GREAT FILMS: Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark (USA, 1981)
Directed by Steven Spielberg
Starring Harrison Ford, Karen Allen, Paul Freeman, Ron Lacey

IMDb Top 250: #27 (13/2/13)

Trying to analyse Indiana Jones is every bit at tricky as analysing Star Wars. Both have become such indelible parts of our popular culture that it often seems fatuous to question their legacy, with every year throwing up new examples of films which either directly imitate Lucas and Spielberg or which owe a passing debt to them in some way.
But if we attempt to wade through the reputation, and look under the brim of that famous fedora, how well does the original hold up after 32 years? In the case of Star Wars, a great deal of admiration remains for its technical proficiency, but its narrative and character shortcomings are increasingly in plain sight. The story of Raiders of the Lost Ark is every bit as fanciful in its roots and execution, but under Spielberg's guiding hand it soars, resulting in a truly great action film that barely misses a beat.
For all the things you could feasibly hold against George Lucas, one thing he does deserve credit for is rescuing Spielberg's career. After the release of 1941, Spielberg's reputation had declined from a wunderkind who couldn't fail to a reckless liability. Studios had let the production delays on Jaws and Close Encounters slide due to their phenomenal grosses, but when 1941 failed to match these returns, the blank cheque was permanently torn up. To get back in Hollywood's good books, Spielberg had to demonstrate that he could make a wide-appeal film that would come in on-time and on-budget - on low-budget, to be exact.
Looking at the two films side by side, it's hard to believe that Raiders and 1941 were made by the same man, let alone within two years of each other. Put simply, Raiders of the Lost Ark succeeds in every way that 1941 so dismally failed. Its storytelling is focussed and well-structured where 1941 was a meandering mess; its characters are memorable and well-developed inside of simply zany or kooky; the sets are properly lit and directed; and the comic timing is impeccable. It is indeed ironic that Lucas, who is neither a disciplined director nor a brilliant storyteller, should be the one to rein Spielberg in and get him back to what he always did best.
Like many great low-budget works, so much of Raiders of the Lost Ark is the product of happy accidents. The project changed several times between Lucas first developing it and the cameras rolling, with the lead originally being called Indiana Smith and Spielberg wanting the Nazi Major Toht to have a robotic arm. But in addition much of the location shooting in Tunisia was blighted by crew illness due to poor quality food and the extreme heat. The now-iconic sword vs. gun scene was initially meant to involve Indiana fighting the swordsman with a whip, but on the day of shooting Harrison Ford had dysentery and couldn't perform the stunts. He allegedly said to Spielberg, "let's just shoot the f***er", and the rest is history.
The key difference in quality between Star Wars and Indiana Jones lies in understanding the relationships between the films and the sources that inspired them. In my review of A New Hope, I remarked that Star Wars came from pulpy, pantomime stock but tried to pass itself off as something a little more serious. The mythology that Lucas constructed from a variety of difference sources may have brought depth to the characters' universe, but at the consequence of making the finished product seem more than a little po-faced.
Raiders of the Lost Ark comes from exactly the same pulpy stock - boys'-own adventure stories, Saturday morning serials, 1940s B-movies and the like. But where Star Wars tries to eschew or overlook its predecessors, Raiders actively embraces them. It operates under the same logic and conventions of its predecessors, reinventing and updating the genre within these boundaries as it goes along. Spielberg is retelling old stories in his own style with his particular emphases, and sometimes he draws attention to the riper, more ridiculous elements in order that we may revel in them. Proof of this lies in John Williams' score; the main theme is fantastically distinctive, but the music also has a big role in the storytelling, reflecting the melodramatic roots of the series.
If you stopped for any given length of time, you could begin to unpick the plot of Raiders without much difficulty. On top of the usual contrivances of characters just happening to converge in the right place and time, there are numerous practical questions which the story glosses over. If Indiana can so easily break his staff over his knee, why didn't it snap when he dropped it into the Well of Souls? Why didn't Belloq notice the digging on the hill (not to mention the singing) a lot sooner? How did the snakes get into the chamber and survive there for so long without any food? And how did the baskets get switched around so that Marian didn't get killed?
While these are all valid questions in isolation, to linger on them too long would be to miss the point. None of these potential plot holes are problematic enough to undermine the overall story, and the film moves so fast and fluidly that you either don't notice them or they don't seem to matter. This is something that very much comes with the territory: the main priority of adventure stories is to keep things moving so that the audience is entertained. If it all ties up nicely in the end, that's a nice bonus, but a few loose ends can be allowed provided the pay-off is strong enough (and it is).
One of the most distinctive features of Raiders is its pacing. Its opening sequence, from the Universal logo to the plane taking off, is perhaps the best-paced opening sequence to any 1980s film. There is not a single second that could have been cut out to make it more efficient or dramatic, and every single edit is in the right place, both to slowly reveal our main character and to crank up the tension when he's retrieving the idol. Even after its opening, the film barely misses a beat over nearly 2 hours, and when you're dealing with so many different twists and locations, that's quite an accomplishment.
The great thing about Indiana Jones as a character is that he always feels human even when he accomplishes the extraordinary. In Star Wars the characters were archetypes that only became human in the later films; they were still enjoyable and likeable up to a point, but all too often convention got in the way of distinctive characterisation. Indiana Jones may well be pure masculinity, but Harrison Ford also brings a vulnerable quality to the role, allowing us to swoon over him one minute and admire him the next.
The set-pieces in Raiders are all brilliantly constructed. Many of the more elaborate sequences, like the truck chase, were shot entirely by the second unit; they filmed as close as they could to Spielberg's storyboards, with the director shooting all of Ford's close-ups much later. But even then Spielberg deserves enormous credit for how well-developed these set-pieces are, with every one going through several movements and using the full potential of their settings and props. All the little touches are lovingly witty, whether it's the fruit on the end of an impaler's sword or the monkey doing the Hitler salute in the bar.
Being the product of pulpy adventure stories, we should not take the film's comments on religion (in this case Judaism) any more seriously than its depiction of Nazis. The Ark of the Covenant is essentially a McGuffin, built up as something of significance but with its main purpose being to drive the plot forward. If, however, you do want to read into the symbolism, the film does allow you do so and gives you a little to chew on alongside your popcorn. From this perspective the film becomes about modernity, with Man questioning the rule of God and paying the consequences. It's a film in which intentions and morals are clearly emphasised; Indy and Marion survive because they didn't covet the Ark as a source of power. The series would return to these ideas in greater detail in Last Crusade some eight years later.
The climax of the film sees these themes being brought to the foreground, in a special effects ending which has dated incredibly well. After a series of conventional jump scares, such as Marian falling through the skeletons, we get a series of great effects shots which put a series of scary faces on the wrath of God. The shift in the angel's face remains deeply terrifying, while the face-melting and head explosions (in a PG film!) are up there with anything Lucio Fulci or David Cronenberg were doing at the same time. It's an ending that meets our genre expectations while also breaking new ground, either in content or the extent of presentation.
Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark is a really great film which fully earns its reputation as one of the most iconic and influential works of the 1980s. Spielberg's direction is really first-rate, providing humour, thrills and plenty of heart to compliment the light-hearted story and the feisty performances of Harrison Ford and Karen Allen. Even after 32 years, all the sequels and a legion of imitators, it remains one of Spielberg's finest achievements, being a classic in its time and in ours.