Throughout his career, Steven Spielberg has created some of the most popular films of all time, garnering him an enormous amount of respect on both a critical and financial scale. He is considered by many to be the most famous director of all time, given his track record as both director and producer of some of the most recognizable films of the past 50 years. Movie Daddy is a series by Story Screen Editor-in-chief, Mike Burdge, which aims to cover The Beard's directorial filmography in an attempt to present just why Steven Spielberg is very much that hot fire when it comes to being an American filmmaker. In this installment, we’re gonna hit one of the big ones, which arguably solidified Spielberg’s standing as an unmatched talent, and introduced to us one of the most recognizable figures in film, Indiana Jones. That’s right, we’re talkin’ dat' Raiders of the Lost Ark.
“This movie we’re making now is not real life. But at the same time, it is not a send-up, it is not an imitation of anything.” -Spielberg on the intentions of Raiders
Raiders of the Lost Ark is a fast film: fast-paced with a cleverly edited, throwback feel. It’s an ode to the nostalgia of the Saturday serials that inspired, in and of themselves, some of the strongest nostalgias we have today. Birthed from the same mind that drew on Flash Gordon to create the seemingly endless world of Star Wars, this new take on the adventures of a dashing and daring explorer only becomes even more impressive as your familiarity with these old school adventures increases. I'm sure the idea of a “love letter to,” within the film genre, sounds like a tired description at this point, but hoo boy, does Raiders beg for, and deserve that moniker. Yet, for all its massive popularity, and its nostalgic tendencies, Raiders of the Lost Ark remains, first and foremost, a masterpiece of filmmaking, and a testament to movie magic. It’s the movie Roger Ebert described as: “an out-of-body experience,” and which Gene Siskel referred to as “tight.” It also happens to be one of the movies totally engraved in my mind: every line, every shot, every moment. It just might be my favorite Spielberg film, purely for the fact that it’s kind of hard to argue against. It’s a flawless film, exceeding at every turn with effortless, dynamic ease. To put it bluntly: It’s a really cool movie. Also, there’s an amazing black and white version that exists, which I highly recommend catching at some point. It’s… insanely cool. But we’re not here to talk about that.
Let’s go back:
Born from Spielberg confessing that he would love to do a James Bond-esque picture to his brother-from-another-mother, George Lucas, Raiders of the Lost Ark began as an idea Lucas thought would pique Spielberg's interest to a unique level: the story of Indiana Smith (womp womp). Spielberg and Lucas had been good friends for quite some time at this point; they worked together in one form or another on several projects - through the American Zoetrope era, a production company founded by walking sexpot, Francis Ford Coppola. Spielberg had known Lucas for over 10 years before that fateful sandy beach conversation, where Lucas was hiding away during the opening of Star Wars, nervous of how his wacky space adventure would turn out with the general public. They were friends, so when Lucas brought up an idea he had been working on even before he started the script to Journal of the Whills, Spielberg decided to make this movie, for and with his friend. By the time they got started, the names Lucas and Spielberg attached to any movie was guaranteed dynamite, and these two Beard Bros knew it.
With a little shot in the arm from noted dreamboat, Lawrence Kasdan, (who presumably gave the movie its pop and soul) they had a script that was ready to destroy the public consciousness of what it meant to make a throwback movie at that time. Then it came down to getting people to actually play these roles, primarily that of our hero, Indiana Jones, and his goddamn partner, Marion Ravenwood. Spielberg and Lucas searched tirelessly for an unknown actor to play Indie, feeling that this level of faux authenticity would allow the movie’s strengths to stand on their own. But eventually, Spielberg saw The Empire Strikes Back and called up Lucas, exclaiming: “He’s been right under our noses!” Lucas said he knew exactly who Spielberg meant right away, and while hesitant at first, (after working with him before) it became the final choice (after teen-heartthrob Tom Sellick fell through) that Harrison Ford would be the perfect fit for the fedora-wearing explorer.
Ford was “enthusiastic” about the script, and also about Steven Spielberg. After wrapping on Empire, and moving into a new home, Ford turned down script after script, until a call from George Lucas brought up Spielberg’s next project. At the time, Ford was right in the middle of his launch to stardom. Given Ford's success as Han Solo in the first two Star Wars films, as well as his turn as Rick Deckard in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner the following year, his decision to take the role of Indiana Jones is as easy a mark as any to hit as the thing that finally catapulted him. And that’s not even mentioning the “You’re Goddamn Right, Gimmie My Money” one-two of Return of the Jedi and his Oscar-nominated performance in Witness in the following two years. Your dude was killing it. While, yes, Harrison Ford’s rugged good looks and insane comedic presence are both responsible for his rise as a star, as well as the success of Raiders becoming such a behemoth of entertainment, one of the things that really makes Indie sing is actually a result of Ford’s own no-bullshit persona. Throughout the shooting process, Ford really asked a lot of rational questions as far as his character's motivations in scenes, as well as his reactions. Ford being the prickly dude he’s now known to be, really helped the believability of Indie’s reactions and physicality within all the major and smaller moments found throughout Raiders. “What’s to stop me from just pulling the gun?” Ford would ask the stunt coordinator when choreographing the fight scenes in the movie. And while the good ol’ “It happens too quick” would work sometimes, we’ve all heard of the big one where Ford’s barbed point of view changed movie history forever: the infamous Swordsman Fight Scene. As the story goes, Indie was supposed to fight off a large swordsman with his whip, leading to a whole bit with a butcher getting “his work done for him” by the sword-wielding baddie. Ford’s version (the one now plastered in our minds) is funnier, even if it was the believed result of the actor feeling sick. This is inarguable. It’s the film equivalent of letting the bass drop. It hits, and it hits at just the right moment.
I’m not going any further in this write-up without gushing, just for a moment, how absolutely out-of-the-park Karen Allen hits her shit as Marion Ravenwood. It is a transcendent experience. This movie is filled to the very brim with spectacle and WOW, that at times, I feel that Allen’s work can easily get lost within the extravaganza, but my good God is she something else in this movie. With practically nothing under her belt at the time of her casting, Allen brings the goods to a seemingly thankless role, something she would do again to equally impressive effect with her roles in 1984’s Starman and 1988’s Scrooged. How this woman didn’t become a superstar herself is frankly embarrassing to the entire human race. When discussing her experience on Raiders, she said this:
"You get down into all the layers of all the technical things having to be working all at once. It wasn’t just the acting, it was being aware of what the camera was doing, and being in the right light, being in the right place at the right moment and not getting in each other’s way and all of these sorts of things, I mean it was fascinating."
Karen Allen was a motherfucking star who beat the shit out of any scene you threw at her, not just with her insanely impressive presence and delivery, but with the seasoned know-how of a tempered actor who knew what she needed to get done, both when and how.
Obligatory John Williams score shoutout!! What do you want me to say about this? Seriously? Pull it up on Spotify or YouTube and just deal with the fact that it’s a bop. It slaps and is easily one of the top five themes EVER. That’s it. GREAT JOB, JOHN!
But let’s get into the movie proper, shall we? The beginning of Raiders of the Lost Ark is just a miracle; its opening sequence is a pacing and editing marvel, on both a technical and experiential scale. And if we can fast forward, the final big scene of the movie takes place on what is visually (and sort of literally), a movie-set, and is also a psychotic rollercoaster of entertainment and movie magic. Bookending your movie with these jaw-dropping moments is one surefire way to make a classic. Luckily for us, Raiders also has plenty of tasty filling: an impeccable tone, outlandishly enjoyable characters, and heart-racing action that all adds up to the very thing we think about when we imagine what movies can do. Let’s start with what makes the tone of this film so great. While the slapstick, tongue-in-cheek antics are great, they are the resulting leftovers of many cut moments of similar fun fare. Spielberg actively shot loads of funny moments within all points of the films, leaving it until the final stages of the editing room to hone the balance. The comedy within this movie is finely tuned and only released when narratively perfect. Similarly, Indie’s heroic nature (i.e. his badassery) is typically usurped time and time again. When we are first introduced to him, we see him fail and get run out of a jungle, nearly dying, only to escape by the skin of his teeth, and THEN we see he’s a big ol’ wuss around snakes. This narrative tactic of having Indie’s confidence get the better of him not only makes everything more believable but also ties us to the stakes of the moments. We want Indie to make it because, c’mon dude, you got this! The entire plane fight scene is pure magic. The dynamic the audience has with Indie, coupled with the added flair of Speilberg’s mesmerizing blocking, (we’ll get to more of this soon, I swear) creates an absolutely beguiling piece of cinema that is indisputable. And while we’re on the tone train, let’s talk about exposition. There is an amazing exposition dump with some military dudes early on in the movie that gives the audience every facet of information they could need in a purely naturalistic way. THIS is how you do it, baby. The exposition work in this film is just all-around perfection. Something is always happening and is always given just the right amount of attention. There is a keen eye on blocking with editing in mind. Watch the “Bad Dates” scene and tell me this movie isn’t made by a genius. I dare you.
We’ve already discussed the two heavy hitters of this movie - Ford and Allen - but the secondary characters in this thing are out of control. Paul Freeman as Belloq is a world-class fuckboi; Ronald Lacey puts in the distinguished work of "That Creepy Guy" as Toht, and you’ve got John Rhys-Davies doing his shudderingly sexy thing as Sallah. And one would be embarrassed to not bring up “Sir” Alfredo Molina in a role that, even though he is only in the first ten minutes, you still think of his face and rubbing-fingers every time you think of Raiders of the Lost Ark. But it is in Denholm Elliot, playing Brody, that the brightest light of the ensemble shines, and while he isn’t given much screen-time in this first installment, he radiates ACTING in his brief scenes. Don’t worry, we’ll get more into Elliot's amazing abilities in the Last Crusade, where he’s utilized so much more, creating one of the greatest sidekick characters of all time. Brody speaks a dozen languages and knows every local custom, don’t ya know?
The stunts in this thing are out of control, full stop. Keeping the natural feel and allowing the camera to flow through the scenes required an insane amount of talent and trust by the stunt team, something that I think is felt even while watching the movie as a spectator; you know that’s not Harrison Ford doing that, but it’s still Indiana Jones if that makes sense? It’s insane what the stunt team accomplishes in this movie. The more you pay attention to the stunts as events as opposed to moments, the more the awe sets in.
A quick aside: One of the oddest moments in the film is when Indie supposedly rides a submarine to “Nazi Island.” You know the part I’m talking about. How does he survive this? A deleted scene does show him holding onto the periscope of the submerged submarine, seemingly explaining how his survival might have been possible. Does this make sense? No. Is that how submarines work? As someone who has served aboard a submarine, I can tell you: No. No, it is not. Is the mystery better than the deleted explanation? Sure. Great job, everybody. Keep giving me a good movie, thank you.
And it is here, dear reader, that we must delve into the mind that brought this awesomeness all together: one Steven Allan Spielberg. This was, in many ways, a big rebound from the failures Spielberg perceived onto himself from 1941, which created some wounds to the director’s image that he hoped to heal. Spielberg very much wanted to be under-budget and under-schedule, the opposite of the plights that had plagued him in his previous films, whether successful and critically acclaimed or not. I spoke before on George Lucas’ dream of the idea, and Lawrence Kasdan’s injection of thrill into the story, but it is in Mark Dinning’s review from "Empire" that Spielberg is most eloquently placed: “If Lucas is Raiders’ guts and Kasdan its head, then Spielberg is its beating heart.”
"The first film I ever saw was The Greatest Show on Earth, by Cecil B. Demille. That was the first experience I ever had in the theater. My father said that he was taking me to a circus movie. But I didn’t register “movie,” I registered “circus.” And I stood in line with him in the cold sleet in New Jersey. And I always imagined a circus took place in a tent, not a brick building, so it didn’t make any sense to me. I expected the curtain to open and I’d see real elephants, a real lion tamer, and the curtain opened and there was big white material, and this flat image came on this white sheet, and it was The Greatest Show on Earth. And my first reaction was that my father had betrayed me. He promised me a circus, and took me to something that I couldn’t quite put my finger on, but was not satisfying in any way. I couldn’t smell it, I couldn’t climb into it, you know, I couldn’t be afraid of it. And as I’m watching the movie, suddenly I’m smelling it, I’m afraid of it, I’m climbing into it and by the end of the film, I was really jazzed. I remember the spectacle."
There’s an outright ludicrous nature to some of the stuff on display in Raiders that is unbelievable, but you still believe it. You buy into it because it all happens naturally within the rules and tone that the movie sets up, mainly within its opening moments. Like, a whip? Whips don’t work like that! Or do they? Who cares? This is cool and fun! It is a transactional adventure. Of the film's escapism Spielberg says, “In Raiders of the Lost Ark, things happen that an audience would believe if they buy the first ten minutes of the movie.” There’s realism to all the moments and the look of the film. Spielberg was notoriously adamant to shoot quickly, perhaps worried he would fall short like his previous films, which went over-budget and over-schedule. His tenacity and vigor make the moments captured feel real and raw, something he would continue to use in the future: his techniques of blocking on the day, rolling with the improvised look and nature. There is a tone here that is meticulously calibrated, allowing the feeling to be natural. All of this is how you make a magical movie. Behind the scenes, we see time after time Spielberg perfecting moments within shots to use for edits in real-time. He’s literally seeing the movie as they make it, and accounting for these needs on the day to produce the exact images and feel he wants. This is what a director should do, and usually does, but ya boi does it very, very well.
The technical aspects of making this movie shouldn’t be understated. They made this thing QUICK, finishing eleven days ahead of schedule. Given Spielberg’s track record, that’s very, very good. Spielberg longed for the days of shooting Duel and The Sugarland Express in under sixty days, these quick, intimate productions of verve and technique. Most big-budget, epic movies take many months, if not longer, to fully produce. He wanted to do something bigger than he’d ever done in less time than it had ever taken him to do it. And he did. That’s boss level.
"Steve does a great deal of homework when he does a picture. And he’s very organized, and I think one of the main reasons the film is going so well and is ahead of schedule at this point, is because Steve also has gained a great deal of technical knowledge on making movies, he’s made these kinds of movies before, he knows what to anticipate. He knows how to make a production move. "
This isn’t to say that there weren’t a number of major obstacles for Spielberg to overcome. There was grueling heat in the desert scenes, with the film notoriously shooting during the hottest time of the year in Tunisia, reaching over 135 degrees Fahrenheit. On a quick fun note: The legend of Spielberg himself being the only member of the cast and crew to not get sick while filming in Tunisia by eating only cans of Spaghetti-O’s is *chef’s kiss.*
Spielberg’s display of handling tone and the adventurous exploitation is a wonder, something he would replicate so seemingly effortlessly in the sequels that it becomes something of an enigma that the (ahem) fourth installment in the series would be so generally lacking in the very things that made the series so interesting and exciting. While this is a fun movie to watch, it is apparent that it was a difficult movie to make, but Spielberg’s tactics and techniques work their magic at every turn. On mapping out set pieces to feel natural in editing, and therefore also in viewing, Spielberg says he thought, “Geography makes an audience more secure with the story.” Knowing where our characters are in relation to the world around them helps us understand what they are trying to do, and where they need to go to do it, naturally, allowing us to fall even deeper into the entertainment of it all.
It also seems like Spielberg started figuring some things out while on the set of this movie, which is surprising, given how successful many of his previous films were. It’s kind of hard to imagine the director, who notably and obviously created the “Spielberg Look,” saying, “When you don’t really know what the effects are gonna be until you get into post-production, it’s very hard to direct somebody and say, ‘Look frightened, or look overjoyed, or look with awe at something that will not be in for a few months!’” But that’s what The Beard does: he’s a great director, and part of being a great director is both understanding your need, and having the ability to communicate the unseen to those who will need to perform and capture that vision. “Every actor needs a different director for each moment. And I think I have to be a different director for each actor, moment to moment,” he once said in an interview commenting on him working with so many different types of actors in different types of genre roles.
Raiders was made for $20.8 million and grossed $363 million. Indiana Jones’ first cinematic adventure would go on to win five Academy Awards in the technical categories (Editing, Sound, Sound Editing, Art Direction, and, of course, Visual Effects), losing the more major awards to Chariots of Fire and Reds. The technical Oscar wins make a lot of sense, especially the sound design by Ben Burtt, who is the John Williams of sound effects in many ways. Much of what makes Raiders so special isn’t just the things we immediately think about, but the entire piece as a whole and how it builds and releases tension, all the while maintaining a feeling of excitement and danger, and much of this is due to the sound design and previously praised editing. Some other final notes of interest include the amazing delivery of Ford’s, “Ha ha ha haaaa-sonuvabitch…” at the taunts of Belloq, as well as the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it splatter of Indie’s blood on the windshield of the truck he’s driving after being shot in the arm. It’s fantastic stuff that high-definition conversion was made for. Speaking of which, a fond memory I have of watching Raiders took place at a screening of its 2K theatrical re-release, I believe for its 35th anniversary, where the screen was so massive and the picture so crisp, that my partner, Diana, and I, noticed a fly crawl into AND OUT OF actor Paul Freeman’s mouth during his ending monologue in the film’s penultimate moments. We lost our minds. Captain Katanga, played briefly by George Harris, never returns in any of the sequels, and this makes me sad. It should also be noted that this movie features one of the best examples of another Spielberg-ism the director is so regularly known for: the Mini Movie, wherein a scene placed perfectly within the movie contains, in itself, a dynamic 3-act structure that really builds character and sets the wanted mood moving forward (the example I speak of is, of course, the Drinking Shots scene, which acts as Marion’s introduction).
Your honor, people of the jury… Raiders of the Lost Ark is a good movie, this much is undebatable. But I argue to you, that even in a filmography that contains the birth of the blockbuster, several Academy Award nominations and winners, the perfection of the CGI and practical effect balancing act, and arguably the greatest opening moments of any war movie ever made, Raiders is Spielberg’s most impressive film, if only for the fact that he makes perfection look so effortless that a viewer may be so wrapped up in the experience of it all that they might not even notice the craft and skill on display in every single frame.
On the next Movie Daddy, allow me to explain to you why The Terminal is actually quite charming, if not also ridiculously problematic and loooooooooooong.
Founder of and programmer for Story Screen. Lover of stories and pizza in the dark. When he isn't watching movies, you can find him reading things about people watching movies. He currently resides in Poughkeepsie, NY, and most assuredly is going through a French Connection phase.