Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) – Steven Spielberg

Action movies typically have a short shelf life. They are under constant assault from the next generation because of advances in special effects and the public’s unyielding desire for more and more improbable scenarios. For dramas, outlandishness leads to melodrama, but there seems to be no limit to the amount of ridiculous that people will swallow; therefore, actioners are always in danger of being outdone. Steven Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark is able to avoid that danger because it feels participatory. It’s one of the rare movies that you don’t simply watch, you live through it.

It’s the best kind of escapism. The kind that lets you out of your world but not totally. There’s an unsettling element to it; there’s a feeling of unease that lingers at the end. Last month saw good marks for the opening of Ridley Scott’s Prometheus (2012), much of it earned, but while watching Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), I was struck by how similar the two movie’s messages are: they are both about divinity and the danger of knowledge. In Prometheus, that danger manifests itself in the form of nasty creatures that go bump in the night; in Raiders it’s the no less than wrath of God. It’s almost perverse that a movie aimed squarely at children would drag out as its climactic set-piece a thought that strikes terror into the heart of kids: something bigger than themselves. “Don’t look at it,” Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) tells Marion (Karen Allen) while God’s power tears through the valley, echoing a million parents talking to their children during that very scene.

That’s about as far as I’ll go for analyzing the deep meaning of a movie that is essentially about punching people and getting the Nazis. This is a boy’s fantasy, a globetrotting adventure into and out of impractically elaborate booby traps and snake pits, submarines, biplanes, and trucks. There’s a dame, but she’s one of the guys as well, and there’s an army of Nazis who don’t have one brain among them and can be easily undone even if you’re making it up as you go. It’s an exhilarating experience, perhaps the height of what movies can be, a completely transportive occurrence.

But what makes Raiders of the Lost Ark last? Surely there were adventure tales that predated it (in fact, they inspired it) and there have certainly been enough imitators that have followed it. Even the filmmakers refer to it as a “B-movie,” and those aren’t supposed to stick around. I don’t know if I can explain it, and I have my doubts that anyone can, otherwise wouldn’t every movie be as durable and magnificent as Raiders of the Lost Ark?

I do know it starts with the screenplay, not the story necessarily, though it’s a good one and one that is as old as storytelling. No, it’s Lawrence Kasden’s screenplay that breathes life into the whole thing. It has near-perfect construction. Each character is broadly but strongly defined, ideal for this type of movie; we know what they want and how they’re going to get it. The dialogue is sneakily revealing without being overly declarative and it’s terrifically economic: in a few lines we are given decades of back story as well as defining traits of certain character’s relationships. “Doctor Jones, again we see there is nothing you can possess which I cannot take away.” “Professor of Archeology, expert on the occult and ah, how does one say it? Obtainer of rare antiquities.” “Besides, you know what a cautious fellow I am.” Every perilous quest is set up with a menacing warning, “Señor, nobody’s come out of there alive!” “Nobody’s found the Ark in 3,000 years. It’s like nothing you’ve gone after before.”

None of these is a memorable line in the vein of “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn,” but it’s embarrassing how few movies color their scripts with these load-bearing pieces of dialogue. In Raiders so many characters get key introductions, starting, of course, with Indy’s reveal by way of his ubiquitous bullwhip during the fantastic opening sequence. Marion’s opening scene establishes her as a tough chick: she’s drinking a much larger man under the table. It’s a great introduction on its own, but Kasden truly pays it off later in a scene with the villain Belloq (Paul Freeman) holding Marion hostage and taking her on in a drinking contest. We assume she’ll prevail, which would be fine enough, but then we get a twist: Belloq grew up on the alcohol they’re drinking; it’s his family label. This is the first of two times this scene will play with our expectations, as later some tension is relieved in a sight gag when the sadistic Toht (Ronald Lacey) takes from his coat what appears to be an instrument of torture which turns out to be a coat hanger.

Perhaps Kasden’s finest feat is the brisk pace of the story. A lot happens but it never feels rushed. It tells the tale of Professor Indiana Jones who is in a race to find the biblical Ark of the Covenant before the Nazis, who plan to use the Ark as weapon. In the process he reconnects with a former flame, Marion, whose father was an expert on the Ark, and butts heads repeatedly with his nemesis, Belloq, who sides with the Germans. That’s fairly standard action stuff, but Kasden adds a level of substance both with the implications of the devastating Ark and with the designations of the characters. Look at the French Belloq, whose country doesn’t have a dog in this particular hunt, appeasing and manipulating all sides to his own ends. Surely, the choice of his nationality in the time frame of this story was not arbitrary. The story speeds along and we are given constant reminders of the breathtaking immediacy. The rivals are always on the brink of a key discovery and Indy has to pick up his pace. I was struck during this last viewing, during Indiana’s heroic swim to a Nazi submarine, by how little time remained in the movie’s length and by how many things I knew were yet to happen.

Credit cannot be taken away from Spielberg, of course, who’s mainly responsible for making the script digestable at such a quickened pace. Besides, the things you remember about Raiders of the Lost Ark are visual. From the rolling boulder of the opening to the aforementioned hero shot with the submarine and the harrowing agony of the opening of the Ark. Indy’s look is a triumph of visual filmmaking, borrowed and patched together from a dozen boys’ magazines and books; art director Leslie Dilley and costume designer Deborah Nadoolman created an outfit for Ford that works in long-shot, close-up and, best of all, dramatic, shadowy silhouette.

Ford needs credit as well; he takes the least developed character and makes him relatable. Nobody is better than Harrison Ford at providing the audience with a center while the universe falls apart around him. Indiana Jones couldn’t go on without Ford, a la James Bond; it’s distressing to see that idea flirted with. When Indy punches someone, it sounds different from other people’s punches in the movies. There’s a wetness to it, like a cannonball hitting a side of beef. It’s Spielberg’s handling of all these elements that makes the movie soar. The movie gets a lot of praise for its technical achievements, and the truck chase in the final third remains the standard for competent, clear, action sequences, but those kinds of things can be outdone. Raiders lasts because of its synthesis of every element of moviemaking employed for the purpose of fun.

This is perhaps the most fun movie ever made. It’s invigorating. Movies, on some level or another are supposed to be fun. In any other art form, an entry like Raiders of the Lost Arkwould be dismissed as frivolity, but in movies it reaches the highest levels of what the medium can do. Personally, it’s the most important movie of my life, the one that made me love movies as a boy. There’s something about childhood in it; I don’t mean it’s sentimental, but it connects with the idea of free-wheeling discovery at every turn,  with the simplicity of childhood. When I first saw it, I was transformed. My tastes have gotten more sophisticated, to the point that movies I adored as a child seem simplistic or ham-handed, but Raiders has never failed to connect to that kid in me. After being on the RKO studio for an hour, Orson Welles said, “This is the biggest electric train set a boy ever had!” Spielberg, who cut his teeth making home movies of his train sets as a teen, has made the perfect extension of that statement. 

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