Raiders of the Lost Ark: Steven Spielberg, George Lucas and Harrison Ford created an endearing pop culture icon and the definitive modern blockbuster

Raiders of the lost Ark(1981) was conceived by George Lucas as a tribute to the adventure serials of the 1940s. The film directed by Steven Spielberg and starring Harrison Ford as the Professor-archeologist, Indiana Jones, created its own legend by becoming a trendsetting box office blockbuster that ushered in a new kind of action hero and action-adventure film making.

An eyeful of spectacular visuals that come at you at lightning speed and keep you on the edge of the seats; an earful of rousing, pulsating music from music maestro, John Williams, interspersed with some of the wittiest one-liners from screenwriter, Lawrence Kasdan; this whole dazzling, cinematic light and sound show perfumed with an infectious love for cinema and the utter joy in recreating their boyish fantasies from (then) movie wunderkinds, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg; and we have a near-perfect movie masterpiece called “Raiders of the lost Ark”. “Raiders” is a film that makes you feel the power of the cinematic medium even as it is entertaining the hell out of you. Every moment in the film is cinematic, meaning that the pleasures that it provide cannot be conveyed if the same thing is staged, or written in the form of a novel or short-story. George Lucas conceived the film in the early 1970s as a tribute to the Republic serials of the 40s which he grew up watching. He wanted to make this film simply because he just wanted to get to see it. That’s one of the most unusual, yet most endearing reasons why someone would put so much money, effort and time to make a film like this. Hollywood, at the time, was in the grip of revisionism, with films mainly being gritty, dark, cynical dramas about anti-heroes. Lucas wanted to create something in the mold of a rousing, old-fashioned adventure, with a dashing hero at the center- a role model for little kids, someone who’s honest, true and trusting. Lucas first teamed up with writer\Director Philip Kaufman to bring his proposed “Adventures of Indiana Smith”- as it was called at the time, to fruition. Lucas imagined his character as a college professor and archaeologist adventurer, based on his own appreciation for archaeology and famous archaeologists. It was Kaufman who made ‘Ark of the covenant” the main McGuffin of the film, but he had to leave when he was hired by Clint Eastwood to make “The Outlaw Josey Wales”. It’s another matter that Eastwood fired Kaufman after first few days of shooting and took over the film himself. So Lucas’ project went into the shelf, as he got busy with “Star Wars”.

After he had finished with “Star Wars”, he revived the project with his director friend, Steven Spielberg- who was looking for a globetrotting, ‘James Bond’ style film to direct. They mapped out a series of cliffhanger action sequences for the project- now called “Raiders of the lost Ark” and the lead character renamed as “Indiana Jones”- and hired writer, Lawrence Kasdan to link them up into a coherent plot. But the project was still delayed as Lucas got busy with the Star Wars sequel, “Empire Strikes Back”, which was also written by Kasdan, and Spielberg went off to make “1941”. There were also casting issues, with “Tom Selleck” , the original choice for the role of Indiana Jones becoming unavailable at the last minute, and Lucas & Spielberg had to hurriedly cast Harrison Ford in the role. So, it was in June1980 that the film finally went on floors; almost a decade from the time Lucas had originally conceived the film and the lead character.

The film opens with the Paramount studio logo- featuring a mountain peak- dissolving into a real mountain peak in the film. The year is 1936 and it is a hot sunny day in the South American jungles of Peru. A tall, dark figure of a man walks into the frame and stands in front of the mountain, with his back turned to the camera; a shot very similar to the opening of Akira Kurosawa’s classic, Yojimbo(1961). He’s dressed in an old leather jacket and felt fedora. We see a bunch of men, dragging pack mules, following him as they travel deep into the jungle. The leather-jacketed man stops in the shade near a tree and extracts a poisonous dart from it and observes it carefully, then throws it away. He has two aides following him close by; they pick up the dart, and from the fresh poison, deduces that the ‘Hovtas’ tribesmen are following them. Realizing that their lives might be in danger, one of the aides tries to shoot the leather-jacketed man from the back. He’s about to pull the trigger, when out comes a bullwhip from the leather-jacketed figure’s hands, snatching the gun away. The aide runs for his life; and as John Williams’ score soars to an ominous high-note, the figure walks out from the shadow into the light.

This is the introduction scene of Indiana Jones, as played by Harrison Ford. His face is covered with (at least) a 3-day old beard, and he’s all sweaty and grimy, giving the impression that he has been on this jungle-cruise for some time. Jones is out there to rob a rare tribal artifact; and, as he’s packing a bag full of sand, he mentions something about a guy named Forstall, who was his competitor and was good, very, very good, but he never came out of the place alive. But that doesn’t deter him, and he and his aide, Satipo, enter the temple anyway. They are confronted with tarantulas, spears that are triggered by blocking out the light, a pit that they must swing over and then more tiny poisonous darts that come out of the wall. All this to protect an ancient gold idol. Jones manages to recover it, but his actions triggers the temple to collapse; dodging poisonous darts from the walls and the treachery of Satipo, who steals the idol leaving Jones stranded in the opposite side of the pit, Jones somehow manages to make it through with the idol in his hands, only to have a giant boulder chasing him. With one last burst of energy, he dives through the cave entrance and escapes just seconds before being crushed by the rock. Now we feel that he’s safe at last; Nope!, outside the cave he finds himself surrounded by Hovitos and his arch archeological enemy. a Frenchman named Renee Belloq. Belloq takes the gold statue that this guy has risked his life to get, and then sets the savage tribesman on his back. Jones runs and runs, even as he’s chased by Hovitos’ arrows and spears, and somehow makes it to his waiting seaplane and escapes. That’s still not the end of it. In the passenger’s seat of the plane there is big snake, which’s the pet of the pilot. Jones hates snakes, and continues to scream in dread as the plane takes him to safety and John Williams’ rousing “Indian Jones” main theme plays on the soundtrack.

This opening prologue that stands apart from the main storyline of the film runs for 13 minutes of this 115 minutes film. This sequence reminds us of the pre-credits sequence of James Bond films, but it serves a lot of purposes; mainly to establish the tone of the film and to introduce the character of Indy. From this prologue, it’s clear that the film is going to be one cliffhanger after another; the hero hasn’t escaped from one frying pan when he’s plunged into the next. We also see how humor is an important element in the film, and it is being brought out organically from the perilous situations the characters finds themselves in. This sequence also establishes Indy’s character through his actions, rather than any lengthy exposition: he’s intelligent, courageous, resourceful and die-hard; and unlike Bond, he’s human: he gets hurt, bloodied and grimy. Also, he uses his strength, brawn and wit to overcome the odds rather than using any fancy gadgets. He’s more a survivor than the conqueror. The film benefits from the casting of Harrison Ford, who’s an instinctive, physical actor; he does most of his stunts himself and adds that extra amount of realism to these fantastical set-pieces. We also see the introduction of Indy’s main rival Belloq, and in just one line “They don’t know you as well as i do“, Indy defines both his relationship with him as well as Belloq’s character: as someone gone over to the dark side of his profession, while Indy is still on the side of the light; the dialogues are terse and economical, making it clear that the film’s going to depend upon on its visuals and actions to move the plot forward.

After this action-packed opening, we get a breather for about 10 minutes, where we get to see the ‘Academic’ side of Indy. After his South American adventure, He’s now back at Marshall College  in Bedford, Connecticut, where he’s a professor of archeology. Inside the classroom, we find a very different Indy: a timid, gawky, bespectacled professor, who’s tongue-tied in the presence of admiring female students, who all seem to be crushing on him. The scene also introduces Marcus Brody (Denholm Elliot): A museum curator who helps fund Indy’s expeditions. Indy is soon approached by a couple of military intelligence agents, who are looking for Indy’s mentor, Abner Ravenwood. Abner’s name has been mentioned in one of the Nazi telegrams the agency had intercepted, with regards to a ‘Tanis’ dig going on in the desert outside of Cairo. Indy deduces that Nazis are looking to excavate the mythical ‘Ark of the covenant’ which is supposedly buried in Tanis, and in this regard, they are looking for a headpiece to the ‘staff of Ra’ that will pinpoint the exact location where the Ark is buried. The Ark possess supernatural powers, which explains Hitler’s interest in this Jewish artifact; any army that carries the Ark with it is invincible. Spielberg stages this sequence very interestingly, with Indy slipping into his professor mode: he starts drawing on the blackboard with his chalk and ‘schools’ the 2 agents about the Ark. Impressed by Indy’s acumen, the agents offer him the job to recover the Ark before the Germans does it.

Now begins the actual adventure of the film. But, before Indy can get to Cairo, he has to travel to Nepal to meet Abner, as he needs the headpiece in Abner’s possession. But this is not going to be easy, as there has been a falling out between the two over Abner’s daughter, Marion. Indy and Marion had an illicit affair behind Abner’s back, and Indy had later ditched her. Anyway, Indy decides to take a chance and set forth on his trip, but, unknown to him, he’s being followed by the sadistic Gestapo agent, Major Arnold Toht(Ronald Lacey). Here, we get another of the film’s signature touches: Spielberg shows a map of the world with animated travel lines tracing the route of Indy’s journey. In Nepal, we meet the feisty, tomboyish, Marion, in her Raven bar, engaged in a drinking contest, which she wins. Her father, Abner, has passed away a long time ago. Soon, Indy walks in, and she receives him by punching him on his jaw. She’s till angry with him for ditching her, and refuse to hand over the father’s headpiece, telling him that she doesn’t know where it is , even though it’s right with her. He offers her Five thousand bucks for it, and She asks him to come back the next day. As Indy is walking out he senses something sinister afoot, and his instincts are confirmed when Toht and a bunch of goons appear at Marion’s door and begins to violently intimidate her to extract the headpiece. Indy intervenes in the nick of time, and we get the next big action set-piece: the all out battle in the bar that mixes humor and action ends with the whole building being burnt to the ground. Toht tries to steal the headpiece, but unfortunately for him, it has been scorched by the fire, and his attempt to pick it up only manages to leave its markings on his hand. An angry Marion shows Indy the headpiece in her possession, and tells him that she’s now his partner in the mission.

Indy and Marion travel to Egypt where they are met by Indy’s friend, Sallah(John Rhys-Davies). Sallah is the best digger in Cairo and he and his men are being employed by the Germans for the ‘Tanis’ project. Sallah also informs Indy that his arch rival, Belloq, is heading the excavation. Next day, when Indy and Marion are out in the city, they are attacked by Nazi goons. In the ensuing fight, Marion is killed, when the truck carrying her overturns and explodes. A grief-stricken Indy is called for a meeting with Belloq, who tries to turn Indy to his side by telling him that they are not as dissimilar as he pretends to be. But Indy decides to go after the Ark on his own. An imam deciphers the headpiece\medallion for Jones; one side bears a warning not to disturb the Ark, the other the correct measurements for the “staff of Ra”, an item used to locate the Ark; Jones and Sallah realize the Nazis are digging in the wrong location. They infiltrate the Nazi dig site and use the medallion and the correct staff of Ra to locate the Well of Souls, the Ark’s resting place. But before he can get to the Well of Souls, Indy finds out that Marion is alive; she was not present in the truck when it exploded, as the goons had moved her. Now, Indy is faced with a dilemma: rescue the girl or go for the Ark; he cannot do both, as springing Marion from captivity will alert the Nazis to his presence at the site. Finally, Indy decides to put the mission ahead of the girl; leaving Marion in Nazi captivity, Indy set out with Sallah and others to dig up the Well of Souls. From here on, the film is one continuous action\adventure\horror\chase shot with nary a breathing space. First, Indy and Sallah has to maneuver a hall full of poisonous snakes- and Indy hates snakes, remember!- to get to the Ark. They manage to recover the Ark- a golden, intricately decorated chest- but just before they could safely climb out of the well, they are discovered by Belloq and the Nazis, who seize the Ark and seal Jones and Marion inside the well- against the wishes of Belloq, who has fallen in love with Marion. Now, Indy and Marion are left to fight it out with the snakes for survival, which becomes more perilous by the minute as fire in their torches starts to die out. They somehow manage to escape through an opening in the roof, and are about to steal the plane meant to transport the Ark, when they are confronted by a hulky German pilot who challenges Indy to a fistfight. As Indy and he German giant fight it out, Marion gets locked up in the plane, even as a fire rages towards them. The Cliffhanger is resolved with the German hulk torn to pieces by the propeller of the plane, and Indy managing to rescue Marion in the nick of time before the plane explodes from the advancing fire. If you think that now Indy (and we) can take a breather, then think again, because coming up is one of the greatest action\chase sequence in movie history.

The great chase is set up thus: The plane has just exploded, thus denying the Nazis the chance to fly the Ark out. From the well of Souls on, Indy and Marion have survived against all possible odds. They could happily retire from this adventure and settle down happily together. But then, news reaches Indy that Nazis plan to transport the ark in a truck to Cairo and then fly it out of there. Indy can’t allow this. Leaning up against a sand dune, barely catching his breath, Indy tells his friend Sallah, “I’m going after that truck.” Sallah is confused. “How?” he asks. Indy seems tired to the point of death and he barely manages to get the words out: “I don’t know,” he says. “I’m making this up as I go.” One second later, Indy is all fire and energy, as he seen bursting out of a tent, riding a stolen horse, ready to embark on the film’s biggest action set-piece: a chase sequence involving a truck, jeeps, motorcycles and a horse, equivalent to the stagecoach chases of the old serials. It’s an image of a ‘horse chasing a truck’ from an old serial that inspired Lucas to create Indiana Jones and his adventures. The chase involves Indy, on horseback, riding alongside a truck that carries the Ark. He yanks a passenger from the truck and throws him into the road. Then he fights the driver and he drives the truck himself. A German sergeant climbs back over the roof down onto the cab. He comes in through the window and hits Indy sending him out through the windshield. Indy shot over the front of the truck, hangs on but eventually loses his balance and falls underneath. Indy hangs underneath, gets his bullwhip out, ties it under the truck and is dragged along. Eventually, he pulls himself back into the truck, climbs through a big hole in the side, gets back in, gets rid of the driver and flees with the truck to Cairo. After this frenetic action sequence, we get a breather, when Indy, now in possession of the Ark, along with Marion, boards a tramp steamer to London. Here, Indy and Marion seem to romantically reconnect, but their bliss does not last long, as a Nazi U-boat intercepts the steamer and seizes the Ark and Marion; with Indy covertly boarding the U-boat.

The vessel travels to an island in the Aegean Sea, where Belloq intends to test the power of the Ark before presenting it to Hitler. In a reckless move, Indy tries to ambush the party by threatening to blow up the ark unless Marion is returned to him. But the willy Belloq manages to manipulate Indy by appealing to his archeologist’s conscience about destroying an artifact of such historical significance. Indy surrenders, and he and Marion are tied up, as Belloq dresses up as a rabbi and recites a Torah prayer before opening the Ark. The Ark is opened and they find only sand inside. Indy instructs Marion to keep her eyes shut, and soon, the Ark starts releasing spirits, flames, and bolts of energy that kill Belloq, Toht, and the assembled Nazis before sealing itself shut. Jones and Marion open their eyes to find the area cleared of bodies and their bindings removed. In the film’s epilogue, we find Indy and Marion are back in America with the Ark, but contrary to the promises made to him, the intelligence agents have seized the Ark and deposited it in a secret place. Indy and Brody, though handsomely rewarded for their efforts, are outraged by the turn of events. but they can’t do anything about it. At least, Indy got Marion back (maybe its vice versa), and as they walk out hand in hand, we see the Ark being crated up and stored among countless other crates; a shot very similar to the final sequence from Orson Welles’ “Citizen Kane”.

The fact that the film begins by paying tribute to Kurosawa and ends with paying tribute to Welles explains how much this film is influenced by the classic films of yore, apart from the adventure serials. Indy’s costumes and appearance is inspired from Alan Ladd in China (1943) and Charlton Heston in Secret of the Incas (1954) as well as The Greatest Show on Earth (1952)– which was the first movie Spielberg ever saw. The bullwhip seems to be inspired from ‘Zorro’. The basic theme of the film is inspired from countless John Huston movies, like The Maltese Falcon(1941), The Treasure of Sierra Madre(1948), The African Queen(1951) and The Man who would be King(1975). These films have the hero(es) undertaking exotic adventures in search for something valuable; they come close but ends up losing it (and in some cases) their life as well. The sequence where Indy is drunk and has a conversation with Belloq is straight out of “Sierra Madre”. Spielberg originally wanted to make Indy an alcoholic like Bogart in that film but Lucas vetoed the idea, as Indy was meant to be a role model for children. The film’s visual style is a curious mixture of German expressionism: marked by shadows and odd camera angles found in the works of Spielberg favorite, Michael Curtiz, who made The Adventures of Robin hood(1938) and Casablanca(1942); and a classical, widescreen epic style patented by Spielberg’s other two favorites, John Ford and David Lean. The great horse and truck chase sequence is inspired from the climax of Ford’s Stagecoach(1939), while the editing and the overall classy, refined and grand style of filmmaking is directly influenced from Lean. Inspiration can also be found from Cecil B. De Mille, whose The Ten Commandments(1956) is referenced in the sequences of Well of Souls and the scenes were the Ark is opened in the climax. In some sequences, we find Spielberg using the technique of “delayed drop”- frequently used by Sergio Leone– where the full extend of what you’re seeing is felt only after a while, which adds to the humor and tension of the situation; like the scene where Toht picks up the medallion, and only after he has held it in his hands do we see that it’s scorched, prompting him to drop it and run in pain. Another one is the famous instance in which Toht takes out an apparatus from inside his coat that looks invented for torture, and then it turns out to be a coat hanger. The same technique is used to make the climax suspenseful, when the Ark is opened and nothing happens for a while, then suddenly all hell breaks loose. Suffice to say that this film made by a couple of movie nerds is as much a celebration of cinema as it is a tribute to the adventure serials.

Ultimately, “Raiders of the Lost Ark” is one of the most thrilling, feel-good action films made to this day; a trendsetting  four-quadrant blockbuster capable of satisfying men and women, young and the old, and available for interpretation on several levels. On the surface it’s a thrilling ‘Disneyland’ ride of a movie that never looses its thrill quotient or its momentum. Also, in its unabashed escapist tendencies and its glorification of a globetrotting, morally strong and courageous American hero (especially in the post Vietnam-era), it might be the film- rather unfortunately- that ushered in the uncomplicated Reagan era power fantasies, with its muscular heroes, featuring bigger and bigger guns and action set-pieces. that would come to dot the movie landscape of the 80s. But underneath it all, there’s still a lot going on;. The conflict that arises in a ‘man of science’ when confronted with the supernatural powers of these religious artifacts he’s chasing, is one of my favorite themes. Indy does not believe in any religious hocus-pocus ,but by the end of the film, we see him move from a non-believer to the one who accepts the existence of divinity in the universe. This is a recurring theme in the first 3 Indy movies. The film shows the world of the 1930s to be both a fun place to be: full of romance and adventure; and also a very dangerous place where fascist ideologies are trying to legitimize their existence by appropriating the occult. In the collaboration between the French archeologist and the Nazis, the film foretells what was coming with the advent of WWII. The film can also be considered a dry run for Spielberg’s Schindler’s List(1993), when he would finally tackle Nazism and holocaust head on rather than in the more cartoonish or fantastical manner that he does it here. The film came at a critical juncture in Spielberg’s career, when he was experiencing a bad patch after the failure of his over-budget, long-delayed, 1941(1979). He was soon expected to join the ranks of the likes of William Friedkin and Michael Cimino, who had big successes at the beginning of their careers, but then imploded spectacularly with the big failures of their expensive passion projects, Sorcerer(1977) and Heaven’s Gate(1980) respectively. But Spielberg made a conscious effort to change his style of working, and with the inspiration of George Lucas, he brought this huge, spectacular looking film for a relatively modest budget of $20 million and well under schedule. The film ended up becoming the biggest success of 1981 grossing more than $300 million worldwide, and was nominated for several academy awards including a nomination for Spielberg for best director. From here, Spielberg would go from strength to strength, delivering one giant blockbuster after another, and ultimately becoming the most successful filmmaker in movie history.


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