RAIDING THE MOVIE ARCHIVES WITH THE FIRST INDIANA JONES FILM
It is the definitive action adventure picture. A film that redefined the blockbuster. Its imagery has inhabited a generation of imaginations, leading to endless homage, tribute and imitation. At once a daringly original step forward in cinema and a loving tribute to what had gone before from 30s serials to Alfred Hitchcock, John Wayne, Humphrey Bogart and James Bond.
This beloved classic fused the commercial savvy and storytelling structural expertise of GEORGE LUCAS to the imagination, technical skill and sheer loving passion for movies of STEVEN SPIELBERG. And it confirmed HARRISON FORD as the greatest leading man in film history. You know ‘that’ theme tune, logo and formula, partly c/o its INDIANA JONES brand-name and the associated…sequels.
It is of course, RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK.
The film was released in 1981 and was both critical and commercial hit. Academy award nominations and Box Office glories were rightly collected. But what, specifically, about THIS film is quite SO special? It is difficult to articulate because sometimes there is just ‘movie magic’. And RAIDERS..has that ‘magic’. From its opening to the end, with few if any lags in between: this IS as hypnotic and powerful as the titular mcguffin.
Well, the charm begins (and ultimately comes back to) the Director, STEVEN SPIELBERG. He simply has a gift to make a movie mesmeric. Lighting is particularly important in his generating an instant aesthetic and atmospheric quality. That is especially true here. We get an eeriness and ghostly undertone, pervading the piece throughout via symbolic blue shards of light, juxtaposed with fog and cobwebs and snow and ice and a Biblical desert dust.
This is a unique visual signature that only Spielberg can master. He would revisit a similar style in INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM (and yes, in THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL, albeit in the opening alone), though THE LAST CRUSADE omits it on the whole. THE LOST WORLD: JURASSIC PARK does capture a comparable look, pace and feel to RAIDERS; ditto MINORITY REPORT. And yet, RAIDERS did it before all of them and better. This is NOT just an action movie or a childlike adventure fantasy.
This is, in a sense, a supernatural horror flick in mood and tone. People think TEMPLE OF DOOM is the ‘dark’ one in the INDIANA JONES series. WRONG! RAIDERS is a LOT darker. Pure pulp, grit and guts. Hints of horror punctuate the action and vice versa and the two play in harmony to the extent that the revelatory ending simply feels ‘right’. Verisimilitude is perfect here and balanced so finely, delicately and naturally that it just works in a way that cannot be replicated in feeling by any other movie series.
But there is nothing wrong with imitation. Indeed, RAIDERS owes its own debt to certain select predecessors, same way today’s filmmakers desperately want to echo..well..yes, RAIDERS! History repeats. JAMES BOND has a strand of DNA here. SEAN CONNERY would go on to play Indy’s dad in THE LAST CRUSADE (1989).
The travelogue is very FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE. Our hero is a flawed, arguably even villainous rogue at the start, redeemed by his exploits once hired for a mission by the Government against the bad guys of the era. DENHOLM ELLIOTT‘s Marcus Brody character is in effect M (setting up the hero on a mission via exposition); JOHN RHYS DAVIES‘ Sallah a kind of Q (helping hero in the field).
There are nods and winks to THE MALTESE FALCON, ZORRO, TREASURE OF SIERRA MADRE, CASABLANCA, LAWRENCE OF ARABIA and SECRET OF THE INCAS. There is even a hint of conspiracy thriller here, with shadowy government machinations at work (note THAT final shot of the warehouse boxes: very CITIZEN KANE meets 1970s paranoia).
And, though HARRISON FORD can deny it all he wants: his HAN SOLO character DID help a lot in the crafting of Indiana Jones. STAR WARS gave rise to RAIDERS. You can’t have one without the other. Indy is Han with more class and intellectual dimensions. You can see the connection again in THE FORCE AWAKENS (where Harrison sometimes slips into Indiana mannerisms such as a grumpy growl, though his performance is all the better for it).
Indeed, it was Steven Spielberg viewing a cut of THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK (1980) that led to his asking George Lucas if Harrison could play Indy (TOM SELLECK was cast but unavailable, c/o a television contract, a bit like PIERCE BROSNAN years later with..yep..JAMES BOND..him again). To watch RAIDERS is in some senses to view a capsule / snapshot of the power-players in 1980s cinema at their peak, with each of their signature moves apparent.
And yet: RAIDERS is still very much its own ‘thing’. This is emphatically NOT a pastiche or a spoof. The movie functions as a thriller, with a clear goal that the hero must pursue (find the Ark before the Nazis do) and endure the setbacks along the way. Said hero arguably both fails AND succeeds at once, from start to finish. That’s key to his appeal. Neither loser nor invincible uber-man; yet always charming, competent and determined. To that effect, the action scenes are brutal and kinetic. Every punch and gunshot gains a life of its own; each bloody nose and wound take on an almost three dimensional quality.
Innovation is key here. The sound design is outstanding, thanks to BEN BURTT‘s library of creations (bullwhip crack; punch noises; gun cocks; pistol whips; singing apparitions; jungle creatures; squelching of slithering snakes). INDUSTRIAL LIGHT AND MAGIC reinvented the special effects wheel yet again here (especially for THAT climax!). NORMAN REYNOLDS created a period piece like no other and MICHAEL MOORE did incredible second unit work.
PHILIP KAUFMAN suggested Nazis as the perfect villains for the piece. GEORGE LUCAS ensured copious theological theories were considered in deciding what would happen when this powerful Biblical artifact (The Ark of the Covenant) was unveiled in the movie’s climax.
LAWRENCE KASDAN managed to craft a screenplay that condensed the extensive ideas of Spielberg and Lucas into one coherent whole, whilst lending his own signature dialogue and character depths. Studying Kasdan’s story conferences on the project is a must for any student of cinema. JJ ABRAMS showed real vision in bringing Kasdan on board THE FORCE AWAKENS (yes, I was critical of Abrams and that film but NOT of its brilliant dialogue or of JJ’s genuine genius for getting the best people on board with him to lovingly craft a solid movie).
Producers FRANK MARSHALL (who would meet his beloved wife, new LUCASFILM / STAR WARS Head, KATHLEEN KENNEDY on the set) and ROBERT WATTS helped run a tight ship in location scouting, management and shooting schedules. Together, they helped STEVEN SPIELBERG attain his personal target of delivering a big blockbusting behemoth, but ahead of schedule and under budget. The film is a product of community and that pastoral warmth would continue with the sequels.
GLEN RANDALL, TERRY LEONARD and VIC ARMSTRONG all gave specialist expertise and attention to the various types of stunt that are mastered and modeled here with precision. It helps that HARRISON FORD got as involved as he possibly could do (though he is extremely self effacing and honest about that: ‘stunts are NOT the same as ‘physical acting’, Harrison says repeatedly in interviews).
JOHN WILLIAMS’ score is simply one of his finest (and that’s saying something!). He manages to capture the rip roaring pace of an action sequence (horseback / car chase / running through the jungle etc) as well as evoking the rocky yet rosy romance between Indy and Marion. The most striking parts on the album though are definitely the ghostly tones of the Ark and all surrounding its dangerous excavation, with a full theme taking flight at the end, before reverting to the reassuring core theme of INDIANA JONES.
The acting is very much geared to a selfless ensemble. A hero is only as good as the villains and PAUL FREEMAN and RONALD LACEY are both excellent here. And yet, it IS Harrison Ford’s film, from the outset. He has to be a number of differing characters here and yet all the same, somehow. This is a composite projection of male fantasy archetypes: heroic, romantic, academic but edgy and deadly. Ford somehow fused those disparate dimensions convincingly. It’s called star power and acting craftsmanship (he is as precise in that as in his carpentry, with meticulous attention to detail).
So: RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK is very much a product of excellent TEAM WORK. A pool of the best talents in all their respective fields, pulling together, against the odds. But a team is only as good as its Captain. And so, main plaudits here MUST go to none other than STEVEN SPIELBERG.
SCHINDLER’S LIST and SAVING PRIVATE RYAN and BRIDGE OF SPIES and the like might be his serious masterpieces. but RAIDERS is no less worthy in its contribution to modern cinema and the art and craft of entertainment and story telling.
This is a very interesting phase in Spielberg’s career. He turns 70 this year and is more prolific than ever, with THE BFG arriving soon and READY PLAYER ONE gearing up for production. He has just overseen a restructuring of his AMBLIN operations with DREAMWORKS and UNIVERSAL and collaborators in launching that major venture include MICHAEL WRIGHT. BRIDGE OF SPIES should also stand a chance at some OSCAR glory in March.
Let’s just hope that Mr. Spielberg remembers he must also fit in that fifth INDIANA JONES. One can be cynical, of course. You can bitch about Harrison Ford’s age (the late TOM CLANCY did that once with JACK RYAN: note, younger actors, even BEN ‘BATMAN’ AFFLECK and CHRIS ‘CAPTAIN KIRK’ PINE failed to shine in that role after Ford moved on).
Indy 5 CAN and SHOULD go ahead. And Steven Spielberg is as indispensable to that project’s success as Harrison Ford. For inspiration on tone? They could do worse than simply sitting down and re-watching RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK. It’s a must see, definitive piece of cinema that makes you want to write your own worthy successor. A pulp serial detective story with hints of horror and endless atmospheric adventure that launched a series and made cinematic history. They did it before..they can do it once again. ‘It’s not the years, it’s the mileage’.
RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK looks GREAT on Blu-Ray (justifying the re-purchase on another format) and is an essential addition to your movie collection. Classic in every sense.