' Cinema Romantico: My Great Movies: Raiders of the Lost Ark

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

My Great Movies: Raiders of the Lost Ark

Steven Spielberg's crowning achievement is one of those movies that gives off a sense of greatness right from the start. The screen offers up the instantly recognizable Paramount studio logo in the form of the mountain peak which then dissolves into a similar South American mountain peak in 1936. It's a loving touch, symbolic only because loving touches grace the entire film - the film which is and will forever and inarguably be the Greatest Action Movie Ever Made.

As we ready ourselves for the fourth chapter in the series it is astonishing to think the original is now 27 years old and that while executive producer George Lucas has tampered endlessly, horribly with his "Stars Wars" movies he has left "Raiders of the Lost Ark" alone. No re-releases with bonus footage and updated effects. Even he understands this film was so perfect that touching it would be akin to some author attempting to finish Fitzgerald's "The Last Tycoon".

The story is beyond well known. Archaeologist Indiana Jones, a professor with a bullwhip and a serious disliking of snakes, trots the globe with fiery Marion (Karen Allen) on a quest to prevent the vile Nazis from gaining possession of the lost Ark, which holds the original tablets bearing the Ten Commandents. In his initial review the esteemed Roger Ebert declared the plot "...a framework for the most incredible series of action and stunt set pieces I've ever seen in a movie." Yeah, that's about right.

But don't presume this to be a film devoid of character. If criticisms are ever leveled at this frenetic rollercoaster of derring do it is that our characters are seen to be shallow or that the movie is - in the word of late, legendary film critic Pauline Kael - "impersonal". Sorry, but I don't see it.

The introduction to Indy is fantastic not simply for its dizzying array of close escapes and superhuman feats but insight into just how things work in the world of this man wearing the brown fedora. He survives poison darts, a jump across a wide chasm and a giant rolling boulder to recover a bronze statue only to have the statue taken away from him an instant after emerging unscathed by his rival, Belloq (Paul Freeman), the Frenchman who - as the movie will prove again and again - lets the American do all the legwork. So much trouble for Indy with so little payoff.

As played most wonderfully by Allen we learn Marion is no typical damsel in distress taken along for the ride simply so Indy has someone with whom to fall in love, but a tough-talking, cigarette-smoking dame who runs a seedy bar in the snowy mountains of Nepal. The first time we see her she is quite literally drinking one of the hard-bitten locals under the table. Indy then turns up and requests an "important" medallion needed to help recover the Ark but Marion does not simply hand it over or give in. She tells him to come back tomorrow. And after the bad guys have entered and Indy has appeared to fight them off only to find one of the henchmen pointing a gun squarely at him who bails out our hero? Our heroine, that's who.

This scene in the bar is memorable, and not just because it contains the finest use of a whiskey bottle broken over a bad guy's head in cinematic history, but because it was the very first time I, as a young kid who had just discovered the movies, was conscious of how one was made. Indy and the big guy are locked together, struggling, and the bad guy in the trenchcoat readies his machine gun and steps forward and out of the picture to "shoot them both". And then we see not the bad guy but his shadow get shot. That blew my youthful mind outta' the water.

The movie brings to mind Orson Welles and his infamous radio broadcast of "The War of the Worlds". Welles talked of how the fake ballroom program was allowed to last up until the exact point he knew the audience would change stations and then cut to the made-up news footage. Spielberg allowed his scenes of dialogue and romance to last up until the exact point he knew the audience would be on the verge of restlessness and then galloped on to the action. Yet "Raiders" doesn't just offer mindless filler between stunts. I want you to carefully observe the scene after it appears Marion has died and Belloq summons Indy to the cafe. It is done in a single take with the camera focused on Belloq and Indy in the foreground, dismissing each line of his adversary with a disgusted retort.

Harrison Ford is note-perfect in the lead role, but that goes without saying. The higher the wire on which the movie walks, the more Ford downplays it - which is to say he ensures the entire enterprise remains grounded. His one-liners seem to come from weariness and his actions from desperation. And consider the sequence when he and Marion are sealed inside the tomb with those demonic snakes all around and she wonders if he has a plan yet to which he responds, "I'm working on it." As he says it, Ford's face is scanning the entire tomb for any possibility of an escape. He really is working on it.

Oh, to have been involved in the script and storyboarding sessions for this movie! Can't you just imagine everyone laughing out loud with glee? "What if when they get out of the tomb they see a bi-plane and think the Nazis are flying out the Ark with it?" "And what if as they sneak up to the plane a big, bald Nazi sees them and Indy has a fist-fight with him?" "And what if while those two are fighting Marion gets locked in the cockpit?" "And what if while Marion's locked in the cockpit she mows down a row of Nazis with a machine gun?" "And what if the plane's wing knocks the cap off a gas truck truck and so gasoline is spewing everywhere?" On and on. The pace never slackens but the movie never confuses. "Raiders" is the antithesis of the modern-day action style in which hundreds of quick cuts are employed with dizzying camerawork meant to mask special effects or the possibility of a director unaware what he or she is doing.

Logical camerawork and flawless editing (courtesy of Michael Kahn) is not employed, however, merely in the most spectacular sequences but in all of them. As Indy is in the Well of the Souls getting the location of the Ark we watch Sallah (John Rhys Davies) up above ground and dealing with the Nazi officers and having to discard the rope needed to haul Indy back up and scurrying about the German camp which all builds to the priceless capping shot in which Sallah lowers a makeshift rope to Indy in the form of a Nazi flag.

And, oh yes, the Truck Sequence (it deserves to be capitalized), in which Indy takes on an entire squadron of Nazis safeguarding the Ark. Ebert has called it "the best chase scene I've seen in a film." To elaborate too much more would be overkill so I'll put this way:

Let's say you're on the high school debate team and asked to argue for the side claiming the Truck Sequence isn't hands down the greatest action sequence in cinematic history. Sorry, but you may as well go ahead and chalk yourself up an F before you even start.

From that point the movie intelligently refuses to try and one-up itself with another expansive setpiece and instead pulls back for a more somber conclusion. Really, the scene set on the remote island of the ancient ritual as the Ark is at last opened and everyone earns what he or she deserves is more horror movie. As a child those melting faces of the numerous bad guys scared me into terrible nightmares and you know what? Despite the fact those effects look dated now the end still petrifies me, though not for the same reasons. In my advanced age seeing the "wrath of God" descend from the heavens to let us all know what's what trumps melting faces.

And the end....well, the end harkens back to the beginning, as should any brilliant movie. After crossing continents, staring down cobras, fleeing exploding planes, getting shot, and falling asleep right before he and Marion have a chance to engage in acts of an Adult Nature, he does not even attain the one thing he set out to get. Essentially, the entire two hour journey was superfluous. And when he tells this to Marion what is her reply?

"Buy me a drink?"

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