Spielberg: Raiders of the Lost Ark part 2

A comment from Bill Willingham yesterday reminded me of something.  Mr. Willingham mentions that the narrative of Raiders could get along just fine without Indiana Jones in it and still turn out exactly the same.  I disagree with him on this, but his comment brought my attention to the Indy/Belloq dynamic in the movie.  Indiana Jones is an adventurer and trailblazer, while Belloq is an exploiter and opportunist.  Belloq uses Indy throughout the narrative as an unpaid employee, both in Peru and in Cairo.  Indy does all the work while Belloq follows Indy around, waiting for him to discover missing pieces and solve puzzles so that Belloq can benefit from Indy’s work.  He does this with the Peruvian idol, the Headpiece of the Staff of Ra, the Well of Souls and the Ark itself.  In addition to these artifacts, he does it with Marion herself, which I’ll get to below.  This dynamic reminds of George Lucas, who is and has always been an unabashed exploiter himself, not a trailblazer or innovator but a keen recognizer of talent and innovation from others.  Strange that he would, consciously or not, cast himself as the villain of Raiders.  Or perhaps he sees himself as both Indy and Belloq, which is why Belloq has several monologues about how he and Indy are alike.

Anyway, enough idle speculation.  Forward.

ACT II of Raiders encompasses everything in Cairo up to the opening of the Well of Souls, from 33:44 to 59:00.  Everything in the act drives toward this moment, at which point the narrative will shift again.  The split in Indy’s twin desires will also be most fully exploited here.

CHAPTER 1 (33:44 – 42:16) Indy and Marion, now a couple (it is not made clear that they are intimate, although it seems clear the Indy would like them to be, and they have certainly set up housekeeping together) arrive in Cairo and meet up with Helpful Animal Sallah, who informs them that Belloq is the guy in charge of the Nazi dig in Cairo and also “knows a guy” who can read the Headpiece of the Staff of Ra for them.  John Rhys Davies does a great job of being Mr. Exposition, much better than the poor white guys with the briefcases in Act I, and I’m not sure if it’s the actor, the role (which gives Sallah a family, a background and a love for Gilbert and Sullivan) the script (which puts a trained monkey and several colorful locals in the scene) or merely the colorful new location that makes this beat work.  The best expository scenes in the Indiana Jones movies are when the necessary information is simply spat out by the required actors and something completely unrelated is happening onscreen.  The “chilled monkey brains” dinner in Temple of Doom comes to mind.  It’s important for the narrative to come together, but it’s even more important for the senses to be entertained, and entertainment of the senses is something at which Spielberg excels.

Indy and Marion (and the monkey) head out into the marketplace, and Indy goes to great pains to explain to Marion what a “date” is.  This has confused me for years — certainly world-traveler Marion Ravenwood could not be confused as to what a date is.  Is Indy making a pun on “date,” as in “this is a date, and we are also on a ‘date'”?  Or is the “date” in Raiders merely the equivalent to the “oxygen tank” in Jaws and the “radiator hose” in Duel, a piece of information Spielberg was afraid the audience wouldn’t get if he didn’t explain it to us?

In any case, Marion, in short order, goes from being partner to victim as a bunch of guys suddenly attack, kidnapping Marion and making Indy think she is dead.  And while it’s not immediately clear who has planned this attack, the net result seems to be that Belloq wants to kidnap Marion in order to get the Headpiece of the Staff of Ra (he must sense that his information on the headpiece is faulty) and kill Indy before he can get to the Ark first.

Indy begins the chapter relaxed and confident that his adversaries are buffoons, and ends it devastated by the death of his girlfriend, whom he had already betrayed once and whom he has now gotten killed.

(It has always bothered me that no one, Indy included, ever bothered to check the burning wreckage of the truck to make sure that Marion was, in fact, a charred corpse within, or even try to put out the fire.)

CHAPTER 2 (42:16 – 49:33) Indy mourns Marion, and it occurs to him that this trip was, perhaps, not worth it.  The Ark of the Covenant is great history, he feels, but Marion was a human being and a potential soul-mate.  In the depths of his mourning, Indy is shanghaied by some Nazis and delivered to Belloq.

This scene confuses me — why does Belloq send for Indy, when earlier in the afternoon he was trying to kill him?  The pragmatic reason is that the protagonist needs to meet up with the antagonist somewhere in the act, otherwise the dramatic tension goes slack.  But realistically (realistically!) Belloq has no reason to summon Indy to his table in the hookah bar.  His monologue to Indy is pitched as a seduction, but what is the point?  Is he going to try to use the “death of Marion” as a lure to get Indy to work with him?  How is that supposed to work?  “Hey, I just killed your girlfriend, how about you wise up and join the winning side?”  Whatever Belloq is trying to get out of Indy, Indy does not give him the satisfaction and Sallah’s children come to rescue Indy not from getting killed but from him killing Belloq.

The other function of the attempted seduction” scene is to reveal Belloq’s endgame — he has no plans to turn over the Ark to Hitler or anyone else, he plans to keep it for himself and rule the world.  How exactly he plans to do this remains a mystery, but I’m guessing it has something to do with him dressing up as a Hebrew priest at the end of the movie — is he planning on opening the Ark, zapping all the Nazis and taking off with the Ark himself, thinking he’s fooled God into thinking he’s one of the Chosen?  Or is he actually Jewish?  The movie doesn’t say, which to me suggests he is not.

Indy goes home to hear Some Old Guy gas on about the Headpiece of the Staff of Ra.  This is another densely expository scene, this time spiced up with an attempted murder involving a poisoned date.  That’s why Indy explains to Marion what a date is — so that when this later scene revolves around Indy eating-or-not-eating a poisoned one, we understand that a date is a kind of food.  Of course, Indy may be flirting with the date because it reminds him of Marion, with whom he had just eaten dates with earlier that afternoon, but that seems like a stretch to me.  In any case, the scene works because we don’t really care about the pure information the Old Guy is spouting, we just need to know it so that the following chapter will work.  What we need to see is more suspense, which the scene delivers exceedingly well, at the expense of the little Nazi monkey.

Indy begins this chapter mourning for Marion and doubting his motivations for this adventure and ends it by becoming convinced of his absolute advantage over his adversary, amid greatly-raised life-and-death stakes.

CHAPTER 3 (49:33 – 59:00): Indy puts on a disguise(this confused both my children, who didn’t know why we were suddenly following around this guy in a turban) and heads into the Nazis big dig with Sallah to divine the location of the Well of Souls.  This sequence, like all the best sequences in the Indiana Jones movies, presents the protagonist and his team with a series of physical challenges, which is good cinema and is where Spielberg lives.  No one conveys pure action, in both captialized and lower-case senses, better than Spielberg and the simple presentation of “characters doing things” are always the best parts of Spielberg movies, whether it’s Roy Neary building Devil’s Tower in his living room or Chief Brody killing a shark in a sinking boat or a Martian spaceship laying waste to Bayonne. 

Action, suspense and humor all mesh in the Map Room sequence, which then raises the stakes by bringing in a supernatural element.  Indy and his Headpiece of the Staff of Ra doesn’t just locate the Well of Souls, it beams a laser of blinding light that forms an aura in the shape of a pair of wings.  Those wings will show up later on the lid of the Ark, and will also emanate from the hearts of the Nazis who get zapped by the Ark in the movie’s climax.

What’s going on in Indy’s mind here?  He’s just witnessed a minor miracle (he had ignored the instant storm that cropped up at the Old Guy was going on about the Headpiece of the Staff of Ra the previous night — he was more interested in his date than the Wrath of God).  Is he becoming convinced that the Ark is truly what Belloq says it is?

It sure seems that way, because minutes later he stumbles across Marion, alive if not quite well, tied up in Belloq’s tent.  Here his split is most fully exploited — he can rescue Marion, whom he was mourning just the night before, but that would mean giving up the Ark, which, the day before he was discounting as folklore.  The angels’-wings light display in the map room hints at the stakes involved for Indy — Marion might be a human being, but the Ark, it seems, is something else.

Indy hires a crew (somehow) to dig up the entrance to the Well of Souls, right under the Nazis noses (there’s a fun phrase to type), taking off his disguise and “becoming his old self” again.  Night falls and, as the entrance to the Well of Souls is opened, Indy’s face turns maniacal and power-mad.  Is he becoming what Belloq threatened?  Is he also scheming to make off with the Ark and use it to take over the world?  That’s how the chapter would end in a traditional serial, and so ends this act.



34 Responses to “Spielberg: Raiders of the Lost Ark part 2”
  1. travisezell says:

    I just want to say, I love this. Thanks. It’s also given me a reason to go back and re-watch the first and best Indiana Jones film (recently I tried the second and was let down).

  2. mattyoung says:

    I’ve got to agree with travisezell. Your perspective on movies has definitely influenced my own recently, and I love looking at these movies over again. I never really consciously thought about the devestating irony of Nazis desperately seeking a Hebrew artifact, for instance.

    So, when Marion “dies,” who’s going to check that trademark movie “Explosion”? All it needs is a single flaming tire bouncing away from the wreckage to signify “total destruction.”

    But I don’t think Belloq ordered the abduction. It seems like if Sallah is the Good Animal, the Nazis are Rabid Ones, muzzled by suits and iron crosses. They work on gut instincts. Belloq thinks he can colaborate with them because he, like Indy, gets in over his head.

    Similarly, in the hookah bar, Belloq thinks he’s a smooth operator yet he picks the WORST time to try and reason with Indy. Like Indy, he starts suave but shows his buffonary. He and his hubris are playing more deadly games. And in this scene he’s desperate for information from Indy. Belloq can’t risk losing his diving rod, and I almost wonder if he’s intentionally trying to get a rise out of Indy in case Marion’s death really did screw him up, and when Indy draws, Belloq realizes how much trouble he’s in.

    The ark isn’t just a prize, it also has an effect on those pursuing it. It tempts Indy, intoxicating, just a taste of it in the well of the souls. He doesn’t claim to believe in all that mumbo-jumbo, which just leaves him more vulnerable to its influence. And when he finds Mairon, he’s under the seduction of a greater power. If Indy was more interested in his date than god’s power while learning about the headpiece, he’s surely more interested in what the lord is offering now.

    • Todd says:

      I wasn’t sure about Belloq’s involvement in Marion’s abduction either, and yet the same “Nazis in fedoras” order the hit and then come and get Indy while he’s drowning his sorrows to come take him to Belloq. And regardless of his authority behind Marion’s abduction, she ends up in his tent the next morning, so he must have had something to do with it.

  3. We watched all three Indy movies in the past two weeks or so. Raiders is still great, Temple is still flawed (but the first chunk and the last chunk are still amazing!), and Last Crusade is way better than I remembered. Or actually, as I grew up I started thinking it was junky kids’ stuff, but when I watched it I felt like I was 9 years old again, in a good way.

    • mattyoung says:

      Oh man, Last Crusade blew me away!

      My girlfriend watched it with me a little while ago, and it was the first time I’d seen it since it originally came out on video.

      It was like a magic eye picture, seeing for the first time, all the stuff about Fathers and sons that totally went over my ten-year-old head. (Plus, when I’d seen Dogma in the theater, I couldn’t remember for the life of me where Silent Bob got that “no ticket” line from.)

  4. dionysus1999 says:

    Greatly enjoying your analysis of Spielberg movies. I’d be interested to hear your comments on Young Sherlock Holmes sometime. Spielberg was listed as an exec producer. Barry Levinson directed, and a Bruce Broughton is listed for music.

    Watched it last night. It feels like a Spielberg movie, in plot and pacing. And Broughton seems to be imitating John Williams to some extent.

    • Todd says:

      I’m not sure what to do about Spielberg’s 80s executive-producer movies. They’re obviously “Spielberg” movies, and I’m told that movies like The Goonies belong more to Spielberg than to the credited directors (Poltergeist being the most extreme example of this), but this is a very long list (Gremlins, *batteries not included, The Money Pit, Joe vs the Volcano, Young Sherlock Holmes, Innerspace all leap immediately to mind), and I’m not sure how helpful analysis of these movies would be to the discussion at hand. I’m also guessing it’s safe to credit Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams to its director.

      • bassfingers says:

        Your take on Joe vs the Volcano would be welcomed, indeed.

        • Todd says:

          You may have to content yourself with my take on The Money Pit.

          • bassfingers says:

            You really want to compare David Giler with John Patrick Shanley?

            Actually, I’d probably be MOST interested in your thoughts on what elements of successful worldbuilding make a movie franchise-able. At least in genre films, it seems like a franchise is pretty good money for the original screenwriter. A handful of writers can do it once, and even fewer strike gold more than once. (Thinking about Gregory Widen and his first films in the Highlander and Prophecy franchises…)

  5. rjwhite says:

    This is all well and good, but how does it hold up to this?

  6. adam_0oo says:

    Hopefully we will have mention of Marion’s drinking superpower.

  7. craigjclark says:

    Regarding the excavation of the Well of Souls: I remember in the Mad magazine parody of Raiders there was a panel depicting Spielberg with a bullhorn directing the German soldiers not to look at workmen toiling at the top of the hill, artfully silhouetted against the setting sun.

  8. Anonymous says:

    Indy vs. the Cairo Swordsman

    I had a friend who had a theory that I never forgot, because it was integral to his argument that the film completely changed the rules of what The Hero (in this case the swashbuckler? Adventurer?) was allowed by the audience to do, or not to do.

    Most people know the scene: Indy is cornered during the Basket Chase by the Cairo Swordsman, brandishing his native weapon.

    My friend’s analysis was that normally, the hero would fight an opponent on his own terms, or at the very least, the fight would devolve to fisticuffs, thereby showing who was the better man. So what does Indy do?

    He pulls his pistol and shoots the swordsman: and the crowd goes wild.

    So: Indy as Cowboy, as a Westerner, outfitted with Technology, in a witty display of Imperialism and maybe cowardice, easily overcomes his opponent — but at the same time, disobeying the laws of The Hero up until that point in Movie History.

    The Cairo Swordsman: outdated, outmatched, dead.

    Did Spielberg and Lucas rewrite what is acceptable for Heroes to do? Or is this theory over-reaching? Anyone?


    ps. I too, am a religious reader of all these posts. Thank you Todd for taking time to write.

    • Anonymous says:

      Re: Indy vs. the Cairo Swordsman

      By the way, I’m well aware of the story that Harrison Ford was sick, and suggested that the elaborately planned fight scene go this way. I realize what’s in the film is not what was written, nor originally intended, but regardless — Indy shoots the swordsman, and we all laugh.

      Just gettin’ that out of the way.


    • Todd says:

      Re: Indy vs. the Cairo Swordsman

      There is a troubling undercurrent of racism, imperialism and colonialism running through not just the Indiana Jones movies, but all the Star Wars movies as well. In Raiders, it’s not just the poor swordsman in the Cairo marketplace, it’s the bug-eyed, barefooted Peruvian natives and the general “simplicity” of all the brown-skinned people.

      These qualities deserve a post to themselves, but I am perhaps not the person to write it.

      • mimitabu says:

        Re: Indy vs. the Cairo Swordsman

        happily, someone else has been tackling this in a very interesting way, though not via blogging.

        loving these analyses as usual, by the way. my one not-too-insightful comment: you mention the monkey brains scene as a great example of exposition. i’ve seen temple as a child and a teen dozens of times, and i don’t believe i ever understood what the hell they were talking about during that scene, because the more interesting food angle made my apathy toward the exposition so complete. i’ve forgotten a lot of the plot points these days, but if i could examine my past brain, i have a feeling that i never once bothered to pay attention to the exposition at that point.

        don’t know if that’s a good thing, or if it means the “interesting part” works too well (and defeats the expositary purpose), or if it means that i was/am just a really lazy viewer. i’m leaning toward “you can ignore all the straight exposition, period, because you’re going to watch the movies multiple times. just ask a friend what’s going on, or piece it together yourself.” why not?

        • Todd says:

          Re: Indy vs. the Cairo Swordsman

          I don’t think you’re a lazy viewer. I’ve seen all these movies dozens of times and I’ve never paid attention to the exposition either. I think those scenes bore Spielberg and he knows they’ll bore the audience too, so he deliberately puts something in there that has nothing to do with the exposition being unpacked so we’ll have something to do, but if we ever want to go back and find out what the plot is actually about we can do so.

  9. popebuck1 says:

    I’m intrigued by your thoughts on Lucas. The single thing that makes me the most fearful for Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is that Lucas came up with the crucial plot MacGuffin on which the plot turns (as with the Ark, Sankara stones, and Grail in the first three), and even though Spielberg, the producers, and seemingly everyone else in Hollywood hated the idea and tried to talk him out of it, Lucas insisted the movie would never be made unless he got his way. The Star Wars prequels have given ample proof of just how fallible George Lucas’s story sense is, and yet, this. It does not give one confidence.

    • Todd says:

      I’m perfectly willing to wait and see about Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. If it sucks, it sucks — but I’m not betting or hoping that happens.

      The interesting thing about the Maguffins is that the first is a central artifact from Judaism, the second is from the Hindu, the third is from Christianity — and the fourth, as far as I can tell, is from the Mayan. Which, well, I don’t get the connection and maybe it’s unimportant.

      And then there’s the obvious UFO thing, which shows more promise to me.

      • popebuck1 says:

        I share your cautious optimism – and I’m not “betting or hoping” it sucks, there’s just a part of me that’s dreading it instead of being excited. I hate that. Let us all fervently hope for the best!

    • Anonymous says:

      Plus, Shia LeBeouf. Personally, I’m not looking forward to that. Couldn’t they have gotten Gyllenhaal or someone?

  10. jbacardi says:

    You know, for a movie that has always seemed so tight and enjoyable when watching it, after reading these posts I’m more than a little surprised at all the inconsistencies, unanswered questions, and stuff that doesn’t plain old make sense, that of course I didn’t really notice and/or pay attention to in the near-dozen times I’ve seen this- including the first time in its first week of release, in a tiny mall theatre. That rolling rock was BIG, let me tell you.

    What conclusion I draw from this, I don’t know. I just wanted to point that out.

    • mimitabu says:

      i think the movie causes you to be so on its side that you’ll forgive almost any inconsistency.

      for example, someone asked “if we didn’t know about the boulder, how could we feel tension during the weighing scene?”

      at first, i thought, “you see the guy carefully working the stuff out, it just implies that there must be something riding on what he’s doing.”

      but now i’m thinking, “this movie gets you on its side immediately. there’s a logic driving everything that happens, and you’ll adopt the movie’s logic because you’re on its side. suppose there was a huge logical problem involved with the boulder appearing, or indy running, etc. you won’t care about the logical problem when you watch it, because you’re right there in the movie thinking ‘oh shit it’s a boulder, run!‘ so too for really everything else that happens.” real life logic is, in the end, an excuse used to enable the logic of each situation that occurs in the movie.

      or i’m crazy. i know i’m sort of just describing suspension of disbelief, and every movie more or less tries to achieve that… i think the distinction between indiana jones movies and a lot of other ones is that immediate logic drives the scenes, and you adopt that logic. the movie says, “indy wants to get on this plane.” if there’s no reason for him to get on the plane, you don’t care. you’re just like, “word, get on that plane, indy.” the movie is delivering so satisfyingly with scenes like that, that plot holes won’t matter.

      damn, i’m starting to ramble because more things to say are coming… sorry. last thing, todd mentions that the character of indy comes out through and drives our investment in the kinetic action on the screen. i think action scenes in indiana jones are bound to work, because the character of indiana jones (simultaneously superior and bumbling) is larger than life. we’re not drawn in because we’ve seen indy’s complex development into something, we’re drawn in because we get what indiana jones is and it’s compelling. throw that compelling character into interesting situations, and the audience will be endlessly interested and forgiving. indiana jones is like the best type of videogame protagonist, but he’s in movies (he’s timelessly interesting, and he’s accessible regardless of his context).

      • jbacardi says:

        For what it’s worth, I understood the weighing scene first time out- I guess if you’re immersed enough in genre fiction, you come to instinctively pick up on certain things. I knew, after all that had happened to them before, that something bad would happen if Indy screwed up the exchange, but I didn’t know what and that was a big reason why the rolling boulder was a fun surprise. Well, not for Indy, but you know what I mean.

  11. Again, (see part 1), I am reminded that everythng does not have to make sense if the story is propelling along with these mini-reels, as you might call them. My North By Northwest analogy is also a clear example where you could pick the logic to pieces, but the hoodwinking is happily accepted on every viewing…

    I think part of the expository is to give you a sense of mystery (because clearly you don’t understand what they are talking about at the first viewing).

    Finally, I hated Temple of Doom and was much relieved that the voodoo of Last Crusade was my sort of voodoo, or am I being prejudiced. It was a very uncomfortable film to watch, I remember, and I have the same feelings for the kid in it that I have for Scrappy Doo…

  12. wordwill says:

    The second-act meeting with Belloq struck me as weird until I remembered how much conflict we’re shown between Belloq and the Nazis. I think what we’re meant to understand is that the Nazis are trying to kill Indy, but Belloq is not. Belloq wants Indy alive for the greatest chase the two of them will have between them. The Nazis just want him out of the way.

    We see this time and again: Shadowy Nazi nobodies, not Belloq, meet with Egyptian mercenaries prior to the attack in Cairo. Nazi suits, not Belloq, meet with Eye-Patch prior to the poisoning. The Nazis say, “Torture the girl,” but Belloq wants to dangle her in front of Jones.

    Belloq is to the Nazis what Indy is to the US Government in this movie, right? The conflict in history is between the US and the Nazis, but the conflict in the movie is between Indy and Belloq.


  13. jdurall says:

    I’ve always liked how Indy breaks the staff in the map room and then discards both pieces without a second thought.

    Was he thinking: “Hah! The Nazis will never be able to put these two pieces of wood together. They’ll never know how long the staff is supposed to be!”

    Even as a kid, I was thinking “Shouldn’t he break it into three pieces, and take one of the pieces with him?”

  14. Anonymous says:

    red writing on the wall?

    Just curious – we are watching Raiders of the Lost Ark right now and wondered what the red writing on the wall of the building that is lit up by the Staff of Ra in the map room sequence says? Paused and tried to decipher – but no luck. Anyone know? Must be there for a reason – right?

    • Todd says:

      Re: red writing on the wall?

      I’m pretty sure it’s German, indicating that the Nazis have looked in that building and there’s nothing there.