Seeking out the

5000 greatest films

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Raiders of the Lost Ark
The rare film that is better than it’s supposed to be

People often wonder why so many bad movies get made every year, but it is actually the wrong question to ask. The real question is how do any great movies ever get made? Films can take years or even decades to produce, and at every step in their long journey from first inspiration to theatrical release, they are vulnerable to minor and major catastrophes that can damage or doom the final product. All movies are such expensive, prolonged and labor-intensive undertakings, in fact, that it is a miracle any of them turn out better than just OK. This is one reason why a great film is a thing to celebrate. Unlike a masterful symphony, novel, or painting, making a great film requires far more than a talented creator. Rather, a first-rate movie signifies that lightning has been caught in a bottle over and over again until the bottle glows with exceptional brilliance. The films that endure are those in which the vision of the creators has worked in perfect harmony with the circumstances of the film's realization to result in something amazing.

I think this synchronicity is most clearly exemplified in Raiders of the Lost Ark. It is the rarest of movies in that it actually turned out far better than its creators ever envisioned--and perhaps far better than it had a right to. The reason this is a great film, rather than just an above-average adventure flick, has a lot to do with when it was made: the end of the 1970s, a time when cinema was old enough to be nostalgic for its earlier years but young enough to do something original with that nostalgia. A time when the medium had evolved to a point where it produced countless artistically significant and satisfying works but was still innocent enough to experiment and stumble into happy accidents.

As the 70s came to a close, Steven Spielberg was Hollywood’s golden boy.  After the successes of Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, the big studios were ready to let him do anything he wanted. One thing he wanted very much was to direct a James Bond movie--a wish the American studios couldn't grant since Bond is a British property. But Spielberg’s pal George Lucas brought him in on an idea that was even better than Bond: an adventure film about a globetrotting archaeologist that Lucas had dreamed up while writing the script for Star Wars. Like his space fantasy,Lucas envisioned Raiders as a kind of homage to the quick-and-cheap kiddie-matinee serials of Hollywood’s golden age, only on a grander scale.

Lucas had tried to develop this project several times in the past, most significantly with Philip Kaufman, a film school chum who would go on to write and direct The Right Stuff and The Unbearable Lightness of Being.  Although Lucas didn't make too much progress with him, Kaufman contributed the most important element of Raiders of the Lost Ark: the Lost Ark itself. It was Kaufman’s idea that the object of this adventure should be that most sacred and mysterious of relics, the Biblical Ark of the Covenant.

Lucas and Spielberg hired the young writer Lawrence Kasdan to develop the screenplay with them, based on the strength of his early scripts, The Bodyguard and Continental Divide. They set about devising ideas for the film in much the same way Ernest Lehman and Alfred Hitchcock did for North By Northwest--by brainstorming exciting sequences and set pieces they all wanted to see in a film. Kasdan, who had the job of making a coherent screenplay out of all the ideas, recorded these story conferences on audiotape, and if reading this transcript doesn’t make you want to write movies, then I doubt anything could.Thumb raiders professor
Indiana Smith (he would become Indiana Jones after Spielberg convinced Lucas that “Smith” was too dull a name) was originally intended to have an international-playboy aspect to his personality in the James Bond mold, but the other dimensions of his character--the rough-and-tumble adventurer and the bookishly awkward university professor--made him more distinctive, complex and fun, so the playboy element dwindled as the story developed. The three creators filled notebooks with ideas and filed away the ones that were too expensive or that Kasdan couldn’t find room for in the script, many of which found their way into the eventual sequels.

Despite the fact that all the major studios considered the script far too outlandish and expensive, Lucas was able to secure a distribution deal with Paramount and the film moved off the back burner and into production rather quickly. Spielberg wanted Harrison Ford to play Indy, and, despite objections from Lucas that Ford had starred in Lucas's previous two films, Spielberg got his wish when Ford was signed just three weeks before principle shooting began. Imagine how Raiders might have turned out had it starred Lucas’ first choice, Tom Selleck, or one of the many other contenders, among them Bill Murray, Nick Nolte, Tim Matheson and Peter Coyote. It is always fun to speculate in this way about the alternate casting of any iconic movie, but I think the exercise is especially striking in this case.  Next to the Ark itself, Harrison Ford is the key ingredient that makes this movie a classic, as essential as Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca, Jack Nicholson in Chinatown or Peter O’Toole in Lawrence of Arabia.

The whole film is impeccably cast, especially Karen Allen as Indy’s love interest.  Marian Ravenwood, of whom Indy may have taken advantage when she was the young daughter of his mentor but who has grown into a spirited and assertive woman--very much his equal, is a more challenging role than one might think at first glance. Marian is part romantic sparring partner, part damsel in distress, and part voice of rational perspective. Karen Allen brings a formidable strength of character to Marian as well as a look and manner that are at once contemporary and authentic to the perod. 

Another fortunate turn of casting is John Rhys-Davies in the important role of Indy’s old friend, the excavator Sallah. Danny DeVito was the first choice to play Sallah, and as good an actor as DeVito may be, especially in his early roles, it is easy to imagine his comedic presence overpowering the somber, mysterious tone of the critical Cairo section of the picture, especially when you consider his memorable performance inRomancing the Stone three years later. Casting supporting roles is something many people take for granted, but it is one of the primary things that separate timeless films from ones that age awkwardly and fade away. Even one bad casting choice can permanently cripple a film, think of Soffia Coppola in The Godfather Part III or Keanu Reeves in Dangerous Liaisons.

In addition to the excellent cast, the standards of production for a project of this scope and type were at a tipping point when the cameras rolled in 1980. Everything that the script called for was capable of being created though the “in-camera” and photochemical techniques of the day, and, decades later, they still look more than credible. John Williams’s ever-present, motif-driven orchestral music and Ben Burtt’s uniquely detailed and creative sound design were still new enough to make the film sound fresh and exciting, and the attention paid to sound by these filmmakers was rare if not unprecedented at this point in film history.

Lucas and Spielberg planned to shoot Raiders quickly and cheaply. This was a result of their desire to pattern the film after the ultra-low-budget cliffhangers of their childhoods as much as their need to keep costs down. But they wanted to produce and direct this quick and cheap entertainment with the skill and craftsmanship they were known for.  While the film did end up being made for a substantial $22 million, the production did not go over budget, and Spielberg shot very quickly, actually finishing twelve days ahead of schedule. Unlike many pictures, with their horror stories of endless production problems and cost overruns, Raiders seems to have been created with relative ease in an atmosphere that was casual, playful, and inventive, and which offered enough downtime for Spielberg and Harrison Ford’s wife Melissa Mathison to write the story for E.T. during shooting breaks. When dysentery hit Ford and many of the crew members, Spielberg cut three days from the shooting schedule by removing an elaborate sword fight and just having the tired Indy remember that he has a gun and shooting his sword-wielding attacker, thereby creating one of the film’s most famous moments and making a pointed and humorous comment on the genre.

Thumb raiders boulderSpielberg and Lucas's desire to make a B-grade movie that was only slightly better than the old Republic serials may be what gives Raiders its charm, humor, and lack of pretension, but most films that start out by setting a low bar do not score so spectacularly high as this one. Kasdan’s script and Spielberg’s direction are models of cinematic storytelling, requiring little time and few shots to seduce the viewer and deliver the goods. The opening “teaser” sequence, which introduces Indiana Jones's character by means of a trek through the jungle and a descent into a booby-trapped temple, plays like a master class in the foundations of cinema. Without ever drawing attention to the camera work or editing, Spielberg encapsulates the visual language of cinema formalized by early film pioneers like D. W. Griffith, Cecil B. DeMille and John Ford, and then proceeds to rewrite that language in ways that would reverberate for the next thirty years. This potentially silly opening, which was apparently based on a Donald Duck comic book in which Donald and his nephews navigated a similarly treacherous lost temple, manages to be both light and fun while instilling a sense of real danger and mystery. It’s a hell of an exciting opening – take that, James Bond!

But though the opening ten minutes of Raiders are deservedly celebrated, it is the following three expository scenes at the university where Indy teaches that separates this film from others of its ilk. After the first humorous classroom scene, in which we see that Dr. Jones’ lectures are almost entirely populated by attractive female students with crushes on him, Indy is summoned by his boss Dr. Marcus Brody (played by Denholm Elliott in yet another inspired casting choice) to meet with Army Intelligence officers.

This next expository scene, set in a giant, echoing lecture hall, is the most important scene in the movie. In five short minutes, ten simply-composed wide shots, and only thirty-nine cuts, the filmmakers explain everything the audience needs to know about the Lost Ark, that most formidable of “McGuffins.” Thumb raiders best sceneWe come to understand the Ark’s power and mystery, and the danger of what will happen if it falls into the wrong hands. Indeed, the only pieces of narrative exposition we don’t learn here are that Indy has a rivalry with the French archeologist Rene Belloq (which is revealed in the opening sequence) and that he has a romantic history with his mentor's daughter (which is established in the last of the three university scenes, immediately after this one, in which Indy gets confirmation that the Army wants him to go after The Ark). If the slew of films that followed Raiders of the Lost Ark had tried harder to mimic this deft handling of exposition rather than just the excitement of the opening and the other great action sequences, we may have gotten an infinitely better crop of knockoffs.

But the brilliance of this scene, like much of the film, is not totally evident on first viewing, and even Lucas, Spielberg and Kasdan were not fully aware of how special their work was until they saw it all come together. The final film is an almost accidental combination of young but experienced talents working in a unified effort that is nearly unimaginable in the massively ego-driven world of 1970s filmmaking. Raiders is a film far greater than the sum of its parts, and the reason for this goes back to Philip Kaufman’s contribution to the script and the inspired choice of the film’s antagonists. As part of their reference to the serials of the 30s and '40s, Lucas, Spielberg and Kasdan set their story in the late 1930s, which meant that the Nazis were a logical choice to be the film’s primary villains. There have been hundreds of films about Nazis since the beginning of World War II, just as there have been dozens of biblical epics since the invention of cinema. The Nazis in Raiders of the Lost Ark are written very similarly to the cartoonish German villains seen in countless B-movies o the previous four decades. However, in the context of this film, the opposing forces of “the evils of the Third Reich” and “the power of God” come off not as generic tropes but as an original and brilliant combination.

This confrontation of physical and symbolic forces reaches its full cinematic potential during the spectacular climax of Raiders of the Lost Ark. For if we grant that the Nazis represent the ultimate evil in the world, and that the Ark represents the ultimate good, then this finale presents an ultimate showdown between good and evil playing out right before our eyes (if not before the eyes of Indy and Marian as they know enough to keep them shut, rather than to presume to try and understand the full ramifications of this event). This unforgettable climax, followed by the more downbeat and ambiguous conclusion of Raiders, represents the best aspect of this generation of cinema: we don’t get any real explanation of what happened or will happen with the Ark, but we do get a satisfying conclusion to the relationship between Indy and Marian. The ending contains both the cynicism and ambiguity of a 1970s movie as well as the satisfying character closure and narrative resolution of a 1980s movie.
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 ended up being far more than just a homage to the Saturday matinee serials of old or the introduction of a new kind of James Bond-style action hero, and once this film was made, no film of its kind could best it. How can you top an adventure film in which the ultimate good squares off against the ultimate evil? This impossibility is one of the reasons why Raiders sequels and imitators can never measure up to this picture, however interesting or fun they might be on their own. The third Indiana Jones film, The Last Crusade, attempted to recapture a “grace of God” vs. “evil of the Nazis” plot, but the result plays (at least thematically) more like a soft remake of Raiders than an inspired sequel.

Of course, Quentin Tarantino, the master of cinematic re-appropriation, found a way to pull off an equally inspired match-up in his 2009 film Inglourious Basterds, in which the evil of Nazism is opposed not by the power of God, but of cinema.  To people like me, for whom film is our religion, that’s a brilliant conceit. But for most audiences, the God of Abraham who spoke to Moses and Mohammed and sent his son to die for the sins of man, etc. etc. is going to resonate more meaningfully than the coterie of movie-buffs who defeat the Nazis in Inglourious Basterds. This universality makes Raiders the superior film.

I never tire of watching Raiders of the Lost Ark. It is always an incredible sensation to have the film wash over me: the evocative nature of its signature score, the subtle perfection of its visual compositions, the calm efficiency of its editorial pace, the perspicacious spark of its witty dialogue, and the charm and personality of its characters and actors. I am, of course, fully aware of the fact that the film imprinted on me when I was an impressionable ten years old, when I saw it five or six times in theaters and then close to a hundred more times throughout my life on VHS, Laserdisc, DVD, and 35mm in revival houses. Had I been born at a different time, I’m sure there would have been another film that would have made an equally deep impact, but I count myself very fortunate to have been ten in the year of Raiders of the Lost Ark, rather than, say, the year of Journey to the Center of the Earth, Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid, or The Towering Inferno--or for that matter the year of The Usual SuspectsThe Lord of the Rings, or The Dark Knight. I believe I owe my love of film in no small part to this one tremendous picture.
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