Thursday, November 10, 2011

Director's Spotlight #2.4: Steven Spielberg's Raiders of the Lost Ark

In the world of film, it is not the actor, nor the screenwriter, nor the producer who makes or breaks the movie. Whatever their contributions, it is ultimately the director who is the sole author of the film. Every month, Director’s Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. November and December are devoted to Steven Spielberg, with November dedicated to his classic adventure films. Today, his 1981 action classic Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Grade: 97 (A)

1941 was a disaster, disappointing at the box office and failing with critics. Steven Spielberg’s next move was a joint project with his close friend George Lucas, a throwback to the classic adventure serials he and Lucas had grown up with in the same way that Lucas’ Star Wars was a homage to old Flash Gordon serials. The result, Raiders of the Lost Ark, is one of the most purely entertaining films in Spielberg’s filmography: a great Lucas creation filtered through the eyes of the man who knew how to treat the kids like adults and make the audience feel like kids again.


1936: Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford, in the role he was born to play) is an archeologist, professor, and all around adventurer whose latest scrape in South America left him empty handed. Now, he and his good friend Marcus Brody (Denholm Elliott) are approached by government agents with the knowledge that Adolph Hitler has his men digging around Cairo searching for the Ark of the Covenant. Jones and Brody explain to the men that the Ark, theoretically given to Moses by God, is an artifact with the power to make any army that carries it invincible. Jones doesn’t believe in such superstition, but the Nazis do, and they’re willing to fight for the artifact. Now Jones and old flame Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen) need to get to the Ark before rival archeologist Rene Belloq (Paul Freeman) leads the forces of evil to ultimate power.

The opening 13 minutes of Raiders of the Lost Ark establish everything we need to know: Jones is given one of the coolest introductions in film history when one of his men tries to double cross him. He cracks his whip, the man drops his gun, and Ford steps into the light, unshaven and tough as nails. Jones and Sapito (Alfred Molina) make their way through a dark jungle (beautifully photographed, with shafts of light shining through in all the right places) and into the ancient ruins that hold a Peruvian idol. Jones barely overcomes a series of booby traps and another double crossing at the hands of Sapito only to find rival Belloq at the other side, backed by the angry Hovitos people. In a simple exchange of dialogue, only a few lines, it’s clear that these two have a history together, and that Belloq is far more dastardly than the hero. Jones makes his way back to his pilot, and as he freaks out after seeing the man’s pet snake, we learn that he hates snakes. He hates them!

The film never loses the momentum of the opening scenes, never wasting a moment. Each scene moves the plot forward, and there’s real struggle over the Ark of the Covenant. Each set-piece feels full of real danger, far more tactile and expertly made than the serials that wowed Spielberg and Lucas: the giant boulder, the bar fight, the marketplace chase, the Well of Souls, the plane fight, the truck chase/fight. Each scene has been rightfully burned into the cultural lexicon. They have real consequences: the hero is frequently battered and exhausted, and it’s often through sheer force of will that he’s able to go on.

The villains are also nastier (they are Nazis), particularly the menacing Toht (Ronald Lacey), a sniveling little sadist who dominates every scene he’s in (it would have been interesting to see Klaus Kinski in the role, but he reportedly hated the script). . Belloq, meanwhile, isn’t a complete slime; he’s a civilized man angry at the Nazi’s disregard for humanity and their mistreatment of Marion. He’s not a monster, but a man willing to make a deal with the devil for greatness.

The artifact in question is, as Brody explains, not like the pieces Jones has gone after before. That’s meant as a line for Jones and the audience: this isn’t just any Egyptian artifact from the old adventure movies, but something from the Judeo-Christian religion that has far more significance to western audiences. This makes the stakes for the artifact instantly higher than they would have been with a more generic artifact, and the fact that the villains are Nazis makes the need to keep the Ark out of their hands even higher.

Jones is the most memorable character in either Spielberg or Lucas’ filmography. He’s in the same mold as classic adventure heroes, but with an added cynicism in the Bogart mold. This isn’t some clean-cut do-gooder with an aw-shucks personality, but a far more world-weary man. Jones has some moral ambiguities to his character: he doesn’t make the same moral compromises that Belloq does, but a conversation between the two suggests that there’s not much that separates the two.


There’s something else: Jones’ relationship with mentor Abner Ravenwood ended after a relationship with Abner’s daughter, Marion, went sour. When Marion first sees Jones, she slaps him, saying that she “was a child”, and that “it was wrong and you knew it”. Given this conversation between the two (plus the nine year age difference between Ford and Allen), it’s clear that Marion was probably a teenager when the relationship happened. This gives the characters a more complex back-story than most adventure film romances; it doesn’t hurt that Allen’s Marion, hardened by her disappointing life, is a hard-drinking spitfire far more capable of defending herself than most love interests. These characters, along with Indy’s digger friend Sallah (the wonderful John Rhys-Davies) are terrific, colorful characters that capture the audience like few action characters.

Spielberg’s reoccurring motif of men trying to control the uncontrollable is evident. When the Ark is inevitably opened, the scene is a reverse Close Encounters. The Nazis and Belloq believe that this otherworldly force is theirs to be controlled, but God and the spirits aren’t having any of it. These are angry forces, ready to strike down the evil men who want the Ark’s power for nefarious purposes. This time, the hero is one willing to admit he is not worthy rather than someone seeking an answer or peace. The men who employ Indy, meanwhile, are the same untrustworthy, incompetent officials of other classic Spielberg films: they don’t know what they’ve got, but they’re going to keep it all the same.

Raiders is obviously modeled after the old adventure movies Spielberg and Lucas loved, but Spielberg gets a lot of mileage paying tribute to the great filmmakers of Old Hollywood. The Howard Hawks “man on a mission” storyline is clear, as well as the “men vs. force of nature”. Hitchcock plays a role as well: the scene in which a man poisons Indy and Sallah’s dates is a classic example of “showing the bomb without telling the characters it’s there”; Indy nearly eats the “bad dates” several times before Sallah realizes what’s happened.

John Huston’s The Treasure of the Sierra Madre clearly influences the digging scenes, not to mention some of the scenes of Indy boozing after it looks like he’s lost Marion for good. Michael Curtiz’s Casablanca shows up, too, in many of the Cairo scenes. Several shots in the desert are as mesmerizing as anything David Lean did in Lawrence of Arabia, and of course, the final shot of the film pays tribute to no less than Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane, the film most frequently hailed as “the greatest movie ever made”. Raiders of the Lost Ark is a love letter to Old Hollywood all while it’s one-upping many of the old B-movies of the period.

Raiders of the Lost Ark, more than Spielberg’s earlier films, provides the action-blockbuster model, with non-stop action and forward momentum. Countless terrible action movies have at least somewhat been inspired by Raiders, but few have Spielberg’s mastery of visual storytelling or the great humor of Lawrence Kasdan’s script. Each action scene and moment of comic relief furthers the story, and there’s something refreshing that none of them are as relentlessly loud as in 1941. Raiders of the Lost Ark is undeniably less personal a Spielberg film than Close Encounters of the Third Kind or E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, but as an exercise in movie-making magic, few films are its equal.

Saturday’s Director’s Spotlight: Another sidetrack with Steven Spielberg and Tobe Hooper’s Poltergeist

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