You’re humming that John Williams music right now, aren’t you?
No one would blame you. It’s an earworm, a catchy piece of movie music that will stay with us long after everyone connected with the movie is gone. The movie that spawned it is something of a cinematic earworm, a movie whose shots get in your head and refuse to go away no matter how many times you see them (or see them parodied, imitated, and ripped off). No one would assign to it the dramatic aspirations of later Steven Spielberg movies like Amistad or Munich, and most people don’t know that it won five Oscars* or that it was nominated for Best Picture.** It was seen as a perfect piece of pop filmmaking, which it was, but pop filmmaking doesn’t endure this long without having something more behind it.
I always do a plot summary in these reviews, but I’m pretty sure everyone already knows that this is the story of Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) trying to retrieve the Ark of the Covenant from the Nazis. George Lucas conceived the character of Indiana Jones when trying to come up with a hero who would be even more fun than James Bond, and he went back to the old cliffhanger serials of the 1940s and 1950s for inspiration. He recruited his friend Steven Spielberg to direct because Spielberg needed a little help: he was fresh off of the historic bomb 1941 and Jaws seemed so very long ago.
If Jaws, or Close Encounters of the Third Kind, had not settled it then this film did: Steven Spielberg is a master. There are no wasted shots, and the camera is always in the correct spot. There is a perfect feel for when the movie needs to be gory (and for a family film, it’s surprisingly gory) and when it needs to be funny. Just consider the opening sequence: even in the pre-internet era, most everybody going into the movie knew that the guy in the hat was Indiana Jones and that he was played by Harrison Ford. But Spielberg shoots him in shadow anyway, hiding the hero from us until there’s a time for a great reveal. This is a great way to suggest that Indy might not be the nicest of good guys, that there might be something darker and more mysterious to him.
I don’t know if Lawrence Kasdan’s screenplay (from story work by Lucas and veteran director Philip Kaufman) gets enough credit. See, Raiders of the Lost Ark is an homage to a certain genre of movie while at the same time being infinitely better than every example of that genre one could find. Most of the old serials were the hackiest pieces of hackwork that any hack ever hacked out, but this one is not. Its action set-pieces are intricately constructed in a way that can only start from a great screenplay, and its dialogue is as razor-sharp as a screwball comedy. The following exchange never fails to make me laugh out loud:
[Everyone looks solemnly at a biblical picture of the Ark destroying an entire army.]
Army Intelligence Agent: Good God.
Marcus Brody: Yes, that’s just what the Hebrews thought.
Past all of the surface, though, I love this screenplay’s conception of God. I’m not much of a religious person myself, but if I were to believe in God, it would not be the optimistic God of love that you hear so much about these days. If the Old Testament is true then God is one bad Dude, making stringent demands of His believers and smiting the crap out of them if those demands are not met. This movie does a fine job of selling that fact: remember, Indy and Marion (Karen Allen) would have melted too, if they had opened their eyes.
This is the secretly awesome thing about the Indiana Jones series, even in the less-good films: it takes the time to show us why the bad guys are, in fact, bad. A common assumption in life is that “we’re the good guys,” where “we” might be your favorite sports team, a character in a movie, a company, the U.S. government, etc. The problem is that you can’t just assert that position, especially when you’re dealing with an angry omnipotent God. You have to prove that you’re good by, well, doing good. Even when it’s the Nazis across the way, you still have to prove it, because that’s the burden of being the good guy.
The Nazis are desire the Ark’s power for themselves rather than leaving it to He whom it belongs, an inherently evil desire. The Nazi-employed archeologist Belloq (Paul Freeman) tells Indy throughout the film that they are not so different, and they really aren’t. Both men would lie, cheat, and kill in search of their prize, so they’re both raiders of the lost Ark … until the true power of the Ark becomes the issue. At that point Indy is able to close his eyes, symbolically acknowledging that the Ark is a greater power than he can understand. The Nazis don’t, and are smote. The hacky old serials would just say, “he’s the good guy”, but Indiana Jones gets a chance to prove it.
Plus, he has the awesome theme music.
Reviewed by Mark Young
*Best Art Direction, Best Film Editing, Best Sound, Best Visual Effects, and a Special Achievement Award in Sound Effects Editing which was created specifically to honor the film. Amazingly, John Williams’ music did not win an Oscar that year, losing to Chariots of Fire, although he would later win for Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade.
**Chariots of Fire also won Best Picture. The other nominees that year were Reds, Atlantic City, and On Golden Pond.