Art and Entertainment, by Bob Connally

1 Jul

“I’ve never really liked Steven Spielberg,” said my film studies professor. I had heard this before. Usually it was from people who were about the age I was at the time, 20. Their reasons why always seemed to boil down to his mainstream popularity. These were the same kids who would label any band that more than five people liked “sellouts.” So I wasn’t expecting anything new or profound to follow that statement. But his explanation surprised me. “It’s not that he isn’t a talented filmmaker. He most definitely is. It’s that the enemy is never from within in his films. It’s always from without.” I had liked or loved most of Spielberg’s work and this didn’t change my opinion of him one bit, but I knew my professor wasn’t wrong. It was the first time I had heard a reasoned, valid explanation for why a person did not like the world’s most famous living movie director. It was refreshing and he turned out to be far and away my favorite film studies teacher.

One thing that I never got the chance to do that I would love to do now would be to discuss Spielberg’s greatest film with that professor. I by no means would try to convince him that the enemy is from within in Raiders of the Lost Ark. The villains are the Nazis after all. But what I would want to discuss is Spielberg’s unparalleled ability as an artist to understand how to deliver an audience pure entertainment. While Raiders is not a movie that will challenge a viewer intellectually or emotionally it remains an artistic triumph. It captures and stirs the imagination in a way that few films even come close to achieving. With this movie, Spielberg displays the artistry in entertaining.

Emulating the Republic serial adventures that Spielberg and executive producer George Lucas grew up watching, Raiders begins with Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) already in the middle of an adventure in 1936 South America. We’re not told what he’s trying to accomplish or why. We’re not told why one of his two companions wants to shoot him in the back. But with one crack of that whip and his emergence out of the shadows to fully see his face and that hat for the first time, Spielberg has the audience instantly hooked. This of course goes straight into Indy swapping the bag of sand for the idol and the subsequent boulder scene before the introduction of his rival Belloq (Paul Freeman) and Indy’s escape to the seaplane where he finds his pilot’s “pet snake Reggie” in his seat. “I hate snakes, Jock! I hate ‘em!” Indy shouts. Just minutes into the movie and already there’s one iconic moment leading into the next.

Not content to simply deliver with the action scenes though, Spielberg and writer Lawrence Kasdan (The Empire Strikes Back) follow the James Bond-style cold open with probably the greatest exposition scene in all of cinema. Indy and his old friend and colleague Marcus Brody (Denholm Elliott) have been approached by U.S. Army Intelligence. The two agents (Don Fellows and William “Porkins” Hootkins) have questions requiring their expertise and in this five minute long scene all of the information that the audience needs going forward is delivered in a naturalistic conversation between four characters. By the end of the scene we understand how high the stakes are with Marcus putting the perfect button on it. “An army which carries the Ark before it…is invincible.” I would recommend studying this scene closely to anyone writing a screenplay that has an exposition scene in it. This is how it’s done.

This perfect sense of pacing and structure carries throughout all 115 minutes of Raiders. Whatever Spielberg wants us to feel at any given moment he gets us there in a way that seems effortless. Some movies, even some very good ones, require some work on the audience’s part. We want to engage with them but maybe we feel that effort that we’re putting in. Even after countless viewings Raiders never has a moment like that. When you’re watching Raiders of the Lost Ark your mind doesn’t wander and there’s nothing else you would rather be doing. Spielberg pulls the right levers and pushes the right buttons through the entire movie but of course he doesn’t do it alone. Kasdan’s screenplay has just the right balance of adventure, humor, and sense of danger. The characters and the actors playing them (Ford, Freeman, Elliott, Karen Allen, John Rhys-Davies, Ronald Lacey, and Wolf Kahler) all have a keen sense of the kind of movie they’re in. Everybody involved gets it. This extends to the crew who would win five Oscars (Art Direction, Sound, Sound Effects Editing, Visual Effects, and Film Editing, along with nominations for Cinematography, Original Score, Director, and Best Picture).

When virtually every shot in the film is burned into my brain, it’s difficult to narrow down which moments are the most important or memorable. I could write separate articles on every scene in the movie if I really wanted to. But before I started this I made note of the map room scene and probably the greatest action sequence of all-time, the truck chase. I think a big reason why those scenes in particular jumped out at me was the scoring of John Williams. Williams of course is a living legend and there’s not really much that can be said about him that hasn’t been said already, but of all of his scores I find Raiders to be the most enjoyable listen from start to finish. As a soundtrack it’s one you can put on and it evokes not simply the images that accompanied them but the feelings as well. The music in the map room scene is powerful and haunting, adding depth to Sallah’s earlier warning to Indy about the Ark. “If it is there at Tanis, then it is something that man was not meant to disturb.” That Ark theme appears a number of times before that scene, woven into other pieces but here as Indy discovers the Ark’s true location before the Nazis do, it plays boldly. It may be the finest piece of music Williams has ever written.

The truck chase is a masterpiece of, well… everything. Directing, editing, and most importantly showing Indy’s dogged will to keep the Ark out of the hands of the Nazis. He’ll punch, shoot, and run over with a truck whoever he has to to make sure that the “Führer has no prize.” Williams’ score in this sequence is simply thrilling, weaving in variations on The Raiders March for good measure. It manages to be propulsive and delightful at once, making the hairs on the backs of our necks stand up. I’m listening to it as I write this very sentence and it’s compelling me to inch forward in my chair. It also really makes me want to steal a German truck but that’s probably not in the cards today.

Released in 1981, Raiders was designed to be a throwback to B-movies of the ’30 and ‘40s but it turned out to be one of the greatest films ever made giving us arguably the most iconic hero to ever grace movie screens. The movie is also greatly strengthened by its supporting characters, Marion Ravenwood (Allen), Sallah (Rhys-Davies, who gets maybe the two best lines in the film: “Asps. Very dangerous. You go first,” and, “Holy smokes, my friends! I’m- I’m so pleased you’re not dead!”), and its two villains Belloq and Toht (Lacey). Lacey is clearly doing a delicious Peter Lorre impersonation which is exactly right for this kind of movie while Belloq is unique as a villain. Unlike Toht, he is not actually a Nazi. In a fantastic performance by Freeman, he’s an unscrupulous French archaeologist who will provide his services to the highest bidder and right now that happens to be the Nazis. For him it’s not just about getting paid though. This is his chance to see the Ark of the Covenant for himself. “You want to see it opened as well as I,” he tells Indy near the end of the film. “Indiana, we are simply passing through history. This… This is history.” Unfortunately for Belloq, Toht, and the rest of the Germans present for the opening of the Ark, their lack of respect for it gets their faces melted off or in Belloq’s case, gets his head blown up. Fortunately however, for Indy and Marion, Indy knows not to look at it, sparing their lives. That’s all Indy does at the climax of the movie. In most movies like this, he’d have untied Marion and himself and he’d have gone on a rampage to stop Belloq from opening the Ark. But here he simply closes his eyes while the Nazis are dispatched “by the wrath of God.” I’ve sometimes wondered if Kasdan and Spielberg were confident about that working. It absolutely does but at the time it had to have felt like at least a little bit of a gamble.

In its final moments, Raiders does something else unusual for this kind of movie. Indy and Marion have returned to the United States, having brought the Ark back home with them. Indy and Marcus Brody are both adamant that, “the Ark is a source of unspeakable power and it must be researched!” In response, Major Eaton (Hootkins) brushes them off with, “And it will be, I assure you. …We have top men working on it right now.” “Who?” Indy asks pointedly. “Top. Men.” It turns out to be one man in an enormous warehouse placing a crate with the Ark inside next to seemingly hundreds of other similar looking crates. After all of that, Indy isn’t treated like a hero and the United States government has politely asked him to walk away quietly after all he’s done for them. It’s a really cynical ending when you think about it. It feels just right though and it’s not all bad for Indy as he and Marion walk arm in arm to get a drink, giving us the sense that it really has ultimately been just a long day at the office for Dr. Jones.

For the companion film I’m going to be obvious and pick easily my favorite of the Indy sequels, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. In terms of the structure it is very similar to Raiders with the Holy Grail in place of the Ark of the Covenant. The father-son dynamic between Indy and his father (Sean Connery at his best) gives it a strong emotional core and there are a lot of really fun sequences throughout it. This was also the first movie in the series I was old enough to see in the theater. I have pretty vivid memories of seeing it a couple of times as a 7-year old in the summer of 1989 and I’ve loved this movie ever since. Every year around this time I revisit Raiders and Last Crusade, often on the same day. It’s hard to top that as a double feature. With these we see Spielberg at the height of his powers, showing us the art of entertaining.

One Response to “Art and Entertainment, by Bob Connally”

  1. Bro July 3, 2017 at 9:29 am #

    What? No Crystal Skulls? No nuked fridge? How do you overlook the very HEIGHT of cinematic achievement?


    Also, while this is – as you are well aware – one on my favorite films EVER, my mind was somewhat blown when it was pointed out that Indy is completely inconsequential to the story of the Ark. Depending on how you slice it, the Nazis either never would have found it without following Indy around OR they would have found it and gotten their faces melted off anyway. Say what you will about Spielberg, but the list of movies where the hero has almost no impact on the end result is short indeed.

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