Raiders of the Lost Ark
- Reviewed by: Mel Valentin
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Current Rating 9.3/10 | 71 Votes
Directed by Steven Spielberg (Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, E.T.: The Extraterrestrial, Schindler's List, Saving Private Ryan, War of the Worlds) from a story by George Lucas (the Star Wars trilogies), Raiders of the Lost Ark is one of the high points, if not the high point, of the action/adventure formula. Created as an homage to the 1930s and 1940s Saturday morning serials they both loved, and, thus, set in the mid-1930s, Raiders of the Lost Ark was one of the biggest hits at the time, but more importantly, it continues to be as viscerally entertaining and emotionally engaging today as it was twenty-five years ago.
After 1941, a bloated, overwrought, self-indulgent comedy that bombed with critics and audiences, Spielberg needed a hit to rejuvenate his reputation as a commercial filmmaker. His desire to direct a James Bond film led nowhere, but it was Lucas who came up with the suggestion of combining a Bond-like hero with the Saturday-morning serials they both loved as children. Lucas took his ideas to Philip Kaufman (Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Right Stuff, The Unbearable Lightness of Being). Lucas and Kaufman's treatment was ultimately refined into a screenplay by Lawrence Kasdan (The Big Chill, Silverado, Grand Canyon), who stepped in to co-write the screenplay for The Empire Strikes Back after Lucas’ original pick to write The Empire Strikes Back, Leigh Brackett (The Big Sleep), became ill.
Raiders of the Lost Ark opens with several men, sweating profusely, making their way through a thick, South American jungle. Their leader, Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) is a globetrotting adventurer, treasure hunter, archeologist, and college professor (not necessarily in that order). Jones is on the hunt for a gold artifact located in the heart of a mountain, which he hopes to bring back to the
Stateside, Indy meets up with archeologist/museum buyer, Marcus Brody (Denholm Elliott) and two government officials eager to pick Jones' brains for any information related to an archeological dig in
Raiders of the Lost Ark continues to entertain audiences for multiple reasons, beginning with Lawrence Kasdan's screenplay and Lucas' original conception of the Indiana Jones character, the setting, and presumably, the conflict and object of desire, the lost Ark of the Covenant. Expository dialogue is delivered in short, controlled bursts, and even when it's not, the consistently witty, humorous, and yes Hawksian. Kasdan's dialogue is rarely just functional. More often than not, Kasdan's dialogue reveals character, backstories, and motives along with a steady stream of humorous pay-offs. And yes, Kasdan provides his characters with an overabundance of quotable dialogue, as even casual Raiders fans can attest.
Spielberg's direction emphasizes fast editing and short shot lengths for the action scenes. Even dialogue scenes are edited with a momentum-first approach. Spielberg often transitions between scenes quickly, refusing to linger on character moments or reactions before moving on to the next action-heavy scene. Spielberg's directing style falls squarely into what David Bordwell in his most recent book, The Way Hollywood Tells It : Story and Style in Modern Movies, calls "intensified continuity," but with a key difference: Spielberg still hews to classical principles of editing and camera movement during action scenes. In fact, he rarely, if ever, moves the camera during the action scenes, instead preferring to let editing do the work (and it does).
Raiders of the Lost Ark has everything that action/adventure fans want: a sympathetic hero that's simultaneously iconic and human, a clear-cut, but difficult to obtain tangible goal, hissable villains, an antagonist who stands in as the central character's shadow or double, stunt-heavy action that stays within the realm of the humanly possible, plus a romantic subplot to show the central character's flaws, insecurities, and mistakes (as Indy's first encounter with Marion illustrates). He's also physically vulnerable in ways few action heroes have been since. At one point he can barely stand and when he takes off his shirt, reveals bumps, bruises, and scratch marks all over his chest and face. Unlike other action heroes, Indy doesn't savor the next fistfight, often shrugging in disappointment that he has to face one more foe before escaping.
Understanding Indiana Jones' enduring appeal to audiences young and old poses a fascinating question. He's certainly a classic, romantic hero, a responsibility-free, globetrotting adventurer. He's also the thinking man's action hero. Besides his physical abilities and quick wits, he's an academic, a professor of archeology. Of course, Indiana Jones is ultimately a fantasy hero, impossibly good at what he does, indomitable when he loses (and he loses often), relentless in pursuit of his goals, and endlessly resourceful in the face of overwhelming numbers against him. As others have pointed out, part of Indiana Jones' appeal comes from the air of mystery surrounding his background.
Segue into one of the most-cited critiques: as a central character, Jones doesn't change. The dramatic conflict he experiences doesn't change him in any meaningful way. True enough, as far as that goes (and it's a criticism applicable to most action heroes), but given the action/adventure nature of the storyline, stopping intermittently to reveal backstory would have impacted pacing and momentum negatively. Indy's aura of mystery also means that viewers can fill in the background details for themselves, making them more active participants in the characters, as well as increasing the identification with Indy as a character (e.g., the less we know about him, the more we project ourselves into the character).
There's one more character-related point worth discussing here, a point made by a good friend and discussed in detail on the Wordplay site operated by screenwriter/producers Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio (Aladdin, Small Soldiers, The Mask of Zorro, Shrek, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl and the two upcoming sequels, Dead Men's Chest and World's End): Indiana Jones fails, not just early on, but continuously throughout Raiders of the Lost Ark. Belloq gets the jump on him early on and Indy loses the artifact. Later, Indy finds the
In a different context (and film), viewers might be put off by Indy losing so much and so often. Here, the opposite is the case, primarily because there are often two goals constantly in play: obtaining the object of desire and survival, or to put it more abstractly, he obtains the more immediate goal while losing out on the larger one. To my friend's point, audiences don't seem to notice Indy's losing streak. More likely than not, they're so engrossed by Indy's obsessive, stubborn pursuit of his goals, that they're willing to ignore his failures or not even notice them at all. In addition, the more Indy loses, the higher the stakes and the more audiences end up rooting for him to succeed against seemingly impossible odds.
Another line of criticism centers on the portrayal of the Nazis as cartoon villains. The argument goes something like this: The Nazis were far more than cartoon villains, and as the memories of World War II fade into history, the cartoonish representation of Nazis and Nazism does their victims a serious disservice. That's true, up to a point, but given the fantasy and action/adventure elements foregounded in Raiders of the Lost Ark, it's hard to imagine anyone taking the depiction of Nazis seriously. More accurate, historically based depictions of Nazis and Nazism are available on film and in other media, and their depiction here didn't and doesn't preclude more accurate depictions in the present and future.
But let’s get back to Raiders of the Lost Ark and Spielberg and Lucas. Sadly, Raiders of the Lost Ark turned out to be the high-water mark for Lucas’ oeuvre. Lucas’ subsequent career as a filmmaker is more notable for his role as producer and founder/CEO of Industrial Light and Magic, the innovative special effects company that's had a hand in countless
© Mel Valentin, 8th June, 2006
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