1980s, Action-Adventure

Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)


Director: Steven Spielberg

The Days of High Adventure: A Journey through Adventure Film

By Roderick Heath

A famed film studio’s logo dissolves into a real mountain, glowering like a primeval sentinel over the depths of Amazonian jungle. A team of searchers penetrates the unknown. A man with a shadowed face, hearing a gun cocked behind him, turns and lashes out with a bullwhip, disarming his would-be assassin. The killer flees, and the hero steps into the light. He immediately lays claim to both the ancient temple ruin that is his goal and to the cinema screen as a private stomping ground for him and all like him: the adventure movie hero.


It feels both apt and disingenuous to start this series with Steven Spielberg’s 1981 film which, following producer George Lucas’ Star Wars (1977), paid tribute to pulp cinema past, whilst also severing the form from that past. Lucas and Spielberg’s startling run of success in the late ’70s and early ’80s turned the action-adventure genre into something new and increasingly problematic: the blockbuster. Yet it’s probably accurate to say that in the minds of nonfilm buffs today, the Indiana Jones films symbolise the adventure genre at its purest; “If adventure has a name, it must be Indiana Jones,” as the trailer for Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984) put it. Raiders actually signalled the mainstreaming of a brand of neopulp percolating since the mid ’60s through the likes of Terence Fisher’s The Devil Rides Out (1967) and Don Sharp’s Fu Manchu movies, and continued throughout the ’70s by filmmakers like Kevin Connor and Robert Stevenson—deliberately retrograde and fast-paced tales contrasting the gritty, urban vicissitudes of the decade.


Encoded within the DNA of Raiders, a few thousand progenitors can be traced stretching back to Victorian fiction and sweeping on through the action cinema, serials, and war flicks of the mid-century, Fairbanks and Flynn, John Ford and Howard Hawks, Alistair MacLean and James Bond, with sidelong swerves into Conrad, DeMille, and Hammer Horror. Such filching is acknowledged with humour, gallant affection, and no shame at all. Yet Raiders of the Lost Ark is also a peculiar product of a brief window in mainstream cinema when there was more freedom to improvise. The neopulp template wasn’t as settled and exploited as it is now, and filmmakers could get away with things that would bring studio bureaucrats and a million parents’ groups down on their heads now. Raiders treads a fine line with such confidence that it erases it, being both a postmodern, semisatirical spin on the genre’s past, full of sarcastic jabs at its cliches and devices, and a lightning-paced, often darkly bodied thriller with a proper story that both links and justifies the action set-pieces.


Raiders, of course, is the story of American archaeologist and academic Indiana “Indy” Jones (Harrison Ford), who barely survives the opening adventure in South America where, after penetrating an ancient temple and retrieving the lost golden idol within, he was betrayed and left to almost die by porter Satipo (Alfred Molina) and then robbed of his prize by ruthless French rival René Belloq (Paul Freeman). Feeling distracted and riled after his escape from Belloq’s tribal warriors and lost in his return to the classroom, Indy is asked by his dean and friend Marcus Brody (Denholm Elliot) to talk to two FBI men (William Hootkins and Don Fellows) who are trying to find out why Indy’s old mentor, Abner Ravenwood, is mentioned in a German communiqué. Indy and Marcus swiftly deduce from the evidence that the Nazis, under the aegis of Hitler’s occultist fascination, are searching for the fabled Ark of the Covenant in Egypt. Supposedly buried thousands of years ago in the Well of the Souls, the only clue to the Ark’s whereabouts is a medallion that Abner possesses. The feds agree to bankroll Indy in an attempt to find the Ark first, but when he tracks Abner to Nepal, Indy learns he is dead, and the medallion has devolved upon Abner’s daughter Marion (Karen Allen), Indy’s truculent former flame. A Gestapo agent, Maj. Arnold Toht (Ronald Lacey) has followed Indy in the search for the medallion, and Indy and Marion have to fight off Toht’s thugs before Marion counts herself in as a partner in the quest. The uneasily aligned, but increasingly flirtatious duo head to Cairo where Indy learns his good friend, professional digger Salah (John-Rhys Davies), has been engaged by the Nazis; worse yet, they’ve hired Belloq as their archaeological expert, setting the scene for an epic rumble between good and evil.


The generic model Raiders was riffing on, by common usage, was “Republic serial,” meaning the cheap, episodic films churned out by that minor studio that used their basic plots to swerve from one cliffhanger to another. The idea of spending millions of dollars on recreating vintage C-movie thrills had the scent of a zany pop-art joke in the late ’70s context, a slightly more serious version of what Mel Brooks was doing. It’s striking to look back today at the earliest Star Wars and Raiders to see that joke is often quite visible, a great contrast to the weighty legacy both series were seen to be carrying and failing to live up to in their recent revivals. The jokiness is thoroughly contoured into the narrative, rather than employed to sunder its integrity, unlike in, say, Richard Lester’s series of anti-swashbucklers including The Three Musketeers (1973) and Royal Flash (1974), where action becomes slapstick, deflating heroism and generating an absurdist sensibility. Spielberg uses humour to give heroic action spice and extra compulsion, following Hitchcock’s understanding of the two. The key set-pieces of Raiders, like the desert road chase, the hilarious moment where Indy is confronted by a bazaar full of baskets like the one kidnapped Marion is in, and the barroom gunfight that sees all the spilt alcohol put to creatively pyrotechnic uses, resemble those serial models. Some directly reference John Ford’s action style, and they also display attentiveness to the technique of Buster Keaton, particularly in The General (1926), where the mechanical beasts are fully utilised as props, obstacles, and weapons in a rolling series of cause-and-effect gags. Yet an essential seriousness, a belief in the kinetic and emotional thrill of the story as being the important thing, is allowed to keep the comedy checked and measured.


Raiders still winks at the way the cliffhanger adventure narrative is constructed, full of narrative conveniences, elided explanations, and deliberate anticlimaxes. Much of the opening sequence is, on the face of it, nonsensical. The film provokes the audience to provide believable reasons why Indy has trekked inland with pack mules and criminal assistants when he’s got a floatplane waiting nearby, and why on earth that plane’s pilot would bring along his pet snake. Indy’s snake phobia, later a compulsory character trait, is here a wry punchline, as Jones is utterly distraught at having a harmless lizard crawl over him: “C’mon, show a little backbone, will ya?” the pilot (Fred Sorenson) mocks the man who just performed astounding acts of courage and endurance. Raiders is not always so far from Lester’s antiheroic spirit in moments like the famous “shooting of the swordsman,” a fiendish, knowing, almost MAD magazine-type gag, and it remains jolting, funny, and slightly appalling at each viewing. But such eccentricities are carefully dovetailed within a film that weaves integrity of style through such elements as Douglas Slocombe’s richly accomplished and technically brilliant photography, which sustains both a fresh, physically solid lustre whilst also recreating aspects of expressionism and the overtly stylised back lot tradition of Hollywood adventure.


Raiders also contrasts the more playful follow-ups as Indy shifts slowly from loner mercenary to father figure and elder statesman. The Jones of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008) is a proven patriot and war hero, if also still trailing his lousy track record in personal relationships. Jones of Raiders is one step away from becoming, as his antagonist Belloq puts it, “just like me…it would take only a nudge to push you out of the light.” He’s a lost, near-exiled figure like two of his clearest models from literary and screen history, Gary Cooper’s incarnation of Hemingway’s Robert Jordan from For Whom the Bell Tolls (1943), and Humphrey Bogart’s Rick Blaine from Casablanca (1942) and Harry Morgan in To Have and Have Not (1944). When Jones walks into Marion’s gin-joint, he’s first rendered as a purely Curtiz-esque silhouette on the wall.


Jones is equally beset by weaknesses and lapses in character and judgment. His shifty associates in the opening who nearly get him killed and spoil his coup of discovery signal over-willingness to rely on expedience. He’s affected physically when a female student flirts with him, a temptation he’s clearly given in to, as he’s had a jailbait romance with Marion, which spoiled two of his best friendships. He’s “fallen from the pure faith” of archaeology in his adventuring and his engagement with a back-alley version of his scholarly craft. Jones was certainly an attempt to create a kind of ultimate adventurer as a centrepiece for an ultimate adventure yarn, with the implicit understanding that true adventurers are more than a little asocial. He’s the man with a past, with the zest of Flynn, the lethal cool of Bond, and the slightly frayed, intense humanity underlying the stoicism of Cooper and Bogart.


Some of Jones’ traits surely reflect the influence of the other two Movie Brat auteurs who had a hand in creating him, screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan and Philip Kaufman, who was also on the fabled Hawaiian holiday with Spielberg and Lucas that resulted in Jones’ genesis. Jones is closer to the often much less adamantine creatures of film noir and the more adult variety of melodrama by Hawks and Ford revered by Kasdan and Kaufman than the flatly iconic figures of pulp and the serials heroes. After Jones became Spielberg and Lucas’ baby, he softened and largely lost his darkness; indeed, it is first intensified and then scrubbed out of him in the nominal prequel, The Temple of Doom. In his first outing, Indy is a sometimes feckless, occasionally downright bloody-minded opponent. Indy’s rough-and-tumble sensibility is however first shaken when he thinks he’s accidentally gotten Marion killed, and he walks on a knife-edge of suicidal/homicidal anger when he meets an especially taunting Belloq.


Lucas, who had been reading Joseph Campbell, attempted not simply to use Campbell’s theories to build old-fashioned narratives, as he’d done with the Star Wars films, but to make them the conceptual linchpin of his film. This worked by deliberately creating a semi-contemporary character who traces ancient artefacts, and in the process, reproduces the experience of the most mythic heroes, seers, demigods and prophets—deciphering riddles, penetrating innermost mysteries to snatch totemic treasures, stealing fire from the gods. The links of past to present infuse the Indiana Jones series with a power well beyond most of its successors, at its most overt here, where the Ark is a prop nearly as important as the hero—the title mentions it, not Jones, and it, rather than he, delivers the villains their comeuppance.


The menace and power of the Ark run in counterpoint to the main business at hand, until finally taking over. A sense of biblical foreboding is established early in the film, the Ark’s mystique and fabled power eerily depicted as an illustration in a colossal tome (“Good God!” “Yes, that’s just what the Hebrews thought.”), and the haunted monologue of Brody, who describes it as “like nothing you’ve gone after before,” at which Indy initially scoffs, and says rather “that thing represents everything we got into archaeology for in the first place.” The tantalising power of the Ark as a symbol and enticement for the imaginations of the “raiders” pursuing it pushes the film’s central motif out of the realm of a MacGuffin—a mere object driving the plot—to become a genuine source of drama, a kind of enigmatic protagonist in the tale (working, in a way, not unlike the hotel in The Shining, 1981). Later, as Indy and Salah interview an aged imam (Tutte Lemkow) who translates key inscriptions on the headpiece, shadows and mysterious winds hint the import of the quest, and the foreshadowing intensifies in a deftly weird little scene where the Ark’s mysterious power makes rats tremble in fear and scorches away the swastika on the box around it. The talismanic sense of awe Jones half-unwittingly chases is matched by Belloq’s constant ability to hook Jones’ psyche with his own ability to invoke that awe, culminating in the moment he disarms Jones purely by pointing out their inconsequentiality in the face of the Ark’s embodiment of history. “It’s a transmitter for talking to God,” Belloq blasphemously characterises the Ark, revealing that his sense of faith is a blissfully utilitarian one.


Raiders’ historical setting didn’t just allow the filmmaker to play with retro tropes, but also offered a chance to escape the killjoy angst of the ’70s, though there’s still a definable edge of the mistrust of officialdom in the portrayal of the feds who commission Indy’s quest. The film’s final joke riffs on a main theme of Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), where a source of inestimable wonder and dread is last seen being stashed away in a colossal warehouse under bureaucratic auspices so the world might forget such destabilising influences exist. This scene itself is almost a meta-commentary on the film’s own driving principle. Trucking in the Nazis as baddies and making Indy a premature antifascist, however, signals a less cynical sensibility. The results of Indy’s gallivanting through the streets of Cairo combating Egyptian goons initially skirts the endemic racism of much of the old pulp pantheon, but other aspects, like Indy’s dogged good friendship with Salah and the way the Egyptians who fill the background slowly shift from being Nazi tools to active supporters of Indy, give the film some links to the egalitarian spirit of WWII-era movies like Sahara (1943). Salah likes reclaiming the heroism stolen by imperialists for themselves, singing Gilbert and Sullivan’s anthems of official heroism but freeing them from nationalist specificity: he is the “monarch of the sea”; “A British man is a soaring soul” describes himself, Indy, and Marion. Moreover, as in subsequent episodes, the sense of underlying truths in the world’s mythical pantheons demands a slow adjustment to a deeper empathy and understanding of what those pantheons imply about the human condition and its origins.


Nazis, of course, offer the kinds of villains no one minds seeing get kicked around, and one of the most effective elements of Raiders is that is takes its bad guys seriously, rather than offering only knockabout stooges. The leading villains of Raiders are a troika of appalling traits: the sibilantly sadistic Toht, the stiff-necked Nazi minion Col. Dietrich (Wolf Kahler), and the intelligent, inquisitive Belloq. Toht has one of the most effective introductions of any movie villain, though he’s not the major enemy: within seconds of barging his way into Marion’s bar, he has his goons grab hold of her and plans to burn a hole in her face with a white-hot poker, an act only Indy’s fortuitous return forestalls. He’s quickly the butt of a malevolent joke that’s also a clever plot aspect, as his attempt to snatch Marion’s medallion from a fire results in him burning his hand, revealing he’s actually a physical coward, but the imprint scorched into his palm gives the Nazis some clue as the medallion’s vital, coded information.


Marion is, like Jones, an interesting contradiction. She’s one of the most vigorous ladies ever to grace adventure cinema, famously greeting Indy with a walloping blow to the chin for his past sins, a touch that betrays the influence of one of Spielberg’s early favourites, J. Lee Thompson’s The Guns of Navarone (1961), in which Irene Papas greets her recalcitrant brother the same way. Marion is introduced scoffing down shots in a drinking contest she easily wins, a terrific little moment that serves a number of purposes, not simply for its immediate humour, but also in the way it establishes the highly exotic milieu as amicable and familiar. It also introduces a proper plot element that comes into play later when she tries to escape Belloq’s clutches by out-drinking him, a ploy that nearly succeeds. Marion isn’t, like Indy, physically very competent or athletic, and she offers a certain comic relief in the disconnect between her lippy attitude and the way she negotiates danger, improvising like Indy and trying to bring her strengths to the fore but without his physical confidence. Marion maintains the film’s links with Howard Hawks’ sensibility, but unlike some of Hawks’ sublimely confident women, Marion’s not a stoic, and her tough-gal ’tude only gets her so far, as when she orders a Nazi soldier, “Don’t you touch me!”, only to get shoved on anyway. One of the best scenes in the film is one with a tone that, sadly, none of the other Jones films offers: Marion contends with Belloq’s attempts to simultaneously seduce and interrogate her, getting her to change into a fanciful white dress (“It’s beautiful,” Marion declares, a marvellous little line reading from Allen in capturing Marion’s half-embarrassed, half-delighted tomboy reaction) and treating her with a gentlemanly aplomb. Belloq’s charm and aristocratic poise might seem rather more attractive than Indy’s brusque abandonment of her, if for good reason, to Nazi inquisitors, if not for the people Belloq associates with. The scene percolates with an amusing, insistently erotic verve that would barely resurface in Spielberg’s oeuvre until Catch Me If You Can (2002).


Stylistically, Raiders of the Lost Ark kept one eye constantly on the past of moviemaking even as it embraced cutting-edge ideas in others: the old-fashioned montages of Indy’s travels being marked out on maps, are reminiscent of the work Don Siegel did in his apprentice days at Warner Bros., often within films made by Curtiz and John Huston. This is one overt form of attentiveness to a lexicon of cinematic technique that permeates the film as a whole: as director Michael Sarne put it in his slightly snarky 1982 review of the film, it revealed that most film scholars were amateurs in comparison to Spielberg and Lucas, who had seen every movie ever made, and understood fundamentally how they worked and what should go in them without needing to think about it. Whilst at the time Raiders seemed to embody a new ethic of the adventure cinema as a roller coaster ride without lulls or narrative stock-taking, today it seems classically constructed by comparison with the blockbusters that has followed. It has characters, by-play, quicksilver thematic and narrative development, and a carefully machined sense of when and how to spring into action. It’s a constant, synergistic stream of clever bits of business and flourishes of storytelling art: when a touch doesn’t really work, the film moves so quickly it leaves it behind.


These characteristics are perhaps why Raiders still seems to me to be perhaps Spielberg’s only perfect film, for its sheer ruthless energy and intelligence mixed with a lean, compulsive lack of circumspection. Even in his flattest films, Spielberg builds sequences with care, and here, of course, he was at the absolute height of his game, turning what might have been a dull expositional sequence, that in which Indy uses Marion’s medallion to locate the Well of the Souls, into a moment of incantatory force. In that regard, he was, of course, helped by John Williams’ scoring, whose work here, at his most floridly Korngold-esque, set the seal on his status as the movie composer everyone knows. As well as the iconic “Raiders March,” the whole of Raiders pulsates with his deeply intuitive sense of how support Spielberg’s imagistic flow with music; thus the plangent strings and creepy choruses that rise throughout, evoking the constant presence of primeval powers, are as invaluable as the brass horns and drums that thunder in the action. My personal favourite moment where image and sound converge comes when Indy starts his horse pounding down a steep slope to intercept Dietrich’s road convoy as the Nazis flee with the Ark, as Williams’ drums are walloped with titanic verve: no matter how many times I watch it, the hairs on my neck still stand up, and it’s the purest distillation of the swashbuckling essence since Douglas Fairbanks slid down a ship’s sail on a knife.


The sequence that follows is the best action scene of the series and one of the best of all time, one which simultaneously sticks tongue in cheek and yet hews to a careful extrapolation of cause and effect, both absurd and yet done in just such a fashion that it remains corporeally believable. Indy turns the seeming advantages of the Nazis against them, swerving the truck to keep others from firing at it lest they hit the men in back, keeping the chase going at high speed so that everyone’s off-kilter, and shunting aside the pursuing vehicles with malicious, boyish glee. Liberated from all care about what havoc he wreaks, Indy cuts loose with a new relentlessness, stoked in him by these people trying to bury him and Marion alive, and refusing to be cheated again by Belloq. The climactic stunt of Indy’s climbing under the truck and then being dragged behind borrows directly from Stagecoach (1939), whilst others clearly reference the train climax of How the West Was Won (1962), and, as mentioned, there’s that Buster Keaton influence.


The best moments of this scene, like when a bloodied Indy finally resurges to hurl the toughest German out through the windscreen to have the truck run over him, hands and legs splaying just into view in a pure Road Runner moment, are both comic and physically dynamic. But there’s a sense of actual physical pain in the scene, as when Indy cops a bullet in the shoulder that leaves his blood dripping down the glass, and when one enemy repeatedly pounds his wound to debilitate him. The subsequent vision of a badly hurt Indy wincing as Salah hugs him good-bye and seething in pain as Marion tries to minister to him is perhaps the film’s cleverest comic coup in subverting the familiar unbreakable action hero: this job hurts like a son of a bitch. In spite of the many films that owe everything to the Raiders template—Tomb Raider (2000), Captain America: The First Avenger (2011), the Pirates of the Caribbean film—it’s fascinating how few of them have actually grasped how this specific mixture of the ridiculous and the realistic made the model work.


When the ship Indy and Marion try to take home with the Ark is met by Dietrich’s U-boats, the crew cheer Indy as he still defiantly refuses to be defeated and swims out to piggyback aboard the sub to its destination. To me, it seems they’re cheering as much, by this time, for the return of the swashbuckling hero as a movie figure as for the man himself, stand-ins for a presumably hungry audience. As the film builds towards its climax, Spielberg’s cinematic keynotes shift from Ford, Hawks, and Republic to DeMille and Fisher. Spielberg had already referenced DeMille’s The Ten Commandments (1956) in Close Encounters, but here the visual similes, from the boiling cloud that hovers over Indy and Salah uncovering the Well of the Souls to the bolts of heavenly fire that exterminate the Nazis in the finale, speak less of transcendent communions than the darkly atavistic side of the Old Testament. Oddly, for a film that concentrates almost entirely on the pleasure of pure, visceral emotions, Raiders was the first film Spielberg made where he began to look at the conflict between harsher historical realities and the fantastical world of movies in the context of his own Jewishness.


The whole of Raiders of the Lost Ark is, in essence, pure revenge fantasy, and in the climax no lesser figure than Jehovah himself delivers a royal comeuppance to the Nazis: Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds (2009), a more self-reflective revenge fantasy, redeploys Spielberg’s climactic images of seething fire, Nazis being torn to shreds by raining death, and a beautiful woman’s face reconfigured as leering angel of death. Belloq’s incredible arrogance and the Nazis who hunger for the power he offers find this god isn’t the god in the crystal chandelier spaceship of Close Encounters, but an angry god, and the gruesome images of the villains’ faces melting in the fire of god sees the film suddenly swerve towards the horror film, already threatened in the Well of the Souls sequence.


This finale, offbeat for many reasons, redefines its heroes by their enforced passivity. Indy’s refusal to destroy the object that is driving men mad, and this bowing before a greater force and responsibility, means that he then must resist opening his eyes, resist looking, the very raison d’etre of both cinema and the scholar’s inquiry for the sake a religious taboo. For Spielberg, it’s also an exercise in show-stopping spectacle, veering in another genre and sensibility just for the hell of it, but more than that, it’s a scene that presents to the audience the double-bind of the taboo: the film viewers still watch, even as the sin of looking consumes the Nazis hideously, and Indy and Marion are left alive for their righteousness. Yet are they preserved for not looking, or actually being on the side of the angels, as the fact their bindings are burnt away once the storm has passed might prove? As a climax, it is, again, a commentary on its own spectacle. Jehovah proves an even greater showman than the Nazis, but not better than Spielberg.