Raiders of the Lost Ark Running Commentary

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Chris Neumer sat down to watch director Steven Spielberg’s iconic film, Raiders of the Lost Ark and took notes. Get inside what made Marion Ravenswood drinking contest win so damn impressive, why the film doesn’t have a bad guy, one of the best stunts of all time and just how strange of a dude Rene Belloq is in this running commentary.

by Chris Neumer

Raiders of the Lost Ark is truly one of the most iconic films in Hollywood history.  It marks not only an introduction to the character of Indiana Jones, but to legitimately well made big-budget, popcorn movies.  Not many people remember this, but Raiders of the Lost Ark was nominated for Best Picture the year it came out.  It also got me to study archaeology in college; I mean, who can be Indiana Jones with an English major?  Save for Star Wars, it’s hard to think of another movie that more people in more places have collectively enjoyed than Raiders of the Lost Ark.  It’s too bad that’s not a statistic we can tap into.

Re-watching director Steven Spielberg’s film again recently, I was surprised by a couple of things, none more greatly that its plot… or rather, its conventional lack thereof.  Interestingly, I didn’t realize how unusual the nature of Raiders of the Lost Ark was until well after I’d concluded my viewing of it.

IndyPosterThe Indiana Jones series is George Lucas’ baby.  Despite only getting a ‘story by’ and ‘executive producer’ credit on this film, Lucas’ fingerprints were on almost every frame of this movie.  And the structure of Lucas’ films have always been somewhat unusual.  The man thinks nothing of having the first 40 minutes of a movie be self-contained and not particularly tied to anything the latter half of the film.  Consider: in The Empire Strikes Back, the first 40 minutes had the rebels evacuating Hoth and in The Return of the Jedi, the first 40 minutes had the rebels getting Han Solo out of Jabba the Hut’s palace on Tatooine.  This is unusual because it’s almost as if the first 40 minutes of the movie were a movie unto themselves.  At the end of the first 40 minutes of both movies, the problems that the characters have been dealing with have all been resolved and it’s time to move onto other things.

And that’s not normal.

‘Normal’ is to spend the first 20 minutes of the film allowing the audience to get to know the characters, then introducing the conflict and spending the rest of the film following the leads as they attempt to deal with said conflict.  Coincidentally, this broad description of film structure seems to fit perfectly for Raiders of the Lost Ark.

What makes Raiders of the Lost Ark so unusual is that it doesn’t have a readily identifiable and accurate 25-word pitch.  This is what happens when there isn’t a clear cut bad guy in the movie.  There are three possible summaries of the film that I see:  1) Jones is trying to find the Ark of the Covenant; 2) Jones is trying to prevent the Nazis from getting the Ark themselves; or 3) Jones is  trying to gain possession of the Ark himself.

All three concepts might seem the same, but they spell out strikingly different paths.  The first option puts the emphasis on finding the Ark.  That seems to fall short because there is a lot of movie left after Jones finds the Ark; conflict resolution does not take place at the halfway point of a film.  The second option puts the emphasis on making sure that the Nazis don’t get the Ark.  That seems to fall short of accurate because, if this were his goal, when he found out that the Nazis were digging in the wrong place, he could have called it a day.  That leaves us with the third option: Jones wants the Ark himself.  This is seemingly the most accurate description, except it too feels off because the Nazis gained possession of the Ark first, opened it first and it ultimately ends up in the hands of the US Army, against Jones’ very vocal wishes.*  In short, it feels off because Jones doesn’t come close to obtaining the Ark.

* This doesn’t take into consideration the fact (as pointed out on The Big Bang Theory) that Jones’ involvement in the whole affair is completely meaningless.  As The Big Bang Theory’s Amy states, “Indiana Jones plays no role in the outcome of the story. If he weren’t in the film, it would turn out exactly the same… the Nazis would have still found the Ark, taken it to island, opened it up, and all died, just like they did.”  I won’t get into the part where an argument could be made that the Nazis would not have found the Ark without Jones’ presence.  Remember, they only learn that they’re digging in the wrong spot when they see Jones & Co. digging in the correct spot.

The whole scenario is rather unusual because the Raiders of the Lost Ark plot synopsis that seems to be the most accurate (#3) would also suggest that there is no conflict resolution in the movie.   If Jones is trying to get the Ark, he fails in epic style.  Normally, when the lead doesn’t get the object he is chasing (think Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade), he actually gains something else of greater value.  Call it the White Men Can’t Jump Corollary: Sometimes when you win, you really lose and sometimes when you lose, you really win.  In The Last Crusade, Jones didn’t get the grail, but he developed a much better relationship with his father and, in the context of the movie, that was even more important.

Only, this doesn’t hold true with Raiders of the Lost Ark.  To my knowledge, Jones gains… nothing.  He doesn’t learn anything, he doesn’t get anything and, save for apparently getting back with his ex, which is never a good idea, he’s no different at the end of the film as he is at the beginning.  And, in the interim, he’s gotten punked by a French competitor (twice), been bested by the Nazis and taken advantage of by his own government.

It’s just weird.

Fortunately, neither the knowledge that Jones fails in his endeavors or that his character doesn’t actually impact anything in the context of the movie detracted anything from my viewing.  The movie is just as entertaining as ever.  Thank God.

Thus begins my running commentary on Raiders of the Lost Ark, a movie about an archaeologist who does… something… that happens to also involve the Ark of the Covenant.

:35 raiders_titleThe Raiders of the Lost Ark opening titles are in a font that I don’t believe has ever been used on another project, before or since.  Oh, not the familiar orange/yellow letters that cartoonishly rainbow across the screen (like this),* but the actual titles.  These are in some weird outlined, specifically stylized version of some unknown font.  There is a great debate online about what the font is, but there is absolutely no consensus.

* This font is actually called “Fedora” after Indiana Jones’ hat.

:43 Paul Freeman’s parents have never been happier.  His name is the third in the cast listing.

1:59 While the names of the actors who worked on the movie might not be awe-inspiring, the names of the people who worked behind the camera are a virtual who’s who of current day Hollywood power players.  Consider, the following people all worked on Raiders of the Lost Ark in some capacity;

Steven Spielberg

George Lucas

Phillip Kaufman

Lawrence Kasdan

Frank Marshall

Kathleen Kennedy

2:26 Call me overly cautious, but I’m not a big proponent of licking the poisoned arrow to see how fresh it is.  I’m also not a big fan of doing a line of the coke to see if it’s been adulterated.

3:23 After facing away from the camera for the first, uh, 3:23, Harrison Ford’s face is finally revealed to the audience… in one of the most silly and purposely cheesy fashions imaginable.

5:36 Indiana Jones (Ford) is inside a Chachapoyan Temple in Peru, making his way to collect a golden fertility statue there.  Despite the fact that the Chachapoyans were conquered by the Incas more than 500 years ago, they have created a booby trap that is equipped with a light-sensitive motion-detector.

The only way I could find this feasible is if a group of 13 aliens flew down to Peru thousands of years ago and taught the indigenous people there this new space-age technology, but that’s an utterly ridiculous thought, so…

7:41 Jones is eyeballing how much the gold statue will weigh in sand, so he can replace the statue with a bag of sand so that the ancient Chachapoyan pressure switch won’t be triggered.

8:09 He eyeballed wrong.  The temple is self-destructing.

9:26 In the battle of Jones vs. the Giant Boulder, my money is squarely on Jones.  This shouldn’t be the case, but is a testament to the on-screen strength of Ford.

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