Sunday, August 24, 2014

Spielberg Blogathon: 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.

“This post is part of the SPIELBERG BLOGATHON hosted by Outspoken and Freckled, It Rains… You Get Wet, and Once Upon A Screen taking place August 23-24. Please visit these host blogs for a full list of participating blogs.”


  1. Another thing I noticed about the "Shadow of Guilt" scene with Indy and Belloq in the cafe in Cairo: Belloq is literally wearing a white hat, compared to Indy's dark brown (not quite black) hat. It's hard to imagine the symbolism wasn't intentional on Spielberg's part.

  2. I think it is easy to take Spielberg for granted now, after 20 years of pure box office domination starting with 'Jaws'. I mean seriously, his last name is now a adjective like Hitchcock's. But 'Raiders' is a legacy film, for 99% of directors, this film would have been the one film to hang your entire career on. Yet, often 'Raiders' is overlooked as his best film because of 'Jaws' & his 2 WWII dramas in the 90's. But Spielberg, early 80's, was mastering the art of film making like maybe only James Cameron can compare to.
    'Raiders', for me personally, is by far and away my favorite Spielberg-directed film.

  3. The shadow analysis of the early shots of Indy are very insightful. The morality issue seems a bit overplayed, Indy wanted the Ark for the museum as well. His frustration in the closing scene reflects his dissatisfaction with the government failure to keep promises as much as it was a desire to have fortune and glory.