There are greater films, of course. The usual suspects, like Citizen Kane or The Godfather — those are greater, and many others. But if there were only two films left in the world, Citizen Kane and Raiders of the Lost Ark, and I had to rescue one and consign the other to flames, I know which way my heart would vote. Citizen Kane, the masterpiece and influential classic, would burn.
Perhaps I speak rashly. Perhaps I was also ten years old when I first saw Raiders, the absolute ideal time to see it. Perhaps I loved it so much that I made my mom take me to it four more times in the theater. Perhaps I got a gigantic Raiders poster for my room that same year of 1981. Perhaps I still have it.
Enough about me. Raiders, obviously, is an assemblage of used parts from the vintage adventure serials Steven Spielberg and George Lucas devoured along with their popcorn. (So was Star Wars, with a little help from Kurosawa and Joseph Campbell.) Serials hadn’t been box-office currency in decades; the Mad parody of Raiders was aptly titled Raiders of a Lost Art. Spielberg and Lucas brought back the whistle-clean non-Disney adventure film, with tropes and twists we kids were seeing for the first time, but also with the ruthlessly ingenious film language of Spielberg in his prime. It was Spielberg who taught a generation the magic that could be achieved with editing and composition. There’s no flab whatsoever in Raiders, nothing that doesn’t belong, nothing that doesn’t serve the story. It’s a machine, but a swift and dazzling one — a rocket that keeps sending off fireworks while still in flight.
Lawrence Kasdan’s writing has probably never been so effortlessly economical. Very quickly, we learn the essence of our hero, archaeologist/adventurer Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford). He’s smart as hell, and passionate as hell about what he’s smart about. He’s brave, but just because he’s willing to face danger doesn’t mean he disregards it — he’s human and can be scared, hurt, killed. We learn that he fears snakes above all else, which of course means he’ll be obliged to confront an entire roomful of them. (Paging Dr. Freud.) Even in relatively mundane scenes, when Indy is back teaching at his university, we see that half the class has a mad crush on him (that chick with “LOVE YOU” on her eyelids), including one male student who hurriedly plops an apple on Indy’s desk; Indy’s pal Marcus Brody (Denholm Elliott), who is possibly what was referred to in 1936 as a bachelor, picks it up and regards it wryly.
So we’ve got a multifaceted hero, played by Ford with an emotional clarity he hadn’t shown before, as well as a sense of prankish abandon — Ford seems up for anything here. He’s visibly relieved to be working with a real director and snappy dialogue, and creating a hero with the aura of a legend (when Indy first shows his face to the camera after whipping the gun out of Barranca’s mitt, it’s so dramatic it’s borderline corny, but it’s still probably the most bad-ass introduction to any screen hero) but the dimensions of a man. And he’s not afraid to look geeky; when two government mouthpieces visit and drop the Ark of the Covenant mission in Indy’s lap, Ford races to the chalkboard to sketch the Staff of Ra, or fumbles with the latches of a huge bible to show them an artist’s rendering of the Ark. Indy is playing to an audience that doesn’t really care — the government dudes just want to know who this Abner Ravenwood is and why Hitler is so interested in him. But Indy throws himself into the impromptu lesson anyway, and we understand, aside from the fact that he looks like Harrison Ford, why Indy is such a popular professor. He cares about rare antiquities; he cares about the Ark. So we care too.
Abner’s daughter Marion (Karen Allen) is probably supposed to be in her late twenties, which would’ve made her a teen — maybe barely legal, maybe not — when Indy encountered her hymen and her heart and broke both, in that order. She’s hated him throughout the decade since he skipped out, but watch how fast that wears off once Indy steps into her Nepalese tavern. He’s still the same bastard she knew, but he’s older now and more vulnerable, and part of her responds to that with a little sadness. They’ve both been a little lost in the intervening years. (We now know, naturally, that Indy had previously been through the wringer with Mola Ram, the Temple of Doom, the black blood of Kali, and Kate Capshaw.) The romance rekindled between Indy and Marion is believable because she pretty much never stops giving him shit, and he keeps on taking it with a chuckle, knowing he deserves it. Kasdan had made a splash earlier in 1981 with his retro noir Body Heat, but Raiders really shows the lessons he learned from the old late-night classics. Marion is introduced while drinking a huge opponent under the table, and this, like Indy’s ophidiophobia, pays off later when she sits across the table from Rene Belloq (Paul Freeman), Indy’s longtime rival and competitor for the prize of the Ark.
In her largely negative review, Pauline Kael wondered why Belloq never has a change of heart, since the movie seems to be setting that up. I think it’s more that he’s smitten with Marion — more smitten than he’d intended to be, since he probably originally just wanted to take one more treasure away from Indy and ended up falling for the rough charm she honed in Nepal. She isn’t like any woman he’s ever met. But in the end, Belloq’s obsession with going for the gold — and outflanking Indy — gets the better of him. In a rather too on-the-nose speech, Belloq goes on about how he’s merely “a shadowy reflection” of Indy, and that “it would take only a nudge to make you like me” (perhaps being born in France rather than America, the movie seems to say). The thing is, during that scene — Indy is tanked to the gills and more or less praying for Belloq to goad him into killing him — Indy already seems pretty shadowy. There’s genuine rage, suicidal rage, in his face when he gets up and goes for his gun. Marion’s dead, screw the Ark, screw you, screw everything, I’ve got nothing better to do.
That brief bit — with the many children of Indy’s Egyptian buddy Sallah (John Rhys-Davies) swarming in to intervene — is one of the movie’s subtler nods to Raiders‘ origins in cliffhangers. Every sequence seems to present some challenge to Indy’s continued well-being, even if the threat is as small as a poisoned date. In the bar with Belloq, Indy actually has to be saved from himself. The major action set pieces, of course, put challenges inside of challenges for Indy — there’s the larger danger (say, being shot at in the Nepalese tavern), with small variations played throughout (say, being pinned to the bar as a flaming line of alcohol snakes across it). Raiders works up to two still-unsurpassed masterworks of tension and adrenaline — the first unfolding in, on, and around a treacherously rotating Flying Wing, the second, with almost no pause in between, unfolding in, on, around, and under a truck. The desert chase sequence, with John Williams’ relentless score ramming it forward like some orchestral mutation of Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir,” is in my estimation the single greatest action piece ever filmed. Making it all the more charming is that, for the film’s DVD release, Spielberg didn’t bother to tart up the 1981-era special effects: the Nazi car hurtling over the cliff still looks cheesy, you can still see the trench that allows Ford’s stunt double Vic Armstrong to hold onto the truck’s undercarriage without being squished. And I don’t care.
Regardless of what Pauline Kael or J.D. Salinger had to say about it (Salinger sneered at its “unwitty, unfunny awful socko-ness” in a letter that recently sold for $2,250 on eBay), Raiders played like gangbusters for audiences in 1981, and still plays that way today, even to an audience of ten people. I screened it for that small group, and the stuff that went over huge twenty-seven years ago still knocked ‘em out. The gunman vs. swordsman gag, probably the most welcome result of dysentery in film history, got a massive laugh. The tilting-mirror bit never fails. The Nazi sadist Toht (Ronald Lacey) assembling what looks like a fiendish instrument of torture represented a joke Spielberg had wanted to film for years. For all their pain and apocalypse, the Indy movies are comedies at heart, with plenty of horsing around and baggy-pants slapstick and zingers. When Indy misjudged his whip swing and crashed back into the Commies’ windshield in the teaser trailer for Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, I dared to hope that the (upcoming as I write this) new adventure had some of the same old raffish humor. Indy screws up and stumbles and gets beaten like a gong, but always bounces back up (much like the heavy concrete block at the end of the Well of Souls sequence, one of the flick’s more infamous gaffes). Indy is equal parts Buster Keaton, Buster Crabbe, Humphrey Bogart, and, oddly enough, Richard Dreyfuss, or at least the Dreyfuss on view in Jaws and Close Encounters (forget about Always; I’m sure he has).
A small streak of nihilism — what Kael referred to as “unfeeling” — has kept Raiders sharp over the years. I’ve said several times that Spielberg is a closet sadist, and it shows more than once here. It doesn’t hurt that Michael Kahn, Spielberg’s editor since Close Encounters, keeps Raiders hurtling along smoothly yet mercilessly, like a ghost train going 85 mph past snakes and explosions and Ronald Lacey. The short but nerve-wracking scene wherein Marion flails through a chamber of desiccated corpses (who somehow go “BLOOOAH!”, at least according to the soundtrack) is like a perfect mini-horror film; it seems designed to scare the shit out of little kids. (Indeed, the film narrowly dodged an R rating — a poof of smoke superimposed over an exploding head made the difference and won the PG.) There’s the odd moment when Belloq reaches into the Ark, finding only dust, and Toht cackles merrily and strolls away. Wait, shouldn’t he be pissed that his Fuehrer has spent untold amounts of money and soldiers to retrieve a shiny box of bug shit? No, Toht doesn’t care; he’s only in it for the torture.
Mainly, though, Raiders is warm, and not just because most of it unfolds in the Tunisian sands. Douglas Slocombe, who shot the film as a whippersnapper of 67, gives each frame the look of an adventure-story magazine cover (as Roger Ebert pointed out). The dominant style is lush yet naturalistic; everything seems to be filmed either at magic hour or by the light of a roaring fire. Even the opening sequence in Peru, with then-novice Alfred Molina skittering along at Indy’s heel into cobwebbed doom, boasts infinite gradations of brown. Spielberg used to work with a variety of master cinematographers before apparently getting locked into Janusz Kaminski (who, aside from Schindler’s List, has two modes: desaturated and bleached); he only used Slocombe for the Indy films, and it’s safe to say that Slocombe is as responsible for the burnished Indy image — copped by Richard Amsel and Drew Struzan for the Indy posters — as Williams’ instantly recognizable “Raiders March” is for the Indy sound.
It all may have been George Lucas’ idea (thank Christ they didn’t go with “Indiana Smith”), written up by Lawrence Kasdan from a story by Lucas and Philip Kaufman (it’s one of the weirder facts of pop-culture history that the director of Henry & June and The Unbearable Lightness of Being helped concoct Indy’s cinematic debut), but Raiders is Spielberg’s baby. Others may have conceived it, but he brought it to term and birthed it. He tries all sorts of tricks: he stages the entire Nepal shoot-out without music (unusual in an otherwise Williams-drenched film); he touches on desolation in a simple shot of a grieving Indy staring through the grate in a door; he just about fetishes the recurring motif of men with fedoras silhouetted or casting shadows; most of all, everything he tries pays off with a vengeance. This may be George’s toy box, but Spielberg plays with the toys as if he owns them, and they become his by default. Better still, he lets us play, too. Raiders is, for me, the most purely fun movie ever made.