Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) – Directed by Steven Spielberg – Starring Harrison Ford, John Rhys-Davis, Paul Freeman, Karen Allen, Ronald Lacey, and Denholm Elliot.
I never wanted to be Indiana Jones.
Don’t get me wrong – I always loved the character as a kid, and RAIDERS has always been a favorite of mine, but I never had those fantasies of the hat and the bullwhip and finding all that lost treasure. I wanted to be Captain America or Hawkeye or Green Lantern, but Indiana Jones? Never. I’ve often wondered why I never wanted to be Indy. I reckon part of it was an affinity for sci-fi films over adventure stories, but I think it mostly comes down to this:
I don’t want to go to the places Indy goes looking for artifacts. I had (and still have) little interest in going treasure hunting in Nepal, South America, Egypt … I’m a forest and ice and outer space guy, not a jungles and desert one. Hacking through overgrowth, running from spear-chucking natives, figuring out booby traps inside deserted jungle temples … you got this one, Indy. I’ll be standing over here in the rocket ship.
None of that changes my appreciation for RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, one of those rare films that is perfect, in almost every sense. Because of what the film has come to mean over the last 30 years, and because of who Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, and Harrison Ford all became, it’s hard to remember that RAIDERS was basically George and Steven’s version of Tarantino and Rodriguez’s Grindhouse project – quick and rough film making that was meant as an ode to pictures of an era gone by. It seems almost impossible to think that guys as professional and studio as Spielberg, as calculating and economically-driven as Lucas, and as unwilling to stop tinkering with past films as they both are could pull together to make such a lean, rough, efficiently brilliant film.
I would imagine that most people who write also consume and digest stories the way I do – while there’s an appreciation for the story, characters, and craft, there’s also that part of the brain that makes comments all its own over in its own corner: “Bad line,” “Where’s the establishing shot?,” “Go faster!,” “Lame fight,” and so on. It’s not a good or bad voice necessarily – it’s just a voice. I bet most people, like me, can just segment that voice off from the rest of their head so you can appreciate a story on its own merits.
With RAIDERS, that “I Woulda Done It Differently” voice is almost non-existent because this is a wonderful movie. The script is sharp, the acting makes the characters believable, the directing is top-notch, and the ride is exhilirating. In fact, there’s only one moment in the entire film that made the voice protest and that’s the incredibly small instance when rival archaeologist Rene Belloq opens the Ark of the Covenant and he dresses in some kind of period, ancient Jewish or Egyptian outfit that makes him look like a bigger loser than Hank Azara in Night at the Museum 2.
And that’s it. Almost everything else feels so right that watching RAIDERS this time around makes me realize just how important this film is to my own development as a writer – it’s not that I recognize it as good, but that I recognize it as right. It feels right because it was one of the stories that made me want to write. RAIDERS isn’t just a movie or a story, but some kind of formulative blueprint that instructed me on what movies can do, should do, and how to make it happen. It’s the same way I feel when I read a Walt Simonson comic or a Tolkien novel or the Thornton W. Burgess books.
Indiana Jones in RAIDERS is the perfect Spielberg hero and Harrison Ford is the perfect actor to play him – kinda nerdy but also kinda dramatically athletic.* There’s a respect for knowledge and a dogged ability to get the physical feat performed, but it would be wrong to say Indy is a great athlete. Harrison Ford looks a lot more athletic than he actually is in practice. He runs like he self-taught himself how to move his legs faster just for this part, but there are few actors who look better doing athletic-looking things while standing still; if you need someone to crack a whip, fire a gun, throw a punch, or take a punch, there’s few people better.
(*One of the many reasons why Shia LeBeouf is so horrible in Indy 4 is that he’s not this type, but we’ll get to that in time.)
The greatness of the character of Indiana Jones comes in his well-rounded humanity and how the different parts of him interact with one another. He’s this bold adventurer who’s also terrified of snakes, a hit with the ladies from a distance but a disaster up close, and nerdy and reserved in the classroom but comfortable and adventurous in the field. He can disarm you with a smile but he’s not funny, he treats massive poisonous spiders like they’re lint that needs to be casually brushed off your shoulder but freak out at the tiniest snake, and while he’s not given to violence he neither runs from it nor hesitates to initiate it.
Certainly there are actors besides Harrison Ford who could play the part (Tom Selleck was originally offered the role but couldn’t do it thanks to his commitments to Magnum, P.I.), but Ford makes Indy his own to the point where it’s hard to imagine anyone else in the role. Other actors can do the action, the humor, can provide the vulnerability and intensity, but no one else has Ford’s particular mix of charisma and exasperation, no one else has his smile, and no one else can pull off wearing a leather jacket in the middle of the day in the Peruvian jungle.
The film carefully protects Indy and his treasure hunting (also known as stealing, sacrilege, and the arrogance of imperialism, depending on one’s point of view) by making everyone else in his line of work a dirtbag. He’s originally helped by two local guides, but they both betray him. His main rival, French archaeologist René Belloq (Paul Freeman) blatantly steals Indy’s finds and works for the Nazis.
Where it allows Indy to be human is both acknowledging (albeit slightly) that his brand of archaeology is a grey area at best, and in his relationship with Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen), which did not end well and has yet to heal.
In terms of archaeology, Belloq accuses Indy of being not very different from himself, arguing that Indy is not the good guy he likes to pretend to be, and it would not take much for Indy to be pushed into becoming Belloq. The Frenchman is proven partially correct later on when Indy threatens to blow up the Ark of the Covenant to prevent Belloq and the Nazis from opening up the ancient chest; Belloq dares Indy to blow up the Ark, telling him he knows he won’t do it because Indy wants to see what happens. “Yes, blow it up! Blow it back to God,” Belloq challenges his rival. “All your life has been spent in search of archaeological relics. Inside the Ark are treasures beyond your wildest aspirations. You want to see it open as well as I. Indiana, we are simply passing through history. This,” he points to the Ark, “this is history. Do as you will.”
Indy caves and allows the Nazis to capture him.
The details of his relationship with Marion are kept largely in the dark, but we know that a decade ago Indy and Marion had a relationship, and it ended badly enough that not only did Indy alienate Marion but her father – and his mentor – as well. Abner Ravenwood’s name is mentioned in a Nazi telegram concerning the Ark, so after Indiana agrees to help the U.S. government stop the Nazis from acquiring the Ark, he goes to Nepal to retrieve a particular medallion that will tell him where the Ark is hidden. He doesn’t find Abner, but he finds Marion. She’s non-too-pleased to see him, and they have the best emotional moment of the film together.
“Indiana Jones,” she says when he enters and Karen Allen makes you feel all of her hurt and all of that time lost in those two words. She protests she was just a kid; he counters she knew exactly what she was doing.
“I can only say I’m sorry so many times,” Indy tells her at one point.
“Then say it again!” she snaps angrily.
One of the most impressive aspects of the film is the way Spielberg manages his action sequences. The opening raid of the Peruvian temple is recognized as a cinematic masterpiece, with Spielberg deftly building the tension of the scene as Indy moves through the jungle and then through the temple’s booby traps. When he reaches the idol and replaces the golden object with a bag of sand, he smiles at his own cleverness. You think the sequence is over, and then the stone that holds the idol sinks into the base and a giant ball slowly rolls down towards them, itself picking up steam as the rest of the sequence progresses. Indy runs to freedom and bursts into the clear and again you think the scene is over, only to find Belloq and some indigenous tribesman waiting to take the idol from him. Indy escapes to the lake, the natives chasing after him, and escapes in a seaplane. For a third time you think the sequence is done, only to have Indy freak out when a giant snake starts slithering up between his legs.
“That’s just my pet snake, Reggie!” the pilot smiles.
“I hate snakes, Jock! I hate them!”
“Aw, come on,” Jock chides. “Show a little backbone, will ya?”
The sequence sets the tone for the rest of the film; Indy is resourceful but far from perfect, brave but by no means a man without fear. That the rest of the film doesn’t slag after such an engaging, exciting sequence is a credit to everyone involved. Excellent work in small roles from John Rhys-Davies and Denholm Elliot provide comedic relief and an elder statesman, respectively, and Paul Freeman almost manages to steal the show as Belloq. He’s the perfect foil for Indy and makes every scene he’s in better.
I treasured RAIDERS as a kid because it was exciting and funny and awesome; I treasure it now because it remains all three. Marion tells him at one point after he’s been beaten up and bruised that he’s not the man he was ten years ago. “It’s not the years, honey,” he drolls. “It’s the mileage.”
After nearly thirty years and tons of mileage in numerous VCRs and DVD players, RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK endures as a cinematic treasure.
THE INDIANA JONES REVIEW COLLECTION:
RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK: Asps. Very Dangerous. You Go First.
TEMPLE OF DOOM: Two Hours of Kate Capshaw Shrieking Like a Harpy
THE LAST CRUSADE: You Lost Today, Kid. But That Doesn’t Mean You Have to Like It.
THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL: How Much of Human Life is Lost in Waiting?