Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981, Steven Spielberg)
You don’t even notice this unless you try hard, but if Raiders of the Lost Ark has a major creative lesson to teach, it’s a bucking of one crucial piece of conventional wisdom: you don’t, in fact, need a good story to make a good movie. Oh, it helps, of course. But if you’re making, let’s say, an adventure film and you have a perfect cast, a brilliantly written script, excellent dialogue, great and truly sophisticated characterization, a sense of emotional vitality, and a series of killer setpieces, you may find that the plot tying it all together is next to irrelevant. That is the case in this textbook example of a big picture that retains cohesion and brings us a generation’s worth of iconography despite its entire narrative line only escaping, in the cold light of day, its feeling of overwrought stupidity when it bothers to try and make sense. This is partially deliberate, of course, but it has to be some sort of a happy accident that by the time the Ark of the Covenant is opened at the end of this breezy tornado, you don’t really care at all what’s in it — if you ever did. The Ark is a classic MacGuffin, obviously, but few traditional Hithcockian thrillers foregrounded the MacGuffin so stubbornly, as if the film never accepts that it’s the sideshow we care about.
When Steven Spielberg ran for cover after his first enormous financial failure, the surreal Zemeckis-Gale comedy 1941, it was to the fold of his friend and fellow movie brat George Lucas, who’d burst fully formed into the Hollywood scene with his smug comedy American Graffiti and then programmed out some space opera series that I forget what it’s called. Lucas is an ideas person, not so much a storyteller; he mitigated these shortcomings by handing off important duties to others, but the central fallacy of Raiders remains clear, that it’s a concept more than it’s a story. The concept being — paraphrasing — “remember those Saturday matinee serials we grew up watching? Us being hugely successful filmmakers in the heat of Hollywood’s decadence and all, let’s make one of those, only let’s make it actually good.” In other words, try to regenerate the childhood feeling of dashing and daring and cliffhangers and stunts and all that stuff but do so in such a way that the critical eye of a zillion grownup Star Wars fans would be riveted, stunned and glued to their seats.
Lucas devised a threadbare concept about an archaeologist and bored-looking college professor named (of course!) Indiana Jones whose parallel life finds him battling Nazis and roaming to the ends of the earth to find pieces for museums, all amid narrow escapes and improbable love affairs. James Bond as a cantankerous, well-educated crusader for, y’know, knowledge and shit. “It belongs in a museum!” he rails over and over again, about everything, probably including his consistently frayed love life. The premise is great but the tale of tracking down a passionately coveted curiosity item in Cairo comes surprisingly close to making no sense whatsoever, in part because the film never even decides what sort of world it takes place in — the rational and supernatural realms finally meeting ludicrously at the climax — and is so addicted to the tropes and ideas of filming a scenario like this that it can’t help having at least three villains, all kinds of half-finished exposition, and just all manner of half-baked excuses for crazy stunt scenes and pointlessly nefarious Snidley Whiplash shit that nevertheless works — all of it works.
If any director is up to the task of transferring an entire genre of movies down to a single bustling two-hour explosion, it’s Steven Spielberg, whose magical run through the ’70s had ended with the undeniably excessive but arguably misunderstood 1941, a film that distinctly points the way forward, though Raiders marks a significant break away from all of his earlier films. At the time, it probably seemed impersonal, since it introduces auteurist fixations of his that had never before manifested. Jaws may have been a production nightmare and the most popular movie of its time, and Close Encounters may have employed the largest movie set ever built as of 1977, but these remained small character pieces that simply happened to have broad appeal, perfectly in line with the intimacy of Duel and The Sugarland Express. But 1941 and Raiders are both identifiably huge, intimidatingly mammoth films, and perhaps the near-impaling of Susan Backlinie by a submarine in the first moments of 1941 is Spielberg’s farewell to his youth.
None of his prior films had employed his true flair for the action sequence, a tradition in which he eclipses (so far as I know) virtually everyone else in American cinema. The note-perfect opening of Raiders, tense recovery of treasure followed by a chase out from an angry spherical bolder, never flinches before its own ridiculousness and the alternately gritty and amusing acrobatics thereafter (the chase in the streets of Cairo, the destruction of Marion’s bar, the many near-misses and escapes, and the all-time classic Nazi outfit submarine switcheroo) are astonishingly graceful given everything they’re required to chew. Spielberg doesn’t just ensure that the audience is never lost in all his quick cutting and calmly resourceful use of wildly exotic and fascinating locations, he manages to inject story and character information into all this. It’s as if he has long since been an expert at throwing darts and now has decided he must learn to throw darts while running — and immediately scores. And then there’s the matter of the melancholy, ambiguous ending most of Spielberg’s early films share; this, curiously, is the best example — filing the MacGuffin away in a vault of MacGuffins — and one of the darkest and most brilliant endings to a major populist film ever, endlessly imitated.
I don’t need to tell you about the deftness of Spielberg’s craft and assurance here, or how his sense of rhythm, already close to impeccable by Jaws or thereabouts, has reached levels of balletic tonal trickery like Dr. Jones crying over liquor next to Marion’s pet monkey when he believes she’s been killed, a tragedy mined for comedy without being minimized. The grown-up Spielberg also reduces the juvenilia inherent to the kind of movie he’s making by shooting it — along with cameraman Douglas Slocombe — as a kind of hazy romance picture full of fluid movement and rapturous beauty. And it even introduces an eroticism completely absent from even his young-parents-on-the-run film: Marion and Indy’s attraction to one another is raw, adult, even insatiable, even all the times they want to kill one another.
As important to Raiders as Spielberg’s visual authorship and Lucas’ central idea is Lawrence Kasdan’s quite masterful screenplay; it’s in this department that the film soars above its sequels and imitators. With considerable flair and a welcome kind of winsome Ealing Studios black humor, Kasdan crafts characters who seem real even as their wisecracks exhibit a quotable better-than-reality wit worthy of Howard Hawks. He didn’t write the film’s best gag, in which an exhausted Indy literally brings a gun to a knife fight, but he did write “I’m making this up as I go” — all-purpose — and “Once again you see there is nothing you can possess which I cannot take away,” which as the MST3K writers have pointed out is perhaps the all-time best pickup line.
More seriously, Kasdan makes the film work because of his impressively complete characterization; he can be credited with defining a reluctant action hero with Indy Jones, who’s never saddled with the somewhat preposterously cool demeanor of a James Bond, instead coming across as a flawed crank who may or may not know what the hell is going to happen next but whose commitment to his career always suggests he looks upon everything as a mild inconvenience more than a death-defying adventure — he’s angry and full of life. Marion Ravenwood, though the film incapacitates her too many times, is the sort of strong and tough-minded leading lady calling back to Katharine Hepburn in The African Queen; her resourcefulness under pressure is as strong as Indy’s, and there’s always the sense of a past weighing deeply upon her. Indy’s allies Marcus Brody (at home) and Sallah (abroad) approach his miraculous survivals and near-misses with gentle good humor and are themselves intensely likable creations. And in the case particularly of Jones’ lifelong nemesis Beloq, Kasdan concocts these people and then remains true to them — their motives, their desires, their weaknesses. That’s the kind of intensely wrought creative process absent from the serials this film seeks to imitate.
Kasdan doesn’t do nearly so much to render powerful Gestapo stooge Major Toht as one of the most unforgettable villains in cinema; that’s one of many ways in which the casting of the film sells the package unhesitatingly. Ronald Lacey’s performance, owing much to Peter Lorre circa M but possibly even more sinister, is genuinely creepy and deliciously merciless, an abstract cloud of evil matched only by the absolute benevolent good floating above all and burning Swastikas (in one potent act of directorial malice). Meanwhile, John Rhys-Davies displays such innate charm as to be nearly more of an audience favorite than Jones himself. But Karen Allen’s sheer balls-out directness reigns over all except Harrison Ford; Ford had been the best and most playful part of Star Wars with his constant sneering wiseassery, and here he finds an outlet that lends itself to greater depth, greater flaws, greater idiosyncrasy, which results in allowing him to refine the Han Solo character into a complete person. This might be the only role Ford can really play but he does so beautifully.
I love this movie. I love it more with every passing year. I love it as it becomes increasingly the last vestige of a certain kind of populist entertainment that respects its audience but intends constantly to stay one step ahead of them. While not without their merits, the two subsequent films in the series and the later exercise in (winning, I felt) self-parody circa 2008 never approach this feeling, which echoes movies like North by Northwest that revel in the vast and the outrageous. I even love the way John Williams’ typically odd and overstuffed music score collects itself into those rousing moments, immediately selling this odd character as a legend. The crazy thing is it worked, and still does.