George Lucas has been written off as an emotionless technophile who built a billion-dollar empire on the backs of Ewoks and clones. To be fair, he probably is exactly that.
But let us not forget from whence he came—an artsy auteur who transformed into one of the great blockbuster showmen of the late seventies and early eighties. After that, an endless trudge through awfulness (Howard the Duck), more awfulness (Radioland Murders), and yet more awfulness (Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace). Today, he’s a semi-retired entertainment magnate who keeps threatening to become an artsy auteur again.
Through it all, he’s remained strangely disconnected from his own creations, as though he doesn’t really want to be the overlord of a sci-fi uberfranchise, but feels obligated—as though it’s all somehow out of his control. Maybe it is.
The release of Raiders of the Lost Ark in 1981 arrived in the thick of Lucas’ most fertile period, both in box office receipts and creative success. It’s the centerpiece of an early eighties trifecta that remains unequaled, starting with the triumph of The Empire Strikes Back and concluding with 1983’s Return of the Jedi—although by then, the decline had clearly set in.
All three of those films were actually co-written with screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan; Lucas gets a “Story By” credit on Raiders along with Philip Kaufman. On Empire, Lucas again scores a story credit, while Kasdan shares co-writing credit with Leigh Brackett, who delivered the first draft of the script before her untimely death. On Jedi, Lucas picks up yet another “Story” credit along with a co-writing credit with Kasdan. Cursory research into all three films will reveal that Lucas essentially brainstormed the work with Kasdan, then left his screenwriter to do the actual grunt work of the writing.
So why are we gassing on about George Lucas and Larry Kasdan when the average Joe and Josephine on the street probably regard Raiders as a Steven Spielberg masterwork? Because to me, the brilliance of Raiders really begins with the script, in sharp contrast with the current megahit filmmaking culture Lucas and Spielberg inadvertently helped birth. Today, makin’ up talky-talk for the pretty people to say in front of the compu-mojo-jumbo seems like an afterthought.
Raiders is elegant storytelling; written in the early eighties as an homage to 1930’s film serials, it feels timeless. Every word crackles; every scene raises the stakes, until you can’t stand the tension any longer.
Like the Star Wars films, Raiders starts in the middle of a story, namely Indy’s running contest with the giant ball and his first encounter with the sinister Belloq. The stage is set; you know every essential piece of information abut Indy and his universe within the film’s first five minutes. You also get a perfect introduction to the chief villain of the piece, conveniently doing something diabolical to the story’s hero. By the time Doctor Jones has leapt aboard that plane and taken his seat with the snake (another brilliant setup), the viewer is pumped and primed.
What’s most interesting about the first third of the movie—basically, everything until Indy meets up with Marion and they set off to Egypt—are the shades of grey Lucas and Kasdan build into their lead characters. Sure, Indy’s our hero, but he’s also a bastard to Marion. Sure, Marion’s cast as the victim in her relationship with Indy, but she also kicks hearty ass and can drink even the toughest dude under the table. (More fine foreshadowing, this time to Marion’s trickery of Belloq in the tent in the desert—this script stitches its set pieces together like finely woven silk.) Belloq is just plain evil, but he’s also just a shadowy reflection of Indy himself—there, but for the grace of God and Marcus Brody, goes Indy. And Belloq will get his own grey shades painted in later, when he becomes charmed by Marion and shows a vulnerable side that still can’t overcome his greed.
This movie is packed with iconic moments that mythologize Indiana Jones as a legendary figure. You can never forget Indy shooting the swordsman (improvised on set by an exhausted Harrison Ford suffering the flu) or exhaustedly saying, “I’m making this up as I go.” Or my personal favorite: Indy staggering atop a Nazi submarine and actually being cheered by the crew of the freighter that brought him there. He looks ready to collapse but staggers onward—the kind of movie hero that gets cheered by people ON THE SCREEN for his utter coolness. We are the crew on that boat, and when Indy throws a half-hearted salute across the span of ocean, we all want to salute back.
These moments are forever because they cast Indy as a warts-and-all hero. He doesn’t know what he’s doing, but he knows what he’s got to do, and he does it. “My ambition in action is to have the audience look straight in the face of a character, and not at the back of a capable stuntman’s head,” Ford has said, and that’s why he might be my favorite actor of all time. That chiseled face, scarred on the chin, maps the mood of the movie across its features. We see euphoric thrills in its lopsided grin and feel the fear when that grin turns downward, often when Indy’s just a finger’s tip away from victory.
Indy’s leading lady Marion is no slouch either, especially when compared with Lucas’ later failures in creating multi-dimensional female characters. When Indy and Sallah are retrieving the Ark itself, the sequence isn’t totally reserved for the discovery that the entire film has been building toward. Instead it’s intercut with Marion trying to get Belloq drunk enough to escape his tent. In a movie entitled Raiders of the Lost Ark, the sequence with the most raiding and ark-ing is shared with the female lead.
Fast-forward to the Star Wars prequels. Padme Amidala is little more than a cardboard cutout of a flimsy nothing, an excuse for Lucas to slap some self-designed bondage gear onto a young actress. Natalie Portman herself has chops but the character is so lacking in substance, she’s practically transparent, and light years removed from Marion. You can see the beginning of the end for Lucas in Return of the Jedi, where the powerful Princess Leia is reduced to wearing a steel bikini and worrying anxiously about her brother, and the Ewoks appear to pander to kids and sell stuffed animals.
There’s no kiddie stuff in Raiders; kids may love the movie, but it doesn’t talk down to them. It’s aimed just a few inches over their heads, scary and sexy and witty, with enough action to connect viscerally with their imaginations. Who were you impersonating in the backyard during your wayward early eighties youth: Wicket W. Warwick, the stubby-legged representative of a tribe of woodland teddy bears whose chief weapons consisted of rope and rocks? Or Indiana Jones, who gets to dig for treasure and fight Nazis?
Spielberg’s direction is note perfect, imbuing each second with an urgency that still works. These action sequences could feel slow by today’s frentic standards, but they don’t, and that’s thanks largely to Spielberg. Raiders happens to fall during Spielberg’s own most fertile period, five films that are perfect examples of personal filmmaking on a grand scale. (We’ll eliminate 1941 from that honor roll. No offense, Steven.)
For all his weaknesses as a director, Spielberg still feels as relevant today as he did thirty-odd years ago. If only the same could be said for Lucas. Ultimately, Raiders of the Lost Ark only feels “dated” in the sense that George Lucas will probably never make a movie nearly as great again. At least we have the blu-rays.
Lucas, Spielberg, all of us…we’re just passing through history. But Raiders IS filmmaking history.
Cue the march.