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Posts Tagged ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’

The recent long weekend here in the UK was afflicted by more bad weather (too much heat and sunlight) but at least there was some respite to be had within the local cinemas. Almost by coincidence, we were treated to a mini-Steven Spielberg festival over the weekend – the UPP’s Summer Holidays season took an offbeat turn with another showing for the film that announced him to the world at large, 1975’s Jaws, while the Phoenix has been showing a succession of well-regarded films to mark the thirtieth anniversary of a prominent film magazine, and this week’s choice was Raiders of the Lost Ark from 1981 (I have to confess to a slight pang that the schedule had not been just a bit different: next week’s revival is Magnolia, which I would love to see again, but my schedule just won’t stretch to let me attend that).

If I were asked to choose two early Spielberg movies to watch again (and by ‘early Spielberg’ I would include everything up to E.T. or possibly Temple of Doom) it would probably be these two, although Close Encounters of the Third Kind would be challenging hard as well. These films arguably bookend a period during which Spielberg and a few others (most notably George Lucas, one of the inceptors of Raiders of the Lost Ark) redefined commercial American cinema and in many ways created the medium as we know it today. If they happen to share a few other features, well, that is only to be expected in the circumstances.

Jaws is one of those movies that everybody knows: or perhaps it’s more accurate to say that you can start playing John Williams’ famous theme and within a few bars virtually anyone will get the reference. It is well-documented that Spielberg has said he was effectively compelled to use the music to stand in for the physical shark, as the prop itself was so problematic to get working. That said, the theme is used relatively sparingly; less than you might expect.

Still, for form’s sake: based on a potboiler novel by Peter Benchley (who turns up in the film for a cameo, along with the other credited screenwriter, Carl Gottlieb), Jaws is set on and around Amity, an island off the coast of New England which is gearing up for its summer season. Newcomer police chief Martin Brody (Roy Scheider) is still learning the ropes, and doesn’t quite know what to do when a young woman’s body is found on the beach, apparently having been a late night snack for a passing shark. His instinct is to close the beaches and call for expert assistance, but he is talked out of the former step at least by the town’s slimy mayor (Murray Hamilton), who is perhaps too conscious of the potential impact on the town’s income. Tragedy inevitably ensues, and Brody finds himself all at sea on an expedition to find and kill the shark, accompanied by keen young scientist Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) and very salty sea dog Quint (Robert Shaw), three men in a boat which may prove to be of inadequate size…

Jaws is acknowledged to be the first summer blockbuster in the sense of the term as it is used today, something which is probably connected to the fact it was one of the first films to go a simultaneous wide release across the USA, with a correspondingly energetic promotional strategy. It certainly has many of the characteristics of blockbusters today, in that it was not originally written for the screen and is essentially a genre movie which has been tarted up a bit. The makers of modern blockbusters do this by throwing huge sums of money at their projects; Jaws takes a different approach. This is really just a horror movie about a monster on the loose, and sticks to the structure of the form with great fidelity – there is much misdirection and many false alarms in the orchestration of events, and the film isn’t afraid to fall back on the odd jump scare, either. By the climax it has become the stuff of fantasy – giant sharks don’t make a habit of systematically attacking boats in order to eat the crew. And yet perhaps Spielberg’s smartest trick is to disguise this horror movie as much more of a mainstream drama, certainly in the first half – it is low-key, it is naturalistic, there is even a hint of a grown-up subtext in the film’s cynical attitude towards elected officials (this was made only a couple of years after Watergate, after all).

Of course, the second half of the film operates in a rather different way, as a kind of inverted chamber piece with the three men out on the water slowly realising that while they may have bitten off more than they can chew, this is not a problem likely to afflict their quarry. This whole section of the film is superlatively constructed, paced, and executed – the shift from three men on a somewhat intense fishing trip, to a desperate fight to the death is handled so deftly you barely notice it. The change in tone between the two halves of the film is still very obvious, but the results more than justify the atypical narrative structure.

If we’re talking about films with odd scripts, then that moves us neatly on to Raiders of the Lost Ark, a film I have written about before in a limited sort of way (my thesis on that occasion was that, irrespective of its other numerous and considerable strengths, one of the things that makes Raiders so notable is that it is one of the few mainstream Hollywood movies apart from biblical epics and a few supernatural horror films to be predicated on the existence of God). Looking at it more generally, though, it certainly seems to give the lie to the suggestion that a classic film has to start with a perfect script. I love Raiders of the Lost Ark, not least because one does sometimes get the impression while watching it that, like Indiana Jones himself, the film-makers are making it up as they go. There are moments where characters make questionable decisions, there are some fairly outrageous plot devices, there is even the odd hole in the plot. The plot itself resolves with the most literal example of a deus ex machina ending imaginable. (I am aware of the school of thought which suggests that the actions of Jones himself have a negligible impact on the plot until the final couple of minutes following the climax.)

And yet the breathless, amiable rush of the film disarms any criticisms one might be minded to make: not for nothing was it nominated for Best Picture that year – and, with all due respect to Chariots of Fire, with hindsight the eventual result does look like another case of the academy calling it wrong. Then again, this is not from one of the genres that Oscar is sweet on – although quite what genre it belongs to is another question. The story, which concerns archaeologist Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) and his attempts to stop the Nazis from seizing control of a priceless and possibly supernatural biblical artefact, is a bit difficult to pin down. There are elements of Bond-style action movie (there is something quite knowing about the way that Sean Connery turns up in a later film as Jones’ father), but also there is also fantasy, comedy, and romance. But above all one is aware not of genre but an attitude – an unashamed nostalgia for Golden Age Hollywood, whether in the form of prestige pictures like Casablanca or the weekly serials which are an equally obvious inspiration. You feel like you are watching something classic and familiar even when the film is inventing a new kind of action fantasy.

The thing that makes Raiders of the Lost Ark truly special is the way it combines a series of absolutely first-rate set pieces – fights, chases, death-defying leaps, and so on – with equally immaculate character work and exposition. Jones is never in danger of becoming a cipher, thanks equally to Ford’s performance and Lawrence Kasdan’s screenplay. There is always something slightly hapless and shambolic about Indiana Jones – he remains entirely human and relatable throughout, which is surely the secret of the character’s success and longevity (a fifth film is promised for next year).

Is the film about anything, or just cheery escapism for those yearning for a less complicated world? (One thing you can say about Nazis, they make very good villains – and Ronald Lacey’s Toht is possibly the most totally evil Nazi in screen history.) Perhaps unsurprisingly, it does feel tonally not dissimilar to the best of George Lucas’ stellar conflict movies, and one thing it certainly shares with them is a central journey for the protagonist concerning the finding of faith – Jones starts the film happily dismissing his colleagues’ concerns about the Ark, but by the end he genuinely seems to have become a believer, surviving through an act of faith.

It would be nice to make one more link and suggest that Brody’s final hopeful shot at the shark in Jaws is another example of this, for it would create a pleasing unity for the films we have been discussing (as well as connecting them to several other Lucas and Spielberg films from this period). Best not to push it, though: at the very least, these are both excellent films, marvellous entertainment and as fresh and enjoyable as they were when they first appeared. There is a reason why Steven Spielberg has been such a dominant figure in entertainment for nearly half a century now, and these films provide good evidence for it: the man is a master of his craft.

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Quite a few years ago now we had an awkward moment in our house around Christmas time: the tube in the TV blew late on Christmas night, forcing us to spend the latter part of the holiday using the portable set from the kitchen. This was merely inconvenient; what made it actually awkward was the following conversation I had with my brother-in-law:

Him: ‘The TV set blew up?’

Me: ‘Yeah.’

Him: (already knowing the answer) ‘And you were watching at the time…?’

Me: (sinking feeling) ‘The Omen.’

(A quite brilliant choice of film for Christmas Day on Channel 4’s part, I have to say.)

Him: ‘Don’t you think that you’ve been sent a bit of a message?’

Me: ‘I think we’ve been sent a message that we should start renting better-quality TV sets.’

Obviously, that wasn’t what he was thinking of. As regular readers may recall, my brother-in-law is a man of strong religious beliefs. I am not (and even if I was I hope I would still think that the Creator of the Universe had better ways of passing the time on Christmas Day than randomly causing TV tubes to blow up). My brother-in-law refuses to have anything to do with films of the ilk of The Omen, while I rather enjoy them (which is why I didn’t tell him when I watched the complete trilogy while staying at his house last week).

On the face of it this is rather odd, surely – I’d have thought, given the materialistic desert in which so much modern entertainment takes place, that anything presenting spiritual reality as a concrete fact would present a welcome change. In this respect The Omen and its various progeny are deeply religious films, albeit in a rather lurid and dark way. (And anyway, you’re hardly cheering on the Antichrist – certainly not in the first film, at least.)

Even so, why do I derive such pleasure from movies which exist in a universe so at odds with the one which I believe I inhabit? Hmm. It can’t simply be because they’re just well-crafted pieces of escapist entertainment – there’s a distinct frisson, admittedly faint, of something I can only describe as awe, which isn’t there when watching a Bond movie or whatever.

It was there again the other night watching Raiders of the Lost Ark for what must be the umpteenth time. (Showing, incidentally, virtually uncut on BBC1 pre-watershed – something I thoroughly appreciated. Given that complaining to the networks about their savagely hacking films about – The Living Daylights was on the receiving end of the scissors last week – doesn’t seem to have any effect, maybe it would be worthwhile to send the Beeb a quick note of appreciation in this case. Hmm.)

When I was younger my estimation of the quality of this film was based solely on the quality of the action sequences, which are still unsurpassed. There is, obviously, no CGI in this movie (made in 1981), and relatively little model-work – and yet it out-thrills any number of modern action movies, simply by virtue of its verve and skill and inventiveness. But the performances are also perfectly-judged – this film operates by sticking characters you care about into a succession of increasingly outrageous situations in fairly quick succession, and Harrison Ford and Karen Allen are terrific.

While the plot has a gajillion holes and implausible coincidences in it, it’s also a model of economy and wit, with every bit supporting every other bit. John Williams’ famous soundtrack is also key to the success of the movie – it’s impossible to imagine certain sequences (the one in the map room, for instance) having any impact whatsoever without the score being there to accompany them.

All this is surely fairly obvious, but what I’d never really noticed before is the extent to which this is a film about belief, and particularly the beliefs of the central character. I’m not claiming this is a major theme of the movie – it’s presented quite discreetly – but it’s there, and it does place this film even more firmly in the same lineage as two other classic fantasies from the same makers, Star Wars and Close Encounters.

Both of these films are about faith to some extent – Star Wars concludes with the decision to put technology briefly to one side in favour of faith in one’s own instincts, while Close Encounters is essentially about people on a pilgrimage to encounter the objects of their belief – but in Raiders these things are rather more subtle and ambiguous, to begin with at least.

As befits a film this light-footed and arch, Indiana Jones himself is a rather shadier character here than he becomes in subsequent movies – he’s obliquely compared to a mercenary at one point, and it’s clear that some of his associates are happy to turn a blind eye to his methods. He is, famously, wholly willing to bring a gun to a sword fight. And he also seems to be a sceptic – both his boss and his sidekick express their unease about the quest for the Ark, and he laughingly dismisses both of them.

Yet as the film goes on – and this isn’t lingered upon at all amidst all the burning buildings, crashing trucks and exploding planes – Jones’s attitude seems to change, even as the narrative itself makes it increasingly explicit that the Ark is more than simply just another ancient relic. For whatever reason, he cannot bring himself to destroy it, as his great rival guesses – and by the climax he has become a believer, averting his eyes from the presence of God.

A little touch of that old-time religion...

I think it’s fairly obvious that it’s the element of fantasy that allows the Indiana Jones movies to transcend the action genre, comparatively minor though it is. But what makes Raiders a classic, as opposed to merely a great piece of entertainment like the others, is surely the way that element is presented. On paper the climax is almost literally an example of deus ex machina – the power of God is invoked, only to rebound savagely on the villains in their moment of triumph. To that extent, this film is as essentially religious as The Omen or The Ten Commandments. But it’s by no means a cosy or comforting view of the divine, in stark contrast to that given in The Last Crusade – the power of God as depicted in Raiders is something inscrutable and immense, inhuman and terrifying. In short, it’s a very Old Testament kind of God who puts in an appearance, which seems entirely appropriate in the cirumstances – and this may explain why the religious elements of this film are so seldom commented upon.

I would still say they are crucial to its success. The inclusion of Indian mysticism, Christian legend, and hackneyed UFOlogy in the sequels are all obvious attempts to recapture the sense of wonder present in the original film – but none of them quite succeed. Maybe this is something personal to me, and my own particular ideas about the nature of God – but the fact remains that a journey to the presence of the divine is at the heart of this famous, wonderful movie, and we ought to at least acknowledge as much.

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