MASTER MOMENTS: Indiana Jones’ Last Stand in ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’

For quite some time I have been going back and forth over whether my thoughts on Raiders of the Lost Ark would be more appropriate for a ‘Blind Spot’ entry. I must ashamedly admit that, up until a week ago, I had never seen the first entry in the Indiana Jones franchise. But I’m not here to talk about Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, because I truly do not consider Raiders of the Lost Ark to be a member of Steven Spielberg’s trademark franchise. For one thing, slapping Indiana Jones at the front of it only serves to make the original title a redundancy. The main deal, however, is that the film isn’t entirely about Harrison Ford’s iconic character.

One of the most incredulous mistakes in franchise history, and this is one that many a series since Indiana Jones has indulged in, is the overemphasis on the iconography of its lead. Spielberg is notoriously famous for his love of gorgeous silhouettes. Who can forget the image of a lady unsuspectingly wading on her surfboard as the camera ominously peers from below? Or a flying bicycle gaining definition from the light of the moon? Or… a horse. We’re practically destined to see Daniel Day-Lewis being given a legendary persona through simple lighting in Lincoln, which is admittedly a moment I am anxious to see.

What has me so giddily praising Raiders of the Lost Ark as transcending the name made for its star character is its determination to be the classic adventure film. Though a commonly used device, the MacGuffin of the Ark of the Covenant gives a back and forth nature to the film’s conflict, and one which delivers many an exciting moment. The opening raid of a Peruvian temple is one I’ve enjoyed on many occasions during previous attempts to see the film. It’s a good hook, and Spielberg gets that right off the bat. Personally, the scene that had me rocking back and forth in my kitchen room seat was Indy’s single-handed overtaking of a Nazi unit carrying the Ark. Something about Indy climbing under a moving vehicle… yeah, that’s not totally awesome at all… right?

Even people who haven’t seen the film are aware of its macabre horror finale, definitively eradicating evil forever (until the next adventure, of course). Each of these serves as enough reason to consider checking out the film during its recent IMAX run. The moment that solidifies all of these bombastic sequences, however, is neither viscerally nor visually compelling. Just before the aforementioned orgy of death and destruction, the conflict between our heroic archaeologist and the Nazis comes to a head. The enemy has the Ark, so for all intents and purposes they have won. And yet we still believe that Indy will find a way out of this. In a last ditch effort, Indy aims a rocket launcher directly at the titular MacGuffin.

Clearly this is his least foolproof of many hilariously foolhardy plans. “Surely you don’t think you can escape from this island,” Colonel Dietrich states with a nervously tinted tone of disbelief. “That depends on how reasonable we’re all willing to be. All I want is the girl.” This line brings together so many character arcs that the film has dabbled in with a secondhand nature. “The girl” in this case being Marion Ravenwood, a past lover of Indy’s who was jaded against him at the start of the film before becoming enchanted with him once again.

This could be seen an overly romantic flourish, but the truth of that moment is that Indy, in spite of all the hell he’s been through over the Ark, is ready to give it up in exchange for Marion. Consider me a sucker for a genuine romantic plea, but they’re relationship is handled with such simplicity, perkiness, and patience throughout the film so as to make this moment work. Indeed, this is quite a reasonable exchange, but one which is met with a rather unexpected response. “Okay Jones. You win! Blow it up. Just blow it up! Blow it back to God.”

So remarks Rene Belloq, Indy’s archaeological rival over the Ark, as well as many other prizes in their history. It’s a move that shocks Jones about as much as it does the Nazi unit possessing the Ark. This moment sees Belloq pleading to Indy, not as a rival or a Nazi, but as a fellow historical wanderer. “All your life has been spent in search of archaeological relics. Inside the Ark are treasures beyond your wildest aspirations. You want to see it open as well as I.”

Belloq states this all with uncertainty, curious to see exactly what Indy decides to do. There is confidence, but it comes mostly from his inflated sense of ego. He doesn’t simply want the money that will come to him, but also the respect. He wants to beat and embarrass Indy, proving himself the better of the two. More than that, he appeals to Indiana’s need for discovery, to preserve something few have been privileged to see. “Indiana, we are simply passing through history. This…this is history.”

While the “adventure of the week” nature of the Indiana Jones films has held the latter three back, it’s exactly what makes the first such a fantastic ride. It’s not simply a character going toe-to-toe with the bad guy, but Indiana being placed in a specific time and place. Spielberg uses the 1936 setting as a way of using cartoonishly evil Nazis as the villains, but Indiana Jones is not truly a character who has been formed by his generation. To call Indy, as a character, complex is like making Shame sound like The Avengers.

What makes Indiana Jones such an easy character to root for his how accidental his prowess throughout the film is. I simply do not believe that he’d be able to get out of these kinds of situations on three other occasions. You barely believe it on this occasion, and that is no statement of ridicule towards the film’s logic. Indy is a symbol of such aimless badassery that his adventures throughout history leave him hilariously juxtaposed against them. He works as a conduit for what we would do in those scenario.

In that moment between him and Bellow, Indiana realizes exactly how small he is in comparison to the Ark. In spite of his noble inclinations to rescue Marion, he relents due to his respect for history, even if he, himself, is never meant to go down in it. It’s for that reason that, in spite of how uninspired every subsequent iteration of the Indiana Jones story is churned out, I am glad his character has received the status of iconic cinematic legend. For that crucial moment alone, he deserves it. But for the sake of the franchise, might I suggest recasting it and putting some new creative blood into it? Worked out great for 007.

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  • “I truly do not consider Raiders of the Lost Ark to be a member of Steven Spielberg’s trademark franchise. For one thing, slapping Indiana Jones at the front of it only serves to make the original title a redundancy.”

    I don’t know if this will make you think of it differently, but Spielberg refers to the films as the “Raiders” series. Throughout production, IMDB listed Kingdom of the Crystal Skull as “Indiana Jones 4,” but Spielberg and his production crew all referred to it as “Raiders 4.” Call me crazy, but I suspect the “Indiana Jones and the…” naming retcon might be Mr Lucas’s doing…

    Anyway, the end of this movie scared the shit out of me when I was a kid, so much so that I refused to watch it again till I was a teenager. Even with the special effects of 1981, it remains awesome. I hope Spielberg doesn’t pull an E.T.: 20th Anniversary Edition on Raiders and release it with “updated special effects.” *shudder*

    • I’m certain Spielberg’s heart has always been in the right place. If there’s a prevailing organ in Spielberg’s body, it’s his heart. As repetitive as it sounds, the fault lies with Lucas, who has supplied story for all the films. If only Spielberg had attached himself to the Philip Kaufman end of the “Raiders” team.

      • Can we just agree to blame everything on George Lucas? I’m still upset at him for my parents’ divorce, which I’m sure somehow was his fault.

  • Raiders has always been a favorite of mine. Unlike the other movies, it takes the story seriously and I think that’s what makes it better than the others. Also for being a “kids” movie, it’s amazing how violent and brutal they actually made it. I was nine when I first saw the face-melting finale, and I remember it scaring me quite a bit.

  • This is what a guilty pleasure action adventure movie should be like, its great! i have always been a fan of Indiana Jones from my childhood but this is my most favorite of the series.

    • Jose

      I wouldn’t count Raiders a guilty pleasure, its not a bad movie to begin with.

      • i didn’t said it was a bad movie. Action adventure movie with humor and a larger than life set up…. you can’t take those things seriously. I consider it as the best kind of guilty pleasure i personally can have. The thing is i am not a fan of action/adventure genre and most of the movies Spielberg made are something i always enjoy.

      • Jose

        Its just that in my head, guilty pleasure refers to something that you know is bad for you, yet you enjoy it.

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