Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

This article first appeared as a part of the Brattle Theatre Film Notes commentary series, presented by the Brattle Theatre in Boston, MA, for a special screening of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Slight edits have been made from the original posting.

Not long ago Steven Soderbergh removed all of the color and sound from Raiders of the Lost Ark in an attempt to better study the visual staging of Steven Spielberg’s massively influential adventure film. The theory – according to Soderbergh – is that “a movie should work with the sound off”, that the coordination and arrangement of the visual elements of the story should, essentially, tell the same story that the dialogue tells. With Raiders, the theory certainly holds water: from the thick rainforest and cobwebbed tunnels of the opening action sequence to the quiet Archaeology classroom of the very next scene, from the snake-infested underground temple to the desert chase, the staging and pacing of the film is continuously surefooted. “No matter how fast the cuts come, you always know exactly where you are,” Soderbergh writes – and the attention he calls to the visual aspect of Raiders proves that Spielberg’s dedication to a strong sense of story isn’t compromised by a black-and-white color palette or a bass-laden electronica soundtrack.

To put it another way: Indiana Jones, even with these major elements stripped away, is still Indiana Jones. The color is one thing, but you’d think the absence of the iconic “Raiders March” would really shake things up for the worse. The John Williams score is inextricable from Indy, arguably as much a part of the adventurer as his hat or his bullwhip. You wouldn’t take the Bond theme away from James Bond any more than you’d take away his tux or his martini, for fear that the character before you wouldn’t seem like the same familiar spy anymore. Indy seems the same way, seems like a character so reliant on these iconic elements – but while Soderbergh’s exercise proved its point with regards to scene staging, it also pointed out what sets Indy apart.

In our present Franchise Era of Film, sequels and reboots aren’t so much common as they are inevitable. Remakes galore have given rise to shared cinematic universes created out of everything from popular comic books to obscure films from half a century ago. Bond is joined by Batman, the Terminator, Godzilla, xenomorphs and Mad Max in receiving new treatments in the coming years, and you can bet Indiana Jones will ride through cinemas again someday whether Harrison Ford is involved or not. The perspective of a studio – which can almost certainly boil down to “why not?” – concerns itself with marketability, and marketability shifts over time. One of the “in” things now is superheroes, so why can’t Indy be a superhero? He’s got a leather jacket and a fedora in place of Batman’s cape and cowl; his escapades are simultaneously epic yet episodic in nature, similar to those of comic books and hero pulps; he even has a self-styled alter-ego of sorts, switching back from adventurer to mild-mannered Archaeology professor when the action’s over. When viewed on the surface like this, Indy seems perfect for a never-ending franchise.

But consider, for a moment, what you actually think of when you think of Indiana Jones. Do you think of the hat, or the jacket, or the whip? Or do you think of Indy weighing a bag of sand in his hand and deftly exchanging it for a golden idol? Do you think of just the theme song, or do you think of those horns blaring loudly as Indy fistfights a Nazi strongman in an airfield? With Batman and Bond we might think of rubber bat ears or suave lines like “shaken, not stirred” – with Indy it’s a pit of snakes and a very clearly articulated fear of them. Indy’s most memorable features actually aren’t those iconic elements (hat, whip, theme song) but the actions he takes and the attitude he exudes. A personal favorite that always leaps to mind is the swaggering, no-way-I’m-wrong tone he takes when he says “trust me” to Marion; that half-second says more about him than his fashion ever could.

Indy’s not a superhero, although it might be easy to make him into one. It might also serve to take away those most memorable features of Indy while overemphasizing the more superficial qualities of the character (“if it walks like Indy and talks like Indy…is it still Indy?”). When Kingdom of the Crystal Skull came out in 2008, the presence of the character of Mutt Williams – revealed to be Indy’s son – alluded heavily to this desire to have Indy’s legend continue on past Ford’s ability to play him. And whether the “passing of the torch” in that movie was ever meant to be taken seriously or not, it was in these iconic elements that the fourth Indiana Jones film toyed with the possibility: Mutt’s theme song, really, is Indy’s theme song, the old Raiders March (albeit rerecorded) blasting as Mutt swings from vine to vine in a very Indy-like manner. He has a leather jacket of his own, and that moment at the end of the film where Mutt moves to put Indy’s hat on his own head couldn’t be any more explicit. The franchising of Indiana Jones would certainly focus on these aspects of the adventuring archaeologist, likely forgetting that guys like Mutt Williams don’t have half of what really makes Indy Indy.

Likewise, none of the films that attempt to recreate the charm and adventure of Raiders of the Lost Ark – of which there are many, including Tomb Raider, National Treasure, Romancing the Stone, and The Mummy – succeed in quite the same way. Someday, you can bet, someone will deem it wise to make another Indiana Jones film. It might be a sad day, but in the spirit of the strong-jawed, two-fisted spectacle of the film that started it all, it certainly won’t be all bad. We’ll still have the real Indy, with all that sets him apart from the assembly-line heroes of today, and we’ll still have Raiders.

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