Discover more from The Weekly Stuff Wordcast
Indiana Jones and the Undisputed Masterpiece - Revisiting Raiders of the Lost Ark
Part 1 of our week-long journey through the Indiana Jones series
Ahead of the release of Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny this Friday, I am going to spend the week writing about each of the first 4 films in the series, with one review going up every weekday at Noon, leading to my review of the new film on Friday. Today, we’re kicking things off with the indelible Raiders of the Lost Ark from 1981. Enjoy…
I have long felt that when or if I get the opportunity to teach a college-level Intro to Film class, I would start things off with Raiders of the Lost Ark. Then on every topic we surveyed thereafter – narrative construction, cinematography, editing, sound design, mise-en-scene, genre theory, etc. – the film would serve as an obvious, continually instructive touchstone to keep coming back to. For in its sheer, overwhelming mastery of every cinematic device, each tool in the filmmakers’ toolkit, Raiders of the Lost Ark is truly second-to-none.
Thanks for reading The Weekly Stuff Wordcast! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.
That’s a big part of why I’ve always found this film tough film to write about. I have probably seen Raiders of the Lost Ark start-to-finish more times than any other film; it used to do the rounds on the Denver repertory circuit all the time, and I saw it on an increasingly worn 35mm print over and over, relishing the opportunity to do so every time (when the print was abandoned and everyone started screening it on DCP, a little part of me died). I have consistently ranked this movie as one of my favorite, and have tried to write a big piece on it numerous times, but I always get stopped in my tracks by the sheer scale of the accomplishment, by how many avenues it gives you to praise and study and dissect it.
Virtually every creative lead here has never done anything better – Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, and Harrison Ford, obviously, but also the legends that are composer John Williams, editor Michael Kahn, cinematographer Douglas Slocombe, and maybe even sound designer Ben Burtt (the soundscape of Star Wars is hard to beat, but the Indiana Jones punch is the single best sound effect in his repertoire). All of these people have done plenty of fantastic things, before and after, but none of them have ever topped this. You want to learn what makes a movie star? Pay attention to how Harrison Ford weaponizes his charisma and undercuts it with a real vulnerability and occasional physical weariness. You want to understand how to execute spatial geography in a kinetic action scene? Look no further than the fight on and around the plane at the dig site, with Indy, Marion, the burly Nazi, and the pilot all maneuvering for position while a fire and a trail of gasoline grow and combine to create a visual ticking clock. You want to understand framing and shot composition? Look at how dynamically this film uses the full horizontal space of the widescreen frame throughout, shot after shot built on dynamic compositions that feel big and vast and full of life and detail, while also skillfully guiding the eye towards the weight of the frame. You want to learn editing? Just watch a scene like the truck chase, and maybe even turn the sound off, to focus purely on the length and alternation of edits, and how much energy Kahn generates by the movement between shots and the dynamic rhythm of the cuts. Then turn the sound back on and pay attention to how Williams so perfectly complements the imagery and expands the sensations of each moment with his amazing music, because there is no better masterclass in the tricky art of film scoring than this. Raiders of the Lost Ark is one of those movies that orchestrates so much raw, unbridled talent in such a confidently envisioned central direction that it is impossible to not be swept away, and hard to know where to start breaking things down.
And by the way, that gonzo virtuosity absolutely extends to the script, written by Lawrence Kasdan with Lucas and Philip Kaufman receiving a story credit, because this is one of the most instructively excellent pieces of mainstream film writing ever conceived, and it has become woefully underrated. Particularly stupid corners of the internet’s ever-vocal contrarian wing, egged on by an especially stupid episode of the perpetually stupid The Big Bang Theory, have taken to dismiss Raiders because, according to them, it ends in such a way that Indiana Jones’ involvement in the story is unnecessary. This is factually wrong: Indy is the one who actually finds the eponymous ark, for starters, and he’s a consistently proactive protagonist who drives the action as much as he reacts to it, where a lot of modern blockbusters have their heroes in a purely reactive posture.
More importantly, though, this braindead ‘critique’ ignores how thoughtfully arced Indy’s journey is across the film, with the story building a smart and pointed want vs need dichotomy that is a beautifully teachable example of how to motivate characters and push them towards meaningful change. Though the film has foolishly been retitled Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark for home video marketing, the point of the original title is that Indy is every bit one of those raiders – he wants the Ark, wants the adventure, wants to find and see and do things he isn’t supposed to find, see, or do. Characters like Brody and Sallah keep telling him he should not be so obsessed with the Ark, that he should exercise some humility in this quest, and when the film’s villain, Belloq, gleefully lectures Dr. Jones about how similar they are, how close Indy is to becoming just like him, the audience is meant to understand that the bad guy is, in this instance, correct. Indy is so intent on finding this thing that he leaves Marion in the Nazi tent after finding her miraculously alive after believing her dead, and when Sallah’s diggers pry open the stone covering the Well of Souls, Indy is framed against a roaring biblical thunderstorm, a madness in his eyes making him look like Dr. Frankenstein challenging God. He is obsessed, to the point that when he has the chance to blow the Ark to hell and end this whole charade, he is seduced by Belloq’s words and his own curiosity and instead lets himself be taken captive alongside Marion – All of which is why the ending of the movie, where Indy is, in a sense, ‘passive,’ is not a mistake to be poked at by the internet, but the point of the entire movie. The climax is premised on Indiana Jones finally having the chance to see the ultimate taboo artifact, to look into the heart of his obsession, and actively choosing not to, recognize both his and Marion’s lives are worth more than his curiosity. Indiana Jones wants to be a raider of the lost Ark; he needs to be a human being who can recognize what’s important in front of him, which is why the last exchange of the film is Marion gently reminding Indy of this lesson by telling him “I know what I’ve got here.”
The film achieves all this, including vivid characterizations not just for Indiana Jones but for Marion and Sallah and Belloq and so many others, almost entirely through action and movement. Look at how quickly and elegantly the film gives us compelling pieces of characterization and relationship building: Several of the most crucial interactions between Indy and Marion are these little fleeting moments right before the big foot chase breaks out in Cairo, as the enemies assemble around them. While Indy quips “It’s a date – you eat ‘em!” (one of my favorite Harrison Ford line reads ever), or Marion talks about how much her father loved and respected Indy before he crossed the line with her, we’re also building tension for the big set piece that’s about to start. And when it does, it’s all informed by character, with everything that Indy and Marion do both flowing naturally from their character and further establishing who they are. The most famous example of this is the justly celebrated gag of Indy shooting the over-the-top swordsman, a perfectly timed and executed gag that also gives Ford a chance to infuse his swagger with an endearingly weary cynicism, but it’s really just one moment among many. Look at Marion playfully dancing with her would-be kidnapper before hitting with a pan, or later on, in the fight around the plane at the dig site, when the big Nazi comes up to challenge Indy to a fist fight, and Ford’s body just slumps in exhaustion as he braces himself for this ridiculous exertion. And all of it is wrapped in this perfectly executed, amazingly teachable three-act structure, every piece of it expertly paced with no second wasted, every transition coming exactly when it needs to. A lot of people have tried to prove themselves smarter than this movie, and all any of them have ever achieved is to reveal how little they understand about storytelling in the first place.
Look at the scene in the first act where the government men come to the University to discuss the Ark with Indy and Brody; it is a nexus point for so much of what the movie does brilliantly. It isn’t an ‘action’ scene or set piece, but Spielberg directs it with just as much gravitas as if it were one; the setting, a church hall with all the lighting coming through old, majestic stained-glass windows, is as evocative and atmospheric a location as anything in the movie, a testament to how good production design tells the story all on its own. The shot choices and cuts, with this careful alternation and evolution in the balance of power between the two parties, establishes this haunting, mysterious energy, inviting the viewer to lean forward in their seat as the audience learns from Indy about the Ark. When Williams comes in, his music extends seamlessly from the mood that has been created, a piece of international spycraft having turned into an immersion in occult history, the haunting yet entrancing sounds of the choir pulling us forward, like Indiana Jones himself, in fascination for this dark object.
And on a narrative level, it is a beautifully economic piece of writing, outlining everything we are going to see in the movie: the history and significance of the Ark, where it is and where we will find it, who else is after it, why Indy needs the headpiece, why he needs to start with Dr. Ravenwood, etc. All of this is essential information that is quickly – and compellingly – established here so that the movie never has to slow down for exposition again. So many mainstream films today are these stop-start herky-jerky messes alternating between pure action and pure exposition, two films made with two different intents awkwardly grafted together, with neither feeling as weighty or involving as they should. Raiders of the Lost Ark, taking inspiration from its movie serial antecedents, wants to keep the viewer wholly engaged at all times, a series of non-stop cliffhangers and escalations. And Spielberg knows that if he is going to pull that off, than this early scene with Indy and the G-Men is a key moment. If he pulls it off, he’ll have achieved an entire film’s worth of exposition in just a few minutes, and cleared the board for the rest of the film, making way not just for all the relentless action, but so that when we do slow down again – like in the wonderful “It’s not the years, honey, it’s the mileage” scene on the boat – the characters can exist entirely in the moment, be talking to and about each other, rather than having to do additional exposition to set up the next phase of the plot. Spielberg accomplishes this, and he does it in such a way that the crucial scene of exposition is so engaging and entertaining that one doesn’t even feel like they’re being exposited to. It’s a real-life magic trick.
Just a few scenes after this one, we have Marion’s intro, where she plays the drinking game at her bar to win more money for her gradually growing war chest. The scene is done entirely in one long take, as the camera moves back and forth between her and her opponent; it’s what we call “cutting in camera,” where conceptually there are significant shifts in framing, but we do it all in the moment without any actual edits to maintain the energy and intensity. It tells us everything we need to know about who Marion is, what kind of life she leads, why she’s going to be such a great partner and foil for Indiana Jones – but also why she has every right to be mad when we learn he’s largely responsible for leaving her life in this state.
And when we do cut? We get one of the best compositions of Spielberg’s career – maybe one of the best summations of the word ‘iconography’ in film history: Marion in the lower-left corner of the frame, dwarfed by Indy’s shadow on the wall, with Marion laughing, stepping forward, and saying “I always knew some day you'd come walking back through my door.” A fantastic introduction to Marion – secretly the movie’s best character – is now complete, and in the same instance, we’ve solidified the indelible iconography of Indiana Jones himself. Wow.
I could go on and on like this through the whole movie, probably, but then, you don’t really need me to tell you Raiders of the Lost Ark is one of the greatest movies ever made, do you? Allow me two more examples before moving on.
First: I’ve always chuckled at the moment where Indy and Sallah hoist the big stone cover of the Ark’s tomb over the side and shatter it to pieces, given that Indiana Jones is nominally an archeologist and this piece would in-and-of-itself be a priceless artifact. I only noticed this time, though, how skillfully that moment is match-cut to Marion falling out of her chair, feigning (or exaggerating) drunkenness in her gambit to catch Belloq unawares, with a giant thunderclap in the soundtrack matching the din of the stone shattering to smooth the transition through sonic spatialization. A brilliant cut.
Second: Indy and Marion get out of the Well of Souls around 76 minutes into the movie, and Indy pulls the truck with the Ark into the garage, putting them in the clear and ending the film’s second act, around the 90-minute mark. In between, you have the entire fight on and around the plane, and the centerpiece truck chase set piece. I’ve never timed this stretch before, and I was shocked to see it’s just 14 minutes. It feels a lot longer, in a good way, because it is one of the densest and most virtuosic stretches of action cinema ever made, feeling like a clear precursor to later Hollywood masterworks like Mad Max: Fury Road or the John Wick films, but accomplishing its task in a far shorter span of time. It may be the most miraculous 14 minutes of Steven Spielberg’s career – nestled within the most miraculous two hours of Hollywood blockbuster cinema ever produced.
So yeah – Raiders of the Lost Ark is as good as it gets. I think we all generally know that, but I wonder if we fully appreciate it; because this is proudly populist, popcorn cinema, and because it succeeded at being enduringly popular, there’s always going to be the hipster contingent that insists on finding ways to be too cool for it, and there’s probably a quieter, unconscious bias that seeps into even those, like me, who loudly celebrate it. I’ve always ranked this as one of my 10 favorite films, but when I tried my hand at doing a Sight & Sound style ‘10 best films’ list, I didn’t have it on there. Maybe that was a mistake. If there is an upper barrier for how good it is possible for a film to be, Raiders of the Lost Ark is, at the very least, nipping at its heels.
What about the sequels? Well, that’s a more complicated story. Come back tomorrow, and we’ll start diving into those…
Support the show at Ko-fi ☕️ https://ko-fi.com/weeklystuff
Subscribe to JAPANIMATION STATION, our sister series about the wide, wacky world of anime: https://www.youtube.com/c/japanimationstation
Explore our archives and subscribe to The Weekly Stuff Podcast on all podcasting platforms: https://weeklystuffpodcast.com
Thanks for reading The Weekly Stuff Wordcast! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.