Keeping Up with the Jones Boys: Raiders of the Lost Ark

Keesup here. In anticipation of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, due out Thursday, I naturally wanted to catch up with the first three Indy movies directed by Steven Spielberg. Rather than critique the movies in a traditional manner, I’m going to try a longer, looser format, somewhere between live-blog from an event and an A.O. Scoot review. First up, the movie that started it all, Raiders of the Lost Ark (or, as it was cleverly re-titled for DVD packaging, Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark, as if we would forget it was an Indiana Jones movie unless they added that).

00:00:00 – The march through the jungle features our first of many recurring Indy trademarks – the Paramount logo fades into a similarly shaped real-life mountain in South America. The first three minutes of the film have that vintage ’70s Spielberg look – but the instant we see Harrison Ford as Indy for the first time, the movie launches into that souped-up B-movie world of its own.

00:05:30 – Our first gruesome jump moment: a booby trap in the temple reveals one of its impaled victims.

00:08:50 – The appeal of Indy as a character stems largely from his scrappiness. He’s always getting banged up, and many times comes thisclose to certain death, but he gathers just enough pluck to always survive. Case in point: hanging on to the edge of a chasm as the massive stone door in front of him is about to close; Indy grabs a root to climb up, and flashes a self-satisfied smile – until the root pulls out and sends Indy further off the edge.

00:10:00 – Enter bad guy – the haughty, unscrupulous French archaeologist Belloq. He remains the most interesting and memorable of the villains thus far, thanks to Lawrence Kasdan’s screenplay. Belloq is basically Indy’s mirror image – a supremely talented scholar with a taste for adventure. But he is apparently much better than Indy and always ready to rub Jones’ face in it – an unchecked ego that will be his undoing.

00:11:50 – The first use of the Raiders March – the iconic Indy theme everyone can hum.

00:13:00 – The film takes a breather as Indy returns to his college. This stretch marks Raiders as much more than a mindless action movie it’s a deftly written sequence that introduces Indy’s character more firmly, establishes the film’s MacGuffin (the desired object which drives the plot of the film) and gives the required exposition on the mythology of the Ark real dramatic heft by ominously invoking the power of God and the fear of Nazis (Hitler!!! *shakes fist!*). Great touch having Jones’ class filled almost entirely of doe-eyed young women – the one male we see scornfully tosses an apple on the professor’s desk as he leaves.

00:22:58 – Another throwback trope of the Indy saga – the zig-zagging red line getting Indy’s travel out of the way in a manner of seconds.

00:24:32 – Indy’s old flame, Marion Ravenwood (played by Karen Allen), drinks a big dude under the table. The strength of Marion has made pale in comparison pretty much every female sidekick/love interest in every movie since Raiders, including the other two Indy girls. The great dialogue between Indy and Marion, rehashing their romance that clearly didn’t end well, is as good as any scene in Casablanca (though I guess here, Marion is the Bogart character).

00:28:50 – The other bad guy, the slimy Nazi torture guru Toht (Ronald Lacey), makes his entrance to threaten Marion and instigate an old-school barroom shoot-out between Indy and some Nepalese thugs. The John Williams score grows more bombastic and awesome with each measure.

00:31:45 – Dude just got shot in the face. This movie is much more bloody and violent than you probably remember. One overlooked aspect of the Indy aesthetic is the use of patently unrealistic sound effects: the exaggerated oomph when Indy’s punches land; the tinny gunshots and ricochets. They are a subtle signifier that this is all happening in a cinematic world, not in any reality that resembles ours.

00:32:40 – Toht idiotically picks up the gold medallion that is surrounded by flame – important plot point!

00:34:10 – Another globetrotting red dot later, and we arrive in Cairo to meet the Sidney Greenstreet stand-in Sallah (Jonathan Rhys-Davies); basically, the portly, affable sidekick who uses his many local connections to advance the plot as needed.

00:38:11 – Five minutes removed from the bar fight comes the extended marketplace chase scene in Cairo. This is the consistent pattern of Indiana Jones – the setpieces just keep building and building, each trying to top the one before it. In this scene we get lots of stuntwork with Harrison Ford, badass
whip craft, Marion smacking an assailant with a giant pan, the brilliant sea of baskets (love the idea of some American dude running into the marketplace and dumping the locals’ baskets all over), and arguably the best gag in any of the Indy movies: a dangerous, sword-wielding warrior challenges Indy to a duel, so Indy just shoots him. And oh no! Marion gets blowed up good . . . or does she? (She doesn’t.)

00:43:50 – A great stakes-raising confrontation between Indy and Belloq. Belloq is working for the Nazis – not out of the standard French impulse to surrender, but out of sheer opportunism.

00:51:02 – Indy gets his Lawrence of Arabia on, awkwardly donning the local garb. The Map Room scene features the most evocative bit of John Williams’ score, the apparent theme of the Ark’s mystery and power.

The end of the scene brings our first explicit instance of Spielbergian Nazi-bashing – Indy using a knotted up swastika flag as a rope up out of the Map Room.

00:59:00 – The opening of the seal during a otherworldly desert storm features some sweet, corny-looking process shots in the days before blue screen.

1:00:24 – Snakes. Why’d it have to be snakes? The shot of Indy face-to-face with a king cobra is infamous because you can clearly see a layer of Plexiglass between Ford and the snake.

1:04:35 – Nice cross-cutting with the playful scene where Marion tries to drink Belloq under the table and escape.

1:08:26 – From my personal experience, one reason Raiders maintains its classic status is that it appeals to practically every demographic one could think of – even fundamentalist Christians. The story actually treats the Ark with accuracy, respect, and a modicum of legitimate fear. The design of the Ark and its proper transportation by Indy and Sallah are exactly as proscribed in the Torah. Much of this could be attributed to Spielberg honoring his Jewish heritage (which would happen more explicitly later in films like Schindler’s List and Munich). And from a story point of view, it works as the perfect MacGuffin; not just for its power and mystique, but for the spiritual implications of Hitler, bent on destroying the Jewish people, trying to harness their most sacred icon. But to evangelicals and fundamentalists, the Ark stuff sits like an oasis of sincere reverence to God and the Judeo-Christian tradition in a desert, as they see it, of secular filth. The violence ultimately wrought is acceptable – because it’s their God who’s meting out justice in the end.

Quick note: How the hell did Indy not expect to be caught trying to steal the Ark of the Covenant?

1:11:51 – And now, Marion is thrown into the pit with Indy, just so they can play off one another in the face of impending doom. Touche, Lawrence Kasdan.

1:14:36 – The most ridiculously creepy scene of the movie, in which Marion is practically raped by dozens of ancient skeletons. Can anyone think of a more scary, putrid image than the python slowly emerging through a corpse’s gaping mouth? These movies are not unlike horror movies: everything is conceived in order to produce a visceral reaction.

1:17:00 – A classic Indy fight. Indy, clearly outmatched by a hulking Nazi mechanic, just focuses on not dying, all the while dodging the face-shredding propellers of a rolling airplane. And the whole thing ends in a totally unnecessary explosion.

1:21:01 – Okay, two unnecessary explosions.

1:21:27 – Immediately into the most clever setpiece in the whole movie, a struggle for the Nazi truck carrying the Ark. Indy somehow catches up to the truck on horseback, wrestles control of the wheel from the driver, pushes several vehicles full of Nazis off the road (and in one case, off a rather tall cliff), fights off the onslaught of Nazis climbing from the back of the truck, gets shot in the arm, thrown onto the hood of the truck (he tries to hang on by the Mercedes hood ornament, but it snaps off, those crappy German manufacturers), gets dragged under and behind the truck, and finally regains the wheel. This sounds ridiculous on paper, but the whole thing is so well choreographed and plausibly shot that the viewer never questions it.

1:32:00 – Indy at his most vulnerable as Marion cleans his battle scars. Then it gets really hot, as Indy tells Marion where it hurts, and she kisses each spot that hurts and well you know exactly where this is headed.

1:34:00 – Coolest fucking scene in the whole movie. The crate with the Ark sits in the hold of the ship. The camera slowly moves in, as unsettling bassy noise reverberates. Finally, close in, the Nazi logo of an eagle sitting atop the swastika begins to quickly burn, before an abrupt cut to Indy’s silent cabin. Spielberg and his editor Michael Kahn are just toying with the viewer at this point, giving just enough information for one to start filling in the blanks and become very fucking afraid of the Ark. Later we see that only the Nazi symbols and German writing are burnt; the rest of the wooden crate is miraculously intact.

1:38:45 – Indy stows away with the Nazis and somehow avoids detection in a submarine. At the sub station, Indy takes out a Nazi soldier to steal his clothes – which, of course, are a size too small.

1:43:00 – The final setpiece. The opening of the Ark, filmed by the Nazis for research and possible propaganda purposes. It looks like a goose egg, but soon the cameras and generators are spontaneously destroyed and the spirits do their thing.

1:47:15 – Jews, Christians, and pretty much everyone can get behind this: the fucking wrath of God melting, exploding, and totally disappearing Nazis.

1:50:25 – The Ark ends up just asking to be forgotten in a vast government warehouse full of similarly generic wooden crates. The witty exclamation point to the action that none of the other films even tried to simulate.

Raiders is one of those movies that promises to hold up on every viewing. Where other films suffer from the explosure plot holes and leaps of logic, Raiders transcends them. Clearly, the leg up Raiders has on the other films is the refined screenplay by Lawrence Kasdan. Spielberg’s direction and Kahn’s editing have defined the vernacular of modern action movies. But Kasdan’s nimble script is a throwback to the economic perfection of 1940’s classics like Casablanca: there’s not a single unnecessary line in it.

It’s hard to find much new to say about a film as ubiquitous as Raiders. Tomorrow I’ll take on the much-maligned, endlessly fascinating second chapter. Peace out, friends.


One response to “Keeping Up with the Jones Boys: Raiders of the Lost Ark

  1. for the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, it seems like the recipe of a good Indiana Jones film would be 1 part Nazis and 1 part biblical artifact; the Soviet army does a pretty good job of replacing the Nazis, but the other ingredient…

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