Like the Paramount logo mountain peak in the now-famous opening dissolve that started it all nearly three decades ago, Raiders of the Lost Ark towers over the surrounding landscape. It is the apotheosis of its genre, the Citizen Kane of pulp action–adventure, definitively summing up all that came before and setting the indelible standard for all that comes after.
While it offers lovingly elaborate homage to the swashbuckling serials of the past, Raiders of the Lost Ark transcends them as absolutely as Star Wars transcends the exploits of Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon. It does not merely express, but embodies nostalgia, for like nostalgia it remembers the past as it never was, all the dross forgotten and all the best parts impossibly heightened, perfected, bathed in a warm golden glow. Nostalgia can carry a lesser film, for audiences who bring to it the sentiment it presupposes, but it makes no converts. Raiders is self-contained; newcomers with no prior interest in the world of Danger Island and King Solomon’s Mines are as irresistibly swept along in its rushing course as those who grew up with such pulp fantasies.
Roger Ebert, in an excellent essay, credits the film with two achievements, one perhaps associated more with creator–producer George Lucas, the other with co-creator and director Steven Spielberg. First, reflecting Lucas’s love of pulp adventure, Raiders “plays like an anthology of the best parts of all the Saturday matinee serials ever made.” (Screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan also wrote Silverado, which similarly plays like an anthology of the best parts of all the Westerns ever made.) The whole film is one brilliant action set piece after another, with practically every shot impeccably composed by Spielberg. Second, Ebert says, in its satiric, gleefully vengeful treatment of the ultimate movie villains, the Nazis, Raiders connects on its own level with Spielberg’s deep feelings about the Holocaust.
These are important and insightful observations, but in addition to the dazzling set pieces and the ultimate villains, Raiders depends equally on a third major element. It isn’t Indiana Jones himself, Harrison Ford’s quintessential action hero, with his broad-brimmed hat reminiscent of Allan Quatermain’s, bullwhip as versatile as Zorro’s — and pistol for backup. Nor is it Karen Allen’s Marion Ravenwood, a new breed of heroine (along with Princess Leia) as tough and resourceful as the hero, and more than capable of putting the hero in his place. It isn’t even John Williams’ indelible score, with its swashbuckling main theme and eerie ark strains. All of these contribute mightily — but the sequels had most of them, and lightning never struck twice.
What elevates Raiders from great entertainment to transcendently great entertainment is the lost ark itself. Lucas has called the ark of the covenant a “MacGuffin,” but this is profoundly mistaken. Hitchcock defined a MacGuffin as something that the characters care about but which doesn’t otherwise matter to the story. The mark of a MacGuffin is that it could be anything; the details don’t matter. Allan Quatermain went to King Solomon’s mines, but once he got there neither Haggard nor any of his adapters had much interest either in the mine or in King Solomon. Make it a lost gold shipment from a plane crash, and it’s substantially the same story.
In Raiders, by contrast, take out the ark of the covenant and you have — an Indiana Jones sequel, or at least a much less effective film. The ark blends the numinous awe Lucas strove for with the Force in his Star Wars films with the quest for Jewish identity and imagination pervading Spielberg’s work. It is because of the ark that Raiders is not just about “blowing up the Nazis real good,” as Ebert puts it. That could have been accomplished with the hero’s bazooka, say, or by any number of other means. Countless action films end with blowing up the villains real good.
What this story offers is the ultimate antisemitic villains getting blown up by the Jewish God, for daring to desecrate a Hebrew sacred artifact. The 20th-century persecutors of the Jews are undone by the same numinous power that destroyed the firstborn of the Hebrews’ Egyptian slave-masters, that smote the Philistines when they captured the ark in 1 Samuel 4–6. (Compare the holy fire from the ark with the similarly ethereal heavenly destroyer of Egypt’s firstborn in DreamWorks’ much later The Prince of Egypt. Compare, too, the foreshadowing of the shot in which the Nazi swastika is burned off the crate holding the ark with the biblical story of the statue of Dagon falls on its face before the ark in the Philistine temple: In the presence of the ark, heathen images are thrown down.)
In this story, even the hero pales beside the mystic artifact he seeks. Indy may be an archetypal hero, as smart as he is tough, both principled and worldly-wise, attractive but rugged, not invulnerable (susceptible to pain, afraid of snakes) but doggedly incapable of giving up — the total package, seemingly.
Yet as my friend and fellow critic Jeff Overstreet has often pointed out, Indy is something of a paradox: a quintessential hero whose defining characteristic, at least in his first, great adventure, is that he consistently fails. Like Tolkien, who honored the classical heroic tradition while also subtly infusing it with a veiled Christian critique, Raiders of the Lost Ark at once honors and subverts the swashbuckler by suggesting that even the quintessential action hero may not be enough.
Throughout the film, Indy repeatedly fails to achieve his ends. From the rip-roaring opening act in a booby-trap infested temple, to the moment of his greatest triumph in the Well of Souls, to the tense standoff in which Indy holds a bazooka on the bad guys, Indy loses out again and again to his unprincipled rival Belloq (Paul Freeman). Indy fails to rescue Marian from her kidnappers, needs a parade of children to rescue him from a tight spot, and is badly losing a fistfight with a hulking German before a grisly accident befalls the latter.
Every so often Indy achieves a temporary victory — most notably the bravura sequence in which he goes after the Nazi caravan on horseback, which surely ranks among the top five action sequences ever filmed. But it’s not long before the bad guys have the upper hand again, as they do (spoiler alert!) right up to the climax of the film, when any action hero worth his salt ought to be finishing off the bad guys, but which Indy spends tied up and helpless. Even after that, in the denouement in Washington, Indy again fails to get what he wants.
Some critics and commentators, overly wedded to academic theories of dramatic structure, have pronounced the climax of Raiders dramatically flawed, on the grounds that the protagonist fails to perform the climactic action. This is the classic critical fallacy of the small-minded, rule-oriented critic failing to discern the freedom of a great work of art to flout the usual rules for dramatic effect. The whole point is that Indy is out of his depth — a point foreshadowed in the early scene in which Indy exuberantly packs for his expedition while his friend Marcus Brody (Denholm Elliott), a museum curator who often buys Indy’s finds, awkwardly beats around the burning bush: “For nearly three thousand years, man has been searching for the lost ark… It’s not something to be taken lightly… no one knows its secrets… It’s like nothing you’ve gone after before.”
Indy scoffs, perhaps a little too cavalierly. “Marcus, what are you trying to do, scare me? You sound like my mother. … I don’t believe in magic, a lot of superstitious hocus-pocus. I’m going after a find of incredible historical significance — you’re talking about the bogey man.” Then, with deliberate understatement, he adds, ”Besides… you know what a cautious fellow I am.” Underscoring his words, he casually lobs a revolver across the room into his suitcase. A revolver. Right. In the end, all he can do is close his eyes.
To call Raiders much imitated would be a gross understatement: Along with Star Wars, Raiders essentially inaugurated the whole popcorn-blockbuster genre that gluts the summer market every year. Yet nearly thirty years later, scarcely any of those imitators come close to even rivaling the original. From Lara Croft to National Treasure, from The Mummy to Pirates of the Caribbean, they’re all more or less disposable also-rans in the shadow of a masterpiece.
This includes the imitators that happen to have the name Indiana Jones in the title and key filmmakers on both sides of the camera in common. As I’ve written elsewhere, there was never a persuasive series here; there was just Raiders, followed by a couple of Indiana Jones flicks. The sequels may have imitated that famous opening shot with the mountaintop, but it was just homage to homage; the real peak was never reached again.
The greatest action-adventure movie of all time is now available on Blu-ray. For now, of course, you can’t just buy Raiders of the Lost Ark; you have to get the 5-disc boxed set “Indiana Jones: The Complete Adventures.”
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I am writing in hopes that you will reconsider the your moral/spiritual value rating for Raiders of the Lost Ark.
I was twelve when Raiders first was released and I have been thus a nearly lifelong fan of the film. But having watched it again recently I have discovered that it is morally problematic. In a nutshell, this is because of the number of German soldiers Indy injures or kills whose only crime seems to have been — participating in a archaeological dig and guarding it and the retrieved relic as was their duty as soldiers. The Nazis on the other hand kill — nobody.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.