Raiders of the Lost Ark: Unearthing Childhood

When Indy’s iconic silhouette splashes across Marion’s grin, she says, “I always knew someday you'd come walking back through my door. Something made it inevitable.” The Spielberg-directed, George Lucas-written adventure is pure pulp, a film you’d call a “flick.” Like a combination of Victorian safari man Allan Quartermain and James Bond, Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) is as persistent as any of the heroes that rode over a rolling sunrise to rescue our childhoods from reality. He's so familiar that we don't need any convincing that he's iconic. But he is even more essential than those old heroes. Many have noted that in Raiders of the Lost Ark, this protagonist does nothing that directly impacts the outcome of the plot. People who point this out will state it with the assertiveness of solving a math problem or declaring a political opinion (The Big Bang Theory popularized it). There's a reason that this is the first thing I'm talking about in this review.

Understanding why Indiana Jones is important to his story despite making no tangible impact on it (if that's even true) is essential to enjoying it; the observation that his actions only have value if they have an impact on the plot misunderstands Spielberg/Lucas' entire idea of movies. They did not feel that they needed to address the audience at the beginning of Raiders to get this across. They knew we were born ready for this adventure. Today, I feel that I should do so at the beginning of my review. Enjoying Indiana Jones is about cherishing his self-indulgences, as we cherish those of his flickmakers, through which he makes the actions of heroes seem heroic, even when they accomplish very little, as they often do. He does nothing that can be rebuked at a later time because his importance is not in something he accomplishes that a screenwriter wrote down, but in what he means to us in the pursuit of a feeling. In the scheme of movies, he is meaningful in that love of great junk that makes us think a specific hat is something quite important, and is as much required to seek adventure as the skill to do so. In the scheme of our cultural upbringing, he is as nostalgic as childhood, and as inevitable as playing outside.

I find it distressing that I have to ask you, as Jean Cocteau once felt he had to ask before telling us a fairytale, "for a little childlike simplicity." Declaring that Indiana is worthless, in my mind, declares that simplicity to be worthless. Cinema, and film analysis, can still learn something from it, The Big Bang Theory notwithstanding.

Personalities in Raiders of the Lost Ark don’t put on the pretense of depth. Indiana's first appearance in this movie is in shadow, defined only by a silhouette making calculated, competent movements. At first, he is neither Spielberg’s creation nor Ford’s, but a template for any of our vicarious childhood fantasies. Equal and oppositely, his villains are stand-ins for villainy: they wouldn't be out of place in a Superman cartoon. Armed with this iconic surety, Spielberg removes doubt as much as depth. This is how he turns us into children again.

Unheeded by depth, the quest to discover the Ark of the Covenant before the Nazis get it easily becomes an upturned toy-box of action. Machine guns, whips, knives, scimitars, Lugers, Magnums, all come into play on a Nazi war wing, a U-boat, a cargo truck, a speeding horse. It’s a heedless tableau of action, of the kind that has never been as enjoyable as when it plays its silliness straight. A closing door, for instance, will hang in time on the second it’s about to close with that Spielbergian time-elongation technique of fudging reality to the needs of suspense. Indy is shown to not have enough time to make it, but we have no trouble believing that he finds a way. We defy the closing door. If it was done today, someone would make a crack about how unrealistic it is, and shrug it off. Nothing is so great about Raiders as its ability to throw back its shoulders and laugh in triumph, to not poke fun at itself even in the face of fakeness manufactured for thrills.

Only in the moments that Raiders acts sure that there's more to it than what we see and feel does it lose me. The old adventures didn't know how to want anything other than treasure and pretty women. This is why even if Raiders is the best Indiana Jones film, Temple of Doom remains the most aware of itself.

After pulling back a spider’s web thick as a fun house’s, braving deadly booby traps and a now iconic rolling rock, Indiana loses a golden totem to the Frenchman, Belloq (Paul Freeman). Like the antagonists in superhero serials, he always seems to try too hard compared to our laconic hero. Indy has a slick kind of serious that Humphrey Bogart knew pretty well, like his tongue has spent so long in his cheek that it’s gotten stuck there. “I am your dark reflection,” Belloq says, a statement that gets absorbed straight into Indy’s smirking eyes because Indy knows that Belloq is giving himself too much credit. Belloq may appreciate their shared quest for treasure, but he'll never deserve it.

The rousingly masculine John Rhys-Davies motivates the kinetic humor of the film’s middle act, wherein not a monkey, a mysterious man with an eyepatch, or a cartoonishly evil Nazi commander (Ronald Lacey) seem out of place in a dodgy Adventures of Tin-Tin-style romp through the streets of Cairo. Outside the city, overseen by Belloq, the Nazis dig for the ark with local labor. “It is as though the pharaohs have returned,” Sallah (Davies) remarks. The sentiment hints at something essential for Spielberg, that thing he hopes to add to all this playing around: he hopes to make it grand. He wants us to find the value in his recreation of a story that could have been written by Edgar Rice Burroughs or H.R. Haggard, where a journey into the jungle entails a covenant with all the mysteries of the universe and when colonization was something to brag about. But the sublime aspect of Temple of Doom is that Indy doesn't take the magic seriously and that even in its world of terror, the things we believe in make us who we are. He sees that happen. One aspect of Raiders that's never sat well with me was the assertion that the Christian God is real and can summon demons to melt our faces. In the face of this particular discovery, taken as reverently as Spielberg seems to hope us to take it, there's no way I'd go looking for treasure again, the Holy Grail least of all. There's a point, and Temple of Doom contains none of this sentiment at all, that Spielberg makes Raiders and asks of us a little adultlike humility. This is the part I don't care for. What really saves it is that the characters don't seem to notice.

Somewhere between sidekick and damsel, Marion (Karen Allen) throws a gusty grin at a bad guy and conks a few on the head. Indiana collects her from her self-assigned exile in Tibet out-drinking a bunch of fat Sherpas because she has something he needs. But had he always intended to come back? Marion not uncertainly snubs Indy’s way of life, recalling the young girl she used to be before she was deflowered by an archetype. “Look how well your charm works,” M accusingly says to Bond in one of the recent films. The difference with Indiana is not that he lacks charm but perhaps that he never has to be blamed for it. Marion might try to accuse him of being like Bond but Raiders never reassess our feelings for Indiana. It is not a subversive film. We, and it seems like Marion as well, always intend to take him back.

Like us, Marion quickly learns to enjoy re-entering Indiana’s life, for just one adventure of the kind he seems to go on every day. Her propensity for getting into trouble never destabilizes the reckless pace of their adventure because the protagonists do not enact so much as ride this plot. Refusing to go on adventures never comes up in those old serials, so Spielberg drops the pretense that it’s even an option. Even when the “hocus pocus” impales Nazis with ghost lasers and melts their eyeballs, Indiana’s not regretful or flighty but sensibly along for the ride. He ignores the fact that his universe is now a nightmare realm. “Close your eyes,” he says, “Whatever you do, don’t look.” I remember watching this movie as a kid and taking his advice.

Ford is perfect in a role Spielberg intended for Tom Selleck, preoccupied at the time with TV’s Magnum P.I. Just imagine that. Who else could not play the scruffy-looking whip-cracker, least of all a solid block of deadpan cheese behind a mustache I doubt he would have parted with. Indiana is a hero that would be destroyed by grooming.

The exhilarating locomotion of Spielberg’s ode to the adolescence of American boy culture is matched only by its bravery in asserting uncomplicated characters as though they are worthy of love. They might be, in fact, as they try to absolve us of a century of adulthood just with our love of running around, getting punched in the gut, kissing dames, and shooting bad guys. The greatest thing about Spielberg’s E.T. is that he crafts a story as though it takes place from the perspective of a child. The greatest thing about Raiders of the Lost Ark is that its joyous energy reminds us how that was our own perspective to begin with, if we can still accept it.

A young Jewish Californian’s dream to go on adventures, kill Nazis, and dig for treasure here asserts itself as an even older fantasy for even younger dreamers. Indy is a character innate in us, with a posture fit for as many startling adventures as we’re willing to send him on. The fact that we eventually stopped is no flaw in the archetype, but in the fact that we let the superheroes tell us it's more important to seem important. Will he ever return, as ineffably spunky as he appears here? I’d like to think it’s inevitable.


Image is a screenshot from the film.

Cast & Crew

Steven Spielberg

Lawrence Kasdan (screenplay)

George Lucas (story)

Philip Kaufman (story)

Indiana Jones Harrison Ford
Marion Karen Allen
Belloq Paul Freeman
Toht Ronald Lacey
Sallah John Rhys-Davies
Brody Denholm Elliott
Dietrich Wolf Kahler

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