiders, so hearing about his involvement was something of a revelation. The truck chase is, I think, the highpoint of the movie - in some ways better than the climax, and I never knew before that Spielberg didn't shoot it himself.

I'd disagree a tiny tiny bit with your reasoned assertion that the movie's plot is episodic. While it's true that the action scenes have an episodic feel to them, I really think that the power and precision of Kasdan's script is that each action scene conveys some important exposition or revelation on its own which spins us into the next sequence. If anything I think that Spielberg, Kasdan and Lucas took some of the conventions of serial movie-making and simply transposed them onto a more modern three-act screenwriting framework.

Great piece, though, and excellent callouts to the Spielberg secondary such as Moore, Kahn and (of course) Williams.

Steve said...

Nice post, though I would dispute your assertion that Spielberg's career was really "in jeopardy" following 1941. Though the press did enjoy taking him down a peg for that movie, he'd directed two of the hugest hits of the 1970s, he was still every inch the wunderkind, and everyone at the time went gaga over the idea of him and Lucas teaming up.

I'd also disagree with your claim that Indy is the "most significant cultural hero to emerge in fiction over the last 30 years." I just don't see a lot of significance in the character. He's mostly recycled from previous adventure types, including of course Han Solo (who was also recycled). He's a bit too generic, frankly, for my taste, though the movies themselves are certainly enjoyable.

Like moviezzz, I think Temple of Doom was the wildest and most fun of the series. The first Raiders has its plodding moments.

Joe Marier said...

For some reason, I've never been that into Indiana Jones. As good a movie as it is, I've never really forgiven it for being responsible for Temple of Doom.

Ivan said...

Great essay, but what about Philip Kaufman's involvement with Raiders?

Cinephile said...

Damian--
Another great essay. Raiders is one of my favorite Spielberg films, and it might be the most important to me, simply because it was the one that really introduced me to him as a director (I was too young to have seen Jaws in a theater, too young to appreciate the majesty of Close Encounters, and home video was still in its infancy then, so I couldn't really catch up yet, but I was eight when Raiders was released, and ready for its action). Your wonderful overview taught me some things I didn't know-- like the recurring actor who played the heavy by the airplane-- what a great touch!

Just a couple of comments-- I agree that the villains in the second two films are poorly defined, but I think Belloq is wonderful-- the perfect doppleganger for both Indy and Marcus Brody (think of how the Indy-Belloq conversation in the bar is the dark reversal of that between Brody and Indy earlier in the film), and Paul Freeman is great. Reading through your remarks, I was reminded again of what a great cast this film had-- perhaps not as full of "names" as some Spielberg films, but arguably his best working ensemble.

And the sex thing doesn't bother me-- as you say, the film is modeled on adventure movies of the 30s and 40s, so it seems in stylistic character to keep things relatively chaste (although I agree with burbanked that Kasdan's contribution is essential, and he writes some great dialogue that gives those romantic conventions a zingy spin).

Thanks for the great continuing series-- you've actually got me thinking I should buy 1941. (:

Noel Vera said...

I love 1941. No, it doesn't have the expert pacing of Raiders, but it has Spielberg amok, with huge setpieces that just got bigger and bigger, and more and more elaborate.

The climax in Raiders I submit is inspired by the climax of the Night in Bald Mountain sequence in Fantasia (the ghosts coming straight at the camera, the burst of fire up from a volcanic cone high in the air, to come rushing down again); Disney in turn was inspired by Murnau's Faust. And so on and so forth.

Chris Stangl said...

In most of these pieces, you're following a relatively standard positive pop crit opinion of Spielberg, which is a painless, reasonable position to take for the kind of annotation and biographical filmography tour you're doing. But this is surprising:

"Spielberg is once again demonstrating that he is essentially a metaphysical storyteller."

That's a pretty Big Argument, and it's a reading of Spielberg that hasn't previously been much made... unfortunately it's so massive, it needs some support. Any support. This isn't it:

"The existence/non-existence of the supernatural is a key question to all of the Indiana Jones films."

Because this is plainly a story gimmick in the Indy movies, one standard to fantasy stories. Dr. Jones' move from skeptic to believer is barely a plot point in RAIDERS, and seems to impact him not at all. In an "earlier" story he learned that Shiva and Kali are equally extant, manifest and undeniable. But that's not the same as making a coherent point about spiritual relativism; Indy comes face to face with the Judeo-Christian God and with Hindu deities. If it's the key question of RAIDERS, the question has an answer: in Indy-World mythos, there is a Real Live Old Testament God, and He will melt your face.

That's not a probing examination of the mysteries of faith; at least it is no more unique than the crises of belief in the supernatural suffered in DRACULA or THE WOLF MAN or THE BLOB or HARRY AND THE HENDERSONS, and only slightly more serious. Perhaps less: in the Indy pictures, the primary role of the gods is to serve as MacGuffin until in last-minute FX gags they become literal deus ex machina to resolve the plot.

"Spielberg is once again demonstrating that he is essentially a metaphysical storyteller."

Now, one can always do criticism/analysis/exegesis on Spielberg's metaphysics, or from any disciplines' perspective - that is, we can do psychological, queer or philosophical readings of any text. But those are different notions than what you're putting forth.

Even when Spielberg selects scripts that pay some lip service to ontological or theological problems as starting points for stories, or breeze past metaphysical questions, they are suppressed or given pat answers. This is not necessarily a criticism of a problem, or a weakness; his work just doesn't bear out that metaphysical argument is chief among Spielberg's philosophical preoccupations.

In the '90s and '00s Spielberg has increasingly tackled scripts that attempt to actively grapple quandaries in applied ethics. That makes for closer ties to his career-long concerns. It seems to me the strained, ambivalent human scale father/child relationships in Spielberg's work are conflated/inflated into fables of unwitting Everyman/child individualists against monolithic Daddy-systems of control, which may manifest as Bad Governments, as Conspiracy, and even as Bad Men Playing God; the obvious paths to trace are Spielberg as social critic, as moral philosopher, as essayist on personal / cultural politics. But when faced with the mystery of existence, Spielberg never comes up with better than shining a gold light in somebody's face while their jaw hangs open.

Weigard said...

Hi Damian! I've really been enjoying your articles on Spielberg -- thanks for all your hard work! Raiders is probably my favorite of his films, and I thought I'd comment about a couple of points you mentioned where I disagreed slightly. One is in regard to Belloq being an inadequate villain. I think this is actually because, in essence, he's NOT the villain of the film. Perhaps a better term would be a rival, or maybe even a foil. I believe Belloq mentions at one point that he and Indy are basically the same, that they are seeking antiquities and doing whatever it takes to find them. We know that he's missing something in Indy's character, but even Indy seems to realize that Belloq is uncomfortably near the truth. After all, he's the guy who will leave Marion in captivity while he goes and hunts for the artifact. I also don't find Belloq entirely unsympathetic -- nor are we meant to, I would suggest. The speech he makes when Indy is threatening to blow up the ark seems to me not just playing on his knowledge of Indy, but also representative of his own views regarding history. While he appears at the start of the film to be the villain, the thorn constantly in Indy's side, by the end of the film, he comes across as almost a tragic figure, someone who sold his soul in the chase for relics. In that sense, the true villains of the piece are the Nazis, primarily personified in Toht (death indeed, as it sounds in German). I think his complexity makes the film that much better.

I'm also not sure that I'd call Indy a "believer" by the end of the film. It seems to me that he's basically a realist, a neutral observer. He doesn't believe in that "mumbo jumbo", and in his world, it seems to serve him well. With the Nazis, you get the sense that the "Jewish ritual" at the climax of the film is harmless, the power of the Jewish God nothing that need be taken that seriously -- their own beliefs end up blinding them to the truth. Indy, on the other hand, may not believe, but when he sees the hand of God about to do some serious striking down, he knows enough to get out of the way. So by the end, I still see him with this same attitude, that something strange happened on that island, and the reality had to be dealt with, but that's over, and something like that won't happen again. Probably.

Cinephile -- I'm stunned you were ready for this when you were 8. I had trouble with the gore when I saw it in the theater at 17! I hope I wasn't the only person who actually DID shut his eyes for the entire climax of the film. (Later, I found out how it ended on video.) I guess I've always been the sensitive sort, though. :)

Cinephile said...

Weigard--
Oh, I didn't mean to present myself as a hardened cineaste at the age of eight-- the melting faces climax scared the heck out of me, too! When I said "I was ready," I only meant that I was a much better filmgoer, and much more prepared to actually watch and enjoy the film (unlike my first moviegoing experience, when my very nice parents took me to see star wars at four, and I spent much of the film not knowing what was happening, and running around the theater like, well, some four-year old. My four-year old self would've driven my adult self crazy. (:).

Dennis Cozzalio said...

As retrofitted, serial-inspired fantasy heroes go, I've always preferred Mike Hodges' all-camp all-the-time Flash Gordon, which came out six months before Raiders, to the more straight-arrow, replicate-the serials-instead-of-comment-on-them approach of Lucas and Spielberg. With Raiders, they really were about simply recreating the cheap thrills on a Panavision scale (and certainly not with creating an archetypal hero, which I would argue Indy is not), whereas Flash Gordon had some pretty humorous and well-imagined takes on the serial hero archetype and what kids might expect from a hero derived from the '30s but looked at through the prism of the '80s.

But I'll say this-- no one in Flash Gordon allowed a fly to crawl in and out of their mouth without breaking character the way Paul Freeman did. I've always been in awe of that found moment, and I bet Spielberg is too!

Damian said...

Dennis:

In my analysis of the significance of Indiana Jones' status as a cultural hero, I wasn't trying to pit him against Flash Gordon, who would probably come out ahead in the long run, but then again Gordon was actually created back in the 1930's. Indiana Jones, though heavily influenced by 30's/40's heroes, was an original character conceived by George Lucas and, as I say in my piece, I don't think Lucas and Spielberg intended to make what I would argue is the most important fictional hero to emerge in the last 30 years, it just rurned out that way.

Now, if we were talking about significant fictional heroes of the entire Twentieth Century, that would be another matter. Indiana Jones would arguably not even make the top 10. Personally speaking, I would put him in the top 5 but literary creations like James Bond, Rambo, Superman, Batman, Harry Potter and, of course, Flash Gordon would in all probabiity supercede him. At any rate, the Flash Gordon movie (which, incidentally, I also love; used to watch it a lot when I was a kid) might be a purer incarnation of 1930's simplicity and innocence, but that doesn't make it a better movie. As much affection as I might have for Hodges' movie, it seems practically inarguable to me that Raiders is the technically and artistically superior (as well as more important) film.

Damian said...

Perhaps saying Spielberg was "essentially" a metaphysical storyteller was a bit of hyperbole on my part, Chris, but I was mostly trying to emphasize an aspect of his work that I feel hasn't been properly focused on in critical circles (and which is becoming more and more clear to me as I examine all of his films in such close proximity to one another). Metaphysics are indeed an important element in a number of Spielberg's movies (Close Encounters, E.T., Poltergeist, Always, Minority Report and I think it would be a mistake to dismiss it as simply a "gimmick" in the Indiana Jones movies). Certainly Spielberg isn't as existential a filmmaker as Ingmar Bergman or Woody Allen, but even within the bounds of genre filmmaking, he clearly seems (to me at least) to be a metaphysical one.

Noel Vera said...

Oh, Flash! Queen, Von Sydow, the delicious Ornella Muti, Danilo Donati's sumptuous set and production design--no contest. Kid's play is fun, but when adults misbehave...

Damian said...

Oh, Flash! Queen, Von Sydow, the delicious Ornella Muti, Danilo Donati's sumptuous set and production design--no contest.

Wow.

I feel like Alice having stepped through the looking glass.

Jonathan said...

Phenomenal write-up. For me, this is cinema at its best and purest. Easily my favorite film of all-time and seeing it on the big screen last year was just... incredible.

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