Greetings loved ones. A little while ago I compiled a list of movies every film buff should see. Right smack dab in the middle of it was Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark. This classic adventure movie is a bonafide cultural cornerstone, and is still upheld as one of the best movie franchises of all time. My only question is WHY?
First, my expectations. I started this with high hopes of a fun, action filled adventure ride. I was excited to watch Harrison Ford whip stuff. I was excited to see the Industrial Light and Magic practical FX. At the time this movie was made, several big studios had turned the script down because it required so much work. I predicted that meant the production value would be off the chain so to speak. I had also done some research into the origins of this project, and it came down to nostalgia. “With both Star Wars and Raiders,” Lucas told The New York Times in 1981, “I started out by asking myself, ‘Gee, when I was a kid, what did I really like?’” This happened to be in line with what Spielberg liked as well. The topical, serialized dramas from the 30’s and 40’s. With this information, I fired up Netflix and settled in.
Now, what I did end up liking about it. Obviously Harrison Ford is the top of the list here, this movie is what made him a star and for good reason. His good natured, funny, super uncontrollably sexy aura is synonymous with Indiana Jones. He is….perfect. The color was amazing as well, as it is impossible to beat the richness of technicolor film. There were also some genuinely funny moments throughout that I really enjoyed, like Indiana Jones not bothering to sword duel and just straight up shooting his opponent. Also the monkey heiling Hitler was pretty hilarious in its own way. The production value…oh my god. So many locations, extras, special and practical effects, stunts, machines, snakes, coordination. The level of *stuff* happening in this movie is truly admirable. The end of the opening scene features a plane taking off from a river and into the sky. I had literally no idea that the whole scene was a toy model plane. Lots of movie trickery that I was 100% there for. As a filmmaker, when i’m watching something else I am looking for scenes or tricks that make me think ‘wait a minute, how the hell did they do that?!’ The scene where they open the Ark and everyone melts from the sheer power of God’s will (?) was easily my favorite part of the whole film. If not for the effects, then for the metaphor of opening a pandora’s box. Something else that I’ve come to appreciate in Indiana Jones is the way his power as a hero comes from waiting and being humble as opposed to brute strength. This motif appears in every Indiana Jones movie like clockwork so take that however you want.
Finally, my dislikes. That includes pretty much everything else. The writing felt sloppy. The entire movie is riddled with plot holes, decisions don’t make sense, racism, horrible sexism, a narrative arc that has 3-4 climaxes, and a completely ridiculous Western-centric whitewashed approach to the rest of the entire world.
To me, a good narrative arc runs smoothly. Everything happens for a reason, in one way or another. Motivation moves everything, and intention is everything. That felt severely lacking here. Things happened for no reason whatsoever, other than to show off Indiana’s impressive problem solving skills and physical prowess. The character of Marion, played by Karen Allen, has one of the most badass introductions of any female character of that time. The fact that it was in a regular bar in the mountains of Nepal I’ll get to later. Marion proceeds to spend the rest of the movie calling for help. Completely useless, completely helpless, and completely squandered. Marion may be considered a feminist icon today and I will always stand with that, but when I read that Allen fought with Spielberg a lot about the nature of her character, I could only think of the icon we could have had. Not to mention the incredibly disturbing transcript that has recently come out from George Lucas, Stephen Spielberg, and Lawrence Kasdan’s pre-production meetings where they fleshed out the story. In the movie, Marion is maybe 22-23 years old while Indiana Jones is easily in his mid to late 30’s. Here is the transcript conversation about that:
G — I was thinking that this old guy could have been his mentor. He could have known this little girl when she was just a kid. Had an affair with her when she was eleven.
L — And he was forty-two.
G — He hasn’t seen her in twelve years. Now she’s twenty-two. It’s a real strange relationship.
S — She had better be older than twenty-two.
G — He’s thirty-five, and he knew her ten years ago when he was twenty-five and she was only twelve. It would be amusing to make her slightly young at the time.
S — And promiscuous. She came onto him.
G — Fifteen is right on the edge. I know it’s an outrageous idea, but it is interesting. Once she’s sixteen or seventeen it’s not interesting anymore. But if she was fifteen and he was twenty-five and they actually had an affair the last time they met. And she was madly in love with him and he…
S — She has pictures of him.
Amusing indeed. Sexism aside, I truly don’t think I need to go into how racist the whole thing was. Yes it was from a different time and that was 100% the norm, but do we really need to keep upholding this. I mean for f*ck’s sake they had a white man in an asian person mask in the Nepalese bar scene, as well as several actors with brown makeup on their faces for the scenes in Egypt. That lends itself to my biggest problem, the Western theme running over everything else like an mf steamroller. This to me is because Spielberg and Lucas are so quintessentially American in their influences coupled with the fact that it was the 80’s in film. According to Adam Nayman of The Ringer “Where eccentric, idiosyncratic gestures like McCabe & Mrs. Miller and Taxi Driver reconfigured ideas of the American “art film,” Jaws, Star Wars, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind collapsed the gap between A and B movies that had defined production and exhibition practices in the old studio era.” That means (to me) careless. What set Stephen Spielberg and George Lucas apart from the rest of their peers was their unpretentiousness, yes, but also their lack of generating new content. They lacked the innovation that at least I appreciate in films of this generation.
Back to the bar in the remote Nepalese village. I mean…a bar where everyone is taking shots and drinking merrily, complete with a barmaid who can out-drink any of the men (Marion)? Has anyone on this production even been to Nepal? Not to mention the fact that Indiana Jones finds the Ark of the Covenant and then brings it back to America and hands it over to the shady government as a service to his country. The federal agents even say that it is a weapon of unfathomable power, so they have their top scientists working on it. Indie just basically said ok. I was left with more questions of intent than I had answers.
The fact that Sallah (a contracted Egyptian archaeologist and Indie’s good friend who was hired by the Nazi’s before Indie gets there) employs many other Egyptians to help him dig at the site. He laments his situation under the Nazis to Indie and says something along the lines of “It’s as if the pharaohs are back…”. Later in the movie Indiana finds the location of the Ark of the Covenant and then proceeds to make everyone else dig for it while he broods and hopes they find it quick enough. There are a bunch of small things like that just felt sloppy and racist and uncaring. Thank God for Harrison Ford.
On the Wong-Baker Faces Pain Rating Scale, Raiders of the Lost Ark hurts a whole lot.