Raiders of the Lost Ark

Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) Director: Steven Spielberg

“You and I are very much alike. Archeology is our religion, yet we have both fallen from the pure faith. Our methods have not differed as much as you pretend. I am but a shadowy reflection of you. It would take only a nudge to make you like me. To push you out of the light.”

★★★★★

The story of Indiana Jones (originally called “Indiana Smith”) came to George Lucas in the early pre-production of Star Wars. The idea was create an action-adventure movie based on the old cliffhanger action serials of the 1930s and 1940s (the name “Indiana” was derived from Lucas’s dog). However, the concept was put on hold for a while as Lucas nearly ran himself into the ground creating the first Star Wars movie in 1977 –a stressful film production that George Lucas was so sure would fail at the box office he decided to skip the opening release and went on vacation to Hawaii. While away on vacation with his friend Steven Spielberg, they discussed Spielberg’s desire to direct a James Bond movie so Lucas offered him the next best thing: an adventure picture involving an archaeologist, Nazis, and the mythical Ark of the Covenant. It was James Bond without all the gadgets, and it would be shot using old-styles of cinematic techniques. Naturally, Spielberg jumped at the idea.

Since he was still working on the Star Wars sequels, George Lucas became a producer on the Indiana Jones project instead. As would later happen in The Empire Strikes Back, he and Spielberg hired Lawrence Kasden to write the script. And once they secured a deal with Michael Eisner, who was a producer at Paramount at the time, Lucas had once again negotiated an extraordinary financial windfall for himself. With all the pieces falling into place Spielberg and Lucas searched for an actor, at one point settling on Tom Selleck, before switching to Harrison Ford (who was reticent to sign a three-picture deal on the project). The film was shot using much of the same locales as in Star Wars (including unpleasant conditions in Tunisia wherein everyone caught dysentery). Nevertheless, Spielberg had set for himself a simple, modest goal: create a fast-paced B-movie in the vein of old Hollywood serials in a hopeful effort to finally make a picture on time and under budget (Jaws had achieved neither). For Raiders of the Lost Ark the whole film was meticulously shot and is rife with allusions to Old Hollywood, and as such it was story-boarded in a remarkably detailed fashion, but despite all the planning efforts there were many scenes with spontaneous improvisations and Harrison Ford was regularly injured on set (he was adamant that he would perform all his own stunts).

The film opens in South America in 1936 in an absolutely iconic scene of Indiana Jones, a fedora-wearing, gun and whip wielding, gruff combination of Charlton Heston, Humphrey Bogart, and Howard Hughes, as he retrieves a rare golden idol deep in a jungle cave rigged with antiquated booby traps, before he is followed by the famous giant rolling boulder scene. This is the summit of fun movie-making! Indiana Jones is quickly revealed not to be a super-hero, but rather a somewhat battered, vulnerable, man who is highly intelligent. However, he is confronted by his arch-rival archaeologist René Belloq (Paul Freeman) who steals the prized idol and leaves Jones to be chased by a group of natives, only to narrowly escape by plane. Next, we see a poindexterous Indiana Jones, or “Indy,” wearing glasses and a professorial coat back in the United States where he teaches at Marshall College. Here he is informed that Hitler has grown fascinated with the occult, and the Nazis have hatched a plan to attempt to locate the mythical Ark of the Covenant from the Torah.

He travels to Tunisia where he reunites with an old rough-and-tumble love interest named Marion (played by Karen Allen) and the two of them have a delightful Cary Grant-Carole Lombard screwball comedy dynamic throughout the film. As the plot moves forward, there is a mysterious medallion, a map-room, and a sacred staff until they finally discovers the Ark in a cave filled with snakes (“asps, very dangerous you go first”) only for an endless series of incredible action sequences with a laughable cohort of frothing, erratic Nazis who are ultimately undone when the Ark is climactically exposed and those who have looked upon it are all horrifyingly liquified –it is the ultimate symbol of Jewish revenge on Nazi hatred. This notion of revenge is key in the film. The Nazis represent a kind of modern transgression upon sacred customs (i.e. violating the curse of the ancient Ark of the Covenant). The Nazis almost always appear as a ragtag collection of foolhardy buffoons –or a pre-World War II maniacal, goose-stepping, bloodthirsty band of violators of power-hungry goons. Similarly, archaeology is a chief theme in the film –to what extent are Indy and the Nazis doing the same thing? What makes Indy the hero and the Nazis the villains? Taking things and uprooting them out of the dust of history is perhaps not a value-neutral act. Whereas the Nazis are seeking a ghostly super-weapon in order to bring the past to life, Indiana Jones, on the other hand, seeks to simply preserve the past as it was. He is an antiquarian or a museum-lover who believes in education for its own sake, and in this way he represents the post-Hegelian idea of an end of history. However the supra-historical, as exemplified in the American system of bureaucratic cataloguing, is shown to be superior to the Nazi belief in the prophetic fulfillment of history.

In the end, we are treated to one final iconic scene in which Indy is calmly reassured that top bureaucrats are carefully inspecting the Ark, but in fact the film closes with a slowly retreating shot as a lone warehouse worker files away a wooden box containing the Ark of the Covenant inside a massive store-room filled with thousands of other identical boxes. At the exit we are left to wonder, how many other mysteries are lying in wait either out in dangerous deserts and jungles, or filed away in some sterile government warehouse? The film plays with various ghostly themes as the idea of relic-hunting can have its limits, even for a Western academic like Indiana Jones who was initially skeptical about the dangers posed by supernatural phenomenon, but by the end of the film we see him tightly shutting his eyes in order to save his own life from the dark spirits within the Ark. The irony of his character is that Indiana Jones hardly saves the day, far from it, he simply survives to tell the tale.

I should also mention that on top of Jaws, Star Wars, and Superman John Williams returns in Raiders of the Lost Ark with an absolutely perfect, instantly recognizable score for the film. In many ways it is the score that makes this film. Simply put Raiders of the Lost Ark is a wonderful, classically-inspired action-adventure –a rare gem for any generation of movie-goers.

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