Indiana Jones revisited: heading back to Raiders Of The Lost Ark (1981)

Raiders Of The Lost Ark
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42 years ago, the world met Indiana Jones for the first time – and Raiders Of The Lost Ark hasn’t really been bettered. A few thoughts.

Spoilers lie ahead for Raiders Of The Lost Ark

To think, there was a time before Indiana Jones and Raiders Of The Lost Ark. Like Star Wars or James Bond, it’s hard to comprehend, even though many people still alive lived in those worlds.


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You might have been born when Harrison Ford first stepped out of the jungle with his back to camera, as the Paramount mountain logo faded to that of South America, 1936. You might have been a child, young adult or full grown up. Maybe you were lucky enough to take a chance on the latest Steven Spielberg picture from the filmmaker who might have made Jaws, but last threw out there the lacklustre 1941. If you saw it at the movies in 1981, you have my envy.

I was born the year after Raiders came out and I can’t remember exactly when I saw it for the first time, but my guess is on television. That was where I caught most of the iconic movies of the 1980s during the 1990s. I’d be lying if I said it was the Indy film that blew me away, that made me love the character, but I’ve always found it to be a genuinely fantastic picture, not that that’s a controversial opinion.

Surely everything has been written that possibly could be about Raiders and the Indiana Jones films in general over the last 40 plus years. Everything will have been dissected to within an inch of its life, from writing to cinematography to thematic resonance. I’ve seen and thought about this movie more times than I can count, but I’ve never really sat down and considered it with a piece of writing.

My rewatch, as part of a general franchise rewatch ahead of Ford’s last crack of the whip in Indiana Jones And The Dial Of Destiny, saw me try and soak up the film with the confidence of someone who knows the story, the script, the music, the atmosphere so well, it can almost be digested by osmosis. This is not to boast. We all know Raiders inside out. This is an attempt to try and explore aspects of the movie that I hadn’t considered in detail before.

One of the biggest observations in this rewatch was just how funny Raiders is. The Indy films lean further into comedy as the series progresses, intentionally, but Raiders very much came out of the tail end of the ‘New Hollywood’ movement that birthed Spielberg and producer George Lucas, writer Lawrence Kasdan, almost everyone involved. They were part of the American New Wave who tore up the studio system, imprinted the modern auteur on American cinema across the 1970s, and created one of the finest decades of film in history. It meant Raiders ended up caught between two schools – the darker, crackling action film and the exuberant, evolving blockbuster.

Now, I’m not suggesting the 1970s were not a funny decade. Some of the finest comedies emerged from that great experiment – Blazing SaddlesAnnie Hall, the list goes on. Pound for pound, however, the New Hollywood cinema had an edge, often reflecting the economic and cultural state of America. Spielberg and Lucas jointly helped begin a shift into the colour and vibrancy of the 1980s, with their monster movie and science-fiction epics respectively. They fused the grit and skill of the New Hollywood with the grandeur of the studio system and from it emerged the blockbuster and ultimately, the franchise picture. Raiders was part of that vanguard and, in many ways, the signature example of that fusion.

In other words, it could be dark and funny at the same time. I’ll come to the darkness momentarily, but the comedy stands out almost from the very beginning. Some of it is legendary – Indy shooting the sword wielder rather than battling him (a result of chronic dysentery among the crew that encouraged filming short cuts); the student battling eyes at Indy which reveal ‘love you’ when she blinks; Ronald Lacey’s camp Nazi, Toht, grabbing the Staff of Ra head and burning his hand etc… We know all of these. It’s the smaller moments that surprise, moments that occasionally get lost.

Take Toht as an example. When Indy and Marion are captured, and he enters the tent, he takes out what we think is an instrument of torture to beat them with, only to fling it around and for it to become… a triangular coat hanger, on which someone places his trench coat. Every time I watch Raiders, I forget that moment. Raiders is peppered with little beats like this which suggest, around the sinister Nazi movements, Paul Freeman’s amoral villain Belloq, and John Williams’ masterful, grande score, that Raiders never quite takes itself too seriously and understands the pulp, 1930s adventure serial inspiration it was first drawn from.

Raiders Of The Lost Ark

Quick sidebar re: Paul Freeman. I went on a school trip around 1997/1998 to the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford Upon Avon to see a production of Hamlet, and I became very animated on learning Freeman was in the cast, playing I think Polonius. I spent most of the performance whispering to my friends that he was the villain in Raiders and attempted to try and hang around stage door to meet him & gush over Belloq but, alas, a coach full of fellow Drama students beckoned.

Back to Raiders and away from comedy into the darkness, an aspect of the film that is even more apparent, and much more discussed. Raiders is charming, sexy, fun, thrilling but it also at points genuinely quite disturbing, especially for what has over decades been transmuted into a family friendly adventure. Spielberg joyously throws in men impaled on spikes from the opening South American set piece, near repeated when Marion is pulled through a cave of wind-blown, grappling ancient corpses as they laugh and groan amidst her screams, a gigantic snake emerging from the mouth of a skull. It is always the stuff of absolute nightmares. The kind of horror I would allow my 8- or 9-year-old child to digest as a gateway into safe scares.

Beyond these more obvious, haunted house moments, or even the celebrated demise of Belloq and the Nazis – literally melted by the power of God from the Ark – is the inherent nihilism of Raiders, which really struck me this time around. For a moment, every time, I always think Marion might be dead when that truck explodes. Spielberg shoots it in such a way, and then allows Indy the space to darkly process the sudden, violent death of the woman supposed to be his love interest, that you feel the power of it, even though she turns up alive. It underscores just how much Indy is not a conventional hero in Raiders, less so than he steadily becomes across the remainder of the series.

In recent years, critics have analysed the unsavoury aspects of his relationship with Marion, who the film states he slept with when she was technically a minor. I won’t rake over that. I talk about it when I discussed Raiders in depth on the excellent The 250 podcast a couple of years ago. I don’t subscribe to the idea that Indiana Jones is some kind of abusive paedophile disguised as a charming rogue, but he is not necessarily a well-balanced, whiter than white man either. Putting aside his theft of the golden idol at the beginning, and his callous disregard of Marion’s suggestion that he took advantage of her, he also takes delight at one point in death.

I noticed this in the brilliant truck chase sequence – the film’s iconic action set piece, scored perfectly by Williams – when Indy has taken control of the Nazi truck transporting the recovered Ark. He repeatedly steers the truck into the path of Nazi soldiers attempting to intercept him in cars and on bikes and as he knocks them in one case particularly to their deaths, he is laughing. Granted, they’re Nazis seeking an ancient super weapon to subjugate humanity, so I don’t have any sympathy, but Indy’s reaction is a little east of psychotic in his enjoyment of murder.

It perhaps speaks to the underlying idea of Indy being as much an American Bond-figure than an avatar of pre-war derring-do, or an updated H. Rider Haggard creation. Americans created the popular image of Bond in our imaginations, via the film series, but you can’t replicate that character with an American outlook. Indy has more in common with the Wild West than he does 1930’s Establishment England. He feels a descendant of Wyatt Earp more than he does 007; a roguish sharpshooter born of an older American tradition. There is also a touch of Jesse James in there, the rebel, the scoundrel, the outlaw. Ford has a ruggedness combined with a sensitivity that offsets Indy from too rough an edge, but he isn’t polished. I’m not entirely sure in Raiders if he’s to be trusted. And that’s fantastic. That makes him stand out and, I suspect, an underlying factor in his appeal.

There is so much about Raiders Of The Lost Ark to love. You’ll have heard it all before. I could spend another 10,000 words getting it all down. But you know it already. We all do. At the same time, I really feel that Raiders is a gift that keeps on giving, in terms of the subtle nuances, script choices, visual touches and sheer cinematic bravado, that means it never really ages. Or like a fine wine, it just seems to improve as the blockbuster largely continues to descend into a morass of effects-driven emptiness. It’s the gold standard and a gateway to so much that followed.

I can’t wait until the next time I watch it. Now, if only I spoke Hovitos…

A J Black’s book, The Cinematic Connery, can be found here.

Also on Film Stories:
Celebrating the music of the Indiana Jones films
Indiana Jones: spoiler-filled thoughts on Indiana Jones & The Dial of Destiny
Indiana Jones revisited: reconsidering Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
Indiana Jones revisited: it’s time for Indiana Jones & The Last Crusade
Indiana Jones revisited: 1984’s Indiana Jones & The Temple Of Doom
Podcast: In conversation with James Mangold: Indiana Jones & The Dial Of Destiny, Girl Interrupted and more
Podcast: Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull (2008) and The Girl With All The Gifts (2016)

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