How Steven Spielberg and George Lucas ever got Raiders of the Lost Ark is as impressive a feat as the finished product. Made on the heels of the director's first box office disappointment, Raiders compounded its risky prospects with its very premise. Released one year after Heaven's Gate put the kibosh on New Hollywood, the thought of another historical epic coming out so soon after Cimino's effort tanked must have put Paramount on edge.
Spielberg avoided falling into the same trap that ensnared Cimino, though, through some key differences. One, Raiders of the Lost Ark, unlike Heaven's Gate, does not strive for historical veracity, as it pays tribute to the old adventure serials that Spielberg and Lucas enjoyed in their childhood. Two, the fact that the film draws from those serials gave the film more commercial prospects than the more dramatic Gate. Three, and this is most important, Spielberg still had 1941 weighing on him.
The two friends spent years working on script revisions and storyboards, so when Paramount finally greenlit the film Spielberg didn't spend time (or money) wracking his brain over the story or how it should be told. Despite the film's grandeur and multiple location shoots, Spielberg started and stopped principal photography in only 73 days. He shot as few takes as possible and rewrote planned action sequences into shorter, wittier bursts -- thank Harrison Ford's dysentery for possibly the most memorable moment in the film, when a sword brandishing warrior challenges Indiana Jones, who simply draws his gun and shoots him, bypassing a planned fight sequence. He kept costs low and avoided the sort of indulgence that sank other big pictures. "Had I had more time and money," Spielberg said later, "it would have turned out a pretentious movie."
Raiders of the Lost Ark is as much a passion project as any of the other latter-day accomplishments of New Hollywood, drawn from the inspirations of its auteurs' youths and mounted on a scale that would previously been afforded to only the most proven masters. It also cements, for better and worse, Spielberg and Lucas' "takeover" of the box office, begun with Spielberg's double-whammy of Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Lucas' first two Star Wars pictures. If I keep comparing Raiders to Heaven's Gate, it is because they, taken in tandem, show the handoff from one era to the next. Like guards at a border crossing, they separate the boundaries and reflect some of their cultural traits despite being right next to each other.
For Raiders has the same scale as Cimino's film, yet Spielberg uses it to different effect. This is, at heart, nothing more than a crowd pleaser. Indiana Jones wanders through epic expanses, but he is not Lawrence of Arabia, nor Colonel Blimp; he's just a man charismatic and magnetic as he may be, and Spielberg cares not for who he is but what he does. Note that we meet him in the midst of an escapade, out in the jungle where he navigates booby traps in a temple to reach a golden statue, which unleashes a boulder that nearly crushes him. Only after this sequence finishes do we learn anything about our Dr. Jones, and even then we glean scarely more than the knowledge that he is maybe the worst professor a university could hire, showing up to teach a class only when he feels the need to recharge the sexual fantasies of his female students.
The dialogue is ludicrous, the effects -- incredible as they are -- designed to remind us of their cartoony artificiality. No one could accuse Harrison Ford of being too dynamic and actor, and his primary moods as Jones waver between frustrated and just plain angry. Karen Allen brings pluck and fire to the role of Marion Ravenwood, yet her spark is snuffed in favor of turning her into the typical damsel in distress. Everything has been modulated to resemble the old serials, down to acting styles and scripting. Raiders has one advantage over its influences, though: Steven Spielberg never directed those old serials.
Dubious politics and stilted acting aside, Raiders of the Lost Ark is so masterfully constructed that it effectively parlays a forgotten genre of filmmaking, warts 'n' all, into a fresh genre that renewed interest in the adventure film even as it set such a high standard that filmmakers did not begin to approach its achievement until computers allowed them to recreate much of the size of it for less money and effort. Even in a purely expositional scene such as that early stint back at the university, Raiders never sags, propelled by one of John Williams' better scores (buoyed, of course, by one of his most recognizable themes) and the sort of sure hand that the director didn't show on his previous feature but did everywhere else. Had anyone else been at the helm of this material, including George Lucas, Raiders would likely have been one of those films that comes with the immediate qualifier "for it's time." Oh, the film was OK, for it's time; the effects were well done, for it's time.
Every year, at least one filmmaker or writer or actor (or some combination thereof) will defend a film he or she made as dumb fun, as if making something stupid and dispensable is an actual achievement. Raiders of the Lost Ark is a dumb movie, but it is ingeniously mounted, and thus it lives on as mindless fun for generations. Its serializes structure lends itself to bigger setpieces: Indy can run from a perfectly spherical boulder in the first ten minutes before jetting off to Nepal to fight some Nazis before rummaging through Cairo to find clues leading to the titular Ark of the Covenant.
Even with the director's attempts to cut economic corners with fewer takes, Raiders never feels slapdash. As this fantastic article by J.R. Hudson points out, every shot, even the calmer ones, is meticulously planned, enhancing the thrill of the stunts and maintaining interest in the dialogue scenes. When Indy must do battle with a great brute of a Nazi at an airfield out at the archaeological site, Spielberg cuts to shots of spilled fuel gushing toward flames that will lead back to the plane that Marion cannot escape. When the gas finally catches, though, Spielberg frames it in the background, racing at the plane as we take in the entire situation: the lit fuel, the spinning plane, and the fight between Indy and the thug. When the big Nazi bites it, chopped up by the plane's propeller, Spielberg conveys his demise through a red spray across the emblazoned swastika on the plane's tail.
With all the Nazi caricatures, most notably Ronald Lacey's scenery-chewing Gestapo interrogator Maj. Toht, it's easy to forget what a compelling character Indiana's true foil, René Belloq (Paul Freeman) is. A French archaeologist who competes with Jones for every find and allies with the Nazis because they will fund his expeditions, Belloq is memorable precisely because of his proximity to Jones: they both seek the same treasures, look as out of place among the natives they hire (or exploit, and the lines separating the two are not so clear), and even pine for the same woman. Belloq addresses this, saying, "You and I are very much alike...I am but a shadowy reflection of you. It would take only a nudge to make you like me. To push you out of the light." Compare this honesty to, say, Avatar, which positions the scientists who sympathize with the Na'vi as beacons of ethics when they're just as responsible for the rape of Pandora as the corporation that mines it. It's a fleeting moment of understanding, of the character of Indiana Jones and the entire genre he represents, that speaks to the intelligence Spielberg brings to the project even in his boyish enthusiasm. Too, Belloq's character would stand out even more had Spielberg's idea for Indy's characterization, an alcoholic à la Humphrey Bogart's character in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, panned out, as Belloq in many ways plays like a funhouse mirror perversion of Claude Rains' character in Casablanca.
Raiders of the Lost Ark ends with just about the best over-the-top ending ever committed to celluloid: I may be pissing away what little credibility I've stockpiled recently among some other writers in the online community, but God damn it, you show me a film that melts a Nazi's face and I'll show you a film that just sold a ticket. It is so dizzyingly absurd, so top to bottom (and back up again) ludicrous that it has no business whatsoever in a director's "comeback" feature, and yet there it is, a sticky puddle of fleshy sludge that probably congealed into a stiff middle finger just below the frame. Raiders is a grand simplification, of history, of character and of entire races and nationalities, which makes its own iconic status in Hollywood's timeline so amusing and fitting. Released in 1981, it precedes the explosion of action features it indirectly inspired and adventure epics that were practically remakes given how heavily other directors and screenwriters mined Spielberg's opus. Yet it's superior to all of them, anchored by a directing capability that far exceeded the talents of the copycats and given just enough self-awareness to gently poke at its own artifice and contradictions without getting too postmodern about it (which would make a great film on its own terms but would stick out like a sore thumb here). It's easy to forget how staggering the effects on this film are, living as we are in the wake of Peter Jackson conjuring armies and battles through computers, but one need only pop in a DVD of Indiana Jones' first, and by many leagues best, film and marvel at how brilliant "dumb fun" used to be.