Sunday, March 14, 2021



As we start getting to the absolute best movies by Steven Spielberg it is going to be difficult to come up with something about them that has not already been written.  These movies are iconic, influential, and hold a special place in the hearts of audiences.

And this is especially true of Raiders of the Lost Ark.

As with a lot of great works of art, it is difficult to encapsulate what makes this film so special and why it stands out among the hundreds of other movies of its kind.  Adventure movies are a dime-a-dozen.  But Spielberg has elevated this genre piece into something timeless.  Raiders has a timeless quality to its direction.  It could have been made in any decade in any era and it would be a big hit.

Most people focus on the exciting adventure on screen and rightly so.  But I want to begin by talking about how beautiful this movie is.  This movie is filled with the influence David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia had on Spielberg.  If you get a chance to see that film, compare how Spielberg mimics so much of Lean's style.  They both use incredibly dramatic lighting, especially to highlight the eyes.  The sun and the desert are filmed in such a grand tangible scale that you can almost feel the sandy wind in your face.  And he knows how to frame a character in silhouette.  For a lot of movies, when you reminisce about them, the visual memories tend be general in its details.  But when you think of scenes from Raiders of the Lost Ark, the images are very specific and burned into the memory.  You can see them clearly in your mind's eye.  This is because Spielberg is able to craft a visual that makes a lasting impression.

Look at how our hero is introduced.  The first few shots have him shrouded in mystery.  He is a presence that is followed and feared.  And when he is revealed, we see his grizzled and determined face that is the essence of a heroic introduction.  Indiana Jones is a name that conjures not just an image, but a feeling.  The name is synonymous with epic adventure because of this film.

There are a lot of elements that come together to make this character so iconic.  He is clearly a man of action, but he is also a thinker who has to outwit the traps set before him.  He is almost a Superman/Clark Kent type of character who is a world-travelling adventurer but also a mild-mannered professor.  On top of this, Indiana Jones loses a lot.  In Raiders, Indy's first treasure is stolen from him, never to be recovered, by Belloq.  He is thwarted nearly as much as he is victorious and this makes us root for him even more.  And of course there is Harrison Ford who gives a performance that made him a permanent movie star.

All of this is done under the direction of Spielberg.  You can see his amazing ability to tell the story visually.  Look at the scene in the map room.  Essentially, Indy finds a hole in the ground, puts his staff into it, and lets sunlight shine through it.  I know I am oversimplifying, but that is the scene.  And yet, every step of the way, Spielberg draws you in.  He doesn't explain what Indy is doing or how he chooses the correct position, but we believe that everything he does and are fascinated by his thought process.  All the while, Spielberg builds the tension until it all explodes with the revelation of the Well of the Souls.

Spielberg makes us, especially men, feel like Indiana Jones.  We want to believe that beneath mild-mannered exterior, we are smart and dangerous.  We want to believe that even though we are beaten up and humiliated and often fail that we can have the indefatigable spirit to keep going until we win.  

John Williams' score gets a lot of credit for creating the spirit of adventure in the film, and rightly so.  But it is important to remember that Spielberg expertly employed the music in all the right places and in the right ways to maximize its emotional effect.

We also see in Raiders Spielberg's ability to improvise on film to fantastic effect.  There is the famous story of Ford feeling ill and unable to film a complexly choreographed fight scene between a villain with a sword.  So instead, we have that amazing moment where Indy dispatches him with a single bullet.

But even all of this may be a bit over-intellectualizing the matter.  Raiders of the Lost Ark is a great deal of fun to watch.  One of the reasons Spielberg is so loved is that his movies make us feel something.  In these movies he gives us some wonderful thrill throughout.

Besides Indy, Spielberg fills the movie with such well-rounded characters like Marion Ravenwood.  She is every bit Indy's equal in spirit and smarts but it never feels forced when she is the damsel in distress.  Salla provides a nice contrast to Indy.  Where the main hero is hard and cynical, Salla is softer and man of faith while at the same time losing none of his masculinity.  And Belloq is a fascinating villain who actually ends up getting the best of Indy at nearly every turn while working through his moral compromise of working with the Nazis.  And even the shallow characters are incredibly interesting.  Watch how the sadistic Toht comes across with such menace, but once he is in danger he screams like a little girl, revealing his spirit of cowardice.

Thematically I can't help but be impressed by the bold choice made in the end: Indy does not save the day.  In the end, God is the one who must vanquish the great evil.  It is such an odd and refreshing choice to let God be God.  Spielberg fills that scary and violent finale with a real sense of fear of the Lord.  Marcus and Salla talk about the Ark in terms that frightened me as a child.  One of the points I try to get across to my students when I teach them the Old Testament is that that which is holy is also dangerous.  It isn't dangerous because it is bad, but because all powerful things are dangerous.  The Ark is filmed with awe and fear not because it is evil but because the power of God must be approached by mortals with great caution.

Some people may wonder why with a movie this fantastic how it could be ranked #8.  This is in no way a criticism of this movie.  Most directors will never in their lifetimes make a single movie as good as Raiders of the Lost Ark.  But this speaks to why Steven Spielberg is the greatest director of all time as he has seven more films that are even better than this.

Raiders of the Lost Ark is a movie about things in the world that are magical.  But the movie itself is what is truly magic.

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