Monday, February 6, 2012
Raiders of the Lost Ark
Raiders of the Lost Ark was the movie that introduced the world to the legend of Indiana Jones, the archeologist/adventurer whose exploits — invading ancient ruins in search of treasure, trying to beat the Nazis to the mythic Ark of the Covenant — are director Steven Spielberg's tribute to pulp fiction serials and boys' adventures. Indy (Harrison Ford) is a romantic daredevil who, in the film's famous opening sequence, enters a South American ruin looking for a gold idol, dodging clever traps of darts, bottomless pits, and a boulder that rolls out of an alcove to pursue the hero through this treacherous cave. The opening sequence is so legendary for a reason, as it economically introduces the hero, his exploits of derring-do, and his ability to escape from even the most seemingly hopeless odds.
The film is packed with such iconic moments, the scenes that fascinated me as a kid watching this movie over and over again, and which can still evoke a silly grin of pleasure. There's Indy abruptly cutting short an Arab enemy's elaborate swordplay by simply shooting the guy. There's Indy chasing a Nazi convoy on a horse while the exhilarating and unforgettable John Williams theme plays. There's Indy and his one-time lover Marion (Karen Allen) in a shootout with Nazi troops led by the sinister, perpetually smirking Toht (Ronald Lacey), a cartoon Nazi villain who wants the Ark as a magic weapon to deliver to Hitler himself. Spielberg deliberately makes Indy's adventures over-the-top and outrageous, culminating in the religious fury of the climax, in which the Nazis win, getting to the Ark and opening it before Indy can — for which they're rewarded only with God's fury, an extinguishing fire that erases any trace of the villains from the world. That ending is pretty interesting, because Indy has nothing to do with the bad guys' defeat: he has the opportunity to destroy the Ark, foiling the Nazis' plans, but as Indy's opposite number, the French archeologist Belloq (Paul Freeman) recognizes, Indy can't do it, he can't simply destroy the relic he's been pursuing. He's obsessed, just like Belloq and Toht are, and he wants to see what's inside the Ark as badly as they do. So he and Marion end up tied to a wooden post, watching as the villains open the Ark, which should be the bad guys' moment of victory but instead turns into their death because they hadn't considered what it means to use a relic of such holy significance for evil ends. Indy wins because he lost.
Elsewhere, Spielberg has a lot of fun just playing with the genre conventions of the adventure. A perfect example is the spatial playfulness of the scene where Marion is being kidnapped, carried around in a large woven basket by a pair of turbaned bad guys. As Indy chases after the thugs carrying her, the geometry of the scene has a cartoon absurdity to it, as he winds down one alleyway after another, only to have the men he's pursuing show up behind him or down a distant alley when just moments before they'd turned the same corner that Indy has just rounded. It's Bugs Bunny logic, turning these back alleys into a surreally warped maze where space and time don't behave as they're supposed to. Spielberg frequently mixes the comic with the tragic in this way; the goofy illogic of the chase sequence doesn't diminish the danger that Marion is in, and indeed the sequence ends with her seemingly dead, blown up in the explosion of a truck that Indy tips over, unaware that it's full of explosives. Earlier in the film, Toht, always a locus of darkly comic violence, reaches for an amulet that he needs to locate the Ark, but the metal has been surrounded in flames and burns the Nazi's hand, so he runs screaming outside to stick his hand in the snow. Even at the climax, the open-mouthed screams of Toht and the other Nazis, before their faces begin to melt and decay, are almost funny in their exaggerated expressions of terror. Spielberg, who would later approach Nazis much more seriously, here makes them comic foils, dangerous and despicable but also ridiculous, worthy of derision as much as contempt.
That's a big part of the film's crazy charm, its enduring importance as an action/adventure classic. It's a film that doesn't really take itself seriously, right from the goofy opening moments when one of Indy's South American guides runs screaming in exaggerated horror from a stone statue. When Indy, early on, famously shouts that he hates snakes, you just know that by the end of the film he'll have to get through a tomb full of the slithery reptiles. This kind of movie logic is everywhere in the film, like in the subsequent scenes where Indy returns to his day job as an archeology professor, teaching classes that seem to be populated almost entirely with young girls who adore the dashing, handsome prof. (One of them, memorably, writes "love you" on her eyelids so that the message appears whenever she blinks.)
Another big part of the film's charm is Karen Allen's vivacious performance as Marion, who in a way is even more of a bigger-than-life figure than Indy himself. Indy is legendary primarily because of what happens to him, and because he reacts to everything with the same everyman casualness, betraying maybe a little smile or a flicker of satisfaction at most when he evades death yet again. Marion's a much more intense personality: she's introduced into the film during a drinking game in which she drinks a much bigger man into passing out, while she simply flashes a crooked grin and collects her money. Marion is a more complex and much more real character than the iconic Indy. She's had an active life — she owns a bar in a remote Asian city — and is obviously still nursing some heartache from the older Indy's cavalier treatment of her the last time he saw her. Her introductory drinking game is echoed in the later scene where she seduces Belloq, playing up her own exaggerated drunkenness and lulling him into drunken complacency before pulling a knife on him. She's a great character, a great woman, and if she sometimes falls into the damsel-in-distress role, waiting for Indy to rescue her, just as often she's scheming and fighting for herself, running around in the background of action scenes clobbering thugs in the head with metal pans. She's easily as much a part of this film's appeal as Indy himself.
What's great about Raiders of the Lost Ark is how cleverly Spielberg mines the pulpy adventure tropes that he's drawing on here, making a film that revels in its own artifice, its obviously fictional nature, and is all the more enjoyable because of it. It's a film that deals in legends and icons before the film itself even became legendary or iconic. Indy is a prefabricated icon, and even early on in the film, he's portrayed as just a distinctive silhouette, hat and all, on the wall of Marion's bar, identifiable just from his shadow. He was made to be a cinematic icon, and he fulfills the role admirably.