Raiders of the Lost Ark: An Indiana Jones Retrospective (Part 1)

“It’s not the years, it’s the mileage.”

Raiders of the Lost Ark

It’s always been hard for me to trace back to the roots of my love of various aspects of pop culture. I’ve always loved Spider-Man and Batman but I couldn’t really tell you what my first exposure to them was, what initially caught my imagination because for me they’ve been with me for as long as I can remember. A lot of my childhood favorite stories, films, and heroes don’t carry with them the memory of first contact, Indiana Jones is an exception. I vividly remember meeting Indiana Jones for the first time.

I was in primary school (elementary for those in the US of A) and was vigorously flipping through a school library book, mostly because I liked the pictures. The book was about a young boy learning to be courageous and it showed 3 heroes that he drew inspiration from, Batman, Superman, and Indiana Jones. I still have no idea why Jones was the next candidate after two superheroes but it didn’t matter because his strange inclusion caught my eye. I knew who Superman and Batman were all too well, but Indiana Jones, what is that? He looked so different from the two superheroes, not chiseled and statuesque but scruffy and dirty. He didn’t have a form-fitting costume but some raggedy old clothes and a dusty hat. Was he not a superhero? Perhaps he was a cowboy? He fascinated me.

I issued out the book and brought it home and showed it to my dad, hoping he’d have the answers I was seeking. It turns out he did, he wasn’t a cowboy after all but a heroic archeologist from a trilogy of 80s action movies. I asked if I could see them but much to my disappointment I would have to wait till I was older. Thankfully I got older faster than I expected, as I was gifted 3 DVDs for my birthday that year. Those DVDs were Raiders of the Lost Ark, Temple of Doom, and The Last Crusade. And thus began my great love for Indiana Jones. My fascination quickly faded into obsession, as each of these films firmly segmented itself as an essential part of my childhood. Suddenly I started wearing a brimmed hat more often and had a strong desire to run outside and explore, to find fortune and glory. It instantly became my favorite film franchise and Indy became my favorite cinematic character. These were formative films for me, in quite literal ways. The three adventures ignited a fascination towards history I didn’t know I had and the various behind-the-scenes on the DVDs truly made me realize that actual people make these things, as an actual job. Here I am at 22 with a double major in History and Film, so yeah I think it made an impact.

With this series, I wanted to return to these films to see what made me fall in love with them in the leadup to the Man in the Hat’s final adventure with Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny releasing later this month. I thought I’d take a look back at the franchise, examine each film, see what larger story they tell, and just take a trip down memory lane.

The year is 1977, George Lucas is hiding in Hawaii with his good friend Steven Spielberg, avoiding the bad press and failure that surely must come with the premiere of his new movie, Star Wars. While in hiding Lucas and Spielberg discuss their upcoming projects. Spielberg notes that he wants to work on a James Bond film, something he’s been trying to get started for years with no success. Lucas proposes something better, an idea he had been developing for a while that would allow Spielberg to make his very own Bond film but with a style and sensibility all of its own, Indiana Smith

Much like Star Wars, the adventures of Indiana Smith would be throwbacks to the kind of disposable serial adventures prevalent in the 30s and 40s. Before the popularisation of television in America, serials were the format for seeing short-form episodic stories. Audiences would see these in a cinema each week, with each serial running at about 20 minutes and ending with a cliffhanger to encourage the audience to return for the next chapter. They were cheap, frivolous, and pulpy entertainment, but fervently enjoyed by the masses. Even more than Star Wars, Smith’s adventures were designed as an exercise in nostalgia, a way for Lucas to make the kinds of pure adventure and spirited entertainment he enjoyed when he was younger, and thankfully Spielberg was also on board.

Spy Smasher

But the pair also wanted to infuse other influences of the time, to give it a feeling of Old Hollywood, a mixture of high art and low art. It was to be as much a product of Republic serials, pulp novels, and comic books as it was classic Hollywood cinema. So Indiana Smith became as much a mixture of Spy Smasher and Zorro as Casablanca and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. It’s these influences that stand as the essential DNA of the Indiana Jones series and in a larger way, the broader state of blockbuster filmmaking today. 

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre

Lucas and Spielberg soon began to rough out more of the story and brought on screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan who would also later work with Lucas on The Empire Strikes Back. I think this three-way partnership is the core of what makes Raiders work as well as it does. Most will credit Lucas and Spielberg almost entirely with laying the foundation for the franchise, but Kasdan deserves just as much credit. The three of them underwent several days of long brainstorming sessions to drill down into Lucas’s ideas to make it an actually compelling story. 

East of Borneo

These sessions were recorded, and you can find their discussions transcribed online. I highly recommend reading through the transcript to to anyone who loves this movie or is interested in the writing and development process. Every now iconic set piece, character, and piece of story is conceived here, and it’s really interesting to see how it all came about seemingly so easily. It reads like they kept trying to one up each others ideas to see who could come up with the craziest and most entertaining set pieces. I think more than anything though it demonstrates a complete vision from the three men, they knew exactly what they wanted and there was total confidence in what they wanted this film to be.

That confidence is, I think, the key to the magic of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Very few movies feel this self-assured in what they want to be and what tone and style they want to present. They had a specific idea of what they wanted and were totally committed to it. It’s a movie made with no pretension whatsoever and there’s a palpable joy involved in every department. It’s clear it was made because it’s the kind of movie they wanted they themselves wanted to see and not a story made because it would please investors and studio executives.

That commitment to the serials of old is most evident in the film’s structure and the ways in which Kasdan is able to retrofit that sequential short-form format into a feature film. The Indiana Jones series is very set-piece oriented, with the various locations, action sequences, and perilous situations developed first and then expanded into a broader story. So for Raiders of the Lost Ark, that’s the brilliant opening with the temple escape, a brawl on the streets of Cair, and a lengthy truck chase. Each of these set pieces kinds of acts as their own little story with a beginning, middle, and end that makes them satisfying just on their own. 

In Raiders of the Lost Ark, every 10 or 20 minutes there’s a cliffhanger of some kind simulating that 20-minute serial format. The tomb starts to collapse and fall apart, Marion is seemingly killed, Indy and Marion are trapped and Indy boards the submarine. It’s constantly setting up scenarios and then asking “How will Indiana Jones get out of this one?” It’s structured just like those matinee serials except now you get to watch them all in one go. It’s really all just a series of vignettes strung together, clearly an outcome of Spielberg, Lucas, and Kasdan spitballing what fun scenarios they’d like to see on screen. You could watch only the truck chase and get an entire satisfying narrative just from that. But it never once causes the pacing to feel discontinuous and these set pieces never feel disconnected, it all flows together beautifully and feels of a piece.

Raiders of the Lost Ark
Inspiration to Concept Art to Final Image

These set pieces as well also demonstrate another tough balance to pull off and that’s the film’s tone. As Raiders of the Lost Ark has become a core tenant of popular culture I think we’ve kind of forgotten how just straight-up goofy it is. That silliness is what the sequels often get criticized for but it’s all in here as well, I mean this is a movie with a Nazi assassin monkey after all. But part of the alchemy of Raiders of the Lost Ark is that this goofiness never once supersedes any sense of threat or danger. Within each action sequence, there is always a feeling of peril, you feel like these characters could really get hurt. But there’s still humor and a lightness to it all that keeps it entertaining and comedic. It comes across as a perfect update to those old pulp stories but with more modern sensibilities and a more believable world. It strikes the perfect balance between comic absurdity and believability, never being too silly to fall into parody but never being too visceral to be too realistic. It’s a comedic grit all of its own. 

I think that balance works entirely because of Indy himself. Looking back now, I think Indy being included alongside Superman and Batman in that book I read as a child makes sense; because in a lot of ways, Indiana Jones IS a superhero. He has his mild-mannered alter ego as a professor at Marshall College, but he also has his heroic adventurer side complete with a consistent costume and gear (his whip and satchel may as well be Batman’s grapple gun and utility belt). In the same way as Batman and Superman, he feels like the ultimate form of wish fulfillment. I can’t speak for everyone, but I know that as a kid, I certainly wanted to be an archeologist so I could travel the world and explore like Indy.

But importantly, Indy is not just a power fantasy. In fact, he’s kind of a screwup. Sure Indy is handsome, charismatic, and knowledgeable, but he also gets his ass handed to him constantly and admits that he never has a plan or really any idea what he’s doing. He’s not a sharpshooter, he doesn’t win all of his fights, and he honestly kinda sucks at his job. In fact, Indy’s real skills are observation, resourcefulness, and a tolerance for being severely beaten. He wins most of his fights by enduring enough punches until some external factor gives him an opportunity to take out his opponent. But that’s what makes him so fun, he’s completely fallible, and watching him struggle through a situation is what makes him relatable.

I think the movie’s most iconic set piece, the opening in Peru, establishes this all so perfectly. Spielberg has such a long build-up to the reveal of Indy, there’s a mystery to him and a clear professionalism. He’s clearly knowledgable and quick to the draw, and once in the temple, he’s calm, cool, and collected, completely unfazed by any booby traps that come his way. When he takes the idol and things go wrong however, there’s a total shift, now he’s suddenly scrambling to get out, stumbling over and frantically running for his life. Importantly, this scene sets up Indy’s key character flaw, his blind willingness to trust people who don’t have his best interests at heart. At the beginning of the sequence, he’s brushing off spiders like they’re nothing but by the end, he’s freaking out cause he’s a little too close to a snake for comfort. He’s built up to be this capable professional, only to be revealed to be just a guy in way over his head. Indy is almost a parody of an old Serial adventurer, but through Ford’s performance, he always feels relatable and human.

Raiders of the Lost Ark
Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark

The reason that this works as well is, of course, because of Harrison Ford. There were a few possible choices for Doctor Jones, most famously Tom Sellick was set to pick up the whip but had to pull out because of a little show called Magnum P.I. It is just crazy to think that it could have gone to anyone else because Harrison Ford just IS Indiana Jones.

Ford is the ideal person for the role because his entire career is about toeing the line between the everyman and the action hero. Through Ford, Indy is able to feel like a relatable, real person but also a larger-than-life, archetypal hero. He plays every aspect of his character wonderfully and knows when to underplay each of them. He can sell the wounded romantic, the giddy historian, the bored academic, and the scrappy brawler perfectly. Moreso than any other of Ford’s roles, you can really see him come alive when he’s playing Indy. Some of those other guys could have played a fine Indiana Jones, but Ford is the only one who could truly BE Indiana Jones. He is inextricably linked to the character and nobody could have ever played it better. When you see him in that costume it just feels right. It truly feels like the role he was born to play.

Raiders of the Lost Ark
Karen Allen as Marion Ravenwood in Raiders of the Lost Ark

Thankfully the strength of the casting extends far beyond Indy himself, as Raiders of the Lost Ark bolsters a rich supporting cast. Most prominent is Karen Allen as Marion Ravenwood, a feisty firecracker seemingly bordering on alcoholism who plays off Indy’s cynicism and romanticism wonderfully. She’s a bold, defiant character, and if there’s any issue with Raiders of the Lost Ark, it’s that it doesn’t do her enough justice. Marion’s first scene is quietly among the best of the entire series, introducing a character who stands apart from the typical damsel in distress. Unfortunately, her character does kind of descend into that role the more the movie continues, with Marion presumed dead and captured through most of Act 2. It’s a shame because she’s a great foil for Indy and doesn’t get a chance to do all that much. But thankfully, her Act 2 replacement is just as good. 

While the decidedly not Egyptian John Rhys Davies playing the Egyptian digger Sallah is an unfortunate example of the series’ dicey whitewashing, he injects the film with a heart and joy that truly lifts the material. Sallah is such a joyous, jolly presence, a character who shows up with a fervor that makes it feel like we’ve known him for years. Denohmm Elliot meanwhile plays the underappreciated but equally important role of Marcus Brody who has a crucial role in bringing a sense of history and belonging to Indy’s scenes at Marshall College while also acting as a voice of reason and caution. The warmth and knowledge he exudes give Indy an important anchor that perfectly sells the stakes and dramatic throughline of the entire film.

Raiders of the Lost Ark is no slouch when it comes to its villains either. But instead of relying on a single antagonist like the Bond movies Spielberg so desperately wanted to make, Raiders relies on a triumvirate of baddies, each of whom offers something different but crucial. 

Raiders of the Lost Ark
(From L-R) Wolf Kahler as Colonel Dietrich, Paul Freeman as Bellog, Ronald Lacey as Toht in Raiders of the Lost Ark

The first and best is Indy’s French rival, Belloq, played with a delicious amount of smarm by Paul Freeman. Belloq is the center of this dynamic and is what Spielberg would call their “champagne villain,” a character with a more ideological conflict with the hero and who challenges him in more intellectual and philosophical ways. I would pause before calling anything in Raiders of the Lost Ark underrated, but if anything deserves that label, it’s certainly Belloq. The ‘mirror villain’ is an overused archetype, so much so that “we’re not so different you and I” has become a punchline in and of itself. In most cases, this trope feels forced, but here it really works and you do truly buy Belloq as Indy’s darker half. He’s a character who brings out both the best and worst in Indy’s character. His comparisons only seek to highlight Indy’s flawed morality and his incessant search for knowledge, but his villainy ultimately gives him an opportunity to grow beyond him and embrace his better self. 

The other two antagonists both represent the Nazis. The first is Gestapo agent Toht played by Ronald Lacey, channeling Peter Lorre for some suitably hammy, slimeball vibes. Toht is probably the film’s most iconic villain, but honestly doesn’t really do anything. For as scary as he is, all he does is provide half of the dial to the Nazis and threaten Marion. So in this way, he represents the pure sadistic evil and menace of the Nazis.

On the other hand, is Colonel Dietrich played by Wolf Kahler, who brings with him the muscle and firepower to take on the film’s heroes. However, he is not nearly as threatening as Toht and is mostly smug, petty, and spineless, the kind of guy to toss a watermelon at a dog because he’s such a sore loser. The Nazis of Indiana Jones are played fairly pathetic, with Speilberg denying them any sense of gravitas whatsoever. They’re buffoons, and the film consistently undermines their conventional cinematic iconography to completely rob them of their power.

Spielberg has since said that if he would make it now, he wouldn’t have depicted the Nazis in such a fashion. Which I think is a shame, because their stupidity is what makes their comeuppance all the more satisfying. They’re the perfect cannon fodder, and Spielberg and co. get great glee out of subjecting them to the cosmic fury of the Jewish god in the film’s final act.

I think Raiders of the Lost Ark is often thought of as a fairly shallow film, a lot of fun but not a lot on its mind. But I think that is underselling it. Raiders of the Lost Ark is about encountering something bigger than yourself and how you respond to that. Indiana’s arc is to accept that there are questions not meant to be answered and knowledge not meant to be uncovered, instead, he learns to trust in his relationship with Marion and open himself up to a new beginning. Belloq and the Nazis meanwhile continuously try to bend the power of God to their will, which backfires oh so beautifully. In a lot of ways, Raiders of the Lost Ark act as a form of Jewish vengeance against the Nazis, as God rejects their hatred and misguided sense of importance. 

And this is all without mentioning the absolutely stunning cinematography by Douglas Slocombe, which manages to seamlessly toe the line between a gritty naturalism and a comic book formalism. This is without really discussing the exceptional stunt work and maybe my single favorite action sequence ever filmed in the truck chase. This is all without mentioning the quick-paced propulsive editing rhythms of Michael Khan. This is all without mentioning the punchy, sound design by Ben Burtt. And this is all without mentioning the sweeping and rousing score by John Williams, which is certainly in the conversation for claiming the crown as his finest worst.

Raiders of the Lost Ark
The cinematography of Douglas Slocombe in Raiders of the Lost Ark

Raiders of the Lost Ark is just a movie that works on every single conceivable level. Both masterfully evoke the films of a certain era while seamlessly updating them with modern sensibilities and technologies. A miracle of a film. One that managed to miraculously have all the right people at all the right time. All operating at the absolute peak of their creative and technical abilities. When Spielberg and Lucas set out to make this movie they wanted to make a movie that’s just all of the good bits audiences remember from a movie, all killer no filler. And boy did they accomplish that. With Raiders of the Lost Ark you got a thrilling action movie, an impressive period film, a sweeping old-timey romance, a rollicking adventure, and a whole bunch of Nazis getting blown to pieces. For me, blockbusters have simply never been better than this, quite possibly my favorite movie of all time and one the greatest achievements in cinematic history.

But how does one improve on perfection? What directions do you take this character in with a follow-up? Questions that would be answered with the series’ nastiest and most divisive entry…

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