Brad’s April Escape - Part 4
April 6 - Raiders of the Lost Ark
Each weekday this month, I’ll screen a film from The Bearded Trio Cinematic Universe and list 10 random scenes, characters, musical cues or performances that I particularly enjoy and look forward to upon every viewing. I’d love to hear similar little things you enjoy about these films, and hope you join me in this escape from the present-day world.
Next up is a film that fully encompasses The Bearded Trio, Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
Raiders of the Lost Ark - An Introduction
If I were to ever attend film school and walked into Film Study 101, the first question I would ask is “What is the perfect movie?” The answer I would expect to get would be Raiders of the Lost Ark.
That’s how I see this franchise-starting film by Steven Spielberg, released on June 12, 1981. If one were to set out to craft the perfect movie, this would be the end result. An all-time leading man. Epic set pieces. Natural, unforced humor. Spectacular special effects. Compelling characters on both sides of the good guy-bad guy spectrum. A rousing musical score with a main theme you walk out of the theater humming. Storytellers and behind-the-scenes people at the absolute peak of their powers.
It just doesn’t get any better than Raiders of the Lost Ark. While I arrived to my Star Wars fandom first, Indiana Jones, the close relative of Star Wars, is right there in terms of my affection for a franchise. I can’t rank any of the first three Indiana Jones films amongst one another because they are all so great, but in unique ways. I’ll get to the other two later this month. But first, let’s get started with the classic that introduced us to the Man With The Hat.
10 Things I Like - Raiders of the Lost Ark
1. Hard to imagine a better introduction for a character than this scene, set in Peru. Indy appears only in silhouette for the first few shots we see of him. His guides are shown, looking suspicious and anxious. Less than five minutes into this film, we get the first betrayal of Indy, a botched one at that. Indy then emerges out of the mist and shadows. Like most of this movie, it looks and feels like “a movie” in its selection of shots, lighting and staging. It’s more dramatic than reality would actually be, but this movie is grounded so much on Earth and in Earth’s reality, you accept the over-the-top dramatic presentation. Would Indy move in this slow, revealing manner if he had just been on this hunt with no cameras present? It doesn’t matter. This is a movie made for the audience, and this little time in, 8-year-old me seeing this for the first time was more than hooked.
2. This shot got a good laugh from the audience in my theater in 1981. The golden fertility idol was shown with long “beauty shots” leading up to the point when Indy reaches the altar. The switch with a bag of sand lends an air absurdity to this display. Harrison Ford’s “Holy bleep this worked!” moment, captured here, allows us to join in with his incredulous reaction. A wonderful moment in a film filled with dozens of them.
3. We quickly switch to the academia world as Indy speaks with government agents about the Lost Ark in this film’s “Pointer Scene.” Here we see Indy’s mentor, Marcus Brody, looking on with a combination of pride and wonder as Indy works the chalkboard in demonstrating the function of the Staff of Ra. Seeing the way Marcus looks at Indy, having established who is the older and more experienced of the two, allows us to respect Indy’s intelligence, a key ingredient in his character. Indy is more than just the dusty urban cowboy who punches his way out of predicaments. These university scenes are critical in rounding out Indy’s character with the depth and texture that makes him one of cinema’s best. His smarts, his education are never more apparent than in the climactic scene in Last Crusade, when he’s using his father’s Grail diary. More on that later this month.
4. This quick shot is similar to Indy’s South America reveal, discussed earlier. I look at it today as a Spielberg signature. In all of his films, there exists a shot that is quintessential Spielberg. It’s hard for me to define, as the shots have different looks, occur at different times and have varying levels of relevancy to the overall plot. A shot in a later film that is a “Spielberg Shot” for me is when Ellie Sattler runs over the muddy Jurassic Park map in search of Dr, Grant and the kids in Jurassic Park. It was unnecessary to move the plot forward, but was an important visual to complement the story being told in that moment. So this shot, of Indy’s eyes peering through an opening in The Raven’s door, was a perfect Spielberg shot, highlighting Indy’s suspicion as he leaves, and a signal that he is likely to return, which he does. This isn’t the kind of shot your typical filmmaker would think of when filming this scene. But this isn’t a typical filmmaker we’re talking about here.
5. I have always loved this scene between Sallah and Indy in Cairo, just as Indy and Marion arrive. Eight-year-old me took in this scene as “this is how adults interact in an adult conversation. Wow cool, I get to listen in on an adult conversation!” Sallah’s wife and kids fixed up the table with fruit and drinks as this conversation begins, then they retreat out of frame. Sallah then gets Indy up to speed on the situation in Cairo with regards to the search for the Ark. The two men have mutual respect, are smart, at ease with one another and have a deep level of trust. It’s also nice to see than Indy has friends he can trust in far away places, after the double betrayal he suffers in the film’s opening scenes.
6. Enter ILM. Industrial Light & Magic was founded by George Lucas twice leading up to this film. ILM 1.0 helped produce Star Wars: A New Hope. But after that film’s release, the group scattered into different directions, most notably with John Dykstra leaving to form his own effects group, Apogee. So Lucas, fresh off the dizzying success of Star Wars, had to go about reassembling ILM in a hurry to get started on Star Wars: Empire Strikes Back. Now that ILM had a sense of permanence, it could go to work on scenes like this in the Map Room, when the supernatural nature of the film, and the film’s MacGuffin, could fully be realized. And as usual, the effects work in perfect synchronization with the music from John Williams, who calls upon the chill-inducing choir to hit the crescendo just as the light, pictured above, reaches its peak. “The Map Room” is one of three tracks from this soundtrack that are as good as anything Williams has ever written, joining “Desert Chase” and “Airplane Fight.”
7. Spielberg left no doubts as to who the most threatening bad guy was in this film with the introduction of Toht back in The Raven bar. I remember watching this film with my dad in the theater in 1981 and I constantly called him “The Creep.” Every time he’d pop up on the screen, I’d chime on “Oh there’s the creep again.” A neat story told about this actor, Ronald Lacey, appears in the documentary that came out with the DVD box set in 2003. Lacey had retired from acting and was an agent before getting cast in this film. He’d become disillusioned with acting, but ended up winning this part and played an unforgettable villain. I found it to be an inspirational story, for someone to come back to a profession and play a role that was so distinct and memorable. Even if he was creepy.
8. The Desert Chase. My favorite track from the soundtrack and one of the greatest pieces of film ever recorded. This is Indy at his absolute best. Daring, tough, resilient, relentless. The only other chase scene that compares to this one in my mind is the freeway chase in The Matrix: Reloaded (2003). That one is faster, but this one is far grittier. And the stakes are much higher, with possession of the Ark hanging in the balance. Indy is thrown from a truck, shot, dragged behind it and punched IN HIS BULLET WOUND and still comes out on top. At this point, we believe Indy capable of anything. Just perfect cinema.
9. The Bad Guys Fall Off A Cliff scene. All three original films have a scene just like this, and this acts as another Spielberg signature moment.
10. The climactic scene of the film, and once again, ILM shines. Documentary footage shows Lucas and Spielberg stressing about this shot while on location in September 1980. “We’re all up the creek (if this doesn’t work)” Lucas muses in his classic pessimistic manner. The lightning/fire/power of God described back in the university lecture hall is seen on full display here as the Nazis get wiped out. Watching this in the theater, my ears perked up at recognizing many of the same sounds that appeared in Star Wars and Empire Strikes Back. Listen carefully and you’ll recognize many of Ben Burtt’s creations from those first two Star Wars films reappear here. Electronic buzzes, explosions and other sounds integrate perfectly into this scene. They also serve as a bonding agent, for me, between the two franchises.
Brad’s Escapism Moment in Raiders of the Lost Ark
The whole movie. Raiders isn’t my favorite movie of all time (Empire Strikes Back holds that title), but I think it’s the best-made movie of all my favorites. Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, John Williams Harrison Ford and a host of others created the ideal viewing experience with Raiders of the Lost Ark. The visuals balanced the real and the fantastic. Ford played his role with an expertise that would be unmatched. Williams mixed 1930s old Hollywood romance with modern-day action in his score. Lucas added to his legend with creating another character that was original and beloved universally. And Spielberg bounced back from a rare turkey in his career (1941) to show he was here to stay as a once-in-a-lifetime filmmaker. This movie was my first introduction to Steven Spielberg. The first film of his I saw in the theater, and he gained instant credibility with me, much in the same way George Lucas, Harrison Ford and John Williams had done four years earlier with Star Wars. I am so fortunate to have been alive when Indiana Jones became a character and gave us all a reason to escape this world and enter his, two hours at a time.
Coming Tuesday: Star Wars: Attack of the Clones (2002)
The Bearded Trio - The Site For Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, John Williams and a whole lot more.