Saturday, December 07, 2013

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Return to the Planet of the Apes: "Trail to the Unknown" (October 18, 1975)

In “Trail to the Unknown,” Return to the Planet of the Apes (1975) at last begins to explore many of its long-gestating plot-lines.  

The episode continues the story of the World War II plane stolen by the human astronauts, but it also connects Bill, Judy and Jeff with Ron Brent, the astronaut from 2109 who landed on the planet of the apes years two decades before they did.

Here, we meet the older Brent and see his wrecked spaceship in the desert.  Unlike Bill, Judy and Jeff, however, he has never tangled with the apes.  Instead, Brent has built a life for himself, of sorts, in the arid Forbidden Zone for twenty years.  From this point forward, however, Brent is a series regular, and helps the other astronauts protect the primitive humanoids.

In “Trail to the Unknown,” Bill, Judy and Jeff move the endangered humanoids to “New Valley” in an attempt to escape Urko’s patrols.  Urko is still in search of the warplane the astronauts stole in “Screaming Wings," and will stop at nothing to re-acquire it.

The astronauts come across Brent in the Forbidden Zone, and he leads them to a spot in the valley where the astronauts can, using their recovered laser drill, build a pueblo for the primitive humans.

I don’t know if cancellation was in the air at this point and so there was a push to start resolving plot lines, but the creators of Return to the Planet of the Apes demonstrate in "Trail to the Unknown" their willingness to move beyond the status quo that dominated early episodes.  In recent programs, for instance, we have seen the Under Dwellers become allies with the astronauts, the return of Judy, and the coup attempt by Urko (and Zaius’s response).  Here we meet Brent, a character hasn’t been mentioned since the very first episode of the series.

What’s nice about this is that the overall narrative finally has some momentum, and the series seems to be regrouping and heading in a fresh direction.  By episode’s end, the astronauts -- now teamed with Brent--have built a defensible home for the humanoids.  They also use the plane to destroy a land bridge, preventing Urko from bringing in his heavy artillery.

Overall, “Trail to the Unknown” is an impressive episode of the series, and one that shows real growth in terms of the overall narrative.

Next Week: “Attack from the Clouds.”

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Land of the Lost: "Mind Games" (November 2, 1991)

In “Mind Games,” Shung (Tom Allard) becomes obsessed with Christa (Shannon Day), and uses his crystal blade and a stolen “peace” pendant to control her mind.  

This mind-control comes at an unfortunate time, however, as Annie Porter (Jenny Drugan) is spending time with Christa, learning to survive in the jungle and use a bow-and-arrow.

The Porters rally to save Christa, even as Shung takes control of her mind…

“Mind Games” is another fun, though not inspired, episode of the 1990s Land of the Lost.  Annie, Tasha and Christa have a sleep-over while the “boys” re-shingle the tree-house roof, and once more Shung makes trouble.

For some reason, this week Shung is obsessed with Christa -- though I can’t blame him -- and sets about making her his slave.  Christa struggles to break free of his influence, even as he tells her “I own you…I am your master now!

Why does Shung care, one might ask.  Good question.

The episode also concerns Annie’s training to survive in the land of the lost, which is a good idea given the circumstances.  She could end up like Holly or Christa  -- alone in a hostile world -- and so it makes sense that she should be trained in using a bow and arrow.  The only sexist thing about this plot-line is that no one suggests Kevin learn to take care of himself in the same way.  It’s just assumed that he is capable of doing so.

Two other moments stand out in “Mind Games.”  

In the first, Christa swings on a vine and performs a spot-on Tarzan yell.  She swoops in to save Stink quite adroitly, but the yell -- and the vine -- represent clear Tarzan allusions.  The reference fits since Christa is a human child raised alone in the wild.

Secondly, the end of the episode finds Mr. Porter playing a 1990s hand-held video game unit.  

This toy represents yet another modern  luxury in this iteration of the Land of the Lost.  The Marshalls had virtually no such modern items in the 1970s version of the show, but the Porters have a boom-box, a video game console, a car, a video camera and more. 

This wealth of conveniences makes the new show seem more like an extended camping trip than a legitimate stranding in another pocket universe.  I just hope, at some point, the series acknowledges that the car will run out of gas, and the video camera and video game unit will run out of battery power…

Next week: “Flight to Freedom.”

Friday, December 06, 2013

The Films of 1984: Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom

I still vividly recall the summer of 1984, and the reviews and chatter about Indiana Jones and The Temple of Doom. In particular, there was much talk about how on earth George Lucas and Steven Spielberg could possibly “one-up” their previous cinematic blockbusters.
This was actually a popular parlor game of the age.  First came Jaws (1975), then Star Wars (1977) and Close Encounters (1977), then Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), E.T. (1982) and Return of the Jedi (1983). Between them, Spielberg and Lucas were responsible for the most successful and beloved genre pictures of the age, and they seemed to keep upping the ante in terms of action, special-effects, and sheer spectacle each time at bat.
Next out of the gate came….Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984)....
To this day, both Steven Spielberg and George Lucas relentlessly talk the picture down. 
It was “too dark,” they insist.
Or it was a silver-screen reflection of their personal troubles and bad mood at the time.  Lucas was undergoing a bitter divorce, for example.
Spielberg even calls Temple of Doom his “least favorite” Indiana Jones film.
However, Spielberg and Lucas aren’t alone in their condemnation of the film.  Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom has also been termed racist, culturally inaccurate, a wrong-headed defense of colonialism, anti-woman, and even compared to “child abuse” in term of its impact on young eyes.  It is one of the films, along with Gremlins (1984) that caused the M.P.A.A. to develop the PG-13 rating, after all.
And one mustn’t forget, either, that some movie reviewers were certainly out there looking for Lucas or Spielberg -- or two for the price of one -- to stumble and fall from their perch as princes of Hollywood. 

Too dark?!
All the critical arguments against Temple of Doom are debatable, of course, but all the intense and varied criticism of the film tends to obscure the fact that this 1984 film stands as the finest and most creative of the Raiders of the Lost Ark follow-ups.  Temple of Doom is a film that thrives on its own unique (sinister…) energy without feeling the need to re-hash familiar scenes or re-introduce “repertory” characters for reasons of nostalgia or sentimentality.  Instead, the movie is lean and mean, relentless and driving.  Delightfully, it also picks-up on Raiders' leitmotif of Indiana Jones as a man conflicted over his path or destiny.  Should he pursue "fortune and glory" or do what is right?
In fact, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom remains defiantly and audaciously a picture in which -- as the title sequence explicitly warns audiences -- “anything goes.”
Not many sequels or prequels can live up to that billing, but Temple of Doom is a thrill-a-minute, non-stop action masterpiece, that -- like its predecessor -- pays homage to Hollywood tradition and history while simultaneously blazing a new path.  Buoyed by both outrageous humor and Hellish visions straight out of a nightmare, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom is a screwball comedy/horror/fantasy/adventure film, and one finely tuned to produce audience gasps and guffaws in equal measure.

“Fortune and Glory”
In Shanghai in the year 1935, a business transaction between American adventurer Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) and the local gangster Lao Che (Roy Chaio) goes awry at the Club Obi Wan.  Indy escapes with his life, but also with a ditzy nightclub singer, Willie Scott (Kate Capshaw), and his eleven-year old Chinese side-kick, Short Round (Ke Huy Quan) in tow.
The trio escapes from China aboard a small cargo plane, only to learn that it is the property of Lao Che.  When the pilots bail out of the low-in-fuel plane over the Himalayas with the only parachutes, Indy, Willie, and Short Round evacuate the craft in an inflatable raft.
After a harrowing landing on a mountainside and a race through choppy river waters, Indy and his friends realize that they have arrived in India.  An old man (D. R. Nanayakkara) leads them to Mayapore, a village where the sacred Sankara or Sivalinga Stone has been stolen by a “re-awakening Evil.”  The stone’s absence at its shrine has caused the river bed to dry up, and crops to wither on the vine.   
The same evil -- which makes its home at distant Pankot Palace -- is also responsible for abducting the village’s children and making them slaves.
At the request of the villagers, Indy, Willie, and Short Round make the long and dangerous trek to Pankot Palace, and soon realize that the Maharajah is the puppet of a sinister Thuggee leader, Mola Ram (Amrish Puri).  
This menacing individual has acquired several Sankara Stones, and is seeking the last one, which he knows is buried deep within the surrounding mountains.  When he possesses all the stones, this Thuggee believes he and the Goddess Kali will dominate the world.  Mola Ram also controls his minions through pure terror, ripping out the hearts of human sacrifices with his bare hands.
When Indy and his friends are captured, Jones is forced to drink the “Blood of Kali,” a potion which apparently turns him evil.  Short Round is able to save his friend from this “Black Sleep,” and a re-awakened Indy commits himself to freeing the slaves, recovering the Sankara Stone, and destroying Mola Ram…

“Anything Goes”

George Lucas receives a great deal of criticism because he often attempts to recreate or pay homage to Hollywood and movie history, even when that Hollywood and movie history happens to be controversial.  

For instance, Lucas was widely panned for featuring aliens that speak “Pidgeon English” in The Phantom Menace (1999).  In some sense, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom showcases the same brand of political incorrectness (or perhaps, more accurately, tunnel vision).  Specifically, much of Temple of Doom is modeled directly on the popular 1939 Hollywood effort, Gunga Din. That film from director George Stevens is revered by many, but also derided by others as being insensitive to Indian culture and history. 

Gunga Din depicts the story of an Indian camp worker, Gunga Din (Sam Jaffe) in 1880.  He aspires to serve in the British Army, and along with three British officers, he investigates a British outpost at Tantrapur that has mysteriously fallen silent.  It turns out the facility has been attacked by the Thuggee, and late in the film, the Thuggee leader orchestrates a trap for Gunga Din and his friends at a temple of gold. Gunga Din dies in the battle, but is remembered, finally, as being worthy of a British uniform.

To put a fine point on the matter Gunga Din depicts the British Army in India as heroic and righteous, Indian culture as savage or heathen, and suggests that the highest aspiration of the Indians should be to serve the Queen.   

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom purposefully apes this world view.  It features a “cavalry comes over the hill” moment in which the heroic British soldiers -- occupiers? -- dispatch the Thuggee.  Similarly, the depiction of Kali as Evil in the film does not square with Hindu beliefs regarding the God as a deity of empowerment.  And the much criticized-dinner scene at Pankot Palace does not accurately reflect Indian cuisine, to say the least. 

On one hand, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom could be said to trade in stereotypes, but on the other hand, the film is set in 1935 and, to a great extent, it makes that date feel absolutely “real” by mirroring the Hollywood world view of that age.  

It would be weird, to say the least, to see Indiana Jones -- a man of the 1930s -- evidencing 1980s beliefs and opinions, and that simple fact seems to be lost in the complaints over the film’s Western-centric approach to a non-Western culture.  Who can argue truthfully that a 1930s serial on the same topic wouldn't take the same approach as this film?  So if we stop to view Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom as a time-specific “fantasy,” there’s no reason to be offended by the specifics its “imaginary” world.  In other words, the film doesn’t take place in real India, in 1980.  It takes place in 1930s Hollywood-ized India. That's a crucial distinction.

One can even state for a fact that Lucas and Spielberg were influenced by Gunga Din because of similar visual flourishes. Most notably, both films open with a similar shot...of an over-sized gong.  Thus, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom's game is not to offend, but to pay tribute, as noted above, to movie history.

Another example of 1930s films providing an influence on the aesthetic of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom also occurs in the opening sequence.  Here, Willie Scott sings Cole Porter's "Anything Goes," and wanders off-stage (through a dragon's head stage prop...) into an "alternate world" of chorus-line dancers. 

Notably, this kind of  fantasy setting was featured all the time in the films of Busby Berkeley (1895-1976), such as Gold Diggers of 1937.  There, for instance, a tune called "All's Fair in Love and War" segued into a bizarre musical "number" outside of the film's traditional back-stage narrative.  Overall, the film was grounded in reality, but then it veered suddenly into a weird, expressionist dance number that didn't preserve the realism of the stage itself. The audience was carried into an abstract world beyond the confines of normal narrative structure.

The same approach is mirrored here.  We leave "the real world" of the Shanghai Club, and travel into a Busby Berkeley dance number of dancers, glitter, and music. Then we slip back into the real world, and the filmmakers offer no commentary about the detour.

My point here is that Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom deliberately evokes again the voice, feel and world-view of the 1930s in terms of presentation and structure. The over-arching idea here, as it is in terms of Gunga Din, is to re-create a "lost world" for audiences: a world of Hollywood movies circa 1935 - 1940.  It is wrong to perceive the film as taking place in the "real" world.  It takes place, instead, in the world of Hollywood; of movie serials and musicals.

Gold Diggers of 1937: "All's Fair in Love and War."

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom: "Anything Goes."
Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom has also been criticized frequently as being anti-woman in nature because Willie Scott screams in the movie…a lot.  There is a simple and clear response to this argument.  

Raiders of the Lost Ark featured a brilliant, capable female lead in Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen). Marion could out-drink, out-fight, and out-think many an opponent. The makers of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom thus found themselves in the position of either presenting a female character that would be dismissed by critics as a “pale copy” of Marion, or going in a new and original direction.  They chose the latter approach, but were clearly in a can't-win situation.  If they re-did Marion, they'd be criticized.  And we know they were also criticized for choosing a different path. 

But once more, it is fruitful to examine Willie Scott and her role. If one looks at the details of the story, Willie’s aversion to danger isn’t representative of any anti-woman stance, but reflective again of the time period, movie history, and even the character's situation.  She’s a pampered American singer who, after living the good life in Shanghai, suddenly finds herself riding elephants, handling snakes, and crawling through bug-infested caves. 

 Hell, I might find myself screaming in the same situation…

Another way to put this:  Is the depiction of Marcus Brody as a hapless ninny in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade also sexist because it portrays a man as incompetent and incapable?   If the answer is simply that Marcus functions within that story as comic relief, then we must, in good conscience, apply the same answer to Willie Scott in Temple of Doom. 

Similarly, it's easy to see that Willie Scott in Temple of Doom screams approximately as much as Fay Wray did in King Kong (1933).  Once more, we must accept the premise, then, that this Lucas film is deliberately evoking a time, a place, and a world-view; that of the silver screen in the 1930s.

Two movies, two different women: Marion Ravenwood is capable and tough.

Two movies, two different women: Willie Scott...not capable or tough. At all...
I don’t intend this review to be a point-by-point rebuke of critics of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, but some of the criticisms do seem truly absurd. Those who claim that the film is equivalent to “child abuse” because of the scene of Mola Ram ripping out a victim’s heart seem to have forgotten the conclusion of Raiders of the Lost Ark, wherein a man’s head explodes on screen, and two other men are melted alive on camera, their flesh transforming into bloody puddles.

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom is a darker film than Raiders, but one can’t really argue in good faith that there is actually more on-screen gore in the 1984 film than its predecessor. The heart scene, actually, is fairly bloodless, despite the action that occurs there.  

And the point must be: is the darkness justified?  

I would argue that it is.  That the sheer darkness of Mola Ram's world view is the very thing that turns Indy from mercenary to savior, that turns him away from fortune and glory so he can reunite grieving families. Jones experiences the darkness of the Thuggee world view in himself when he drinks the black sleep potion, and so realizes how horrible Mola Ram's reign could be.  

From a certain point of view, Temple of Doom actively concerns the idea that you can't run away from the darkness; that you must stay and fight it where it lives.  The film features very little in terms of globe-hopping, and thus Indy must face the consequences of all his actions.

Isn't this actually gorier..

...than this?
My affirmative case for Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom involves the fact that the film knowingly and meaningfully attempts to separate itself from Raiders of the Lost Ark in virtually every way.  It doesn’t return to Africa and the Middle East, but spends its time in the Far East and South-East Asia.  As I wrote above, it doesn’t “globe-hop” to the extent that Raiders did either, instead settling in one major location after the first action scene or set-piece.  Similarly, the characters are not reruns, but new people with individual voices.

In virtually every way imaginable, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom thus escapes Raiders of the Lost Ark’s gravity well, and thrives as its own unique story. 

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom is also the last Indy picture that features Jones as an occasionally mercenary, occasionally narcissistic individual.  As this film opens, he bargains with Lao Che for a relic he has successfully recovered.  Significantly, Indy doesn’t even discuss putting that relic in a museum.  No, this is a transaction: the relic for payment, for a diamond, specifically.  The details of Indy’s deal with Lao Che suggest that the original vision of the character -- as a man fallen from faith -- stands.  He’s a hero, but he’s also a man with foibles.

In fact, it is this film that originates the phrase “fortune and glory” in the saga, and it is clear that Jones has competing interests in taking down Mola Ram.  He wants to free the children, and defeat the Thuggee “evil,” but Indy is also in search of the “fortune and glory” that comes with the recovery of the Sankara Stones.  It’s clear that he is in this quest, at least partially, for himself…out of avarice.  This Indiana Jones is more Fred Dobbs (from The Treasure of the Sierra Madre [1948]) than in later installments, and this is the mode that I, personally, prefer.

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, while staking out original characters, new locations, and a new “grounded” structure in one main locations, nonetheless adds meaningfully to Raider’s leitmotif about the Third World providing the First World with a new sense of spirituality and belief.  Here, Indy learns for himself the power of the Sankara Stones, and once more finds that “magic” can exist in the technological, on-the-verge of war world of the 1930s.  

What this means is that Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom tells a new story in a way that one can nonetheless recognize as being “of a piece” with Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Perhaps the simplest reason to laud Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom is that it remains one of the most exciting action pictures ever made.  In terms of the one-upmanship I discussed in my introduction, Temple of Doom actually one-ups itself, moment after moment, scene after scene, throughout its entire running time.  The opening set-piece in the Club Obi Wan is a perfectly-balanced presentation, one that escalates into a bizarre musical number, one ingredient at-a-time.  

The escape from the plane in an inflatable raft, the mine-car chase, and the final battle on a suspension bridge are similarly unimpeachable in terms of imagination, choreography, and execution.  These set-pieces are sustained ones -- lasting for several minutes each -- and just when you think they can’t get any more frenetic, brawny, or exhilarating, Spielberg cranks everything up another notch.  

In these moments, "anything goes," and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom's creators do the seemingly impossible.  They one-up their already impressive blockbuster history.

Movie Trailer: Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984)

Tuesday, December 03, 2013

Cult Movie Review: Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

If adventure has a name, it must be Indiana Jones.

But if adventure movies could have three names, they would be Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, and Harrison Ford.

Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) remains one of the most brilliantly-crafted action blockbusters of the last several decades, and is a testament to the collaborative efforts of those talents name-checked above. As Richard Schickel noted in his original Time Magazine review: “The simple craftsmanship evident throughout [the film], the attention to detail, which, as the special-effects people like to say, "sells the shot," puts the viewer in mind of an almost vanished habit of meticulous movie-making.”

Like Star Wars (1977) before it, Raiders of the Lost Ark is more than a simple adventure film, however. It is also a pastiche, a descriptor meaning that the film meaningfully draws its inspiration from other, historical works of art. 

In this case, Lucas and Spielberg knowingly style their 1981 adventure film after the serials or chapter-plays of the 1930s and early 1940s.  Nearly every aspect of the picture -- including character “types,” contextual backdrop, and even choice of wardrobe -- emerges from the movie serials of this span. 

But intriguingly, such elements are re-purposed for modern audiences as symbols or signifiers of “innocence” during an epoch of what could fairly be described as cynical, technological movie-making. 

Legendarily, Raiders of the Lost Ark was devised by an exhausted and depleted George Lucas following the difficult production of Star Wars.  The project also appealed to a post-Jaws (1975) and post-1941 (1979) Steven Spielberg on the basis that it would prove a deliberate step-away from -- and rebuke of -- the “mechanical” effects and challenges of those pictures; the worlds of matte-paintings, blue-screens, motion-control cameras, and other cutting edge hardware.

Yet Raiders of the Lost Ark serves as more than mere romantic response to modern, technological filmmaking. It also shares a crucial creative element or conceit with such 1930s films as King Kong (1933).  

In particular, the film serves as both a critique of  a morally rudderless, secular Modernity and as an invitation for contemporary movie audiences to imagine a “larger” world outside the confines of “The West” or “Western Thought.”  

Thus, Raiders of the Lost Ark escorts viewers to a world where not every mystery is resolved, where not every miracle is quantified, and where not every problem is diagnosable.  It showcases a world, quite simply, where you can still believe in magic…and still feel wonder -- and yes, fear -- at facets of life beyond the boundaries of human understanding.

Raiders of the Lost Ark also explicitly concerns the First World’s whole-sale plundering of the Third World for its treasures.  And this plundering -- particularly for golden artifacts -- is no doubt a metaphor for the oil trade, and also for western imperialism or colonialism in general terms.

But intriguingly, the Lucas/Spielberg film also acknowledges that in “excavating” the resource-rich Third World, some heretofore dismissed mystical or mythological aspect of those cultures may find new relevance or meaning in the glittering and advanced -- but ultimately spirit-sapped -- Age of Reason.  

In other words, in the process of strip-mining Africa, the Far East, Peru, or the Middle East for its treasures, the denizens of the First World also discover some lost connection to their own history, or even their diminished sense of spirituality and humanity. 

Beyond the “fortune and glory” of avaricious, individual aspiration stands the possibility of renewing one’s faith, and buttressing lost or faltering belief.  This very notion is the thematic undercurrent not only for Raiders of the Lost Ark, but for all the Indiana Jones films. A world-weary and at times dissolute man of Modernity finds in buried or forgotten Antiquity the magic that is lacking in his life, and in his "new age" of science.  Indiana Jones may claim that Archaeology is the search for facts, not "truth" (the purview of Philosophy, he states), but in terms of the films, this is not strictly the case.

This overriding theme of rediscovered faith in re-discovered articles of Antiquity is powerfully visualized in Raiders of the Lost Ark, especially in regards to the unearthly, dreadful power of the Ark.  The film is rife with literal “Wrath of God”-type visuals which suggest a power outside human comprehension. This unseen, gathering force grows in strength (and anger…) as Nazis and Indiana Jones himself threaten to “disturb” the Ark from it sanctuary and long slumber.

The discovery of this priceless religious artifact in Raiders of the Lost Ark by two figures who have “fallen from faith” -- Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) and Rene Belloq (Paul Freeman) -- also pulsates at the heart of the picture.

Both men unexpectedly see their lapsed faith renewed -- though in drastically differing fashions -- during the film’s explosive denouement.  Importantly, however, this new-found sense of faith or belief arises from their reckoning with an ancient Holy Object, one totally outside their respective allegiances during the technological but inhumane World War II era.

To depict a hero who has lost faith and then finds it again, Spielberg frequently crafts visuals (with DP Douglas Slocombe) that diagram remarkable depth and detail, ones heavy on dark and light.  These are the film’s compositions of “shadow,” and they pinpoint a morally uncertain Indiana Jones perched half-way between good and evil.  

He could, it seems, go either way at this juncture, and Raiders of the Lost Ark is his story of, finally, of redemption…of emergence from the shadows of doubt, guilt, and existential angst.

Girded with thrill-a-minute fight sequences and exhilarating chases, Raiders of the Lost Ark thrives even today not only because it is jaunty, good-humored nature, but because it seeks to excavate in its audience a well-spring of authentic wonder, a belief that those things that seem buried in our past --whether a holy relic, the tradition of the 1930s movie serial, or even an individual sense of spirituality -- can find relevance and new meaning in an age of cynicism and calculation.

“Inside the Ark are treasures beyond your wildest aspirations.”
After returning empty-handed from a hazardous trip to Peru, archaeologist and professor Indiana Jones (Ford) is contacted at his university by two officers from U.S. Army Intelligence.
These officers inform Indy that Adolf Hitler is “obsessed with the occult” and that he has sent his armies across the globe to recover any relics or treasures relating to it.  Within Hitler’s reach now is the Ark of the Covenant, the mysterious container which is believed to have once housed the stone tablets of the Ten Commandments. 
Mankind has searched for the Ark for three thousand years, and now Hitler wants it because it can “level mountains” and render any army which carries it “invincible.”
During their world-wide hunt for the Ark, the Nazis have also revealed an unusual interest in Abner Ravenwood, Indy’s American mentor, with whom he had a falling out some time ago. Ravenwood possesses the head-piece of the “Staff of Ra,” a ceremonial object that can locate the precise location of the Ark inside the long-buried city of Tanis. 
Army Intelligence wants Jones to acquire the head-piece first, and also recover the Ark before the Nazis can do so.
Indy’s first stop on this journey is Nepal.  There, he learns that Ravenwood is dead, and that Marion (Karen Allen), Abner’s beautiful daughter, is in possession of the head-piece.  Marion is also Indy’s former lover -- and a spurned one at that -- and is reluctant to part with the jeweled head-piece because of the bad blood between them. 
When Nazi agents, led by the sinister Toht (Ronald Lacey), burn down Marion’s bar in pursuit of the same artifact, however, she agrees to partner with Jones on his quest.
Indy and Marion head to Cairo next, where they work with Indy’s old friend and an expert digger, Sallah (John Rhys-Davies) to locate the Tanis Map Room.   Sallah reports that the Nazis are digging in the wrong place, and that there is still time to excavate and recover the Ark from the Well of Souls.
After several hazardous brushes with the Nazis and his French rival, Belloq (Freeman), Indy and Marion finally retrieve the Ark...and then once more lose the prized artifact to them.
In the end, Indiana Jones and Marion must stand witness to the mysterious and fearsome powers of the Ark of the Covenant, as Belloq does the unthinkable, and opens it…

The Ark…it is something that man was not meant to disturb. Death has always surrounded it. It is not of this Earth.” 
In the 1930s and 1940s, Hollywood studios such as Republic, Universal, Mascot, and Columbia succeeded at the box office by producing a steady diet of serials, or chapter plays.  These adventure films highlighted weekly cliff-hangers and stories of derring-do.  Audiences watched these chapter-plays (usually about twenty-minutes in duration per segment…) and then returned to the theater the following ten weeks or so to see how their heroes fared following apparently-impossible-to-escape perils.

These 1930s-1940s serials arrived in a variety of modes or genres, but can nonetheless be organized by four categories, broadly-speaking.  There were space-based serials (Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers), superhero serials (Batman, Captain America, Captain Marvel), western serials (The Lone Ranger) and, last but not least, “adventure” serials often featuring a larger-than-life hero engaged in a dangerous quest (usually in a jungle or other "uncivilized" territory by Modernity's standards). 

Indeed, “the adventurer” in the fourth sub-type of serial would often travel to some lost kingdom, country, island, or village (Darkest Africa [1936], The Secret of Treasure Island [1938], The Valley of the Vanishing Men [1942], Raiders of Ghost City [1944]) in search of lost treasure.  The adventurer/hero was sometimes an agent for the U.S. government too, and might end up battling forces of the Axis Powers -- Germany and Japan -- in efforts such as Don Winslow of the Coast Guard (1943), The Adventures of Smiling Jack (1943), and Secret Service in Darkest Africa (1943). 

Virtually all of the 1930s-1940s serials featured a hero with a memorable name, such as Ace Drummond, Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon, Frank Merriwell, Kit Carson, Don Winslow, Red Barry, or Red Ryder.  And many of these protagonists frequently wore a hat so that it was easy to stunt-double the lead actor during fight scenes. 

Clearly, Indiana Jones fits easily into this serial tradition, right down to his trademark fedora. The cliffhangers are present in the 1981 film too, and Raiders’ boasts an episodic structure that hinges on extreme danger, and then sudden resolution of that danger.

The conventional serial format imitated by Raiders also often features a sidekick of a comic nature, a role that Sallah happily conforms to in Raiders of the Lost Ark, Short Round plays in Temple of Doom, and Marcus Brody fills in The Last Crusade.  These characters not only back-up the protagonist and provide levity to alleviate tension, they provide someone for the hero to rescue so more derring-do is possible.

The backdrop for such tales, as noted above, is often explicitly World War II, and involves evil foreign agents, with names like “The Scorpion.” These agents often infiltrate non-aligned countries so as to procure their resources and/or loyalties in the conflict.  The villains generally fall into the comic-book general villain/soldier-villain dichotomy, which again one can detect clearly in terms of Belloq and Toht in Raiders. Belloq is the brains and cunning, whereas Toht is the muscle or enforcer.

Straight-forward and patriotic, the 1930s-1940s movie serials mostly eschewed nuance or subtlety in storytelling, and succeeded as pure entertainment; as roller-coaster or thrill ride. They were literally “black and white" in format and theme.   

Raiders knowingly absorbs all the creative ingredients of such serials, as noted above, but the game it plays is a bit more complex.  The film harks back to a more innocent time not only in terms of movie narratives, but in terms of movie-making itself; what Spielberg described as a “James Bond movie without hardware” in an interview with Janet Maslin.  The black-and-white aesthetic remains virtually intact, only updated for color cinema. Visually-speaking, the film's black-and-white presentation actually involve shades of light and dark, and menacing, obfuscating shadows.

Upon re-watching Raiders of the Lost Ark for this review, I was reminded how beautiful and textured the cinematography remains.  Spielberg conveys a great deal of information about character and plot through visual means, and via compositions that stress shadows, or the interplay of light and dark.  

In particular, Indiana Jones himself is often visualized as being half-in and half-out of the shadows.  When he is acting as a “grave-robber” in Peru for instance, at the commencement of the film, we see him emerge from the shadows, but not completely.  The shadows still cloak and obscure parts of his visage, in part because he is an unknown quantity to the audience.  Is he a mercenary, a grave-robber, an historian or a scientist?  It's not entirely clear at this juncture.

Similarly, when Indy attempts to procure from Marion the head-piece to the Staff of Ra -- and not entirely honestly at that -- even darker shadows fall across his face.  We see nothing of Indy's face save for his furtive, cunning eyes, and the imagery suggests that he is hiding much.  Here, Indy seems truly in danger of becoming like Belloq...a man without faith, and more than that, without goodness.

When Marion first spies Indy in the film, in her saloon in Nepal, he is visualized by Spielberg entirely as a shadow on the wall, at least at first.  Again, consider the details of their personal relationship. Indy romanced Marion when she was very young (and likely made love to her…), and then went about his way, with hardly a look back.  Marion has never forgiven or forgotten him, and this memory of a failed romance has driven her to the ends of the Earth, literally.  

Indiana Jones is thus, literally, a colossal shadow looming over Marion's life, and her decisions.  When she first sees him again, after all these years, in Raiders of the Lost Ark, that’s precisely as Indy appears in the frame, as an over-sized shadow dwarfing her body.  He is as large and imposing as she has made him in her memory.

Finally, another trenchant example: when Belloq speaks to a heart-broken Indy at a Cairo restaurant, Indy is seen in the foreground of the frame, under a cloak of shadows that echoes his cloak of mourning (at Marion’s apparent demise). But there’s more going on in this scene than meets the eye.  It is here that Belloq refers to Indy as his “mirror,” and he discusses with him how they are both men without faith, and thus very much alike.  

Indy slips into shadow in this composition because he very much fears that Belloq's words are accurate.  His obsession -- his desire to reclaim various treasures of Antiquity for fortune and glory --  has caused him to cut corners, and to endanger those whom he loves. Indy believes Marion is dead, and that, furthermore he caused her death.  All we need to understand this state-of-mind is the prominent image of his face beneath the shroud of shadows. He is a man whose soul is in a precarious condition.

Man of Shadows: Grave robber or archaelogist?

Motives: Pure or shadowy?

The Shadow that looms over Marion's li fe.

The Shadows of Guilt is like a shroud over Indy.

If light and dark, shadow and light, play a crucial role in the visual aspects of Raiders of the Lost Ark, the film features another significant visual leitmotif: the wrath of God as a tangible force in the real world; though one unnoticed…until it is too late.  

Several times through-out the film, an “ill-wind” blows -- without apparent “rational” or scientific cause -- and this wind is the unseen breath of God, gaining in power as both Indiana Jones and the Nazis grow closer to recovering the Ark of the Covenant. 

The old wise man who translates the head-piece of the Staff of Ra reads a warning to Indy not to disturb the Ark of the Covenant, and that ultimatum is the key to this “ill-wind” motif.  Brody similarly warns Indy about the dangers of the Ark, and the fact that it holds secrets "no man can know." 

But meanwhile, Belloq is not afraid of this possibility, and contextualizes the Ark as something “not of this Earth.”  He calls it  “a transmitter…a radio for speaking to God,” but is so vain and arrogant that he does not fear trespass against the Divine (or, perhaps, the alien...).

The strange, unnatural -- or supernatural? -- ill-wind blows for the first time in Raiders of the Lost Ark immediately before the fight scene in Nepal.  Marion sits alone in her bar, before a single candle, and the flame flutters in the wind suddenly as she regards the head-piece of the Staff of Ra, and determines to be Jones’ partner in the recovery of the Ark.  

The wind does not blow because Indiana Jones has left the saloon and let in the freezing air, or because Toht has entered the building, mind you.  The wind -- for no Earthly reason -- threatens the candle’s life, and the flame quivers uncertainly.   This is the first warning, the first exhale of God's wrath, perhaps.

The next time the Wrath of God is suggested in terms of visuals, the wind is much stronger, perhaps because the end of the quest is nearer, and the Ark is that much closer to excavation.  The old man in Cairo reads the warning on the head-piece to Indy, and suddenly the hanging lamps in the old man’s home begin to sway, and a cloud of dust gusts up from the floor.  Again, the wind seems to have come from nowhere. The Wrath of God is nearer.

This ill-wind next becomes a storm, when, by night, Sallah and Indy crack the seal of the Well of Souls, and access to the Ark is revealed at last. Overhead, in the impenetrable night, a strange, unearthly storm gathers, thunder roars, and lightning crackles. This atmospheric disturbance represents the most significant warning yet not to trespass in God’s domain, not to attempt to possess that which man is not yet meant to “know.”

After the Ark is recovered and stored in a Nazi crate, the most indisputable sign yet of God’s anger is seen. A rat near the crate starts to go crazy -- as if hearing or processing some kind of unearthly signal -- and the Nazi symbol on the crate’s side burns up…as if Evil cannot stand firm, or even exist at all, in the face of Pure Good.

Finally, of course, when the Ark is opened, all Hell breaks loose.  

The ill-wind finally manifests…first as blue-tinged wind (like the blue sky of the thunder storm over Tanis..), and then as vengeful, flying angels.  The wind becomes fire (and remember the flickering of the candle in Marion’s saloon…), and it immediately melts and destroys the Nazis.  Then, a supernatural windstorm of shocking ferocity blows through the temple, and back up to Heaven, as the sky opens up to receive it.  

The Wrath of God -- hinted at and warned about throughout Raiders of the Lost Ark -- has delivered its final judgment.  

It starts with a candle's flicker...

Then a wind from nowhere shakes the hanging lamps (in the background)...

When the Ark is found, the sky opens up, and storm clouds roll in.

Sacrilege is punished.

And punished....

...and punished.

The candle flicker is now an all-consuming fire.

And the Heavens open up at last, to receive the Power of God.

There is much more to Raiders of the Lost Ark than these subtle and meaningful visual leitmotifs, but taken together they tell a story about modern man and his arrogance...and his spiritual emptiness.  One "obtainer of rare antiquities" in the film pursues fame and fortune -- or perhaps self-glorification -- and dies.  The other re-discovers faith, and survives, his belief in wonder restored.

There are so many other great and downright remarkable aspects to this film, but in passing, I must also mention the desert truck chase, which remains a model of dazzling stunt-work and rapid editing.  This stunning set-piece moves with certainty, confidence and momentum, and never lets up, even for a second.  It must certainly qualify as one of the top five action sequences in the modern cinema.

I also appreciate and admire Harrison Ford's performance as Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark. He is never afraid to reveal vulnerability, or the fact that Indiana Jones is a a bit of an unscrupulous scoundrel. This character, unlike the revised Han Solo, shoots first (against the Cairo Swordsman), is likely an alcoholic, and is an unrepentant womanizer. 

Later films in the Indiana Jones cycle (namely Last Crusade and Crystal Kingdom) attempt to lionize and sterilize the character, and ret-con him into a stolid, "it belongs in a museum!" fuddy-duddy, but for Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indy is a real man, with real desires, and real foibles.  In my opinion, that makes him seem all the more heroic.

Finally, I love the film's last sequence.  It's the perfect capper visually to the narrative, and also in terms of the film's thematic material.  The Ark -- a symbol of a wondrous, lost age, and powers behind human comprehension -- is sealed up, locked away, and forgotten.  Humdrum Modernity can't parse, categorize or understand it, and so it relegates the Ark to a warehouse of "mysteries," all forgotten...perhaps to be excavated once more in another three thousand years.

On Friday, I review Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984), so stick around.