100 Film Favorites – #2: Raiders of the Lost Ark
(Steven Spielberg, 1981)
“If adventure has a name, it must be Indiana Jones.”
And lo, we are down to the TOP TWO! What originally was supposed to take less than four months has dragged on for nearly seven, and I thank you for sticking it out.
This penultimate selection of the Countdown is one you may have seen coming, as its sequels (at least the ones that count) have already made appearances. So why does Raiders outrank its successors? We’ll get to that in a moment.
The film begins with what is undoubtedly one of the most iconic opening scenes in cinema history. A party of three men and their native porters tromp through the jungles of “Peru – 1936.” As the opening credits proceed, the group plows deeper into the underbrush, and the porters are scared away by the sudden discovery of a menacing statue head, which belches forth a flock of bats. A man in a leather jacket, whom we only see from the back, continues on ahead. The remaining two men take notice of a poison dart stuck in a tree, and one remarks that they must be being followed by the Hovitos, a local tribe.
“If they knew we were here,” his companion asserts, “they would have killed us already.”
This hardly reassures the suspicious first-line-haver, who decides that mutiny is the only course of action. He sneaks up behind the man in the leather jacket, apparently the group’s leader, who is pensively studying a pieced-together map. The would-be mutineer draws and cocks his pistol, but in the blink of an eye the leather-jacketed man turns and knocks the gun from his hand with the well-aimed crack of a bullwhip. Unable to handle the sheer awesomeness of Indiana Jones’ front half, his attacker lopes off awkwardly into the jungle.
Jones and his sole remaining compadre, Satipo (Alfred Molina, AKA Dr. Octopus in Spider-Man 2) eventually come to the mouth of an ancient temple, and Indy mutters that this is the spot where one of his “competitors” “cashed in.” Despite Satipo’s warning that “no one has ever come out of there alive,” the intrepid Jones heads in anyway, and Satipo begrudgingly follows.
In a sequence which is one controller short of a video game level, Jones and Satipo wend their way past a series of perilous pitfalls and booby traps, encountering hazards such as tarantulas, bottomless pits, and a particularly improbable spike-trap apparently triggered by motion-sensor (how the ancient Peruvians mastered this technology is not explained or even wondered at).
Indy and Satipo finally come to the chamber where lies their quarry: a golden fertility idol, sitting majestically on a pedestal. Jones carefully inches across the trap-laden floor, and then snatches the idol from its perch, quickly replacing it with a weighted bag of sand he had prepared for the occasion. Unfortunately, the bag proves too heavy, causing the pedestal to sink into the floor and trigger the collapse of the temple (seriously, how were the worshipers, the ostensible audience of a temple, even supposed to get in and out of this place without dying horribly?). Throwing his careful planning to the wind, Indy sprints back across the chamber, poison darts whizzing behind him.
When they return to the bottomless pit trap, Satipo betrays Indy by seizing the idol and running off, without helping Indy across. Indy manages to frantically scramble over the pit on his own, and is vindicated when he finds that Satipo has sprinted headlong into the photo-sensitive spike-trap. Indy retrieves the idol and smirks, only to find himself on the run once more as a colossal boulder descends from above, rolling behind him on a track. He bolts toward the exit, leaping out the temple door just as the immense rock seals it shut.
In what is to become a routine occurrence throughout the franchise, Indy doesn’t hold on to his booty for long. Outside the temple waits Rene Belloq, a rival treasure-hunter, with an entourage of heavily-armed Hovitos tribesmen (they’ve already dispatched the mutineer from earlier). Belloq gloatingly takes possession of the idol, before siccing the Hovitos on Jones. Indy dashes through the jungle, barely avoiding the countless arrows and darts aimed at him (Hovitos archers have roughly the same accuracy as Storm-Troopers).
At last, Indy makes it to the safety of a waiting hydro-plane piloted by his friend, Jock Lindsey (whom we never see again in the series). As they take off, Jones’ smug smile fades yet again as he realizes “there’s a big snake in the plane.” Jock laughs, telling the ophidiophobic (snake-fearing) Indy to “show a little backbone.”
Over the course of this remarkably succinct opening, we’ve learned a lot about Indy’s character, all without him having to say much. He’s brave and quick (but far from accident-proof). He’s cautious, but can think on his feet. He hunts treasure (and contends with rivals in the pursuit). And, in a comic moment, we see that his fearlessness has its limits, at least when snakes are concerned.
Next we learn about Indy’s day-job, and the real “story” of the film. Jones works as a professor of archaeology at Marshall College where, despite being the (reluctant) target of many co-ed’s affections, he seems thoroughly bored. But we dispense with all that “job” nonsense quickly enough, when Indy dismisses his class to meet with Marcus Brody, the curator of the college’s museum. The museum funds Jones’ TRUE vocation as a globetrotting adventurer, and Marcus serves as his dispatcher, charging Indy with the recovery of various ancient artifacts.
Brody ushers in a pair of government intel agents, who report that the Nazis are busy scouring the world for “occult” relics which might grant Hitler and the German army supernatural power. Indy’s interest is piqued when a Nazi message intercepted by the agents mentions the words “Tanis” and “Ravenwood,” and an object known as the “Staff of Ra.” Jones explains that many scholars point to Tanis, a lost city of Ancient Egypt, as a possible resting place of the Biblical Ark of the Covenant. The Ark, a golden box in which Moses placed the shattered Ten Commandments tablets last seen in Countdown Entry #39, is rumored to grant its bearers divine protection, and to strike down their enemies with “lightning…fire…the power of God or something.”
Indy posits that the Nazis are looking for Abner Ravenwood, another archaeology professor who once taught Jones himself. Hitler’s goons require a golden headpiece, a relic in Ravenwood’s possession, to complete the Staff of Ra and locate the “Well of Souls,” the buried chamber which holds the Ark.
With that exposition-blizzard out of the way, Indy agrees to go after the Ark and (with the aid of a nifty traveling transition) flies to Nepal, hoping to meet with Abner Ravenwood. Instead, he finds his former flame Marion Ravenwood, Abner’s daughter. Marion informs Indy that Abner has died, and she has come into possession of his few remaining earthly possessions, including the bar in which their meeting takes place. Indy offers to buy the Staff of Ra headpiece, but Marion declines to sell, scolding him for “abandoning” her when they were younger.
The lovers’ quarrel is cut short when a group of Nazis led by the sinister Toht burst in, likewise seeking the headpiece. In the ensuing skirmish, a “firefight” in more ways than one, Marion’s bar burns to the ground. Now that Indy is so deeply in her debt, Marion insists, he is obliged to bring her along on the adventure as his “goddamn partner.” Toht makes a last-ditch effort to grab the headpiece from a flaming pyre, but only succeeds in horribly burning his hand before staggering away in anguish.
Next stop on the map-transition is Cairo, where Indy and Marion meet with Sallah (John Rhys-Davies), a hearty and accomplished “digger” with a large family. Sallah is tangentially involved with the excavation of Tanis, and agrees to sneak Indy into the “map room,” a chamber at the site containing a detailed model of the ancient city. According to legend (another point covered in the exposition blitz early on), if one places the Staff of Ra before this model at a given time of day, a beam of sunlight from above will pass through the gem in the Staff’s headpiece, creating a brilliant glow which will come to rest at a point on the map, indicating where the Well of Souls, and therefore the Ark, is located.
Using an inscription on the headpiece, Indy and Sallah calculate the correct length of “staff” to use. They also realize why the Nazis haven’t found the Well yet: While the true headpiece includes staff-length instructions on both sides, the piece used by the Nazis to plan their dig is only one-sided (we learn later that it was cast using the scarred indentation seared across Toht’s hand). Thus, they misjudged the proper length of the staff, and the beam fell on the wrong spot on the map. At this point, Indy and Sallah probably should have just chuckled smugly, shaken hands, and departed until the Nazis grew frustrated and left. Then our heroes could have come back once the Jerries had dispersed.
But what they ACTUALLY do is sneak into the map room when the dig is at its busiest. Indy props up the proper staff, and a ray of sun pours through the bejeweled headpiece, casting a freakin’ laser beam on the tiny town.
Then, he, Sallah and a handful of other diggers head out more or less IMMEDIATELY to dig at the prescribed location. They have just enough time to unearth the trapdoor leading into the Well (which happens to be filled with thousands of S-S-SNAKES!) and reach the Ark before the Nazis get wise.
Trapping Indy in the buried chamber, Toht and the Nazi soldiers seize the Ark, while Belloq (yeah, he’s working with them too) takes yet another chance to jeer down at a compromised Jones. The baddies toss Marion in for good measure and seal the pit. Then, they make ready to transport the Ark to Berlin via flying wing (a kooky contraption I’m reasonably sure Lucas, Spielberg, and Kasdan worked into the script solely so they could see one up close).
The third act of the film is essentially a cat-and-mouse game between Indy and the Nazis, with the Ark changing hands multiple times throughout a string of ever-more-epic action sequences. Indy and Marion escape the Well of Souls through an ante-chamber, just in time to destroy the flying wing in a good old-fashioned Hollywood explosion. When the Nazis load the Ark on a truck, Indy pursues on horseback, climbing onto said truck and proceeding to soundly trounce Nazis on, under, around and through the speeding vehicle.
After a handful of other exchanges (involving Arab swordsmen, attempted poisonings, and even a Nazi monkey), Indy, Marion, and Sallah “secure” the Ark and load it aboard a steamer ship to cross the Atlantic. But those crafty Nazis track down the ship mit einem Untersee-Boot, and once again regain the Ark. Indy manages to make his way aboard the sub before it dives again, and stows away until it reaches its destination: a hidden Nazi base on a tiny Mediterranean island. Belloq, Toht, Dietrich (the highest-ranking Nazi officer) and their cronies trudge inland carrying the Ark.
From a ridge above, Indy brandishes a rocket-launcher and threatens to destroy the Ark, rather than see its power in Nazi hands. Belloq calls his bluff, confident that Jones could never destroy so priceless an historical artifact. And besides, Belloq plans to TEST the Ark before Hitler gets his hands on it. The Ark is “a transmitter – a radio for speaking to God,” and Belloq has some things to say.
And so the climactic scene finds Indy and Marion (kidnapped from the steamer ship along with the Ark) tied to a pole in a courtyard, where the Nazis stand waiting to observe (and film) Belloq’s “test.” Belloq, bedecked in ceremonial Jewish robes, chants some Hebrew words (evoking skeptical looks from the anti-semitic Nazis), and opens the Ark. Indy quickly warns Marion that, whatever happens, they must shut their eyes and not look upon whatever emerges from the Ark. But we the viewer, safe behind our movie screens, get the full effect: “Fire, Lightning, and the Power of God or something” do indeed issue forth from the ark. The first blast destroys the group’s recording equipment. Then a second salvo zaps a hole clean through the assembled ranks of unremarkable background Nazis. THEN, in an impressive tour-de-force of divine wrath, flocks of horrifying death-angels pour out of the ark and gibber manically around the arena, uttering unearthly screams. And before you can say “1,2,3,” our trio of antagonists all suffer uniquely horrible head-injury-related deaths:
-Dietrich’s head implodes via intense suction.
-Toht’s head melts (probably the single scariest effect on this entire Countdown).
-And Belloq’s head straight-up EXPLODES (the filmmakers subsequently obscured the image to coax the MPAA down from their initial “R” rating to PG…remember, PG-13 didn’t exist yet).
God’s anger spent, the Ark returns to its deceptively tranquil state.
In the final scene, Indy and Marcus Brody are back in America, conversing with the government agents from the start of the film. Irritated by their evasiveness, Jones demands to know where the agents have taken the Ark. They respond simply that the Ark is “somewhere safe,” being studied by “top men.” Dismissing them as “bureaucratic fools,” Indy emerges into the evening air, and walks off arm-in-arm with Marion for a drink.
Meanwhile, in a mysterious warehouse, a worker pounds home the final nail in a crate we’ve seen change hands many times throughout the film.
He wheels the crate down a long hallway and stashes it away in a corner. As the final credits roll, the camera pulls back to reveal the warehouse is truly colossal…and packed with hundreds of thousands of crates.
And hundreds of thousands of mysteries.
Raiders of the Lost Ark, like Star Wars before it, pays homage to the 30s and 40s action serials Lucas and Spielberg watched growing up. And yet, again like Star Wars, the film combines those classic tropes with cutting-edge filmmaking technology: from the many intricately-executed action sequences, to the groundbreaking effects by Lucas’ Industrial Light and Magic (combined with Ben Burtt’s audio wizardry), to yet another unforgettable orchestral score from John Williams. Produced as the “blockbuster” was just coming into its own, Raiders still stands as a movie for the ages.
But why does it top Temple and Crusade?
That’s a toughie. We’ve already gone into the issues with Temple, but, to be brutally honest, my ranking of Raiders and Crusade for this Countdown was something of a toss-up. Without fail, whichever one I happen to have just watched becomes my new favorite. If I were to revise the list as a whole, I might well switch the two films. Last Crusade may be my real “favorite” of the series – the heavier focus on humor appeals to me, as does the increased character development compared to the earlier entries in the series. And yet, so much of Crusade relies on what came before, that tribute must be made to the one that started it all. Raiders set the standard for Indiana Jones films to come: It gave us the “ewww…scary animals!” scene, the “main antagonist oversteps mankind’s boundaries and gets their face melted as a result” scene, and the “imposing goon gets horribly killed some kind of mechanical apparatus” scene.
More seriously, the film gave us one of the most memorable movie characters of the 20th century, and one of the most iconic action heroes of all time. It delivered mystery, comedy, explosions, and even a bit of a lesson in Biblical history. That’s nothing to sneeze at.
Oh, and what of Amy Farrah-Fowler (of The Big Bang Theory)’s argument that Indy himself doesn’t actually have any influence on the plot?
Well…okay, he didn’t actually stop the Nazis from getting the Ark…they did get it, and opened it. And that’s what killed them.
So…if he wasn’t even there, they would have gotten it…and it would have killed them…and the story would have ended exactly the same.
Hm. I guess he really DIDN’T accomplish anything. In fact, as Dan has pointed out to me, he actually helped EXPEDITE the Nazi effort in finding the Ark, going so far as to locate and excavate it for them.
-Movie Goof: During the staff-length calculations, the instructions state that the stick must be “six kaddams high.” Indy remarks that this is about 72 inches, making a “kaddam” equal to, oh, I don’t know, a FOOT. The super-secret bonus part of the instructions which the Nazis missed reveals that the staff-maker must then subtract one kaddam. This makes the finished staff five feet tall, right?
So why does it tower over Indy’s head in the map chamber?
-I mentioned it way back in the Temple of Doom post, but transcripts exist of the story meetings at which Lucas, Spielberg, and screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan pow-wowed to create the basic Raiders narrative, as well as much of what later became Doom. The document offers some pretty interesting insight into the storytelling process, so I thought it was worth sharing twice.
-Shortly after the release of Raiders in 1981, a trio of twelve year old boys were so inspired by Indiana Jones’ debut that they began making (and this really happened) an honest-to-goodness, shot-for-shot remake of the movie. Over the next EIGHT YEARS, Eric Zala, Chris Strompolos, and Jayson Lamb cobbled together for around $5,000 what it took Spielberg $18 million to do. Shooting summers and weekends, and working with whichever neighborhood kids they could get in front of the camera, they eventually accomplished their goal (the last shot they filmed, Indy climbing out of the sea onto the U-Boat, was accomplished with the help of a maritime history museum). The end result, Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Adaptation, is amazingly faithful to the original. The fact that the actors change from twelve, to fifteen, to almost nineteen and back again from scene to scene only heightens the sense of what an impressive undertaking it must have been to see the project through to completion. Though the film lapsed into obscurity after its “premier” in 1989, Eli Roth and Harry Knowles of “Ain’t It Cool News” rediscovered it in 2002 and brought it back into the spotlight. Steven Spielberg himself finally saw the film, and met personally with the now-grown “boys” to congratulate them on the film, which he dubbed “inspirational.” Due to legal issues, Raiders: The Adaptation may never see official wide release. But since I’ve sold my soul to the obscure-movie devil, I have managed to track down a copy. It was worth it.
Brian Terrill is the host of television show Count Gauntly’s Horrors from the Public Domain. You can keep up with Brian’s 100 Film Favorites countdown here.