December 01, 2009

A retrospective on... Raiders Of The Lost Ark

It’s been almost 30 years since the first Indiana Jones movie - “Raiders of The Lost Ark” -  was released. In the intervening years the character has gone on to bigger and better things - including chasing alien skulls and avoiding gophers in last years 3rd sequel - but most people remember the original with a great deal of fondness. From the spectacular opening scene with the little gold buddha and the rolling rock, to the fight under the flying wing aircraft, the capture in the snake-infested Well of Souls, the valiant escape by shooting the sword-wielding attacker, being smuggled aboard Katanga’s boat and shimmying across to the submarine when the German’s boarded it, to the climax at the end when the Ark is opened and the faces melted, to the final shot of the ark disappearing into seemingly endless warehouse of similar boxes. Absolutely classic!

Raiders of the Lost Ark was a game changer in the world of big-budget summer blockbuster movies. It was only 8 years removed from director Steven Spielberg’s previous game-changer “Jaws” and, in teaming up with fellow game-changer George Lucas, they created a celluloid juggernaut which had repercussions throughout the movie industry.

Remember at this point that Lucas was coming off ‘The Empire Strikes Back’ and had yet to start on ‘The Return of the Jedi’ after almost bankrupting himself trying to get ‘Star Wars’ made. His status as a director was waning - having acknowledged himself that he hated that part of the process. But his status as a producer was on the rise having negotiated the ancillary rights to Star Wars merchandising and made himself a rich man as a result.

Spielberg was still seen as the ‘enfant terrible’ of the new wave of directors. Along with Lucas, Brian de Palma, & Martin Scorsese he had become well known as a young, brash, hip man who could certainly deliver what the audiences wanted. After ‘Jaws’ in 1974 he directed ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’ - still managing to make it a hit despite going up against Lucas’ ‘Star Wars’ - but was coming off the commercial and critical bruising that was ‘1941’.

The story of how ‘Raiders’ came to be is well documented: Having released ‘Star Wars’ and ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’ close together, Spielberg and Lucas were on vacation in Hawaii so they didn’t have to hear about the opening numbers of their respective films. Spielberg said he would like to direct a Bond film,  Lucas wanted to produce a film which followed the lines of the old 1950’s Republic serials he used to see at the movies. They combined both ideas and came up with a fast paced outlandish, film full of cliffhangers and focused around one character who would never seem to die.  Having thought about the idea for a while Lucas got Spielberg and respected screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan together in a room for a couple of days and they hashed out the details of what the story would be.

Reading the transcript of this discussion it is plain to see that Lucas had thought through the general beats of the movie in a great deal of detail. Where he was happy to listen to the others was in working out some of the other details. He knew, for example, that the hero would be ‘the indomitable kind’ but hadn’t worked out whether the heroine should be a German double agent or not (A plot device that was used in the second sequel with Alison Doody’s character, Elsa). There was also a lot of discussion around the climax of the movie: Should Marion be there with him. If she was, then how would they both end up there together? What would the form of the unveiling ceremony take? How would they manage to escape the destruction all around them? All these questions and more were discussed and dissected over the course of the initial script discussions.

The thing about ‘Raiders’ is that it had a great deal of escapism. It was a guilty pleasure at the time. 1982 was a time of great difficulty in Britain. The Conservative government had taken over in 1979 putting the first female Prime Minister into 10 Downing Street. The country was still a couple of years removed from the stress and turmoil that would be the miners strike of 1984 but was right in the middle of violent race riots in towns such as Brixton, Toxteth, Moss Side and Derby prompted by bad relations between police and coloured residents of those areas. On top of that the economic climate was poor, and unemployment in the country was heading towards the psychological barrier of 2 million (a barrier it was to breach in January of the following year). Britain was looking for something to drag it out of the pit of despair it was wallowing in. The movies were the answer. Spielberg’s film was released in the UK in the last week of July and took $3.3 over the course of its run. Add that to the $380 million it took across the rest of the world and you could appreciate the feel-good factor of this film.

But is the film any good? Like ‘Jaws’, a lot of the hype surrounding the movie tends to colour your perception of the movie. The critics were generally positive about the movie, although Paulie Kael in the New Yorker famously described it as ‘Timid movie making: the filmseems terrified of not giving the audiences enough thrills to keep them happy’. What is clear is that for the time ‘Raiders’ was a groundbreaking movie. It virtually single handedly kicked off the genre of movie with the indomitable hero (other examples include the ‘Die Hard’ saga and the ‘Rambo’ series), and brought back the good, old-fashioned ‘Saturday morning serial’-type film. The sequels were very highly regarded and - with Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade’ - even managed to improve on the original, in my opinion. My contention is that ‘Jaws’ was actually perceived to be a far better movie than it actually was as a result of the nature of the movie. ‘Raiders’ is also the same. It’s not that the film itself was necessarily bad, it’s just that it hasn’t stood the test of time as well as it might have done. Modern movies have exposed some of the shortcomings in the film (as they have in ‘Jaws’) and our hindsight has filled in the rest. If we were to look, for example, at the finale with the opening of the Ark, the special effects are comparatively weak when viewed through a modern-day lens. The one thing the movie cannot be accused of is cheesiness. Look at the original ‘Clash Of The Titans’ movie (also released in 1981). It was cheesy, it was cheap and it was redeemed from the mediocre by the excellent stop-motion effects from Ray Harryhausen. Compare that with the modern-day ‘Clash Of the Titans’ and there is a world of difference.

The stories of the filming have gone down in legend: Neither Spielberg or Lucas could get a studio to back their movie. Only after much persuasion did Paramount agree to do it (and this from the directors of the two highest grossing movies of the time); Most of the crew coming down with food poisoning on location meant that Harrison Ford didn’t fancy a long, drawn out fight sequence with the stunt guy dressed as an arab. So he shot him to save time; Tom Selleck being pursued as the original Indiana Jones but being unable to take the role due to his commitments on ‘Magnum P.I.’; Harrison Ford tearing knee ligaments when the out-of-control airplane ran over him; The truck that was supposed to blow right over when shot tipping on it’s side in the market square because the stunt wasn’t rigged strongly enough - not having enough time to re-shoot, it was left as is. But what are sometimes lesser known are the smaller, more interesting facets of the shoot: Tunisia was chosen for the desert scenes because Lucas had shot there with ‘Star Wars’ a few years earlier - in fact the  scene where Indy threatens to blow up the Ark with a bazooka as it is being carried through a canyon was filmed in the same canyon in Tunisia used in ‘Star Wars’  when R2-D2 was zapped and stolen by Jawas; When Indy is dragged under and then out behind a moving truck, it's a tribute to Yakima Canutt's similar famous stunt in John Ford's Stagecoach.  In fact if you look carefully you can see that the middle of the road is dug out to allow more room for the stuntman to move; Speaking of stuntmen, Pat Roach (an ex-wrestler and actor in his own right) is actually killed twice by Indy in this movie. He plays the Sherpa  left in the burning Nepalese bar and the German mechanic chewed up by the plane's propeller: During the film, Harrisons Ford’s wife, Melissa Mathison,  appeared on set and was seen in conversation with Spielberg. She was writing a script for him. That script ended up being ‘E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial’.

Overall I think the mark of a good film is ‘Would I watch it again if it came on the TV this afternoon?’. There are several movies that fall into that category as far as I am concerned. One is ‘Jaws’ - which I will always watch - another is ‘The Godfather’ - which rates as my all-time favourite movie. A third is ‘The Shawshank Redemption’ - which is an emotionally satisfying movie set in a completely emotionless environment. ‘Raiders’ is also one of these movies. It is constantly entertaining and never gets old. In fact as I write these words now I see that the satellite TV provider I subscribe to is showing ‘Raiders’ this afternoon so I will watch it.

If I had a criticism of the movie it is that it panders too much to the audience expectations (with one or two exceptions). This is, I think, a mark of the times in which the film was made. Spielberg has a tendency  - at least in his earlier films - to do this. Once he gets to ‘Schindlers List’ this tendency to pander has virtually gone (although the little girl in the red jacket veers dangerously close to it). But right up to ‘Jurassic Park’ and the sequel there is this underlying vein of ‘see what I can do, I’m a film-maker’ which runs through Spielberg’s film. The Well of Souls sequence is a classic example. Instead of just trapping our hero in a deep place with the girl and without the ‘MacGuffin’ of the Ark, Spielberg has to throw in both a huge number of snakes AND a nifty little stunt with a falling statue that guarantees a cheer from the audience (On the subject of snakes legend has it that Spielberg brought in 6000 garden snakes from Holland - along with a couple of the Cobras. Unfortunately only 4000 of them were returned. The other 2000 were either stolen or escaped into the leafy suburbs of Elstree in North London where the film was shot. I presume the Cobras were identified and well guarded.... Incidentally the Cobra that almost attacks Indy when he first gets to the floor of the Well of Souls is a real Cobra. It was separated from Harrison Ford by a sheet of glass. On earlier prints of the movie you could see a reflection in the glass but in later versions that reflection has been removed). It is often said that if their is a plate glass window in a film, someone will end up getting thrown through it. With Spielberg this is taken to the extreme. Using a thousand-year old statue to break through a thousand-year old wall and escape is absolute genius. But what happens to the snakes? And isn’t it just fortunate that Indy and Marion happen to come out (in broad daylight and on top of a hill) right above the plane that will be used to transport the MacGuffin?

I can  take things like this in movies because you’re not there for the reality, you’re there for the experience. As Spielberg himself said in ‘Jaws’ “If I have them for 2 hours building up the drama and tension they’ll forgive me if I show a shot with a rubber shark”, and he’s right. What I can’t stand are blatant cheats. Take, for example, the scene in ‘The Last Crusade’ where Indy is trying to rescue his father from the tank. He finds himself hanging onto a gun turret at the side of the tank as it is driven along a stone banking. It is quite simple to escape this, you just let go of the turret and the tank goes past. Except Indy can’t because the strap of his bag - which is over his shoulder - has caught around the turret. How did that happen? At what point did Indy take the bag, crawl out to the end of the turret, slip the strap over the end of the turret and slide back to the side of the tank, replacing the bag over his shoulder. The answer is “He didn’t” it was a cheat by the filmmakers to manufacture an audience grabbing moment. And it annoyed me. Luckily there are very few of these in “Raiders”

Having re-watched the film I can see that there is an overriding theme of ‘motion’ in the movie. There are very few scenes where the participants are not in some sort of motion. In addition to that the camera is generally moving - usually in a straight line alongside the action (See Indy’s escape from the Egyptian dig on horseback to chase the truck). All this actually makes the movie crack along at a great pace. The actual running time is a little under 2 hours, but overall it seems to run a lot quicker than this. Each scene is there for one reason and one reason only - to push the action along. There is no fat or padding anywhere. It is a prime example of great movie writing (as well it should be with Lawrence Kasdan penning the screenplay).  Take Marion’s ‘rescue’ for example. Indy - avoiding the Germans after dropping into the map room and locating the Well of Souls - dives into a nearby tent to find Marion, gagged and tied to a pole. He starts to untie her and then.... ties her back up! It’s a classical reversal, totally unexpected and still fits well into the story. Indy’s excuse - “We’ve found the Ark and if I let you go they’ll come searching for you” - is perfect. Classic screenwriting from Kasdan.

The legacy of ‘Raiders’.
‘Raiders’ is itself a legacy of an earlier sort of movie. Think back to the escapist fantasies of the MGM musicals - in particular ‘The Sound of Music’ or ‘Mary Poppins’. Both of these are pure fantasy (granted The Sound of Music was based on real facts), but they were designed as ‘feel good’ movies rather than dour ‘reality’ type films. They both had a singular figure who was pretty indomitable in his or her own way, and they were both blatantly escapist. But they were created in a sterner vein than something like ‘Raiders’. Remember ‘Raiders’ was created to model the old 50’s Republic serials - shows which were weekly 30 minute ‘fillers’ to pad out a movie screening between the ‘B’ movie feature and the main attraction - they were never meant to be the main attraction. Lucas and Spielberg dragged the genre kicking and screaming from the lost world of 50’s cinema (and later the graveyard of early morning Saturday kids TV) and placed it firmly in the territory of ‘Major Hollywood Blockbuster’. It is difficult to imagine now but a large number of the current day summer blockbusters can trace their origins back to the fact that ‘Raiders’ was such a big hit. Look at Iron Man, Transformers,  Die Hard and their sequels, even the Terminator movies. They all owe some sort of a debt to ‘Raiders’ for making escapist fantasy with an ‘indomitable hero’ possible as a genre. I maintain that if ‘Raiders’ had failed as a movie, a lot of these sort of movies would not be around (at least not in their current form). Instead we would be suffering through more Ricky Gervais ‘comedies’ and an even larger flock of the ‘slasher’ horror movies such as ‘Final Destination’, the ‘Saw’ series and ‘Hostel’. In this case the might of the all-powerful movie ticket purchaser has fashioned the shape of box office offerings for many years.

Long may the power live.

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