Raiders of the Lost Ark: A Film Class Analysis
What follows is a brief analysis of the film Raiders of the Lost Ark, written for my American Cinema class. As with my previous installments, the cited quotes are taken from the textbook American Cinema, American Culture, by John Belton. For a textbook it’s not a bad read, I’d recommend it for anyone interested in a history of Hollywood and the different genres of American film. This paper was hindered by a maximum page count for the assignment, so it is by no means a complete analysis. And as always with these assignments, if you haven’t seen the movie (really??), here there be spoilers.
Raiders of the Lost Ark is the first film in the successful Indiana Jones franchise from director Steven Spielberg and writer/producer George Lucas. It stars Harrison Ford, Karen Allen, Dehnolm Elliot, John Rhys-Davies, and Paul Freeman, in a “return to the innocent action serials of the 1930’s and 1940’s” (p375). Drawing inspiration from everything from Zorro, to late 19th century pulp fiction hero Allan Quatermain, to the “Uncle Scrooge” comics of Carl Barks, Raiders is an epic adventure film filled with archetypal characters, clear-cut struggles between good and evil, and a strong sense of nostalgia.
Raiders opens with what is almost a separate miniature film of its own, with archaeologist Indiana Jones (Ford) hunting down a golden idol in the jungles of 1936 Peru. No lengthy character introductions are given, and at first we don’t even see Jones’ face; he is instead established in a dimly-lit shot from behind, setting up the familiar fedora-wearing silhouette that we’ll see repeatedly throughout the film. Much of the film operates under this “no introductions are necessary” policy, treating the characters instead as already familiar faces. This serves to establish a strong sense of backstory without really trying, as well as heighten the similarity to the serialized heroes of the ’40’s that Indiana Jones is meant to emulate.
Indy succeeds in recovering the idol, only to be foiled by his nemesis, the evil archaeologist Rene Belloq (Freeman). Unlike many filmmakers of their generation, “Lucas and Spielberg give us psychologically noncomplex, comic book characters” (p377). The hero/villain relationship here is as simplistic as it possibly gets: they both want the same things, and are simply mirror opposites of each other in their motives and methods. Indy narrowly escapes from Belloq’s ambush, hops aboard a nearby seaplane, and when we next see him he’s teaching a college archaeology class as if it’s just another day.
After class, Indy is whisked away to a meeting by his friend and colleague Marcus Brody (Elliot), where the pair are informed by government agents that Adolf Hitler has teams of diggers scouring the desert for the lost city of Tanis in Egypt, rumored to be the resting place of the Ark of the Covenant. According to legend, any army wielding the power of the Ark would be unstoppable, so Jones is recruited to head off the Nazis and find the Ark before they do.
So with that it’s off to Cairo, picking up a few more characters along the way. First off is Marion Ravenwood (Allen), daughter of Indy’s mentor and Ark expert Abner Ravenwood, and as we soon find out, Indy’s former lover. Marion is currently in possession of an amulet needed to locate the Well of the Souls where the Ark is kept, and at first is none too eager to help given her and Indy’s past. This is another area where the “serial” aspect is especially felt. The tension between Marion and Indy is played so expertly and without unnecessary exposition, it feels like there could easily be at least one other movie in the series that none of us have seen.
Finally, after a brief argument, a shootout with some Nazis, and a fire that consumes Marion’s bar, she and Indy are paired up once again and off to Egypt together. After arriving in Cairo, the pair meet up with Sallah (Rhys-Davies), who’s only real introduction is that he’s “the best digger in Cairo”. An old friend of Indy’s, Sallah serves as both loyal sidekick and local guide, necessary assets for any hero adventurer. Through him, it is revealed that (who else?) Indy’s old nemesis Belloq is in Cairo as well, supervising the Nazis’ hunt for the Ark.
From here on out, the rest of the film is one action setpiece after another, each one expertly filmed and ranging from death defying to live-action cartoon. There’s a chase through the crowded streets of Cairo, a traitorous monkey, a kidnapping, the recovery of the Ark, a pit full of snakes, shootouts, fist fights, and car chases, all set to one of the best scores ever put together by composer and frequent Lucas/Spielberg collaborator John Williams. Every great piece of cinematic action from the golden age of Hollywood is faithfully updated and reproduced here in the confines of a single film, and the results are completely unforgettable.
As the action comes to a close, it seems that Indy has once again been bested by Belloq, who is intent on harnessing the power of the Ark for himself before it can be delivered to Hitler. Surrounded by Nazi soldiers with film cameras rolling, and with Indy and Marion held captive, Belloq opens the Ark and finds only dust inside. A few moments later, however, energy begins to flow from the Ark in the form of eerie lights and ghosts. The power of the Ark consumes Belloq and the Nazis, leaving only Indy and Marion alive.
Raiders of the Lost Ark is an icon of the film school era, a film clearly written and directed by two people who grew up loving movies. Paving the way for independent filmmakers such as Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez who would emerge a decade later, Spielberg and Lucas have expertly woven their past influences into a film that is familiar, but at the same time unique and iconic. Raiders proves that in the right hands, old ideas can indeed be made new once again.