Sequel-readiness is a defining element of the Indiana Jones pictures. In addition to each of their self-contained stories intimating a sense of the next inevitable chapter on a larger canvas of exploits, they are also episodic by design. One action set piece often leads right into another, in an apparent nod to 1940s serials from which Steven Spielberg and George Lucas took inspiration. But these films have more going on in them than a high-spirited sense of adventure, particularly when viewed as part of a larger succession. With this in mind, I revisited all four films and will document my observations on each entry over the next several weeks.
Taken in the context of the films’ high standing in popular culture as well as my own moviegoing past, the first film in the series—Raiders of the Lost Ark—is somewhat of an anomaly. Stylistically, Raiders of the Lost Ark may have more in common with the work of Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese than its series companions (which I will discuss at greater length in my essays on the later entries). The difference, of course, is that Raiders of the Lost Ark has no aspirations of seriousness beyond the sophistication of its own aesthetic. It is pure pulp, meant to imprint on your mind only insofar as its transitory tongue-in-cheek narrative allows. Pauline Kael famously critiqued the film’s forcible dissemination of oversized excitement—a charge that’s undoubtedly true, given how fast it whips from one set piece to the next. (In its second half, the movie goes from a pit of snakes to an airplane fistfight, and then immediately into a truck chase across the desert.) But the film excels beyond its own thrill-induced exhaustion with, among other things, a steady commitment to aesthetic detail.Spielberg frames his shots in wide spaces and edits only when necessary, a technique that apart from its visual appeal also balances out the quick pace of the storytelling. On the other hand, Raiders of the Lost Ark's playful mysticism is equally attributable to John Williams’ brooding music and Lawrence Kasdan’s script—proffering beauties like “The Bible speaks of the Ark leveling mountains and laying waste to entire regions.” Spielberg accentuates and marries the two with compositional techniques that play heavy on shadows, silhouettes, and pronounced background/foreground contrasts. The interplay of these ingredients creates a rich atmosphere of foreboding and whimsy, yielding moments that stand outside of time and create a strong sense of place within the cartoonish world the film fashions. Even simple scenes of exposition and set-up are enticing, such as when Marcus (Denholm Elliot) walks down the corridor and peers into Indy’s classroom or how Marion (Karen Allen) reveals the headpiece that both Jones and his enemies are after.
Aside from the stylistic flourishes, no account of Raiders of the Lost Ark would be complete without a discussion of man wearing the fedora. Indiana Jones could easily have been another stock hero, which almost certainly would have cast the film into the exile of obscurity. But Harrison Ford’s portrayal is the anchor from which Raiders derives its energy, deepening both the sense of excitement and humor. Despite the character’s introduction as a fearless adventurer, Ford brings a boyish enthusiasm to his interpretation of Jones, who has a knack for winding up in overmatched fights, routinely dishes cheap shots to his opponents, and is the benefactor of a great deal of luck. Ford gradually peels away the tough-guy veneer of Jones’ adventurer persona and reveals a man that is reckless, immature, disenchanted, and seeking acceptance. In other words, he is flawed just as the rest of us.
For all the absurdities that Raiders of the Lost Ark serves up, Ford’s portrayal of Jones as an imperfect hero coupled with Spielberg’s smooth aesthetic do more than merely keep grandiosity levels in check. They have engineered a movie and a character that the medium seldom produces and are mirror reflections of each other. Both are simple, yet also larger-than-life. (Steven Spielberg, 1981) ****