By the 1980s, Steven Spielberg had a reputation but not necessarily the one that you all are probably familiar with. Certainly, he had that one in a marginal way: he was already the golden boy young success story off of Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, utilizing his New Hollywood background to perfect the populist blockbuster he essentially created with his big-time shark movie. But within the industry itself, he had another reputation as somebody who couldn’t really keep a budget or schedule. While Jaws and Close Encounters had made enough money to put in the mouths of any producers who might have taken issue with their notoriously overinflated production expenses and on-set issues, 1979 saw the release of 1941 – Spielberg’s first commercial and critical flop. So when he and the other New Hollywood Populist Traitor George Lucas were on vacation conjuring up a character they’d like to bring to the screen as a response to that globe-trotting action hero James Bond, Spielberg set in mind an idea that he was going to get this film made as a producer’s dream: under budget, ahead of schedule, period. This is of course humorous to think back on in the modern era where Spielberg now constantly has several projects on pre-production and is often able to quickly prepare a movie well in-advance of its slated release*, but I digress.
The film that resulted is, by most accounts, Lucas’ baby as producer and co-writer facilitating Spielberg’s entry into the director’s seat. But to my mind, Spielberg’s dead-set deliberate efficiency is – to my mind – the core of what makes Raiders of the Lost Ark, that very project that Spielberg and Lucas conceived of and released in the early summer of 1981, one of if not the best action movie of all time (or at the very least, my favorite). It is what informs Michael Kahn’s sharp cutting in between moments to get out of a scene exactly when the point is made and to keep any setpieces with a forward momentum that matches the sort of urgent running or riding that Raiders’ famous protagonist must go through. It is what informs Lucas and Lawrence Kasdan’s screenplay frontloading the majority of its exposition in an early college meeting so that we have pretty much all the information we need to get going, it is what informs that scene being preceded by a continuous setpiece seamlessly moving from the jungle to a temple back to the jungle without making us realize we were watching entirely separate sequences (again, credit to Kahn’s work). Hell, that very resolution was at the root of the famous scene where an epic swordfight is teased and shot down in a hilariously sardonic manner.
If I may betray that momentum for a moment to backtrack regarding that exposition: Raiders of the Lost Ark was of course the movie that introduced us to that favorite of everyman action heroes Professor Henry “Indiana” Jones (Harrison Ford) but I’ll get back to him shortly as well. No, what I completely skipped over is the setting of the pieces of this story: As the FBI approaches Indy after a semi-failed expedition, he is recruited for his knowledge to retrieve the Biblical Ark of the Covenant – in which Moses carried the tablets containing the Ten Commandments – before the Nazis could do so and utilize whatever power lives inside the artifact to rule the world. Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen), Indy’s former lover and daughter of his late mentor Abner Ravenwood, recruits herself from Nepal into Indy’s journey to Egypt as she proves to be invaluable in the absence of her dad. And in the meantime, Indy’s inscrutable rival René Belloq (Paul Freeman) is guiding the Nazis to finding the location of the Ark, though guided by his own personal obsession with witnessing a means to possibly contact God. All of this information given in fewer scenes than can count on your hand and 98% of it before the 30 minute mark.
That leaves more than enough space for Spielberg to indulge instead in the inherent sweep of an adventure yarn, inspired by the 1930s serials where some plucky hero roams to exotic lands from the leafy hills of Peru to the snowy exile of Nepal to the hot cooking sands of Cairo and beyond. Cinematographer Douglas Slocombe enhances the scope of these already exciting and distinct foreign lands with a smart usage of the immortal anamorphic frame as well as giving a horizontal read to all the action. Imagine that infamous swordfight joke working without the frame letting us read from Indy shooting the swordsman at the left and the swordsman falling to the right accentuating that the vast space is in the middle of them rather than above them. Or the car chase having nearly as much drive without such an aggressively directional frame. Not to ignore the sort of propulsion these setpieces get simply from the sounds: the characteristic comic book impact Ben Burtt gives to punches and whipcracks (for real, whipCRACKS!) and the famous peppy march to adventure that John Williams notches into his belt of iconic scores.
On top of those tropes, we also have the beautiful ingénue in tow (although one also has to regret how Marion goes from an impressive heroine with a tough and funny introduction to a damsel in distress in a white dress before the halfway mark, despite the best efforts of Allen’s performance) and the artifact all the players seek dripping with mystique, taking full advantage of the advent of color and light to give the golden Ark all that shine and shimmer. But in any case, the seeking of that Ark is just as animated by that “need to get to the point” efficiency that drove Spielberg and spilled out into Kasdan and Kahn and Williams’ results: a movie that is constantly on the move. The same smooth segue that glides us from cutting through the jungle to cautiously traipsing past traps to escaping from a tumbling rock is what brings Raiders of the Lost Ark barrelling through its runtime from a dig to a trap to a brawl, occasionally allowing Spielberg and Kahn to wink at how ludicrously speedy we’ve gone out of the fire and into the frying pan.
And yet, the core of all of Raiders‘ charms beyond being an impeccably-crafted piece of nostalgic cinema is Ford, whose modern rough attitude feels like more clownish than downer. From the way he whines about having to go through “snakes. Why’d it have to be snakes?” to the exhausted way he shoots down swordsmen to the way his body crumbles to the ground like bricks as Pat Roach hits him, Jones is just as important an ingredient to having somebody fun to go on an adventure with as Raiders focuses on being an adventure fun to go on. Surrounded by lively stock types embodied by character actors, Ford’s bitter sarcasm and complaining (particularly the complaining – Indy’s indulgence in remarking about every goddamn thing that’s happening to him as a severe inconvenience) grounds the adventure as exhausting in its sweep before he wows us with leaping to his survival or bursting on a white horse. It was highly impressionable to me as a child and probably impelled a desire for real adventure, a disappointment at how hard that is, and a hatred for Nazis (informing me that “Nazi” equals “punching bag” more than that viral video of Richard Spencer getting socked).
It’s funny how a movie inspired by nostalgia for an classical way of storytelling ended up embodying a new idea of “classical” storytelling despite its DNA being seen in much of modern popcorn cinema. Like how no shark movie post-Jaws can avoid being seen as a “Jaws rip-off”, I can’t think of a single post-Raiders adventure film that doesn’t owe every element of its existence to Raiders. Perfection just bears imitators and it is a fruitless task to capture lightning in a bottle more than once (including this film’s sequels, though I have no small love for the entire franchise). Maybe they’re just digging in the wrong place.
*I’m thinking specifically of the minute amount of time in which The Post went from script to Oscar campaign smack in between filming and post-production of Ready Player One these past few years. This also mirrors the production cycle of Jurassic Park and Schindler’s List, as well as The Lost World: Jurassic Park and Amistad, as well as War Horse and The Adventures of Tintin. And I’m probably forgetting other movies.