Raiders of the Lost Ark
Indiana Jones: I don’t know. I’m making this up as I go along.
When did Steven Spielberg stop being a great director? I don’t mean, “When did Spielberg stop being a technically superior director?” And I certainly don’t mean, “When did Spielberg stop being a prestigious director?” I suspect it was somewhere around the time he started looking to his legacy rather than to what really enthused him.
One might suggest the rot set in as early as 1941, but perhaps he needed to learn through failure that he didn’t possess the innate anarchy of John Landis. I’d point to the mid-‘80s, when he took on literary adaptations The Color Purple and Empire of the Sun. Don’t get me wrong; both are fine films, and more impressive to my eyes than some of his even more Oscar-baiting choices since. Sun, at least, captures something of his ongoing fixation with a child’s eye vision of the world. But post-E.T. he becomes less spontaneous. There’s the odd exception but, more frequently, his genius bursts forth unfettered in an individual sequence, rather a display of stamina throughout an entire movie. Probably, it’s partly just a natural consequence of getting older; what was once a self-igniting spark now becomes a mechanical process. There was a time when a Spielberg dinosaur movie would have been self-originated, rather than adapted from a bestseller. Perhaps the clearest sign of a “comfortable slippers” approach to his craft was the adoption of Janusz Kaminski as his regular director of photography (from Schindler’s List onwards). There are times when he was exactly the right choice. Others (Kingdom of the Crystal Skull stands out) when he was a disaster. I mention Kaminski partly because the cinematography of Raidersis so good that I shudder to think how the film would have turned out if a 60-year old Spielberg, rather than a 35-year old one, had made the film.
Because all of this is a pre-amble to saying that Raidersis Spielberg’s best film. It jostles against Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind for that position (E.T., I struggle more with despite its obvious merits; it strains so much to be innocent and affecting that it ultimately brings out the cynic in me). It’s the perfect synthesis of the director’s sensibility; the desire to elicit a child’s sense of awe and excitement through sheer passion, enthusiasm and energy for filmmaking. While the devising of Indiana Jones may have been as calculated as that of Star Wars (courtesy of the then-savvy George Lucas), it is reductive to claim that all it amounts to is a (relatively) big budget version of the 1930s cliffhanger serials. Such a charge could be levelled, to greater or lesser extent, at the sequels, but the same care that distinguishes Lucas’s The Empire Strikes Back is evident in every frame of Raiders. One must conclude that much of this is down to those who collaborated on the screenplay (Philip Kaufmann gets story credit with Lucas, Lawrence Kasdan gets screenplay), and that the greatest single flaw of both wunderkinds going forward would be the quality of scripts (there is some irony to this, of course, as they – Lucas in particular - came under criticism for perceived deficiencies early on).
Surely you can’t make the claim that Raiders is better than Schindler’s List or Saving Private Ryan? Why not? Perceived “worthiness” doesn’t automatically ascribe merit. It is not whether the latter two films, through choosing serious, “difficult” material and themes, deserve acclaim but how well they address their subjects. I’d argue that this is the difference between the first 10 years of Spielberg as a feature director and what came later. He knows much more clearly what he is aiming for; there is no second guessing, no conflicting voices are coming through to temper an idea or demand more “substance’. Indeed, the director’s serious-minded fare has tended to highlight that while Spielberg knows exactly what he needs to do technically, he comes up short on story. And, perhaps intelligence. I don’t mean by being literary, but in terms of depth and thematic resonance. The best way of pointing out how he doesn’t achieve this is to highlight his trait that works most destructively when applied to subjects of weight; sentimental optimism.
Spielberg’s films that work best you can see him come through in them, but Spielberg is not a beard-stroking intellectual, and he does not bring a rigour to his analysis of story that extracts every nuance and meaning from character and subject matter. There remains a sense that he is the kid playing with the big boys when he tackles major themes. Ironically, when he merely touches upon them, obliquely through a less weighty canvas, he is much more successful in provoking the audience to consider an idea.
Spielberg: I made it as a B-movie. I didn’t see the film as anything more than a better-made version of the Republic serials.
One could argue that this is why Raiders works so well, even thought it’s essentially the opposite approach to the one taken by Irvin Kershner on the (also Kasdan-scripted) The Empire Strikes Back. Perhaps it would be best to say that Raiders has “big” ideas, but they are touched upon with a consistent nimbleness and lightness of touch. Everything that Raiders is (the odd improvisation aside), is in the screenplay. Which sounds like the bleeding obvious, but both director and producer would have increasing difficulty in identifying great scripts in years to come so it’s little wonder they couldn’t identify solid gold when they were working on it.
Spielberg: Had I had more time and money, it would have turned out a pretentious movie.
Raiders is not pretentious but it is also far from complacent or dumb. It’s intelligence shines through in the wit with which it treats its rollercoaster action-adventure format; there is a knowingness here, but it is never foregrounded at the expense of verisimilitude. And it comes at a point in Spielberg’s career where his appreciation of childlike awe and wonder remains unneutered. Jones’ quest, whether he appreciates it or not, is for the rediscovery of this quality.
Tellingly, this sense of wonder exists just out of reach, in the past; only lifeless artifacts confirm that it was once there are. If Jones’ Last Crusade mantra of “That belongs in a museum!” is his expression of purity of motive, his approach is not so very far from the TV character of Fox Mulder a decade later; “I want to believe”. Of course, Jones would collide with ETs in his fourth cinematic outing. But we should try to forget that. The common link is probably better seen as Roy Neary in Close Encounters, but Jones’ obsession remains, for all his base scuffling, with intellectual inquiry. Like Neary he is obsessive over what he seeks, but unlike Neary he does not undergo life-changing alterations to his consciousness or purpose.
Indiana Jones: I don’t believe in magic, a lot of superstitious hocus pocus.
By The Temple of Doom, a prequel, Lucas and Spielberg are already inconsistent, as his mockery of “mumbo jumbo” in Raiders is in direct conflict with his experience of the Sankara Stones. The approach to the supernatural for the audience has the same starting point as Professor Jones; scepticism. Although, we are forearmed that we going to experience something fantastical.
It’s curious to note that Lucas divulged his idea for Indiana Jones to Spielberg when the latter was telling him how much he wanted to direct a James Bond film. Presumably Lucas’ concept for Indy as a lady-killing playboy (à la Bond) was fully-formed prior to this (certainly, a remnant of this made it to script stage, as the scene where he comes to his door in a robe originally showed a conquest tucked up in his bed). Spielberg resisted the playboy concept, ironically, and I’d say his instincts were good ones. He also nixed Lucas’ name Indiana Smith, saying it didn’t sound right, to which Lucas suggested Jones instead.
One gets the impression that the director’s instincts were better than those of the producer, but it can’t be set aside that Lucas was the one who honed this concept (going as far back as 1973). It’s fashionable (nay, required) to kick Lucas for all the terrible things he’s done to fandom since the prequels, but Spielberg also came up with the idea of Jones being alcoholic, invoking a Bogart vibe, which didn’t last long. So Steven’s ideas weren’t all gravy. Lucas’ reason for not wanting Ford, due to Star Wars, was completely understandable. And Tom Selleck certainly wasn’t a bad choice, he would have created a different feel, is all.
Indiana Jones: If you believe in that sort of thing.
Ford clearly had similar concerns, annotating on his script that Jones’ dialogue was too close to Han Solo in places (the “hocus pocus” is very similar to Solo’s verdict on the Force). If Jones doesn’t borrow particularly from the persona of Bond, Raiders does owe a debt to many of the Bond series’ structural traits. An obvious character touchstone, in terms of duelling identities, would be Superman. Mild-mannered professor of archeology at a US college by day, derring-doing fedora-wearing relic hunter at weekends. Admittedly, he isn’t hiding his identity, but he does change his appearance when he’s not in school (removes glasses, adds stubble) aside from the obvious costume change.
The purity of motive idea feeds into another distinction from 007, who represents Her Majesty’s Secret Service at all times. Some critics have suggested Indiana Jones as stand-in for American transgressions into others’ countries and affairs. The problem with this take is that Jones is consistently shown to reject any such affiliation. Indeed, his attitude is one of at best disinterest and worst combativeness towards them. Any congress is based on relics being secured by the college and affliated museum. To that extent, he shows himself to be romantically naïve.
Indiana Jones: What do I want to see them for? Am I in trouble?
Maybe he fools himself into believing that Army Intelligence is benevolent. Marcus appears to affirm that the museum will get the Ark when Army has finished with it, but Jones never stops to examine the fine print. He’s too excited to be off on his ultimate quest.
Indiana Jones: Oh, the money’s fine. The situation is totally unacceptable.
Come the climax he’s more worldy-wise as far as government promises are concerned, as the crated Ark is secreted in a warehouse within Area 51 and he must resign himself to getting the girl.
If Jones isn’t a ladies’ man, it’s curious that he’s fostered with a less than salubrious record when it comes to chivalrous behaviour. He not only betrayed the trust of his friend and mentor, Abner Ravenwood, but this was the result of embarking on an affair with his daughter, a girl barely out of school (I’m basing this on the age gap between Ford and Karen Allen, and the comment that he had not spoken to Abner in 10 years). Marion’s protest “I was a child!” is met with a decidedly hardboiled “You knew what you were doing” from Indiana. If the truth isn’t black and white, it’s nevertheless difficult to see Jones as other than a bit of a heel.
This aspect is given further airing when Jones comes upon Marion, whom he thought was dead, in a tent within the Nazi camp. Rather than doing the noble, gallant thing – or even just the morally right thing - he leaves her tied up, prioritising the quest for the Ark. It’s not as if, at this point, Jones believes in its power. He takes a calculated risk that she will remain safe; that he is proved correct in this assumption is the only thing slender thread of justification he has. And, I guess, that Marion doesn’t hold it against him for very long. It’s probably the defining moment for illustrating where Jones’ real passion lies, and it’s welcome to see the flaws in his character so pronouncedly (this is just the sort of thing middle-aged Lucas and Spielberg would likely have retreated from).
I don’t intend to go on about Harrison Ford’s performance, but it’s worth reminding oneself how vital, physical and humorous he was at this point in his new-found stardom. Given that the last decade-plus (actually more like 20 years, let’s be honest) has consisted mostly of disappointments from the actor, Indiana Jones – the original – might be his best performance. Not his best role, maybe, nor necessarily one that displays his full range, but the one he inhabits most successfully.
But this was a time when the actor’s instincts were still good ones, when he could ad-lib classic lines (“It’s not the age, honey, it’s the mileage”) and was fully in tune with necessity being the mother of invention (the famous suggestion to “Shoot the fucker” when a bout of dysentery made a protracted swordfight an unattractive prospect. The result is the kind of moment that – as noted above - Lucas would no doubt baulk at now (as per “Greedo shoots first”) but is possibly the single most famous moment in the film, and certainly garnered the biggest audience reaction from screenings. It isn’t just that the flourishing swordsmanship is unceremoniously cut short; it’s the stages of response on Jones’ face. From alarm, to the weary resignation of shooting him, to complete dismissal of the situation, moving on to the matter in hand (finding Marion). Ford’s comic timing is exquisite. Likewise, I can’t imagine the reaction to the unfortunate Arab landing on the hood of the truck during the Ark chase was scripted. It’s such an unlikely exchange you can just believe it (both combatants are momentarily stunned by the sight; Jones looks at the Nazi soldier, laughs, and the soldier laughs back, before Jones uses the opportunity to resume his attack).
Belloq: Who knows, in a thousand years even you may be worth something.
Indiana Jones: Ha-ha... Son of a bitch.
Unlike Bond, Indiana Jones is eminently mockable. For all his success, he keeps failing. At the start, at the end. He spends much of the third act tied up (a classic no-no). When characters meet him for the first time, they are invariably unimpressed.
Mr. Katanga: Mr. Jones, I have heard a lot about you, sir. Your appearance is exactly the way I imagined. (Laughs uproariously)
Much was made of John McClane being the “human” action hero when Die Hard came out. And, as a contrast to Arnie and Sly, he was. But really he’s a fairly close match for Indiana Jones. Sure, he’s not willing himself into scrapes, but Jones was getting shot (in the shoulder), beaten-up (including by mirrors) and bleeding everywhere before McClane did it. Jones suffers.
Spielberg is very conscious of the importance of making Jones iconic, though. When he first comes into shot in the Peruvian jungle, when his silhouette precedes him into Marion’s Nepalese bar. Repeated moments when we see little more than Jones’ eyes, the rest of him indistinct under shadows.
Like Star Wars, the biggest strength ofIndiana Jones is its mythmaking. As with that series of films, the more that is revealed, the more that is made overt, the less magic there is in the concept.
It has been noted that many of the traps and ideas from the “teaser” sequence (which represents another overt borrowing from Bond, structurally) were directly lifted from Disney’s Uncle Scrooge comic. But the main thrust of the film came from the head of Philip Kaufman. He is credited as coming up with the Ark as the MacGuffin, and was originally attached to direct until Outlaw Josey Wales came along (which Eastwood then dismissed him from).
Kaufman was attached to a number of interesting projects during the ‘70s and the one he got off the ground, the 1978 Invasion of the Body Snatchers remake, remains a rare “adult” science fiction piece from the period (so distinguishing it from the family, or horror-tinged fare of his peer group). And a rare remake where there’s a solid basis for arguing it is superior to the original. I’m not sure he would have been a good fit for a film that lacks his intellectual leanings, but as someone to spitball concepts with, which can then be run with, there are probably few better. He was also attached to Star Trek: The Motion Picture for a time (when it was called Planet of the Titans). Kaufman’s the blockbuster director who got away, his ideas too rich and strange for the amount they would have cost to realise.
Lawrence Kasdan came on board as a result of his work on Empire, and went through five drafts between 1978 and April 1980 (at least three sequences culled from these ended up in Temple of Doom). It’s easy to forget that the director of Dreamcatcher was a force to be reckoned with as both writer and director during the 1980s, and it was these two projects that kicked him into play. He kept this duel role up throughout the decade (including Body Heat, The Big Chill and The Accidental Tourist), after which his star seemed to diminish just as quickly (his name has been attached to Star Wars projects currently in development). At least then, he had a reputation for story first and, though it might be argued it reduces to a series of set pieces, Raiders is a remarkably tightly structured and coherent script.
A good example is the Staff of Ra; the Nazis appear to take the lead in the search for the Ark, and Jones is mystified how, since he and Marion have the headpiece. He doesn’t know that Major Toht had an impression of it burnt into his hand when he tried to snatch it in Nepal. But what the Nazis don’t know is that there were further measurements written on the back of it.
Jones and Sallah: They’re digging in the wrong place!
I’ll admit that a couple of things always bothered me about the Well of Souls scene, though. It makes little sense that the removal of the stone sealing the room should emit air, since there must be a flow for the snakes to survive. The other is a simple matter of geography that felt incongruous. Marion and Indy escape the Well by pushing a stone from a wall; they land in the open desert. A spot that apparently hadn’t been investigated. It’s one of those points (like the excavation location yielding three weeks of desert in either direction) that perhaps required a shot or a line or two to clarify (I guess it was amongst assorted ruins, although I had the impression most of them were buried). But I’m quibbling, and you only do that when a script is an embarrassment of riches.
For Raiders, Spielberg surrounded himself with some of the most experienced crew in the business. It was the first film he had shot in the UK, and as a cinefile he made sure that he had the pick of the talent to aid him.
First Assistant Director David Tomblin is best known outside of AD-ing for his work on Patrick McGoohan’s The Prisoner, on which he wrote, produced and directed episodes. He would later go on to direct and write some of the best of Gerry Anderson’s UFO. On the big screen he received numerous AD credits, including Barry Lyndon, The Omen, Superman and Superman II and, significantly, The Empire Strikes Back. He would subsequently work on Return of the Jediand the next two Indiana Jones films. As a line producer, Terry Gilliam extoled his virtues for the help he gave on the very troubled production of The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. Tomblin’s something of an unsung hero of British film and television, not perhaps by those in the industry “know” (where he was generally considered the best First AD in the business).
The truck chase in Raiders is rightly feted as one of the movies’ best ever action sequences, but it was shot entirely by Tomblin who closely followed Spielberg’s storyboards. Spielberg then filmed all of Ford’s close-ups. Now, unless you are Christopher Nolan that kind of thing is par for the course. And, as noted, he was following the director’s meticulous storyboards (in order to keep down the costs – 1941 had been an out-of-control mess – Spielberg’s pre-planning made this his most storyboarded film). But Tomblin’s achievement deserves due credit, and it was his crew who decided to add Jones (Vic Armstrong, Ford’s regular stunt double) being pulled along by the truck.
The other master who deserves special note is Douglas Slocombe, who was in his late 60s when he got the gig as director of photography on Raiders. His credited career goes back to the 1940s (not quite 1936, when the film is set) and his sumptuous black and white photography could be seen on many Ealing classics, from Dead of Night and Kind Hearts and Coronets to The Lavender Hill Mob and The Man in the White Suit. In more recent years he had worked on Polanski’s gorgeous The Fearless Vampire Killers, The Italian Job and The Great Gatsby(the Redford version).
It’s a sad truth that, the Jones films aside, his last two decades as a cinematographer were marked out by few great projects. Last Crusade was his final credit. And his work on Raiders, in particular, is quite, quite extraordinary (for which he was Oscar-nominated for the third time in his career; he never won). I don’t think the effect a cinematographer can have on a (good) director’s career can be underestimated, and the willingness of the younger Spielberg to work with different names is to his credit. Think of the stunning work by Vilmos Zsigmond on Close Encounters, Allen Daviau’s on several of the director’s ‘80s films (including E.T.) or Dean Cundey on Jurassic Park (incidentally, just look at how John Carpenter’s career plummeted when he stopped using Cundey as his DP).
There are too many iconic images in Raiders to list, but consider the Jones atop the hill, his crew digging for the Well of Souls at sunset, then the lightning flashing around them as they gain entrance. Or the brilliant sunlight within the map room. Or the boxed Ark in the hold of the ship. Or the Tesla-like orbs at the opening ritual.
Speaking of the Ark, Ben Burtt’s sound design is magnificent, from the Ark itself to the sound of it opening (a toilet cistern).
I’ve been readily critical of many of John Williams recent scores, which strain for an identikit sentimentality to my ear, but he could do no wrong between approximately 1975 and 1990. I doubt that there’s another film composer capable of composing such distinct, iconic themes. He produced two such for Raiders; the classic theme and the more subdued Ark composition; Spielberg asked him to use both in the film. But he has fun too (the chasing of, and search for, Marion). I suppose Williams is a classic example of inspiration inspiring others, since he worked copiously for several decades prior to hooking up with Spielberg and Lucas (he had nine Oscar nominations and a win under his belt pre-Jaws) but his most memorable period arrived mid-career.
One needs only to look at Crystal Skull (I know, I was going to stop mentioning it) to see the difference between integration of special effects then and now. What lifts both Close Encounters and Raiders, in particular, is the way visual effects and photography combine to create a sense of the tangible. It helps that much of Raiders is a very physical film. But even the ILM visuals of the climax incorporated practical effects to achieve the their impact (the spirits were filmed underwater). The face melting is, of course, the bit that kids relished. Indeed, Belloq’s exploding head originally bagged the film an R-rating until the full effect was obscured. Nevertheless, Raidersis a very bloody film even in PG form, with gunshots to the head and spurts of crimson festooning characters and the screen (I’m slightly surprised it wasn’t been re-rated a 12 for later DVD and Blu-ray releases).
Spielberg fills out the supporting cast with mostly British character actors; performance, rather than fame, being the key. The female lead, Karen Allen, had made an impression in a several films from ‘70s wunderkinds; her debut in John Landis’ Animal House, followed by roles in The Wanderers (directed by no less than Philip Kaufman) and William Friedkin’s controversial Cruising. In thrashing out the screenplay for Raiders, one of the ideas had been for a Nazi spy as the love interest (see Last Crusade) before the idea of the daughter of Indy’s mentor was settled upon. It’s easy to see why Marion Ravenwood is so beloved; she’s resourceful, brave and vulnerable. And Allen imbues her with an overriding kindness that is irresistible. And, she and Ford spark of each other wonderfully. In some respects, yes, she’s the heroine who needs rescuing. But it’s that kind of film.
Indiana Jones: They don’t know what they’ve got there.
Marion: Well, I know what I’ve got here. Come on. I’ll buy you a drink. You know, a drink?
We first see her winning a drinking competition, and Kasdan consciously embraces her self-sufficient side throughout. There was only ever one option for bringing back a love-interest in the fourth film; Willie was widely seen as a regressive female role in comparison to Marion. She was loud, shallow and a constant screamer. Post-Raiders, Allen would star opposite Jeff Bridges and Bill Murray in Starman and Scrooged respectively (both actors reportedly considered for Jones at one point), but she never became a “go-to” leading lady. One thing that Crystal Skull did get right was Marion’s immense likability. Perhaps Spielberg and Lucas subconsciously realised they couldn’t equal her in the next two films, as the most significant relationships in those are with a boy (Short Round) and an old man (Henry Jones).
Denholm Elliott’s illustrious career needs little introduction, and he makes the perfect friend and benefactor of Professor Jones. The scene where Marcus Brody and Indy explain the lore surrounding the Ark to the visiting Army officers is a wonderful piece of exposition. Ford and Elliot have great chemistry, generously sharing the dialogue and each picking up where the other left off.
Marcus: The Bible speaks of the Ark leveling mountains and laying waste entire regions. An army which carries the Ark before it… is invincible.
In terms of plot function, Marcus is something of an M/Q figure from the Bond series; he sets Jones off on his mission and represents a confidante and advisor. This is a sharp contrast to The Last Crusade where Brody becomes a bumbling fool, comic relief for the lazy writer. Elliott is highly entertaining in that film, but it seems like a betrayal of the character to make him an object of derision. It’s interesting that both of Jones’ best friends warn him of the dangers of the Ark.
Marcus: Marion's the least of your worries right now, believe me, Indy.
Indiana Jones: What do you mean?
Marcus: Well, I mean that for nearly three thousand years man has been searching for the lost Ark. It's not something to be taken lightly. No one knows its secrets. It's like nothing you've ever gone after before.
Indiana Jones: [laughing] Oh, Marcus. What are you trying to do, scare me? You sound like my mother. We've known each other for a long time. I don't believe in magic, a lot of superstitious hocus-pocus. I'm going after a find of incredible historical significance; you're talking about the boogieman. Besides, you know what a cautious fellow I am. [throws his gun into his suitcase]
Marcus isn’t presented as foolish or superstitious here, however. Rather, he appears have an instinct that on this quest there is something to be wary of. In Egypt, Sallah expresses this even more clearly.
Sallah: Indy, there is something that troubles me.
Indiana Jones: What is it?
Sallah: The Ark. If it is there, at Tanis, then it is something that man was not meant to disturb. Death has always surrounded it. It is not of this earth.
John Rhys-Davies brings enormous warmth to Sallah; who can forget his cheerful singing upon receiving a kiss from Marion, or Indy’s sincere “You are my good friend” on leaving his company.
Sallah: Bad dates.
Rhys-Davies makes him very funny, of course, and again Ford shows sparkling chemistry with his co-star (“They’re digging in the wrong place”). Sallah’s character in The Last Crusade is not undermined like Brody’s but his comic qualities are still foregrounded at the expense of his relationship with Indy.
The other main actors play the principal villains, Paul Freeman as Belloq and Ronald Lacey as Major Toht. The latter says relatively little, but is a wonderfully malevolent presence, Lacey furnishing him with a sickly smile and the threat of sadistic acts. Lacey was considering giving up acting when he was offered the role, which had the effect of re-igniting his career (probably his other best known role is as the “baby-eating” Bishop of Bath & Wells in Black-Adder II). Lacey gets one of the biggest laughs of the film when he takes out what appears to be a torture device but turns out to be a fold-away coat hanger.
Belloq: We are simply passing through history. This, this is history.
Freeman’s Belloq is a treat of a villain; urbane, intelligent and with an open-mindedness and vision that shows up Jones’ limitations. Spielberg (understandably) had originally wanted a French actor, but set upon Freeman due to his piercing eyes (not knowing if he could manage a French accent). The actor’s career has been mostly confined to the small screen but it’s telling that Pegg and Wright were such fans that he was cast in Hot Fuzz.
What makes Belloq so interesting is that he is not an “evil” character; rather, he is an amoral opportunist. We see repeatedly that he is not inherently evil or bigoted. When he compares himself to Jones (an echo of Scaramanga and Bond in The Man with the Golden Gun) he is closer to the mark than Jones is willing to admit.
Belloq: You and I are very much alike. Archeology is our religion, yet we have both fallen from the pure faith. Our methods have not differed as much as you pretend. I am but a shadowy reflection of you. It would take only a nudge to make you like me. To push you out of the light.
And he is right; Jones might not have instructed the Peruvian Indians to kill Belloq, given the opportunity, but he is quite willing to leave Marion at the mercy of the Nazis to attain his goal. Belloq makes no bones about his distaste for the Nazi cause but, if he realises the potential within the Ark, he is blind to the idea that it will enforce moral imperatives that he is indifferent to. Much like Marion as the girl, the series will not see such an interesting villain again. It is worth mentioning also that Freeman visibly, and famously, swallows a fly in the scene where Jones threatens the Ark with a bazooka.
Major Eaton: Hitler’s a nut on the subject. He’s crazy. He’s obsessed with the occult.
Part of the resonance of Raiders is that, aside from hitting the ground running with its own mythology, it creates a palpable sense of the very mystery that is its subject. The Nazi interest in the occult is a fertile ground for mining (which is no doubt why Lucas went back to the well for Last Crusade, although one might suggest this was too close to the stir-and-repeat attitude that saw the return of the Death Star in Jedi) and conjures visions of a vast alternative history of the era. Kasdan feels under no obligation to show fidelity to the Biblical description of the Ark (although aspects of its description are taken from Exodus), as the intention is to instill mystery and employ any means to do so, much of what we are told is invention or exaggeration. And so we are rapt, because he creates the tantalizing idea of a legend at out fingertips.
We are told that the Egyptian Pharoah Shishak placed the Ark in the Well of Souls to hide it from the eyes of the sun god Amun-Ra. It’s not fully clear why the elaborate method of locating the Well of Souls was necessary, however. Presumably this was part and parcel of hiding it from the sun god?
Dietrich: I am uncomfortable with this Jewish ritual.
Dietrich’s line was a late addition, as it was realised that there was no mention of the Nazis attitude towards the Jews. The irony of the destruction of the Nazis caused by the power of a Jewish artifact cannot have gone unnoticed by Spielberg. Spielberg is playful with these elements in a way that he might be more nervous over post-Schindler’s List. For example, the moment where Jones, in the map room, thinks he has been deserted; suddenly a makeshift rope bound from sheets lands on him, the end of it a Nazi flag.
Then there is the monkey performing a “Heil Hitler”, thought up by Lucas and one of the director’s two favourite moments in the film (the other being the post-mirror bashing “Where doesn’t it hurt?” scene between Marion and Indy).
Belloq: It is a radio for speaking to God.
To some extent, Raiders enduring appeal is down to, as one review put it, its combination of “humour and incident”, delivered at a perfect pitch. It is ironic that Spielberg falls flat on his arse when he attempts “straight” comedy, but he’s nigh on peerless at it when it evolves from the drama of a scene. He is just as deft at comic choreography as he is at action. Raiders is rarely a minute away from a laugh or an action beat. Perhaps the closest Spielberg has come, post Indiana Jones, to this is Minority Report (a film I will defend to the hilt, but it has to be said that the Indiana Jones-style comedy doesn’t quite fit the story, amusing though it frequently is) or Tintin.
Indiana Jones: Snakes, why’d it have to be snakes?
Sallah: Asps... very dangerous. You go first.
From the brutal fight at plane until the Indy’s boarding of Katanga’s ship, the escalation and sustaining of threat is perfection to behold; each sequence contains “sub-plots” of danger that must be resolved in order to move on to the next stage. It’s the kind of thing that is all the more deliriously enjoyable because it’s so very difficult to get right. The more elements are juggled, the more likely the scene is to topple in upon itself.
Marion is trapped, the plane is leaking oil, which is set on fire, Jones has to fight the man-mountain, avoid the propellers. And there is barely a pause before he must set off to the next challenge.
Indiana Jones: Truck? What truck?
All of which makes the line;
Indiana Jones: I don’t know. I’m making this up as I go along.
Highly ironic, as it belies how tightly structured and well-crafted Raiders is. Certainly, the cracks are much more evident in the sequels. The truck chase ranks up there with the clock tower climax in Back to the Future for editing perfection; to be fair, Raiders is perhaps more linear (one character as its focus) but it relies on a similar structure of advance, set-back, retreat, advance, victory for its success.
Like your stereotypical Bond film, Raiders features an explosive climax on an all-but deserted island (the globe-trotting of Bond is a very identifiable comparison point with Indiana Jones, making the virtual world of Crystal Skull all-the-more depressing). Raiders breaks with expectation by incapacitating its hero from his somewhat brazen (and foolish) bazooka showdown onwards. In theory, the top-heavy action should result in disappointment and fizzle at the end. But Spielberg and Lucas pull the trick of replacing visceral thrills with awe and majesty (and terror). Jones becomes the passive observer at the climax and you only have to look at Crystal Skull (or rather, don’t) for evidence of why such a device usually fails. What takes place is both beautiful and frightening (the notion of angelic spirits transforming into demonic horrors is all in the execution) and, crucially, advances the narrative, so it doesn’t matter. It’s curious that Jones instructs Marion to close her eyes; a literal reading of “what you can’t see won’t hurt you”. Apparently the novelisation included an explanation that Jones knew of the danger from a warning on the headpiece.
The sight of the crated Ark being consigned to the Area 51 warehouse is one of the most evocative images in the movie. It underscores Jones’ motives (it should be displayed and studied, not hidden away) but leaves the audience with questions in the best of ways. What are the contents of all those other crates? It’s a shame that the fourth film couldn’t resist returning to this location at its opening, as the impact on the imagination is all in the moment.
It’s curious that the late ‘70s has seen a number of failed attempts at similar kind of action-adventure material and subject matter. Their failure can be seen, mainly, as the result to an approach that was already outmoded. The dynamic direction and editing of the wunderkinds was sorely lacking in Doc Savage: Man of Bronze and The Land that Time Forgot (both 1975) and the effects were rudimentary at best. They were outdated before they were even released (I say this as someone who enjoyed both those films as a child).
The former, based on the ‘30s pulp novels, was George Pal’s last film, directed in lacklustre fashion by Michael Anderson, and concerned a globetrotting action-adventurer embroiled in a story concerning lost tribes, hidden valleys and supernatural dangers. It was set in 1936, the same year as Raiders. Land, adapted from Edgar Rice Burroughs’ 1924 novel, was an Amicus cheapie featuring Doug McClure. It was emblematic of the approach that was gradually being rendered obsolete by the movie brats. Set during WWI, it saw a U-boat discover an uncharted sub-continent where dinosaurs survive. Apart from featuring German villains, the comparisons with Indyextend to rumours of a lost continent plot proposed for the fourth film (I’ll admit that I quite like the idea of a film set around the Hollow Earth although, unlike the 1997 novel, I’d have Nazis regrouped to Antarctica following WWII, a popular conspiracy).
Not only was Raiders enormously successful, it received great critical recognition. There seems to be an idea that Spielberg was continually snubbed by the Academy until Schindler’s List, but you could only argue that as a downside to the four Best Director nominations he received prior to his win, three of them for a genre(s) generally held in low esteem by awards bodies. Raiders was nominated for nine Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director (Jawshad been nominated for four including Best Picture, it won three, Close Encounters received nine nominations, including Best Director, and took two, even 1941 received three nods).
The following year E.T. fetched 9 nods including Best Picture and Director (winning four). Tellingly Temple of Doom was up for only two (won one). The Color Purple is where the director began to feel genuinely aggrieved, not even nominated among the 11 nods (winning zero). Arguably, there was much more recognition for Spielberg’s consummate escapism when he started out (Jurassic Park may have won all three of its technical Oscars, but that was the extent of its appreciation). Raiders remains part of an early breakthrough that appeared to recognise quality, irrespective of genre (Star Wars was also nominated for Best Picture). True, the five Oscars Raiders took were all technical, and deserved recognition for Spielberg, Williams and Slocombe was not delivered in its statue form. But here the achievement was truly in the nomination.
Raiders of the Lost Ark is the jewel in Spielberg’s crown, the purest expression of his love of filmmaking. It’s rare for sequels not to suffer from diminishing returns, but it is particularly unfortunate that the Indiana Jones series never subsequently fulfilled the promise of its premise. Spin-off novels, fake scripts, computer games, have all come-up with MacGuffins more exciting than the ones settled on by Lucas for cinematic follow-ups. But, like Die Hardor Alien, diminishing returns do not diminish the original. It’s a masterpiece.