Spielberg: Raiders of the Lost Ark part 1

(For some earlier thoughts on this movie, including my son Sam’s reaction, I direct you to here.)

For the young screenwriter being taught classical three-act structure, the screenplay for Raiders of the Lost Ark would seem like a bizarre, off-kilter mess. There are at least four acts in here, but the more I look at it the more I become convinced that there are at least ten, each lasting somewhere between ten and twelve minutes. This would be in keeping with the movie’s roots in 30s serials — each one of these segments would make a perfect one-reel short, and a few of them would stand as classics of the short form even if they weren’t part of one of the most propulsive, engaging features in its genre. These individual units, or “chapters”, can be grouped together into four acts. What I’d like to do here is walk through each part and chart the path of the protagonist throughout.

ACT I (0:00-33:44) Act I of Raiders introduces Indiana Jones, sets up the argument of the drama, and sends Indy to Nepal to meet up with one-time girlfriend Marion Ravenwood. Once Indy and Marion are together, they set off on their adventure.

CHAPTER 1 (0:00-12:49): The bit in Peru. It would be difficult for me to overestimate the power of this sequence. The infamous “rolling boulder” looms so large in the memories of the audience of this movie and even in the minds of those who have never seen it that it’s hard to remember that the whole gag goes by in a few seconds. It’s become an icon unto itself, as recognizable a symbol as Bogart’s fedora and the prow of the Titanic. The other day I happened to be in a stereo store with my 5-year-old daughter Kit and Raiders happened to be playing on one of the systems. This opening sequence was showing, and Kit, who knows nothing of Indiana Jones, said “Is this the part with the rolling stone?” Indeed it was, and I got to watch her five-year-old face go slack with wonder and excitement as the latter half of this sequence unfolded before her hungry eyes. I don’t know why the rolling rock works, I’ve seen the sequence too many times to analyze it in any rational way, but it’s one of the handful of indelible moments that form the spine of this movie (two others being the shootout in the Cairo market and the melting Nazi faces at the end).

Part of the reason this sequence works like gangbusters is its kinetic brilliance, but none of that would mean anything if the stunts and gags were not rooted in character. As the sequence starts, Indiana Jones is shown in shadow, a mysterious, difficult-to-read figure (“is he a bad guy?” worried Sam, 6, when Indy whips the gun out of the hand of the Peruvian guy). He is calm, authoritative and magnificently prepared. His li’l Peruvian pal Doc Ock is the perfect stand-in for the audience in the early scenes — he is as frightened, amazed and in awe of Indy and his capabilities as we are. Then, once the idol is in Indy’s hand and the temple starts to come apart, all that calmness and skill goes right out the window and Indy becomes panic-stricken and improvisatory, relying on speed and forward momentum to keep himself alive. (This is, of course, an apt metaphor for the entire movie.) Then Indy emerges from the temple cave barely alive, only to have his prize taken from him by Belloq, who has been following Indy’s party for days in hope of exactly this outcome. Belloq takes the idol and Indy runs away, pursued by the savage hordes. We spend the first half of the sequence in awe of Indy, then when the sequence turns we are placed into his shoes, running for our lives as the character who was “us” (Doc Ock) betrays Indy and makes a quick, violent exit. By the end of the sequence we’re laughing at Indy as he’s reduced to a hapless clown, attacked from all sides, scared of his pilot’s pet snake. The sequence is a perfect introduction to the character, compresses his essential nature into twelve minutes, gives us the movie’s villain, outlines the essential nature of the protagonist’s conflict, and creates a miniature adventure drama that leaves us incapable of any response other than instant love.

(There’s a great stunt toward the end of the sequence, where the traitorous Peruvian porter falls down dead, face first, flat and motionless, with two dozen poison arrows in his back. After seeing this scene a hundred times or so, I finally decided to find out who was responsible for this flawless bit of physical comedy. It is, in fact, Ted Grossman, the Estuary Victim from Jaws.)

CHAPTER 2 (12:49-22:18): Indy at his “day job,” teaching amorous young women (and one apple-polishing young man) about archeology. Obviously, no one in the room is there to learn about ancient civilizations, they’re all there to gaze upon sexy young Indy (I wonder if young women still look at him like that in the new movie). We learn about his attitude toward the artifacts he searches for: he is interested in them only for their historical value, whereas antagonist Belloq is interested in them for the power they will convey unto him (which we see instantly in the Peru scene). (The fact that Indy routinely destroys ancient temples in pursuit of religious artifacts doesn’t weigh very heavily on the movie’s mind — the object, not the location seem to be the important thing.)

We also see Indy’s skeptical nature — he doesn’t buy into any religious significance of any of the items he pursues. Religion is folklore to Indiana Jones. He is a modern man, and the fact that he keeps stating this stance in movie after movie regardless of the magical wonders he witnesses, makes him more modern than ever.

Chapter 2 introduces Indy as a down-and-out loser archaeologist in a dead-end job and brings into his life a pair of US government agents who have the unhappy task of drawing poor Indy and his pal Dr. Brody through a sadly tedious expository scene. I probably had to watch this movie fifteen times or so before I even had any idea what the hell anyone was talking about in this scene — the headpiece of the Staff of Ra, the lost city of Tanis, the Well of Souls, the Ark of the Covenant, it all comes spilling out of characters’ mouths with no dramatization and precious little visual stimulus.

The dramatic point of the chapter is that Indy is getting a second chance at glory after having his Peruvian idol snatched from him. He gratefully leaps at the chance, even as Dr. Brody warns him in plummy tones that the Ark is a dangerous, dangerous artifact, “like nothing you’ve gone after before.” Indy starts the chapter as a desperate loser and ends it as a cocksure winner, back on top and reckless as he tilts his head back on the plane to Nepal and covers his face with his famous hat while a sneaky Nazi peers at him over his copy of Life magazine. This Nazi will become a worth Second Villain to the piece, although at this point we think he is First Villain.

CHAPTER 3 (22:18-33:44): Indy flies to Nepal to see Abner Ravenwood, his mentor, but instead finds Abner’s daughter Marion, tending bar and drinking the locals under the table. We had gotten a little Marion backstory in Chapter 2 and we get more here: apparently, “ten years ago” Indy loved the teenage Marion and left her, which destroyed his relationship with Abner and now puts him in a dicey position with regards to his pursuit of his goal. He needs Marion to hand over the Headpiece of the Staff of Ra (the significance of which is explained in Chapter 2, if one can follow the dense exposition). This requires a little sweet talk from Indy, a task he is not prepared for and executes clumsily. Having failed, he exits the bar on uncertain terms. The Nazi From The Airplane, Toht, enters with a team of henchmen and tries a different approach to acquiring the headpiece, Nazi-style torture.

(Spielberg loves to have two different teams pursuing the same goal for different reasons and with contrasting methods. He uses it in Close Encounters and The Lost World, to name two of the most obvious.)

Indy re-emerges in the role of Clumsy Rescuer, bumbling his way through a complicated fight and shoot-out until Marion can step up and prove her worth as partner to the protagonist. His charm fails but his improvisatory rescue does the job, and Indy and Marion get out of Nepal alive and a step ahead of Toht.

So Indy begins this chapter as a cocksure winner, enters Marion’s bar cautiously as a repentant lout, and ends as a clumsy, scorched-earth rescuer, repeating the dynamic of Chapter 1, and once again destroying the building containing his prize. There are, of course, two prizes here, the Headpiece of the Staff of Ra and Marion, and the remainder of the narrative will dramatize Indy’s struggle to balance the comparative worth of the love of the woman he betrayed and the object he pursues.



21 Responses to “Spielberg: Raiders of the Lost Ark part 1”
  1. clayfoot says:

    I cringed through National Treasure 2 at the $2 theater last week. I think of it and the original as second rate versions of the Indiana Jones movies.
    I don’t remember having the same reaction to Raiders of the Lost Ark, so I rented that again to see if I was forgetting something about Raiders. I don’t think I was. Raiders is also rollicking and illogical, but it doesn’t seem to make dumb mistakes the way National Treasure 2 does. Examples:
    The NT2 protagonists are going to look for a clue in Buckingham Palace, but they fail to bring along a camera, so they simply steal the ancient artifact that has the clue on it. One car chase later, we learn that this was done so that the protagonists could throw the (wooden) artifact into the Thames to throw off the chase. This makes no sense.
    Later, the protagonists (and now allied antagonists) go on an expedition to find the lost city. They remember to bring flares, but fail to pack rope, knives, or climbing gear of any kind. What were they thinking?
    When Indiana Jones gets into a tough spot and his friends ask him for a plan, he tells them, “I don’t know. I’m making this up as I go along” or “Get a boat, get a plane, anything…” He does not reply with things like, “I’m going to kidnap the President of the United States.”
    FWIW, I made my 13 year old daughter watch Raiders with me. She liked it, but she still likes National Treasure 2 better.

    • Todd says:

      My favorite comment on the recent remake of The Mummy was the critic who compared it to a “road-company version of an Indiana Jones movie.” I would say that goes for the National Treasure movies as well.

  2. curt_holman says:

    Do you have an opinion on ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Adaptation,’ and the prospect of a movie about it?

    The first 10 minutes are on Youtube (sound and picture quality not so good):

    • Todd says:

      The lighting in the original is better.

      I have no opinion of the movie about it, except that I’m told the screenplay is by Dan Clowes, of whom I am intensely jealous.

      As for me, I’d like to see a movie about the making of this.

  3. ndgmtlcd says:

    Despite the fixed locale I have a tendency to compare “Raiders of the Lost Ark” with “Night at the Museum” instead of NT or others.

    • Todd says:

      I see very few points of comparison between Raiders of the Lost Ark and Night at the Museum, except that I enjoy both of them.

      • ndgmtlcd says:

        Hollywood is notorious for getting historical and archeological facts wrong, in a totally boneheaded, careless way. Those two films warp the facts gently to tell a good yarn.

  4. adam_0oo says:

    So a comment and a question.

    Speaking of things that don’t quite make sense until later, the excellent bit with the Peruvian idol and the sand bag, with Doc Ock rubbing his fingers together (I actually do that now because of him in times of tension). Would we find this scene filled with tension if we didn’t already know about the rolling boulder? I mean, he doesn’t mention what happens if he doesn’t get the same weight, does he?

    As I watched it last weekend, Indy escapes from Peru one a two seater plane. But he arrives with 3 porters, and runs past two donkeys. How does that work out? A secret escape plan? That seems a bit much. He arrived in the plane after the porters walked there? That seems to cost too much, and doesn’t seem Indy’s style, he is more down and dirty.

    • Todd says:

      Would we find this scene filled with tension if we didn’t already know about the rolling boulder?

      Of course we would. We’ve already seen spiders, an impaled corpse, a bottomless pit and booby-trapped paving stones, we know that something horrible is going to happen if Indy isn’t careful. The fact that the scene is masterfully scored and edited helps.

  5. Anonymous says:

    Raiders is one of my favorite movies and holds up over repeated viewings, which is odd since it seems to my untrained eye at least to break the biggest storytelling convention of all: the protagonist has to matter. It’s obvious that Indy is the protagonist in this film, but he isn’t necessary to it. If Indiana Jones weren’t in this movie at all, every event would more or less play out as it did with him in the film. Belloq would get the Peruvian idol, the Nazi’s would get the headpiece of the Staff of Ra, meaning the Nazis would then know where to dig. In the end the Nazis would get the arc and they would get their faces melted off. In fact, the only thing Indy seems to accomplish is to warn Marion not to look at the arc when it’s opened — except that it’s doubtful she’d be in that situation if Indy hadn’t been part of this story.

    Bill Willingham

    • Anonymous says:

      Along your lines of thinking about the movie minus Indy, wouldn’t it be likely that the Nazis would have opened the ark in Berlin showing it off to Hitler. If I recall the movie correctly, they only open the ark on that island fortress thing because of Indiana’s pursuit and wanting to make sure Indy hadn’t tampered with the ark.

      So if you and I are correct in our assumptions: if Indy had just stayed the hell out of the way of all this mess, Hitler’s face would have melted off.

      • greyaenigma says:

        I think Belloq would have argued to open the ark on the island regardless of whether Indy had been there. I think he was more concerned with making sure he’s got the the right item. Granted, if Indy hadn’t been so much of a problem, the boss nazi might not have agreed, but that’s not something we can determine.

        Of course, if Indy hadn’t been there to find the ark, maybe Roosevelt’s face might not have melted off, and then Truman wouldn’t have been around to drop the bombs on Japan, then Godzilla wouldn’t have risen up to fight off the Cloverfield monster, and where would we be then?

        • Todd says:

          Belloq does not open the Ark on the island in order to “make sure he’s got the right item.” He opens the Ark because he’s planning on doing an end-run around Hitler. He wants the power of the Ark, he has no intention of turning it over to anybody. Which I will discuss in more detail later.

          • greyaenigma says:

            My apologies for taking his spoken reason as his actual motivation.

            • Todd says:

              Belloq has two spoken reasons — he says one thing to the Nazis, whom he doesn’t trust, and says another to Indy, whom he thinks of as another version of himself. To the Nazis he says “What, you want to take this thing to Berlin and find out there’s nothing inside?” But to Indy he says “The heck with Hitler, the Ark has so much power I’m not going to need that paper-hanger.”

    • Todd says:

      Belloq would not have gotten either the Peruvian idol nor the Ark of the Covenant, because he needs Indiana Jones for both. He cannot get the Peruvian idol out of its well-guarded temple, he needs Indy to do it for him. Likewise, he has no idea where the Headpiece of the Staff of Ra is, he needs Toht to follow Indy to Nepal to find out where it is. Without Indiana Jones in the story, Belloq could spend until V-E day in 1945 digging up Cairo for the Nazis and still never find the Well of Souls.

  6. Having seen Raiders 11 times in the theater when it first came out (yeesh!!!) I couldn’t help but to notice a lot of goofy/trivial stuff.
    One was that actor Vic Tablian played Barranca (“Doc Ock’s” partner in Peru) AND the Monkey Man.

    I always wondered why Speilberg used one actor for two different parts. Especially from two scenes not filmed at the same place. I wonder if it was some small way to tribute Raider’s serial roots, when the cheaper costing films had to find ways to cut corners and would employ one actor for several parts.

    Or am I over thinking this?

  7. 55seddel says:

    Your chapter 1 analysis is superb!

    I am a BIG fan of the Spielbergian flow, like you. I can think of no better filmmaker for making you forget you are watching a film.

    I have a small question about the WGA Registration service. , who is a video game writer and I a budding screenwriter, are both wondering what added legal value copyrighting and WGA registering afford us. Is it a silver bullet against plagarism and/or theft of a concept? Perhaps you could shed some of your knowledge on this sir. Thanks!

    • Todd says:

      Alas, I know of no silver bullet against plagiarism or copyright theft. In my experience, the studios don’t rip off young writers’ ideas — it’s much cheaper to buy them for a pittance than to pay lawyers to defend them in lawsuits. I’ve been involved in two of those lawsuits, and in neither case did registering with the WGA help anyone involved. I personally have never registered a screenplay with the WGA, although that in and of itself does not mean that it’s a pointless exercise.

  8. gdh says:

    I don’t know why the rolling rock works, I’ve seen the sequence too many times to analyze it in any rational way, but it’s one of the handful of indelible moments that form the spine of this movie (two others being the shootout in the Cairo market and the melting Nazi faces at the end).

    Don’t forget the red-line-on-the-map geographical exposition!

    It’s definitely hard to think of another film which contains so many absolutely iconic elements, recognizable even to people who have never seen the film. Actually that’s a lie, I just thought of one: Star Wars. It’s close though.

  9. Have troubles not thinking of Homer with that boulder scene now…

    Thanks for this, a great treat – this was a stand-out movie of my adolescence as it seemed to raise the bar that Star Wars had set.

    I was thinking about the three act thing and the way that it this film is a series of sequences – a bit like North by Northwest maybe? I am not an expert, but it is like ministories that could just about stand on its own that also propel that overarching story forward.

    Just my reaction to the question that you posed…