Raiders of the Lost Ark



Paul: In the year 1981, four major American filmmakers converged on a single project. Their names: Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Lawrence Kasdan, and Philip Kaufman. The film was called Raiders of the Lost Ark. It became the biggest box office success of the year (earning nearly twice as much as the second-highest-grossing film, On Golden Pond) and earned critical praise as well, even getting nominated for eight Oscars including Best Picture and Best Director (but only winning four relatively minor awards — Hollywood wasn’t ready to crown Spielberg King of the Universe just yet). The film introduced another iconic hero into Hollywood’s pantheon, inspired three blockbuster sequels during the next twenty-seven years, and, along with two films Spielberg and Lucas had made separately in the previous decade — Jaws and Star Wars — ushered in the era of the summer blockbuster that is still going strong today.

Raiders inspired a whole generation of filmmakers. Its influence on so many films I grew up with — such as The Rocketeer, Aladdin, The Mummy, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, and National Treasure — is hard to miss. If you like the way Rapunzel uses a frying pan in Tangled, you can thank Marion Ravenwood for that. It’s not that Raiders invented any of the tropes mimicked by these later films. The frying pan bit, just to give one example, showed up in the last film we talked about, Chaplin’s The Great Dictator. But Raiders put together all the best parts of the action-adventure serials of the 1930s and ‘40s in a fresh and invigorating way, and it became the movie that sparked the imaginations of a new generation of boys. That being the case, let’s talk about our own experiences a little. What’s your history with the film like, Daniel, and how does the film look to you today?

Daniel: It’s the quintessential adventure movie. There was no greater authority on my adolescent imagination adventures than Indiana Jones. Obviously it’s one of those franchises that transcends just the movies and has burrowed so far into pop culture that the films play second fiddle to the character of Jones. Growing up, I only got to see the films on infrequent occasions, but it was enough to get my imagination running with images of grandeur and adventure. Raiders of the Lost Ark manages to encompass, as you said, just about everything that adventure flicks represent, using images and scenarios that we’ve not only seen before, but that we’ve come to subconsciously love. Despite my absolute love for the franchise (or most of it, anyway) it’s one of those that you watch growing up and adamantly love, but can easily shelve it for years. My most recent viewing was just last week. It has lost nothing over time. Something that I’ve been appreciating more and more is practical effects and impressive stunt performances, which this movie is absolutely full of. In particular I love the fight scene that takes place among the caravan of moving vehicles. It was a stark parallel with the jungle scene in Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. In Raiders it is devoid of CGI effects and you’re actually watching people jump from cars and seeing some incredibly impressive stunt work. In Kingdom of the Crystal Skull the car scene is more akin to an expensive computer animated cartoon. While CGI may be able to visually show you a wider range of action than you could get from filming something as it happens, the scene in Raiders is far and above more interesting and exciting. Even by today’s standards, I thought the action sequences remain breathtaking, and capable of inspiring the imagination of everyone that watches it.

Paul: Along with the CGI, which already looks dated whereas practical effects hold up, Crystal Skull goes even more over-the-top by adding sword fighting to the chase. As with most sequels, bigger doesn’t equal better. Raiders keeps it simple, easy to follow, and it’s fantastic. That Nazi who punches Indy in his bullet wound — he’s onscreen for maybe a minute or so and has no lines, but he’s completely unforgettable.

I feel like I came to embrace this film relatively late in my childhood — less than fifteen years ago, let’s say. Of course, as far back as I can remember, there have been three films, and I came across all of them on TV from time to time. I think The Last Crusade put its stamp on me first. Ironically, when it comes to one of the most famous images in Raiders — the boulder — the Disneyland ride made it iconic for me before I became familiar with the movie. So the fact that it’s become my favorite movie in the series by far can’t be just nostalgia. Still, there’s one childhood memory that I find interesting. Watching it on TV one time, as the film’s climax approached, my parents suggested I might want to cover my eyes. This was to protect my innocence and spare me nightmares, but it also made for an interactive experience, since our hero closes his eyes, too. Even so, I don’t recall complying. The warning would have only made me more curious (and I’m not sure if I’d already seen it at this point or not). Even after learning how the effects were done, I still find that scene fabulously gruesome.

Daniel: My experience with that particular scene is very similar. My father would cover my eyes with his hand, at which point I would muster all my strength to remove its obstruction from my vision, much to the protest of both my parents AND Indiana Jones, it seemed. It’s funny that you mention the Nazi punching Indy in the arm, as that moment really stood out to me this time around as well. The action, literally, pulled no punches. What could have been an elaborately choreographed series of action sequences, felt much more like two sides fighting with every ounce of their being to achieve their goal. I love the part in that same scene when they attempt to crush Jones between the two trucks, forcing him to either be dragged behind the truck or be killed. I am hard pressed to recall any movie with such scrappy fighting techniques. Indy has always felt like an anti-James Bond. Where Bond is a suave and sophisticated spy with cool gadgets, Indy is a professor that uses a bullwhip and receives as many blows as he doles out. There are, obviously, hints of Han Solo in this movie. Harrison Ford, in his first six movies associated with George Lucas, managed to perfect his rogue character, and it’s put to iconic use. After watching it so recently, was there anything in it that showed its age, or anything that didn’t sit well with you?

Paul: Not much, really. There are moments that seem deliberately corny, but they feel right. Naturalism wasn’t the goal. I am becoming more sensitive to racial stereotypes in film, and there are some here. One of them has become so common in movies of this type that it’s easy to miss. A white explorer treks through the jungle with local guides. The guides reach a point where they will go no further because of superstitious fears, but the white man bravely presses on (okay, in this case some are afraid and others betray him). This element is the one flaw in the otherwise astonishing opening sequence. I’m glad you mentioned Bond. Lucas famously wanted Indy to be “better than Bond,” and despite the characters’ differences of personality and decorum, they have some things in common: globe-trotting adventures, seeming invincibility, and, let’s say, troubled relationships with women. They also make classic entrances in their first films. It was a great decision to hide Indy’s face for a while. He has an air of authority, infallibility. Then one of the guides pulls a gun, Indy turns, the whip cracks, and he steps into the light for a glorious movie-star close-up. This is already brilliant, and we haven’t even gotten to the booby traps, the idol, and Indy’s panicked run through the field with dust flying off his shoulders. This is such a funny movie, but it manages not to be a spoof. What do you think of the humor?

Daniel: Perhaps the most confusing part about growing up with this movie is that I didn’t know if I was laughing because it was a funny movie, or if I was simply laughing out of pure joy from what happened before me. I know now that it’s a lot of both. To me, the most defining moment of Indy’s character is when he’s confronted by the man with the giant sword. The crowd parts, the man swings the scimitar menacingly and is promptly shot in the chest by the irate protagonist. Everything about that was so perfect (even if it wasn’t in the script). There are a few movies that I’ll laugh with simply out of pure glee, Indiana Jones happens to be one of those. That’s not to say there isn’t humor, on the contrary, it’s a hilarious movie. Mixed in with the swashbuckling action sequences are just as many elements of humor. When the Nazi enters the tent to convince Marion to talk, he pulls out the most menacing looking coat hanger in cinematic history. The tongue-in-cheek humor pairs excellently with the very nature of the Indiana Jones franchise. Oftentimes it’s the sheer number of reversals to our expectations that makes it increasingly difficult to refrain from smiling. I find it interesting that so much of the movie can be found in other incarnations of literary adventure, considering how often Indiana Jones has been spoofed in almost every form, he has become the definition of an adventurer, despite himself being a copy of those in the past.

Paul: When I think of filmmakers who take a lot of inspiration from older movies, the first name I think of is Quentin Tarantino. It’s really interesting that, while Spielberg and Tarantino have very different styles and reputations, Raiders is clearly the kind of movie that inspired Tarantino. Just look at the end of Inglourious Basterds. Spielberg and Lucas, not to mention Francis Ford Coppola with the gangster picture and Brian De Palma with Hitchcock-style suspense, were already updating classic movie genres into something new in the 1970s. Fast-forward to today, and the widespread lack of originality makes a lot of sense, considering the newest generation of filmmakers was raised watching movies by people who were copying older movies. But I think there are interesting parallels between Raiders and Basterds. Hollywood is made up of storytellers, and storytellers love catharsis. Hitler committing suicide is probably the least cathartic event in history. So both Spielberg and Tarantino, making violent action movies, brought the Nazis back to life in order to rain down some vengeance (and make fun of them — can’t forget that saluting monkey). Tarantino might not be capable of shifting into serious dramas like Spielberg did in the 90s, but I love discovering that they have something in common.

I love that coat hanger moment too. Although I have much of the movie imprinted on my mind, that was a moment I’d forgotten. The timing is just flawless — I was convinced he was pulling out a weapon. That character is incredibly menacing. This movie has several villains, but combined they are just as memorable as Indiana Jones himself.

Daniel: Watching Raiders of the Lost Ark has certainly renewed my interest in this franchise, particularly because my wife wasn’t indoctrinated with them throughout her childhood the way I have been, so I’m attempting to remedy that. Talk of Indy 5 is on the table, and honestly I can’t be optimistic about future prospects, at least if it attempts to keep the same formula. That being said, this movie set the grounds for a formula that, with an actor of an appropriate age, talented director and practical effects, was powerful in its ability to leech on to the imagination of audiences everywhere. I have the remaining three films in the series lined up, and while I’ve seen them all before, it’s been a while since I’ve seen any of them relatively close together. I know what to expect from all of them, as does most of the modern world. Despite knowing exactly what’s coming, these films, particularly Raiders, generate a level of excitement and adventure that tends to elude most films in their class.

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One Response to “Raiders of the Lost Ark”

  1. Retaining My Capacity for Astonishment: My 10 Favorite Spielberg Movies | Infinite Crescendo Says:

    […] (See also my discussion of the film with my good friend Daniel Robison over at Gaffer MacGuffin’s Movie House.) […]

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