Where on earth does one even begin when attempting to write about a sacred cow like Steven Spielberg’s Raiders Of The Lost Ark? 30 years after its initial release, it is a film that has been seen many, many times by anyone unfortunate enough to have landed on this little corner of the internet, and it has been pored over by thousands and thousands of others. Surely all that can be said about this picture has been said? Unless I make a concerted effort to try and re-appraise Raiders as feminist mumblecore, I’m probably wasting my time and being self-indulgent. But what is blogging, if not a great way of wasting time in a self-indulgent fashion?
When I first saw the film, in the early 1980s, it was on VHS at my auntie’s house. It was probably a pacifier, of sorts, although I doubt keeping me entertained was ever much trouble anyway. I remember plenty of visits where I’d be placed in front of a screen showing Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, The Keystone Cops, Laurel and Hardy and – on several glorious occasions – Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope. More often than not, as soon as the play button was pressed, my eyes would barely leave the screen.
Despite its grimmer moments (wailing skeletons, a face torn to shreds by a plane propeller, melting Nazis) I don’t recall any voiced parental concerns about my exposure to Raiders, but when I think back to that initial viewing those are the visually-arresting scenes that stood out and had a big impact on me. I wouldn’t say I was traumatized, but I can categorically state that Raiders at the age of 8 or 9 was the first time I had seen a human face turn to pink mush; that remains a pretty wild image today, despite the interim efforts of filmmakers to test the boundaries of what is and isn’t acceptable. Spielberg and writer George Lucas were clearly intending their modern version of the film serials of the 1930s and 1940s to be seen by kids as well as adults, and it’s surprising that so much actually passed through the censor’s scissors untouched.
Two more scenes left a great impression at that age, both fairly obvious and both widely recognized as a couple of the movie’s standout moments. First of all, there’s the rush of blood caused by the entire prologue, from the moment adventuring archaeologist and professor Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford, lest we forget) steps out of the shadows at the temple exterior to the point five or ten minutes later when he screams “There’s a big snake in the plane, Jock!” at his rescuing pilot. In my humble opinion there are few, if any, openings to a film that are quite as exciting: The first use of the whip, the corridor with the dead bodies, the dart shooting into the wooden stick, the swapping of sand for the golden idol, the dash back to the treacherous Satipo (Alfred Molina), the double crossing, the leap across the chasm, the grabbing of the whip after Jones rolls under the door, Satipo’s sticky end, the boulder, the appearance of Belloq (Paul Freeman) and the subsequent escape. Not one single second is wasted.
Then there’s the shooting in the crowded Egyptian marketplace, where Jones famously faces off against a black-clad master swordsman, who is keen to put on a display for the watching crowd. Jones’ tired, cynical grimace and the nonchalant way in which he draws his gun and brings an abrupt end to the showdown – as though he has seen this kind of thing a thousand and one times before – remains one of the coolest shootouts in cinema history. Rarely today in a film aimed partly at kids will you see the hero kill an adversary, let alone shoot one point blank who happens to be waving nothing more than a sharp-looking scimitar in the air. Jones, with his stubble, fedora, pistol, whip and predilection for shouting “yaaaaah” when on horseback, looks like a classic western hero who has wandered into this film by accident, but with this one brief action his flawed moral code is revealed and he instantly becomes a good guy with a twist; a far more interesting, more complicated, more modern (despite it being set in the 1930s) hero to root for. Harrison Ford – who made a similar impression on me when ruthlessly despatching the bounty hunter Greedo in Star Wars – was thus my favourite actor before I hit double figures, simply because his characters did things like this.
The world-weariness with which Ford played Han Solo years before (also written by Lucas, of course, and also a cowboy popping up in the ‘wrong’ kind of film) was later honed and perfectly realised in both Raiders Of The Lost Ark and Blade Runner. His performances in these films are outstanding, and despite the more cartoonish mass appeal of the Indiana Jones character, both were unfairly overlooked by the award selectors of the day. A degree of establishment snobbery still existed towards genres such as science fiction or action/adventure back then (or even Spielbergian blockbusters in general) which, arguably, has largely disappeared today; nearly all of the Academy’s nominees for acting Shiny Gongs at the time were for performances in straight dramas or, occasionally, musicals. Jeff Bridges bucked the trend eventually and was Oscar-nominated for his performance in 1984’s Starman, but if anything that makes Ford’s treatment in prior years seem even harsher and, ultimately, puzzling. He finally received belated recognition with a nod for his work in Witness a year later – the only nomination to date in a career that has sadly tailed off considerably after its extended 15-year peak.)
There’s so much invention crammed into Raiders by Spielberg, Lucas and screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan that it’s impossible to list all of its memorable moments, but for shits and giggles here are a few. How about the monkey’s Nazi salute (particularly great because a Nazi soldier salutes back) and subsequent death after eating some ‘bad dates’? I hate cute animals that are ‘able’ to act (or, more accurately, I hate the fact that animals that are repeatedly trained to perform tricks for human amusement…notable exception: Clyde the orang-utan), but I genuinely liked that poor little simian. And how about the drinking contest and the shootout in the bar owned by Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen)? Or the truck chase when Jones ends up being dragged along the floor (another classic ‘cowboy’ moment)? The map super-imposed on the plane footage? Ravenwood slamming the mirror into Jones’ chin? Major Toht (Ronald Lacey) evilly constructing a coat hanger so he can hang his ever-present sinister black rainmac? I could go on and on and on. Raiders Of The Lost Ark is chock full of superbly-choreographed action and peppered with playful touches of brilliance. (History has been quite unkind to the credibility of Lucas the writer, but next time you hear a Star Wars fan bashing Old Uncle George’s story-crafting abilities maybe point them towards the job he – admittedly with the input of others – did with Indy.)
Spielberg was certainly on a run. After the success of Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind he was as hot a property as it is possible to be, essentially kickstarting the ‘blockbuster’ era and changing the way films were both made and the scale and timing of their release.Lucas wasn’t far behind, either. He had written The Adventures Of Indiana Smith in 1973, and after several years of stalls and false starts had left the project alone while he concentrated on making Star Wars. In 1977 the two met in Maui on holiday to discuss Lucas’s story about an adventurer that was even more exciting than James Bond. Spielberg suggested the change of surname and Lucas subsequently spent the next year developing the project alongside The Empire Strikes Back.
Both men had substantial input into the story (the boulder, for example, was Spielberg’s idea, although he later claimed he got it from an old Uncle Scrooge comic; the Nazi monkey salute was Lucas). Kasdan used a 100 page transcript of conversations between the two directors and subsequently spent six months writing a first draft. Some of the material that was eventually cut from the script found its way into the prequel, Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom.
Lucas saw the character as a suave, Bond-esque spy, but Kasdan and Spielberg gradually convinced him that Jones the adventurer / academic was a far more interesting proposition. Though Kasdan wrote several drafts, the film was rejected by every major Hollywood studio (d’oh! – Raiders remains one of the 20 most profitable films of all time once inflation is taken into account) until Paramount stumped up the cash and gave it the green light (the studio is famously honoured right at the beginning, with its logo fading away to reveal a similarly-shaped mountain in the distance). Production began at Elstree Studios in London, with Lucas attempting to keep costs as low as possible – a struggle during Star Wars, to say the least. Spielberg kept the number of takes of each scene down to the bare minimum – usually just three or four, incredibly – and Lucas, though burned and deflated by the experience of working with actors on American Graffiti and Star Wars, directed the second unit.
With low budget (but incredibly effective) special effects provided by the newly-created Industrial Light and Magic, an iconic score by John Williams that is as memorable as it is stirring, and a slew of idiosyncratic performances, Raiders Of The Lost Ark must be seen today as a triumphant piece of filmmaking. It is packed with humour, memorable characters and quotable dialogue, and is one of the few movies that I never seem to tire of watching. From that first viewing on VHS to the most recent showing, on the BBC last weekend, it has captivated me each and every time. A near-perfect adventure film.
In many ways the film stands for so much more, though. Spielberg and Lucas had already altered the Hollywood landscape considerably thanks to their previous mid-to-late 70s box office smashes; from that point on the other studios wanted the same kind of money that Universal and 20th Century Fox had made with Jaws and Star Wars respectively. More money, bigger hits, more bums on seats. Big films. Huge films. Spectacle was the way forward; you can still be an auteur all right, so long as your movies are making a couple of hundred million plus every three or four years.
Ironically, last month the two veteran directors jointly predicted the death of the film industry whilst sitting on a panel at the University of Southern California. They suggested we’ll all be paying for $150 cinema tickets before long, and fretted about the financial gambles currently being made by studios that spend huge amounts of money on just a few films in the hope that one or two of them per year will deliver the massive financial rewards they covet. And it’s good of Spielberg and Lucas to point this out and raise awareness – it’s short-termism and the upshot is the variety (and arguably the quality) of the films being shown at your local multiplex is declining year by year, and will continue to decline. However much people carp on about the negative effects that the likes of Michael Bay (and I know I do plenty) have had on the film industry, no two directors are as responsible for shaping the current climate of event-movie-billions-or-bust than Lucas and Spielberg, though. Leaving aside the quality of the film for one moment, Raiders is symbolically important in that it’s the movie the duo joined forces together to work on. I can’t imagine a world without Indiana Jones, but if Lucas and Spielberg are to be believed, you could certainly argue that it was the beginning of an end that we are yet to experience.
Directed by: Steven Spielberg
Written by: Lawrence Kasdan (screenplay), George Lucas, Steven Spielberg
Starring: Harrison Ford, Karen Allen, Paul Freeman, Ronald Lacey, Jonathan Rhys-Davies
Running Time: 115 Minutes