Raiders of the Lost Ark

Will Indiana Jones Survive?

An essay by Witney Seibold

 raiders_of_the_lost_ark_41.jpg  

Indiana Jones survives the following:           

- A big rolling stone, tarantulas, shooting spears, flying darts, collapsing temples.           

- An attack by savage natives, wielding poison arrows.            - A bar brawl against weapon-toting Nepalese thugs in a flaming bar.           

- A street brawl with knife-wielding Egyptians.           

- A fall into a snakepit, which is sealed up behind him.           

- A fistfight with a giant musclebound Nazi.           

- A drag behind a truck, driven by gun-wielding Nazi soldiers.           

- A swim from a submarine.           

- The wrath of God.

“Raiders of the Lost Ark” (1981), is probably the finest action film there is. Director Steven Spielberg manages to piece together some of the most ridiculous action precepts from some of the more rollicking chapters of 1930s and ‘40s film and pulp serials, and create an exciting and taut afternoon action thriller. He clearly delineates the heroes and villains. The story is fascinating without being overly complex or contrived. It’s easy-to-follow, fresh, yet familiar. We feel like we’ve seen these Amazon jungles, these Egyptian thruways, these deserted islands, these horrifying Nazi villains before. We’ve seen compounds of Indiana Jones everywhere, from Robin Hood to King Arthur to Ben-Hur.  And, most impressively, Spielberg has manages to keep the dramatic tension cranked high throughout. The story is derived from situations familiar to any American through the last 75 years. Chases, escapes, finding valuable artifact, diffing through caves, facing ancient booby-traps… we know this crap. And yet all is still tense. Think about that for a second. We’re constantly on the edge of our seat… and yet not once during any of my many viewings of “Raiders” did I think Indiana Jones or his ladylove were in any real peril. I didn’t think he was going to die. He was a flawed and realistically acted human being, but at the same time was the invincible and resourceful action hero. He charges through jungles, narrowly avoiding lethal peril, just in time to teach his archeology class, full of comely young coeds eager to be with him. And we’re with him the entire way. Go
Indiana 

Harrison Ford           

I think much of Indiana Jones’ appeal, and hence much of the film’s success, comes from the performance of Harrison Ford. The story goes that he was working on set construction when George Lucas spotted him and asked him to take the role of the hot-rodding hotshot in “American Graffiti” effectively giving him his break. He landed some other roles as well, including a tiny party in Coppola’s 1979 war phantasmagoria “Apocalypse Now,” but his fame as a movie star began in 1977 when Lucas cast him as Han Solo, the galactic hotshot in “Star Wars.”             Ford comes across as a latter-day Steve McQueen. He is grizzled, but sexy. He is annoyed, but charming. He is tough and cynical, but seems to have a dark and forceful passion behind his eyes. McQueen was one of the earliest male sex symbols that used harsh masculinity to seduce, rather than the swashbuckling charm of, say Errol Flynn. Most of the old-time male sex symbols had a sort of laidback, almost fey, femininity about them. Rudolph Valentino, Victor Mature, Clark Gable, Henry Fonda, Cary Grant, Dean Martin, Rock Hudson, Tab Hunter (well, those last two, we found out later, were gay, but you get what I mean). It was sexy to be erudite and cosmopolitan. The only superpopular grizzled male hero of the 1940s was Humphrey Bogart. It wasn’t until Steve McQueen became popular that the sheer masculinity became the style. Where nice clothes weren’t as important as resolve, passion, and unshakability. 

Ford continues the ultra-male-yet-undeniably-unshakably-stylish legacy of McQueen into a whole new generation. He is gruff and can throw a punch, but I have no trouble believing that there is a room full of swoony archeology students staring doe-eyed at him. And he is fun. He seems to know the type of material in “Raiders of the Lost Ark” by heart, and is equal to the task. He can get into a brawl, but still be vulnerably confused over his relationship with the much younger Marion (Karen Allen).

 As a dorky adolescent, I would have many conversations that began with the question “Who would win in a fight?” The philosophical strengths and weaknesses of such culturally significant characters like Spider-Man and Superman would then be pitted against one another in our imaginary comicbook grudge matches. The one battle that could never be clearly decided in these conversations was James Bond vs. Indiana Jones. Indiana Jones, then and now, is still the far more interesting character.

James Bond, to be sure, fulfills a joyous action camp that cannot be found in any of his countless imitators, but it’s Indiana – thanks to Ford, and to Spielberg’s adept direction – that was always the victor. He’s simply more interesting. Stronger. Tougher. Hell, he didn’t even use his gun most of the time, but his bullwhip. A bullwhip! Merely a better dramatic creation.James Bond would not have witnesses a tough Sikh swordsman flash his sword from his scabbard, step back for a brawl, and the just shoot the guy. It’s been said that the screenplay required Indiana Jones to dispatch the sword-wielding Egyptian with his whip in an extended fight scene, but Harrison Ford, tired that day, merely suggested “Why can’t I just shoot the guy?” Spielberg liked the idea, and
Indiana just shot the guy, creating one of the film’s most memorable moments. 

Nazis           

There’s something else going on amidst all of the action spectacle, chases, sneaks and other fun going on in “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” and it can be opened up by looking at the film’s central villains.            Indiana Jones is known by most people to be the first name in retrieving rare artifacts from dangerous places. The government approaches him and hires him to uncover the Ark of the Covenant (the golden box that contains the actual stone tablets that Moses carved the original Ten Commandments into) and one of the single most sought-after knickknacks in human history, right after The Holy Grail (which, incidentally, Indiana Jones seeks in “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade”). It turns out that Adolph Hitler is an occult buff, and believes that the Ark will imbue his Nazi armies with superhuman world-conquering powers.           

Every Nazi in this film is a caricature of some sort. They’re growling Aryan youth, ready to shoot, and die for the Nazi cause. They all seem angry and wicked. In fact, the one most clearly drawn-out Nazi, Major Toht played by reliable character actor Ronald Lacey, is less a soldier than a supernatural ghoul. In my essay for “The Great Escape,” I pointed out that the film maintained its fast pace and light tone because the Nazis themselves didn’t seem all that dangerous for much of the film. The Nazis in “Raiders” are the opposite. They are so dangerous, they move into comic exaggeration. They cease to seem like a threat, and more like a mere obstacle to overcome in order to move the plot along. We get a Nazi giant who merely wants to brawl. Truck drivers who fire off their lugers while driving. Armies of nameless, faceless thugs who gather in large numbers for little other reason than to have greater numbers than our hero.            

Nazis have, since this movie, been easy and convenient cinematic villains. We don’t need to sketch out complicated character motivation for a Nazi. We, as modern-day Americans, already have them filed away in the “evil” file of our brains, and recognize them immediately as such. The British still have a spot like this one a little bit, the Russian occupied the spot during the Cold War, and Middle Easterners have the current throne. The Nazi are comicbook villains…           

But consider who made these Nazis. Steven Spielberg did. A Jewish man who would go on to make “Schindler’s List.” A man who probably had some very strong emotions about the Nazi party. I have a feeling that Spielberg was not merely creating easy comic villains in Nazis. He was more likely putting down the entire Nazi party. Indiana Jones was not Jewish (in fact, he seems to be an atheist), but he was allowed to outwit, outfight, out maneuver, and eventually, almost singlehandedly, defeat an entire Nazi battalion merely by keeping his eyes shut, by having a respect for the Hebrew God that the Nazi didn’t even bother to consider.            

So Spielberg’s intentions were not just to make a wonderful rollicking entertainment, but to really actively insult the Nazi party’s blind jingoism. He gave us a world in which the Nazis could easily be brought down by singlehanded determination. This is not a very complex view of things – the relationships between the Nazis and their victims were much more dynamic in “Schindler’s List” -  but in “Raiders,” Spielberg has given every Jewish kid, and indeed every right-thinking anti-Nazi human being on the planet, a fantasy in which Nazi’s were not an undefeatable terrible force, but an ill-fated political mistake (as they were in actuality). Who amongst us doesn’t read about the atrocities of World War II, feel the sorrow and the anger, and the wish that there had been an almost-superhuman hero, not a soldier, who could charge in with fists and a whip, and undo much of what the Nazi regime was doing?           

Also, and this is kind of an aside, but there’s a golden comic moment in “Raiders” when an Egyptian thug (with the monkey) is being pushed out of a Nazi occupied bar. He heils the two guards to prove his Nazi allegience, and they, not even putting down their cigarettes, heil him back. The monkey on the thug’s shoulder then give the heil. Instinctively, the Nazi heils the monkey as well. The embarrassed look on the Nazi’s face is beautiful and hilarious. That cute little moment 

The girl           

In stories of this sort, convention dictates that there be a love interest. “Raiders” provides us with Marion. It’s not discussed much in the film, but Marion is the only one who is given any kind of interesting backstory. She was the daughter of one of Indiana’s partners, she had an affair with him as a teenager, had her heart broken, and ended up moving with her father to Nepal, where they opened a bar. Her father died, and she inherited the bar. She ended up becoming a tough, hard-drinking maven, fluent in a few languages, who could drink even big, red-faced guys almost literally under the table. This unspoken backstory is enough for its own film. Then Indiana Jones reappears in her life. She is unable to forgive him, but, through their adventures, falls for him again. Marion is indeed put through the damsel-in-distress ringer in “Raiders.” She’s kidnapped, has to endure the lecherous flirtations of Jones’ slimy French rival Belloq (the underrated Paul Freeman), and is sealed into the Well of Souls with Indiana enduring zombies and snakes while wearing a while ball gown. She screams a lot, gets trapped in an airplane’s cockpit at one point while flames draw ever nearer, and then, in the film’s finale, is tied to a post along with
Indiana.

Karen Allen, though, makes Marion more than just a whimpering Weak Little Woman. We see her strength and her weakness. She may be prone to kidnapping, and may be forced to wear sexy clothing, but her refusal to take guff from Belloq, and her known talent for holding her liquor, make her dynamic in a strange way. She’s required to be helpless by the screenplay, and I suspect (although without grounds) that she was intended to be more helpless than she came across. But Allen gave her more spirit than the role really required of her, and made her somebody we wanted to see rescued. Not just so Indiana Jones could have sexual spoils for his efforts, but because we do not want to see this human being die.  

The villain           

Discussions of “Raiders of the Lost Ark” rarely contain any mention of Paul Freeman. I guess the hero, in this case, has eclipsed the single villain rival. The film seems to have opted for an entire Nazi force as a villain.            Freeman, as Belloq, serves his part well, and is given some golden lines. I imagine it’s hard to deliver lines like “Once again you see there is nothing you can possess that I cannot take away” with frankness. We have a quiet and passionate opportunist. I guess he would have been more memorable if he had been a cackling amoral crackpot (kind of like Ronald Lacey), but the film does us one better by giving us a Belloq that is indeed a thief and a frontrunner, and secretly hoping to betray his employers for his own personal gain, is a man who is just as passionate about life, archeology, artifacts, and even Marion, as Indiana Jones. We’re not given Indiana Jones’ opposite. We’re given his equal. 

The finale           

There’s no glorious explosion at the end of “Raiders of the Lot Ark.” Indiana Jones does not kill a bunch of people, grab the girl and the treasure, and flee. In fact, right before the film’s finale, he is captured and tied to a stake. He’s helpless for the film’s entire finale. How refreshing is this? It’s wonderful.            The Nazi’s are not killed by the hero, but by their own hubris. The hero is not victorious because of his strength, but because of his intelligence, and respect for the ultimate holiness of the holy artifact. This may seem anticlimactic in description, but it fits so well with the characters of the film. Strength, it is pointed out, is what Hitler wants. So by showing the hero besting his rival in a fit of strength would be counterintuitive. Instead the villains face the direct wrath of God, their faces melt off (in a scene that has scarred many an innocent childhood), and Indiana Jones survives by refusing to look. This refusal to look seems to me to be a refusal to desecrate, a drawing a line between finding an artifact to revere it, and finding an artifact to exploit it. He finally realized that some things are holy for a reason, and the thing that saves him is his respect for the sacred. To put it in simpler terms, it was his faith that saved him.           

Is this message a little too heavy-handed in the Judeo-Christian sense? Will out-and-out atheists be alienated by it? Maybe. But we understand at this point, through ominous foreshadowing, that the Ark is indeed mysteriously dangerous. And we already know how evil the Nazis are. So even if God doesn’t play a big part in your own personal life, I’m sure we can all relate to the moral certitude of Indiana Jones, and the magical punishment of the Nazis.            

The film has even already given us some magical foreshadowing by this point anyway. “The Ark is a radio for talking to God.” “It’s like nothing you’ve ever gone after before.” The beam of light that Indiana uses in the map room. The dark burning box that the Nazis keep the Ark in. So when the finale explodes into supernatural violence, it does not feel out of place or even inappropriate.

In the third Indiana Jones movie, “Last Crusade,” there is an opening sequence in which Indiana repeats the line “That belongs in a museum!” Indian Jones is inspired by a profound respect for history, and for the artifacts left behind by other human beings. He realizes that the people who dig things up for profit and profit alone, are merely graverobbers who are trading over the past without shame. His refusal to look at the Ark at the end of “Raiders” invokes that respect. For history, for humanity, for relevance, for, well, the forces of good. 

Oh dear. Am I rambling again? I think I am. I don’t want the film to sound like a complex college lecture on the nature of good and evil. The working is there, but first and foremost, “Raiders of the Lost Ark” is an adventure film, and a damned fine one at that. Since its inception, people have tried to imitate it with little success. Just this last weekend, I saw “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest,” which strings many, many similar action sequences to “Raiders” including the hero of the film running down a hill away from a giant rolling object. The scene didn’t work, and the film was junky and can be dismissed. The legacy of “Raiders” may be contrived action dreck. But the film itself is peerless in its perfection.

See “Raiders.” I guarantee you’ll have a good time.

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Published in: on May 11, 2007 at 8:00 pm  Leave a Comment  

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