BFI Spielberg Season – Raiders Of The Lost Ark (1981)
Chances are, if you’re of the same generation as me who grew up in the 1980’s then when it comes to your formative cinema heroic idol you have two titans to choose from – Han Solo or Indiana Jones. Both are swashbuckling, cheeky, self-confident rogues with an eye for the ladies, nesting within a rather indiscriminate and suspect moral codex. Solo of course was not averse to cold-bloodingly murdering a rival in a crowded bar, with plenty of witnesses and damn the consequences – what’s that? No, LALALA I can’t hear you. The other is less bloodthirsty but equally ruthless, effortlessly dispatching hordes of heinous henchmen and gormless goons as he prances across the world stage, obliterating numerous priceless archaeological sites in order to glean the glory of the international adventuring community. The other connection of course is Harrison Ford, one of the most beloved and popular Movie Stars that emerged with the rise of the blockbuster era, a more slightly more humane and relatable idol than the cartoon caricatures of Ahnoldt or Stallone whom men and women of whatever orientation would like to emulate or fuck. Being the contrarian that I always equate Ford as Deckard, but that didn’t stop me being enticed to take in a pulse-pounding double bill at the BFI, as one of the more gruelling grimoires of their celestial Spielberg season – all four Indy movies, back to back, from midday to midnight. It’s been a long running Menagerie ambition to cover Raiders Of The Lost Ark as a key post-war American film, and I assessed that I could commit to two films in the franchise and then bow out gracefully, having already seen the following instalments on the silver screen – Crusade during its initial theatrical run in 1989, and Skull way back in an already historic 2008. Suffice to say I will deny controversy and assert that this first film in this incredibly popular series remains the pulsating pinnacle, a clear bridge between Hollywood old and new, with a captivating cartography which remains the template of major action adventure releases to this day.
So we’re back in the cinematic realms of wide-eyed, beguiled characters staring off-screen to some scintillating marvel, as the camera slowly tracks in to an enraptured close-up as the John William’s score crescendos in the background. This was Spielberg’s first official collaboration with his old friend George Lucas, he sandwiched between the intergalactic successes of Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back, when during a well deserved vacation they came up with a character cloned from the Republic Serial avatars of their cinema-going youth. Both men were struck with the archetype of an indestructible, lantern-jawed fortune hunter whom defies certain death at every turn of their globe-trotting adventures, through a combination of athletic pugilism, chaotic chutzpah and ingenious improvisation, a hark back to a simpler media time before those pesky adult themes and ambivalent shadings crept into the American cinema of the 1970’s. Raiders was a smash, the biggest film of the year which ushered in one of the most recognizable and beloved franchises of the modern era, a stalwart of Bank Holiday TV and big screen revivals which still generates feverish speculation on any new instalment to conclude this phase of this character. Although I’m guessing that you can predict and mumble through every scene and story-beat the films remains as entertaining and energetic as it ever has, unlike some of its brethren which do look geriatric compared to today’s CGI catastrophes. The first thing that struck me was the sheer pace and design of the film, opening with a now iconic set-piece to establish the tone, followed by a long and talky exposition scene – we need to get this MacGuffin in order to prevent the antagonists from taking over the world – before setting out on a metronome sequence that oscillates between character beats and actions sequences, all the way through to it’s strangely inanimate finale. Well, I say inanimate but I mean that in a protagonist sense, but we’ll come back to that…….
It’s the combination of spectacle and spectator that has carried it through the years, the sheer energy and drive coupled with Ford’s charismatic exhaustion which has reverberated over thirty-five years of entertainment. Indy arrives as a fully formed hero as if we’ve seen him in numerous tales beforehand (which in a sense we have of course, in archetype) whom undergoes precisely zero development or learning throughout his globe-trotting trials and adventure. However he isn’t a dyed in the wool American screen Übermensch of the era as screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan has given Indy some human frailties, his fear of snakes may seem trivial but in fact becomes a clever plot point to provide some humanist empathy, and Ford’s constant expressions of surprise, bewilderment and exasperated exhaustion all add to a human figure prospering through extraordinary circumstances, lightening the tone with a zephyrous comedic tilt. This time around I just thought it a little weird that for a man so driven with the thirst for knowledge and the protection of sacred ancient treasures Indy was not exactly averse to utterly demolishing numerous ancient dwellings and site of spectacular archaeological interest, but I guess a two-hour, $80 million translation of Time Team might not have had the same universal appeal. At least he does get to do some intellectual detective work, a quality which seems sorely absent from the latter instalments, giving a chance to slow the pace down a little and reveal in a little mystical adventure and wonder, a natural fit with Spielberg’s cinematic raison d’être. Alongside Ford the films secret weapon is Karen Allen, a spirited damsel in distress to be sure which is a shame given that her initial, memorable introduction, but she remains a major character throughout the movie with occasional shards of her own agency, constantly striving to extricate herself from her circumstances, and isn’t afraid to give Indy a smack in the chops when he deserves it.
Although this was a digital print, another factor which teased my antipathy it was one of those transfers which has been carefully balanced to align modern clarity with ancient grain, retaining a period visual sheen which seems a perfect marriage to the 1980’s imagining the 19330’s source material. Now I suppose you’d like some of the trivia, huh? Well, I haven’t bothered to do any research and I’m sure given the fanbase that plenty of excavations of the film’s production have made to a forensic detail, but I do recall that Klaus Kinski was first offered the creepy Tott henchman role, and the prospect of seeing that psychopath screaming through a Spielberg production could have been quite a historic treat. Tom Selleck was a major TV star during the production and he was first in line for the fedora, and if I recall correctly there was some apprehension that Ford could be typecast given his explosive fame as a certain Correlian scoundrel, but he won the part and the rest, as they say, is history. Some of the matte and compositing work has naturally dated but not to any major disruptive degree, what really pops on the big screen is the astounding stunt work, knowing that this was all conducted for real really makes you nervously grip your seat-arm, despite sitting through the film numerous times. This wouldn’t be the Menagerie without some tenuous Kubrick link, so I’ll just report that it was during the filming of the Well Of Souls sequence for Raiders that Steve met and made friends with Stan who was shooting his horror masterpiece on an adjoining Elstree stage, shortly before his Overlook Hotel stage burnt to the ground in suspicious circumstances, necessitating an expensive and exacting reconstruction which pushed his production back for weeks. I also had to chuckle at the film’s most glaring logical failure, when in the immediate pre-climax scene Indy cautiously boards a diving submarine, followed by one of those cartographic montages which details its re-emergence on the a remote Aegean island many hundreds of miles hence. So how, exactly, did our hero manage to hold his breath for what, three or four days in the churning chaos of the South Atlantic?
Another point that is buried beneath the films pyrotechnics is an odd secular dichotomy. At one point the great Denholm Elliott, Indy’s sober academic colleague ominously warns of the perils of toying with forces beyond our feeble comprehension, as the biblical power of the Lost Ark is more dangerous that mortal imagination. Indy replies that it’s all mystical mumbo-jumbo, and he’s only in it to rescue a treasured artifact so it can be properly be preserved and examined. During that memorable climax that induced a thousand hours of adolescent nightmares there seems to be a change of faith in our hero, as he instruct Marion to close her eyes in a last-minute conversion to the holy vengeance of these terrifying, devastating djinn. Raiders is an umbilical link from ancient to modern as it connects the silver screen idols of yesteryear, the Errol Flynn’s and Douglas Fairbanks’s to the more modern action hero, still much far more charismatic and charming than the current crop of identikit french-cropped robots. Oddly, I don’t own any of the films in the franchise but I grew up them on constant rotation, I guess they’re on TV so much I never feel the pressing urge to fire up Temple Of Doom or The Last Crusade, but they never fail to make a couple of hours fly by in a throughly entertaining fashion. I will resignedly go and see the BFG despite the middling reviews because hey, it’s Spielberg, and my tradition of following certain influential entities must be maintained to retain some long cherished traditions. His latest films haven’t exactly set the box office alight, and there doesn’t seem to be anyone waiting in the wings to inherit his mantle as we move toward more augmented reality for our leisure pursuits. I’m clearly getting older and older as it’s taken me a few days to divulge why various social media streams have been so choked with Pokémon related paraphernalia, until I understood that this new game heralds a definitive new charge into virtual interaction while Minority Report’s predictions seem increasingly medieval, maybe that glum assessment of cinema being an increasingly marginalised experience are all too true. But we’re not quite riding off into the triumphantly John Williams scored sunset just yet, as the next stop on our journey will take us to the mysterious Indian jungle for one of Steve’s rare ‘dark’ movies….