Retro-Spection – Raiders of The Lost Ark

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The perfect movie poster. A promise of adventure

Sometime towards the end of 1993, when I was still a sprightly twelve, M-Net, South Africa’s local pay channel, took it upon themselves to show a Steven Spielberg festival. I can’t remember why, but it probably had something to do with ‘93 being Spielberg’s biggest year yet (given that it included the releases for the box office smash Jurassic Park and the critically acclaimed Schindler’s List). They showed every one of Spielberg’s movies (barring Jurassic and Schindler’s), from Duel to The Sugarland Express to Close Encounters right on through to Always and Hook.

It was movie heaven. Unfortunately, whoever it was behind this idea had failed to consider that that time of the year coincided with end of year examinations for school kids across the country. Exams meant going to school, then coming home, sparing perhaps a few minutes (or hours) for The Gooftroop or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles or whatever cartoons K-TV was showing at the time, then hitting the books and trying to stuff useless information into your head. It was, needless to say, a grueling schedule that left very little time for a Steven Spielberg Festival, and you probably wouldn’t get to watch all the movies no matter how much you whined at your parents or promised that you had already finished all your studying and please could they let you stay up to watch Close Encounters to the end and you would still get up in time for school.

Ahem.

So yes, enormous incompetence on M-Net’s part and incompetence that was never more apparent than with their scheduling for Raiders of The Lost Ark. You see, M-Net in their infinite wisdom had decided to show Raiders the night before I had to write my maths final. Now studying requires some discipline for the best of us but for a kid who was already a card carrying movie nut at twelve, studying for math versus watching Raiders of The Lost Ark is like having to choose how much sand needs to be inside a little bag so that you can swap it for a golden idol without setting off a temple’s worth of booby traps; i.e. it’s bloody hard.

 

Robbing an ancient temple of its treasure. Just like deciding if you should watch a movie or study for math

 

I had to prioritize. This was after all, my end of year maths exam (and I was no maths prodigy) . Naturally, I decide to watch Raiders*. Since then, I’m pretty certain that I’ve seen Raiders more than fifteen times, which is something to be both proud of and ashamed of. I’ve seen it enough that I can speak along with much of its dialogue (certainly the dialogue from the opening sequence); enough that I can hum along with even the most obscure bits of its score; and enough that I can sing along with that ditty the workers are singing while they smash their way into the Well of Souls.

Raiders of The Lost Ark is one of the most perfect films ever made (‘perfect’, by the way, is word you’ll see scattered throughout this article). By perfect, I don’t mean that it is a thought provoking insight into the human condition or that it offers some sort of commentary on society. It doesn’t aspire to any of that. What Raiders aspires to, and what it does so magnificently, is to entertain. It’s a film that leaves you grinning like a mad fool and no matter who you are, you can’t help being caught up in its gleeful energy. I envy anyone who had the opportunity to watch it on its initial release, without hype, without knowing what to expect. Just going in fresh. It must have been a glorious experience.

Raiders is also one of those instances in cinema that is basically lightning in a bottle. It’s an example of a film where everything just came together so perfectly, and everything works just as it should. It’s a film that is hard to find fault with and if you do find fault with it, it’s likely that you’re some sort of Grinch of Cinema.

But along with all that, Raiders might very well be one of the most important films in Spielberg’s oeuvre. Not important like Schindler’s or Saving Private Ryan, but important all the same. Raiders, you see, is the film where Spielberg got his groove back.

 

Spielberg: getting his groove back

 

In 1979, Spielberg’s 1941 was released and met with accusations of bloatedness and gross indulgence and to top it off,  it also fared relatively poorly at the box office. For a director whose  previous films had met with critical acclaim and commercial success, the reaction to 1941 must have given his confidence a bit of a knocking.

So when his friend George Lucas came to him with an idea about a globetrotting archaeologist who frequently gets into and out of scrapes while on a quest for lost artifacts, Spielberg leapt at it. Lucas and Spielberg hashed out the ideas for set-pieces and the character. Philip Kaufman came up with the idea of using the Ark of the Covenant as a prize and Lawrence Kasdan sat down to put it all together for a script.

With so much to obviously love about Raiders, it’s easy to sometimes forget about the script. But look again at how it relays information to the audience with such economy. The pace of the film barely lets up from the start and yet it never sacrifices character or story.

Raiders is also evidence of what a fantastic director of action Spielberg is. Look at the opening, how it builds and builds and then breaks fully into action. Spielberg never aims for eye-popping spectacle alone (though there is that) but also focuses on the drama and the characters caught up it.

 

 

Then there’s the score.  John Williams is responsible for a good many iconic film scores (certainly more so than any other composer in cinema history). This is, after all, the man who wrote the music for E.T., Star Wars, and Jaws, any one of which should be recognizable after only a few moments of listening. And anyone who hears the Indy theme recognizes it immediately and can confidently hum along with it.

But the entire score is just quality from start to finish. The opening sequence builds magnificently from brooding atmosphere to cracking action, while the theme for the Ark is about as perfect a piece of music for communicating menace and mystery as you’ll ever hear. The way that it is established at points throughout the film, climaxing with the scene in the Map Room is thrilling.

 

 

 

My own favourite part of the score (though honestly, it’s so hard to choose) crops up during the fantastic Desert Chase sequence. Indy is battling to take the truck carrying the Ark from the posse of Nazi guards travelling with it. He finally gets behind the wheel but, unbeknownst to him, one last remaining Nazi soldier is clambering over the top of the truck, trying to get to the truck’s cab. As the truck comes around a bend in the road, a piece of music kicks in that punches an already exciting set piece up by another ten. It is (here’s that word again) perfect.

All this helps to make Raiders the great film that it is. But none of it would matter if it weren’t for the film’s casting. Great action set-pieces, a magnificent score and special effects won’t matter unless you have a cast who can carry the thing and engage the audience and Raiders is a film that benefits enormously from its wonderful casting, with the actors adding colour and texture to an already colourful and textured world. Ronald Lacey as Toht makes for a creepy foil, everyone  loves John Rhys Davies as Sallah, Indy’s sidekick (“I am the monarch of the sea, I am the ruler of the Queen’s Navee…”) and Denholm Elliot makes a great impression as Marcus Brody, making a character out a brief appearance and a few lines of exposition.

And Karen Allen completely owns her role as Marion Ravenwood. She’s the perfect mix of spunky, tough and beautiful. I love the fact that Marion isn’t the sort to wait around for Indy to come to her rescue. If she can, she’ll clock a bad guy with a pan, grab a gun and start firing or try to drink you under the table so that she can make an escape. Sure, there’s moments where she needs Indy to come to her aid, but given half a chance, Marion would doubtless figure her own way out.

 

Marion: mere moments from smashing her unwitting victim over the head with a bottle. Or pouring a drink. One of the two

 

Then there’s Paul Freeman, appropriately slimy as Belloq, the dark flipside to Indy. I’m not sure if Belloq can even rightly claim to be an archaeologist. All he does is come along and steal whatever Indy has found. Quite possibly the most rubbish archaeologist in the history of the profession, though the smug satisfaction that he goes about this is part of what makes him so easy to boo.

 

Slimy, amoral, traitorous and a girl-friend stealer. Makes a great creme brulee, too.

 

And then of course, there’s Harrison Ford. Spielberg initially wanted Tom Selleck for the role but Selleck was bound to the contract for the TV series Magnum PI.  Nick Nolte and  Jeff Bridges were among the other names put forward (Bridges I am absolutely okay with, but I think Nolte may have been slightly too intense for the role).

Spielberg had thought of  Harrison Ford for the role, but Lucas rejected the idea as, in his eyes, Ford was Han Solo. It’s testament to Ford’s acting talent that he managed to show new colours with Indiana Jones. Yes, both Indy and Han are somewhat roguish, slightly cynical and lacking in faith or belief in a higher power (Indy thinks that Marcus’ warnings about the Ark are just “superstitious hocus pocus” and Han doesn’t believe that there’s “one all-powerful Force controlling everything.”)  But Indy seems far more mature, less impetuous and less of an arrogant, obnoxious fool (which, let’s face, is what Han Solo is). Also, he wears a hat and has more stubble.

 

Exhibit A: Hat, Exhibit B: Stubble

 

But Ford also makes Indy simultaneously capable and vulnerable. Yes, he can take care of himself and he obviously knows how to get out of a tight spot, but you have no doubt that when this guy is hit, he’s hurting and there are times when you can definitely see worry and even fear on his face. That kind of thing is important if you want to elicit sympathy for your character and put doubt in the audience’s mind over the outcome (even if they’re still confident that the hero is going to beat the bad guys.)

It helps that Harrison Ford, besides being a convincing action hero, is also a very good actor. It’s because of him that Indy has so much nuance and quirkiness, certainly more than is seen in the average action hero. Far from being a bland, square jawed type, Indy seems vulnerable, far out of his depth at times and even conflicted (check out the scene where he reluctantly gives in to Belloq, unable to blow the Ark to smithereens).

The film also benefits from having a nicely judged sense of humour. Not so little that it feels out of place, not so much that it undermines the drama or the sense of peril. I always smile during the opening set-piece, when Indy grabs the vine with a look of relief on his face, only to have it pull free and leave him slipping closer to doom. Or Indy wryly chuckling at Belloq’s gloating when he is stuck in the Well of Souls (“Hahahaaa….Sonofabitch…).

And of course, the Arab Swordsman. With the entire crew (barring Spielberg) struggling with dysentery, the original plan for a Sword versus Bullwhip fight had to be thrown out. Thinking on the fly, it was decided that Indy wouldn’t have time for a fight, given that he was in the middle of a frantic search for Marion. So when the Arab puts on an impressive show with his sword, Indy wearily takes out his gun and shoots the guy.

 

The Arab Swordsman. The deadliest man in all of Egypt with a blade in his hands. Rubbish against bullets, though

 

Raiders of The Lost Ark is a perfect film. It’s pretty much the definition of cinematic escapism. It holds up, even today, thirty years after it was first gifted to the world, stubbornly refusing to age or become antiquated, a lesson for contemporary filmmakers on how to craft a thoroughly entertaining film.

Why can’t all movies be this much fun?

*I smashed my way through the maths exam, humming the Indy theme as I escaped with algebra nipping at my heels.

Last Updated: October 24, 2012

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