Raiders Of The Lost Ark

Raiders Of The Lost Ark

Okay, here's the thing: I'm not a movie person. I mean, I like movies. Sometimes I'd even go so far as to say I love movies. But compared to my fellow A.V. Clubbers, when it comes to the depth and breadth of my cinematic knowledge, I might as well have been sitting in a cave with a blindfold on and my fingers in my ears for my entire life. It didn't occur to me to look beyond my local suburban megaplex or the new-releases section at Blockbuster until I was in my late teens, and at that point, the gaping holes in my "movies seen" list seemed far too scattered and numerous (and constantly multiplying) to bother plugging them all. Besides, that was about the time I discovered recreational boozing, so I was mainly focused on that. A few years back, in celebration of my shiny new Netflix account, I took it upon myself to make my way through AFI's list of the 100 best American films—it seemed as good a starting point as any—beginning with Citizen Kane and working my way down to, um, Yankee Doodle Dandy. Unfortunately, due to increasing graduate-school obligations (i.e., more recreational boozing), that experiment petered out around No. 51 (The Philadelphia Story)—only eight films away from number 60, Raiders Of The Lost Ark. So it isn't like I didn't try.

But still. This isn't some film-school prerequisite, fanboy favorite, or Cult Canon contender. It's Indiana fucking Jones. All three films land on the list of the 100 top-grossing domestic films; this is kids' stuff, Blockbuster Movies 101. How do you make it through a quarter of a century and not stumble across Raiders, at the very least? I'm gonna chalk it up mainly to timing: Raiders hit theaters before I was born, and The Last Crusade came out around the time I was mastering the alphabet, so I didn't really get to experience the hype the first go-round. By the time I was old enough to care about movies that didn't feature talking animals, no one really seemed to be talking about Indy any more. The franchise eventually worked its way onto my radar in its basic-cable incarnation, but since I avoid watching movies I haven't seen in the theater in their "edited for broadcast" versions, I found them easy to ignore.

Eventually, I came to shrug the films off as a missed opportunity: At this point in my life, do I really need to see the Indiana Jones movies? All the big, important signifiers—the bullwhip, the big rolling rock, that score, oh my God that score—are etched into my consciousness anyway, thanks to the leagues of homages and spoofs that have permeated my pop-culture education. Summer popcorn movies are all about the booms and the bombast; does anyone really care that much about the filler nearly three decades down the road? And what if that filler—which will almost certainly seem dated and worn by the passage of time—ends up sinking the movies for me? Do I really want to be the one to say that the movies don't hold up, that everyone who's shaken their heads incredulously at me have been wrong, and I'm really NOT missing much?

I'll get to that in a minute, but first, the reason we're all here: the booms and bombast. It's appropriate that the scene to kick off my marathon viewing of all three Indiana Jones movies would be the series' most iconic. You know the one. I was introduced to it the same way I was introduced to so many things, via The Simpsons.

Who knows how many times I've been subjected to variants on that setpiece since then? I could probably storyboard the whole thing before I even pressed "play." And yet there's nothing like hearing a classic song played by its original performer after a lifetime of wedding-band covers and karaoke massacres. The first temple scene so perfectly captures the Indiana Jones M.O.—the beleaguered anti-hero, the old-school soundstage stunts, the pulpy dialogue. Watching it, you're immediately caught up in the Saturday-matinee mentality that frames the series. The sequence doesn't even look that dated—aside from Alfred Molina's bloody rubber head—and the excitement holds up, even though you know Indy's gonna outrun that rock, just like he's always outrun that rock.

I can only imagine what the first 12 minutes of Raiders must have been like for audiences not spoiled by a lifetime of references to it. But while watching it this late in the game didn't afford any surprises, it did allow me enough emotional distance from the action to appreciate how meticulously Steven Spielberg was laying the foundations for the franchise in this single prologue. Spielberg is, among other things, extremely adept at creating lasting iconic images—E.T.'s glowing finger, the vibrating cup of water in Jurassic Park, the shark in that one movie about the shark—and Indiana Jones himself might be his best creation. Not Indiana Jones the character—at least as much credit goes to Harrison Ford, George Lucas, and screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan for that—but the symbol of Indy: the fedora, the whip, and the looming shadow. The attention paid to those elements, over and over again throughout the three films, borders on fetishistic.

Our first glimpse of our archeologist hero is in silhouette, in all his leather-jacketed glory, as he moves in and out of the shadows of the South American jungle, cool as a cucumber, while his Anonymous Hired Ethnics whimper in the face of poison darts and scary stone faces. Before he ever speaks a word, before we even see his face, we hear his whip crack. A whip crack. Come on, that's awesome; you're hooked before you even see the cat.

Of course, as the scene progresses, we soon learn that Indiana Jones is nowhere near as stoic as he first seems—that would get boring quickly. But as far as first introductions go, this is a doozy.

(A quick aside: I do wish someone had warned me about the creepy-crawlies in these movies. I knew there would be snakes—Indy hates snakes, y'see—but things with no legs don't bother me. Things with six or more legs, however, turn me into a quivering pile of goo. Little did I know the scattering of gorilla spiders in Raiders' golden-idol scene—which were enough to send me blubbering into my pillow—was nothing compared to the creepy-crawlies awaiting me in Temple Of Doom. Bugs—why'd it have to be bugs?)

The word that people always throw out when they're berating me for not seeing these movies is "fun." They're such fun movies. That's just about as vague an endorsement as you can get, but it's probably the most apt descriptor, and the best frame through which to view the films a quarter-century down the road. Raiders is arguably the best example. Approached as a cinematic touchstone, it's a pretty silly action-adventure movie. A cynic could spend hours ticking off the series of ridiculous logic leaps—how are all these ancient tombs somehow mechanized? Why do the baddies always let Indy's sidekick go free, essentially ensuring his escape? Why can't any of these gun-toting henchmen hit, well, anything? But approached as a whiz-bang send-up of B-movie actioners, well, now you're talking. And that's exactly what Raiders is supposed to be. In a short featurette that's part of the new Indiana Jones: The Adventure Collection DVD set, George Lucas explains, "It was always meant to be a B movie." And to hear Spielberg describe it, he approached Raiders as an experiment more than anything else. He wanted to do a "globetrotting" film, one that he could bring in on time and on budget, on the heels of the notoriously unwieldy, expensive Jaws and Close Encounters Of The Third Kind. Counterintuitively, approaching Raiders as a lark, as two film geeks splashing around in the shallow end, makes it more substantial and enduring. (And endearing.)

I certainly get the "fun" label with Raiders. Setting aside for a minute all the fireworks—the shootout in Marion's tavern, the chase through the Cairo bazaar, Indy and Marion's escape from the Well Of Souls, the melty faces—that "filler material" I worried about turns out to be a riot, striking just the right balance of tongue-in-cheek silliness and dramatic bravado. Credit for that goes in large part to the interplay between Ford and Karen Allen as his female accomplice, easily the best of Indy's ladies. (Happily, she's set to return in the upcoming fourth movie.) The pair doesn't have the most natural chemistry, but they each play it big and bold enough to render the admittedly cheesy dialogue oddly appealing.

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The same can't be said of Kate Capshaw, whose constant caterwauling downgraded Temple Of Doom's status from simply my least favorite of the trilogy to just plain obnoxious. I understand that some people see Temple as the misunderstood genius of the Indiana Jones franchise, but I found it absolutely grating, especially immediately following the relative deftness of Raiders. Maybe when viewed with a little distance from its predecessor (to which it actually serves as a prequel) some of Temple's annoyances register as a certain kind of charm, but I just can't get behind shrill, headache-inducing scenes like this one.

And don't even get me started on Short Round.

That said, I see what Lucas and Spielberg were trying to do with Temple. The film is always called the "darkest" of the three, presumably because of all the bloodletting ceremonies in labyrinthine underground caves, plus child slavery and evil cults. I guess underground labyrinths are dark, and child slavery, hey, no one likes that, but the plot didn't strike me as "dark" so much as unwieldy and overworked. Nazis and ancient forces that can melt your face aren't exactly a Sunday picnic, but no one calls Raiders dark. I think what people register as "darkness" is actually just calculated weightiness that comes off as more numbing than affecting.

The thing is, when you're dealing with scary "dark" things like chest-splitting, heart-stealing baddies, you need to offset that with a little extra humor and lightheartedness, even absurdity. And while this is occasionally done well in Temple—especially via the "Anything Goes" musical number and the shootout at Club Obi Wan (George Lucas, you stinker you!)—more often, it results in lame buffoonery, such as the palace banquet scene. Oh, those crazy foreigners and their disgusting foods!

Interestingly, the featurette associated with this disc features Steven Spielberg essentially placing the blame for the film's tone on George Lucas, whom he says wanted to echo the Star Wars series' progression, with a darker middle installment:

"I wasn't really okay with that, I kind of resisted it. But George was tenacious that he wanted the second one to be dark, and I feared it wouldn't be commercial enough. And it wasn't as commercial as the first one and the third one. But it was an important thing that he wanted to do, and I certainly deferred to George's better judgment because he had seen this three-movie arc and this is what he wanted to do and I was his director for hire."

Never mind that the Indiana Jones movies are episodic, not a continuing saga like the Star Wars films, and therefore there's really no need for such a progression; Lucas had found a formula, and he was gonna stick with it. Unfortunately, his theory doesn't really carry over to the Indy movies, and essentially works to sap Temple of the "fun" that was Raiders' greatest strength. And the attempts to inject that fun into a movie that just wasn't built for it often come off as noisy and garish—even the climactic mine-cart chase, which is about as enjoyable as watching someone else ride a roller coaster. (Which is essentially what it is.)

It seems, judging from the featurette accompanying The Last Crusade, that Spielberg moved beyond the "director for hire" mentality he had with Temple and asserted a lot more power in shaping the underlying structure of the third film. And thank God. To hear Spielberg tell it, Lucas came to him with the idea for a Grail quest, which the director originally balked at: "I didn't think that was a very exciting McGuffin. It was static, it was a cup. And George said, 'Well we can do something paranormal about it, and say if you drink from the cup, you'll have everlasting life.' And I said, 'That's okay, George, but it's still just gonna sit there.'" It was Spielberg who suggested spinning the Grail quest into a metaphorical father-son journey. A little corny, sure. But bringing Sean Connery on as Indy's mild-mannered, slightly doddering estranged father was probably the best move the filmmakers could have made.

In fact, The Last Crusade is the only one of the three movies where the chemistry between the characters—which often borders on slapstick, in a good way—threatens to overshadow the daring escapades. Aside from the opening prologue featuring a young Indy (River Phoenix) hopping train cars while running from grave robbers—which essentially serves as a creation myth—and the Nazi caravan chase (horses AND tanks!), the obligatory action scenes feel a little rote. The final sequence in the Canyon of the Crescent Moon in particular has a weird obstacle-course quality that strips it of any real excitement or suspense, reducing Indy's daring exploits to a succession of fairly straightforward tasks; aside from those spinning blades, what's so menacing about a few riddles?

But even though the energy flags a bit, Last Crusade makes up for it with dialogue and humor that matches and occasionally even outperforms Raiders. I suspect this is due in large part to Tom Stoppard, who did (uncredited) polishing on the script. (Spielberg said, in an 2005 interview with Empire magazine, "Tom is pretty much responsible for every line of dialogue.") Take Indy and Henry Jones' confrontation on the zeppelin out of Germany, which could have easily clunked into clichéd Daddy-why-don't-you-love-me melodrama:

That's how you inject pathos into an adventure film, not via hordes of emaciated children and Harrison Ford doing the ol' crazy-eyes routine. (I'm looking at you, Temple.)

At the end of this little jaunt through Indy-land, I can now say I understand and can totally get behind Raiders' "classic" designation. It was a game-changer, creating a whole different approach to adventure flicks that would be aped throughout the decade and beyond. And it is fun. I get it. And Last Crusade, while not as inspired or energetic as the original, reignites the spirit that made the first film so enjoyable. Temple, I can safely say I'll probably never watch again, unless I someday have the desire to recreate the experience of listening to nails scratching a chalkboard for an hour and a half. Where will the new Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull fall on this spectrum? I can't say for sure, but I can say I am now fully qualified to go find out when it hits theaters next weekend.

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