Feb 6, 2020
Pulp Masterpieces, Part 9: Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
So here it is; the end of my Pulp Masterpieces series. It’s been a lot of fun looking at these wonderful films; even revisiting The Phantom again was enjoyable. But we’ve reached the end of the trip and are now reaching what, to my mind, is the best example of the pulp movie genre, a film that’s considered by many to be one of the greatest motion pictures of all time, and one of my all time favorites. I give you… Raiders of the Lost Ark.
The plot: In the wake of a defeat at the hands of an old enemy, adventurous archaeologist Doctor Indiana Jones…
…is approached by the United States government on a matter of great importance. German Chancellor Adolph Hitler has sent his armies abroad to search for artifacts worldwide, and it appears that they’ve gained a lead on the Ark of the Covenant. Jones has been tasked to find and secure the Ark before the Germans do. To do this, he must find the headpiece to the staff of Ra, which is in the hands of the daughter of Indy’s mentor and an old lover, Marion Ravenwood.
The pair head to Cairo, and with the help of Indiana’s friend Sallah…
…they face off against the Nazis, like the villainous Toht…
…and their hired archaeological gun, Jones’ arch nemesis, the unscrupulous Frenchman Belloq.
Who will find the Ark first? Who will be able to hold on to it? And what secrets are locked within?
Raiders of the Lost Ark is a movie I was both excited and reluctant to talk about. If you put a gun to my head and make me write down my ten favorite films, Raiders will always be on that list. So yeah, I have a lot to say about it, and I was eager to gush over it like a fanboy. But at the same time, it’s one of those movies that pretty much every critic and online reviewer has talked about already. Yeah, over the years lots of people wrote about The Maltese Falcon too, just like I did, but these days only guys like Ben Mankiewicz at TCM are celebrating that film, whereas when it comes to Raiders, the movie is still very much in the public consciousness; there were two articles about the movie posted at nerd sites I normally visit after I started writing these Pulp Masterpiece articles, and a poll conducted by Total Film magazine that ranked Indiana Jones the greatest film character of all time. Heck, The Big Bang Theory had an episode about it. So talking about a movie that’s still so popular is as daunting a task as uploading my first blog article.
So where to begin? This time out, I think first talking about the actors and the characters they play would be easiest. When my dad took me to see Star Wars, I didn’t know what to expect; we didn’t go to the show a whole lot, so it was a bit of an event for us. And to say I was blown away would be putting it lightly. I was utterly thrilled like never before. I was a fan of Star Trek at this point, but Star Wars was like nothing else I had ever experienced. And of all the characters, there was nobody better than Han Solo.
Han had the coolest gun, he had his own bitchin’ starship, he had an awesome best friend. And of course, there was the cantina scene.
To this day, I don’t get why George Lucas felt it necessary to change that scene. Greedo had a gun on Han, Greedo threatened to kill him. It was self-defense, and even my nine-year-old self could understand that. Han was just smarter, that’s all. And sure, Luke got to kiss Leia, but it was obvious which guy she was really into. Never, ever in my life did I want to be anyone else like the way I wanted to be Han Solo. Even years later when I was older and more sophisticated, Ford’s performance in The Empire Strikes Back only reinforced my appreciation of the character. So the following year, when Raiders of the Lost Ark was released, to say I was excited was putting it mildly. I wasn’t seeing it because Steven Spielberg had directed it, or George Lucas had produced it, or that I was into action movies. I was seeing it because of Harrison Ford, because he was the coolest guy on planet Earth.
Ford’s performance is stellar, and it wasn’t until years later and multiple viewings that I came to really appreciate the character of Indiana Jones, and maybe understand why Ford didn’t like playing Han Solo as much. When I was a kid, Indy was all about the awesome hat and the impossibly loud gun and bad-ass bull-whip. Indiana Jones was impossibly even cooler and more awesome than Han Solo, but Solo isn’t nearly as interesting as Jones. Okay sure, Solo is part of an ensemble cast, so there isn’t as much of a chance to develop his character as there was with Indiana Jones. But Solo isn’t exactly complex. He’s a smuggler and gets in over his head a lot, and he makes bad decisions and can be brave and funny, but is there really much more beyond that? I can see why Ford would appreciate a role with a bit more meat on its bones, and Indiana Jones fits the bill.
Dr. Jones isn’t a perfect man. When you look at a lot of fictional heroes, they have weaknesses of course, but Jones’ weakness when it comes to ancient artifacts is an obsession, and an addiction. He longs to unearth and decipher the past, and to understand it. To do this, Jones is willing to risk life and limb, and to do incredibly reckless things to pursue his goal. He values the past to such an extent that even when he threatens to blow up the Ark if he and Marion aren’t allowed to leave the island, he can’t do it when his bluff is called.
Ford does a tremendous job conveying Jones’ shame and weakness. Belloq has his number and he knows it.
On top of Jones’ other flaws, he’s also a louse. When he meets Marion Ravenwood for the first time in years, she accuses him of seducing her when she was “a child”. The age isn’t specified, but that implies she was underage when they had a sexual relationship. There’s a nine year difference between Ford and Allen, and while I know actors hardly ever play characters their real age, her statement implies Jones could have had a relationship with her when she was as young as fourteen if he viewed her father as a mentor. His statement, “You knew what you were doing,” doesn’t excuse his terrible behavior. Even if she had been sixteen, Jones was a bit of a bastard for carrying on with her. When Marion says it must have taken a lot for him to break her dad’s heart, Jones says, “Not much, just you.” What did Marion do, Indy? Ask for a commitment?
I’ve said before that I don’t need my heroes to be perfect, and Jones certainly isn’t. In many ways, he’s as un-pulp a hero as you can imagine. Indiana Jones is really a flawed protagonist, much the same way Humphrey Bogart’s Sam Spade is. They’re both men with imperfect characters who are nevertheless fascinating to watch. All the same, looking back, Jones deserves that beating in the airplane heist scene.
Lastly, I do greatly admire the work that went into Indy’s look. He’s rough and ready, but very cool at the same time in his worn leather jacket and perfect fedora. His signature bull-whip is a brilliant accessory, giving him a terrific uniqueness.
Not seen since Zorro, Jones’ weapon of choice is as iconic as Dirty Harry’s .44 or Luke Skywalker’s lightsaber, in that it only adds to Indiana’s mystique. One of the reasons why Jones became such an iconic hero was due to the care placed in his appearance and it works perfectly. Much of that look was inspired by Charlton Heston’s character from the movie Secret of the Incas.
Karen Allen’s Marion Ravenwood to me is one of the greatest film heroines of all time. She’s brave and smart and resourceful. In many ways, she fits the mold of the classic heroine in that she needs to be rescued on more than one occasion…
…but that’s Spielberg attempting to inject an element of realism in the movie, and not done with some misogynistic intent. Marion is a woman trying to get by in a world full of cruel men, many of them armed. Miss Ravenwood possesses what seems to be an indomitable will; she’s able to drink any man under the table, yet she’s not an alcoholic. She’s thrown into one death defying situation after another, and while there are times she’s terrified, she never folds and she always rises to the occasion.
In the hands of her enemies in the middle of the ocean with no hope of escape, where a lesser person might have just given up and given in to Belloq’s advances, this scene, with the Frenchman’s angry scowl, Marion stiff backed and defiant, and the wounded German soldier in the background speaks volumes about what Marion thinks of the idea of surrender.
Marion might be my favorite motion picture heroine of all time, and one of the reasons why I’m not fond of the sequel Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade is her absence; she isn’t even mentioned. Marion is treated like some “Bond girl”, a disposable character we’re not supposed to be too attached to, and she deserved better.
John Rhys-Davies. God, how I love this man’s work. When the television show Sliders came around, I watched it because of him and quit when he left. When I heard he was in Lord of the Rings,I got all kinds of excited because I knew whatever role he played ,it was going to be memorably good. Davies’ Sallah is a wonderful sidekick; he’s also brave and smart and resourceful. Without Sallah, Jones would have died at the hands of an assassin…
…or beneath the guns of a tavern full of hired thugs, with the only thing saving Dr. Jones being Sallah’s quick thinking and his child army.
Sallah is proof that a sidekick can be both competent and comedic. Another of my problems with Last Crusade is we lost that. Sallah comes across as looking intelligent and worldly in Raiders, but when you look at him in Last Crusade in his fez and and ugly tie and tacky shirt…
…you can tell they’re making him look like the comic relief (sadly, Marcus Brody gets the same treatment), whereas in Raiders he feels in many ways like Jones’ intellectual equal, with the Nazis dismissing him out of hand because he’s, well, not white.
Which does bring me to the issue of whitewashing, that practice of hiring Caucasians to play non-white roles. In retrospect, Spielberg should have found an Egyptian to play Sallah, but I understand why he and the suits at the front office would have wanted a man like Davies instead, a good actor and someone with a solid body of work behind him. Blame more the system at the time that gave fewer opportunities to non-white actors than Davies, who like thousands of other actors, would have jumped at the chance to appear in a major Hollywood production headed up by the guys responsible for Jaws, Close Encounters, and Star Wars. Thank God we live in a more enlightened time where liberal Hollywood doesn’t whitewash any more!
As for the bad guys, Paul Freeman’s Belloq is an awesome antagonist. While Jones may be the more talented archaeologist, Belloq makes up for it with ruthlessness and an utter lack of morals. He’s truly Jones’ dark shadow, and when he says so to Indy, and suggests that all it would take is the slightest push to knock Indy from the light and into his world, our protagonist gets angry because he knows the man is right.
Belloq is charismatic and sophisticated, and in civilized surroundings, he would probably be a great conversationalist, and the sort of guy you would want at your dinner parties. But beneath that veneer of class is a vicious weasel. Still, you do get the idea that there’s a line he won’t cross; a scowl he throws Marion’s way implies to me he didn’t rape her. For all his numerous character flaws, Belloq considers himself a gentleman, or at the very least likes to maintain the veneer of one.
Toht. I think for years after this movie when people thought about what Nazis looked like, they weren’t thinking about Hitler, or Himmler or Goebbels, but rather this guy:
Toht is despicable almost to a cartoonish extent. There isn’t a lot to his character, but actor Ronald Lacey does a magnificent job with every scene he’s in. You just love to hate this guy to the point where when his face melts, you’re cheering.
Nazis are awesome go-to villains, and watching Jones wade through them, and killing them left and right is just a joy to watch. But I especially loved this guy:
This guy is bad-ass. You know, for a Nazi. Nevertheless, it’s satisfying to see what end he comes to.
Spielberg is really on top of his game with this movie. I would argue that some of his finest work was done in his early years.
There’s a reason why he developed a reputation for possibly being the greatest director of his generation, with Martin Scorsese being the only other man in the running. This movie looks magnificent, as we follow Jones from the lush green jungles of South America…
…to frozen Nepal…
…to mercilessly hot and unforgiving Egypt…
…to the high seas.
Raiders feels epic in scope, as we follow Jones on his various adventures around the world. The action set pieces are fantastic and cinematically stunning, starting off with Jones’ escaping the giant boulder of doom…
…to the fight in Marion’s bar, to the basket chase scene, to what’s one of the funniest shots in movie history.
And yet, the movie never feels like you’re just waiting for the next action sequence to hit. Spielberg proves adept at the quieter moments, like Jones’ and Marion’s tempestuous reunion. or when they’re on Captain Katanga’s ship. From the beginning of his career, it was obvious Spielberg was not a one note, one genre director; it seemed he was always looking for a new challenge. I don’t have the background to dissect Spielberg’s directorial style; I only know what I like, and how he frames a scene. For example, take how Marion meets Jones for the first time in ten years:
To her Jones has become larger than life, and a looming presence in her mind. And then the shadow shrinks as she approaches him, and she gives him the greeting he deserves.
The musical score is flawless. John Williams’ work on Star Wars is outstanding, but I honestly think between that and Raiders, the latter music is superior. Everything from the uplifting “The Raiders March” to “Marion’s Theme” to the score behind action set pieces like the battle for the Ark on the truck all work incredibly well. Williams has been nominated for 41 Oscars and won five times, and for good reason. He’s called “America’s composer” by some, and when you listen to his work on Raiders you can hear why. I have the Raiders score on my iPod, and when the truck chase scene’s music comes on while I’m in my car, it’s all I can do not to drive faster.
In the past, some people have nitpicked Raiders, citing its historical inaccuracies. I don’t see them as inaccuracies at all, but instead proof that Raiders is not taking place in our world. Raiders is its own universe. It’s a place where the Nazis were in Egypt in 1936, and where they possessed wondrous weapons like the rocket launcher Jones wields in the third act…
…or this utterly amazing aircraft…
…which never existed outside of some German engineer’s fever dream (and just as an aside, like some of the other pulp movies I reviewed, aircraft plays a key role in Raiders as well. And there’s not one, but two sea planes!). Raiders is a fictional world where the Germans are in possession of hi-tech armaments that allow them to bully their way across the world as they hunt for artifacts. It’s also a world where some of those artifacts possess supernatural powers that can melt your face off.
So yeah, the world of Indiana Jones is pretty much a Golden Age superhero world, and almost a prototype for the Avengers and Justice League movies. Hell, when you consider that Jones and Toht wear the same outfit through 90% of the movie, you could say they’re almost in superhero and super-villain costumes.
And look at Cairo, a city where a white man can shoot down Arabs with impunity without anybody blinking. Anybody who complains about historical inaccuracies is just nitpicking. Spielberg at no time was seriously trying to make Raiders realistic, and I thank him for it.
As for the aforementioned Big Bang Theory episode, I’d like to address that. The assertion by some characters was that events in this movie would have unfolded exactly the way they did had Jones not intervened in any way. So let’s break that down. Jones is the one who finds the headpiece to the staff of Ra, not the Nazis. There’s no telling how many weeks or months more that Belloq would have been digging in the desert. Second, the Nazis wouldn’t have taken the Ark to the island; they were going to fly it directly to Berlin. It was Jones and Marion blowing up the plane that led to the circumstances which necessitated the Nazis taking the Ark to their island. Third, if Belloq had eventually found the Ark and then gone to Berlin with it, Hitler would have probably insisted on him and the German high command be there when it was opened, and then…
…you know what? I just decided such idle speculation is a waste of time and I should just enjoy the movie.
I hope you enjoyed reading these Pulp Masterpieces articles. They were certainly a great deal of fun to write, and it gave me a good excuse to go back and re-watch some of my favorite movies. And more importantly, I hope that it gave readers an urge to check out films they’ve never seen before and give them a look.