Watching Steven Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) is a lesson in how to pace an action/adventure movie. I have seen this film a zillion and one time and it always feels like it just flies by. Every scene is filled with only the essential. Lawrence Kasden’s screenplay gives you what you need and then moves on to the next order of business. The film is in a constant state of movement. The two sequels that followed (and we will just keep Crystal Skull out of this conversation) are fine films that have different qualities about them but neither feel like or hold up as well as Indy’s first adventure (well technically second since Raiders occurs after Temple of Doom). Unlike Temple of Doom and Last Crusade which both have earmarks of the 80’s, Raiders feels like it was made in the late 70’s. It’s sensibilities are reflective of the 70’s. Indiana Jones is a darker character. The story and the action feel more grounded in reality; it’s less cartoonish. It has a gritty, rough and tumble feel to it. The later films would feel more polished/staged as well as the heir of familiarity which wasn’t always a good thing.
It also occurred to me last night that Raiders is Spielberg’s ode to Warner Bros. contract director Michael Curtiz and to the Warner Bros. stable of character actors. With it’s locations and fantastic, albeit minimalist, period art direction; Raiders could easily pass for a Warner Bros. adventure film from the 40’s and Spielberg’s visual style is very similar to Curtiz’s (establishing shots, camera movement, etc). Moreover, it’s not a huge leap to see visual similarities in Spielberg’s actor choices for the roles of Raiders and the Warner contract actors.
Indiana Jones would become a more broadly drawn character in the sequels but in Raiders he is a man of few words and he comes off as a little dangerous. The humor is more subtle and if ever a moment really sells the attitude and tone of Raiders it’s the moment when the giant, bald German calls Indy down off the plane wing to fight. Harrison Ford’s physical lilting reaction, in essence saying “C’mon really?”, sums up Indiana Jones. He wants the path of least resistance but rarely does he get it.
Speaking of that scene, the other thing I noticed was the role of the fist fight. It has always been clear that the whole concept of Indiana Jones was based on Saturday matinee serials and adventure movies of the past. Fist fights were always a major element of serials (and westerns). Spielberg elevates the fist fight here and creates a highly memorable (and bloody) scene. The glorified fist fight would return in all of the Indiana Jones films.
Seeing Raiders in Imax last night was a huge treat. Spielberg did not change or tinker with a thing. The original optical effects are still in place and they still work. The reflection in the glass in the snake pit is still there and it warmed the cockles of my heart. No over-sweetening of the colors. I loved seeing production designer Norman Reynolds work on a huge screen. A good example: Marion’s bar in Nepal with it’s rough/drab structure. It all has a blended together look with few discernible lines. All of this makes the various-colored bottles on the back bar pop out with subtle distinction. And of course the orange hued fireplace which sells the close-up of Indy in this scene.
Few films have so many memorable scenes. Few films have as much impact on the culture. Spielberg had directed and released 1941 just prior to making Raiders. That film was a colossal failure marked by a painfully long running time and it’s propensity to be bloated and self-indulgent. Spielberg took his lumps and came out of the gate determined to make something that would be the antithesis of his goose egg.
On June 12, 1981 everyone immediately forgot about that goose egg.