Wednesday, June 16, 2021



PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *metaphysical, psychological, sociological*



According to a George Lucas reminiscence in Chris Taylor’s HOW STAR WARS CONQUERED THE UNIVERSE, Indiana Jones came into being partly because Eon Pictures, who controlled the James Bond franchise, refused to let Lucas helm an entry in the adventures of the famed superspy. Yet it’s hard to see any connections between Lucas’s hero—whom I’ll call “Indy” henceforth—and the Bond of the movies, aside from their mutual propensities for globetrotting.


Comparisons between Indy and the world-weary Bond of Ian Fleming’s books might be more appropriate; there’s a lot more sense that both characters have lived hard, danger-filled lives that may have cost them any shot at a normal existence. The first closeup of Indy (Harrison Ford) in his debut film catches the hero showing the world a grim, forbidding face. Admittedly, he’s just foiled another man’s attempt to take Indy’s life for the sake of treasure. But the appearances of movie-Bond boast nearly no scenes like this, except for ONHER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE, which was the closest adaptation of an ennui-filled Ian Fleming original. The opening RAIDERS sequence establishes Indy’s fortitude and daring, as he successfully braves an ancient Indian temple filled with traps set by long-dead men—but then the hero loses his prize to his smooth-talking rival Belloq (Paul Freeman). Both hero and villain are in essence thieves, but Indy is admirable for his courage in taking on the challenge of the temple, while Belloq uses smooth talk (and arguably, better preparation) to achieve their common end of raiding archaic treasures for the enrichment of modern museums.


Nor do you find this sort of world-weariness in the kid-oriented serials to which RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK pays homage. As much as Lucas and the first Indy-director Steven Spielberg may have loved old chapterplays like LOST CITY OF THE JUNGLE— or even B-westerns like those of the whip-wielding cowpoke Lash Larue—Indy’s character seems drawn from the heroes of A-level Hollywood adventure-films. When Indy remarks to his considerably younger paramour that “it’s not the years, honey, it’s the mileage,” he seems to be channeling Bogart—but it’s a Bogart who can perform prodigies of athleticism worthy of Errol Flynn or Douglas Fairbanks Sr. Some of this character may have been formed by Lucas’s credited co-author Philip Kaufman, or from Lawrence Kashdan, who wrote the screenplay. Yet Lucas probably had the principal idea of mining any and all adventure-films from Hollywood’s heyday—which makes Lucas something of a “raider of lost art,” to repeat a pun that others have made before me.


Although some modern audiences would frown upon Indy’s theft in the service of archaeological science, the film doesn’t really interrogate these matters closely. When we first see Indy in his “Clark Kent” academic guise—teaching a boring archaeology class while the girl students moon over the sophisticated older man—he seems quite content with his avocation as a relic-hunting adventurer. Then a crack appears when he confers with members of the State Department. Indy’s told that the Nazis are in Egypt, looking for the legendary Lost Ark of the Covenant. The government guys, unlike the hero, seem to seriously countenance the idea that the artifact might be used as a weapon by Adolf Hitler, and they want to Indy to find the Ark first. But to get a line on this particular part of ancient history, Indy has to face up to a dark part of his own history, for the only relic that can lead the hero to the Ark is in the possession of two people from whom he’s estranged: his former mentor (and father-figure?) Abner Ravenwood and Abner’s daughter Marion.


(Side-note: Campbell Black’s paperback novelization of an early RAIDERS script contains the nugget that Teacher Jones isn’t just getting adoring looks from girl students; he’s actively getting some action from at least one of them. I don’t know if this should be read as a backhanded compliment to Marion.)


Anyway, Indy journeys to Nepal to find the Ravenwoods, only to learn that Abner died there, leaving Marion (Karen Allen) with nothing but a beat-up tavern as her stock in trade. The source of the estrangement between the hero and the Ravenwoods seems to have been Indy’s affair with Marion, who by her account may have been underage, though the late Abner’s opinion of the matter is not spelled out. Marion, still in love with Indy despite her hostility, puts him off—but she can’t put off the Nazi goons who come looking for the relic with the Ark’s location. The role of the Nazi agent Toht (Ronald Lacey) is nothing less than a love letter to the career of Peter Lorre (well known for his cinematic interactions with Humphrey Bogart, by the bye). Still, the main purpose of the Nepal adventure is to forge new ties between Indy and Marion—even if they are based on financial remuneration, after Indy’s battle with the Nazis and their stooges results in the tavern’s destruction.


The couple arrives in Cairo with the relic. Marion seems totally on board with Indy’s plan to find the Ark, though she never makes any express comments on the hero’s mission: to somehow find the sacred Ark in the Nazis’ archaeological dig before the Nazis themselves can. More importantly, Marion’s animus toward Indy vanishes. She baits him a little, but the bitterness is gone, and it’s plain that they’ve both falling in love again. However, the heroine finds herself getting into overly deep waters with another attack by Nazi henchmen, who have been sent after Indy by their collaborator Belloq. Marion appears to be slain in a fiery explosion—and though I doubt many audience members thought her sincerely dead, Indy is forced to mourn his loss of something more valuable than any museum acquisition.


To make matters worse, Indy’s enemy Belloq shows up to mock him, claiming that the two of them are both lapsed followers of the archaeological “faith,” and that Belloq himself is a “shadowy reflection” of the hero, as indeed all the best villains tend to be. The conversation takes an extra note of sadism when one realizes that by this time Belloq must know that Marion is not dead, because she’s been taken back to the dig-site. The Nazi’s motivation for doing this is never very clear. In any case, the Nazis in Cairo somehow lose track of Indy, who sneaks into the camp with the correct info, hijacks some diggers to uncover the Ark’s real resting-place, and, incidentally, stumbles across Marion, alive but captive.


It’s no doubt a supreme test of Marion’s patience that Indy puts her rescue on hold to go after the Ark—which action might make more sense if the hero actually believed that the Ark had supernatural powers that might help the Third Reich win the war. To be sure, when Belloq interviews the captive heroine, he indicates that he’s trying to get information out of her—but at the time of the attack in Cairo, Belloq probably would have believed he had all the info he needed. He might have been sincerely trying to kill Indy in the Cairo attack, just to get him out of the way—but then, with Marion captive, why not use her to bait a trap for the hero? Was his original motivation just the desire to “take” away something from Jones, since he also sets up a possible seduction?


None of these quibbles take away from the film’s undeniable mastery of kinetic thrills and chills, which are far more important to this film than niggling continuity. Yet it’s arguable that even though Lucas et al have Indy betray Marion for the sake of the Ark, he does re-evaluate his priorities later on: seeking to protect her more than a relic of ancient history. Indy fails to liberate Marion, but it seems that all the warnings he’d received about the Ark’s baleful powers finally sink in. When Belloq attempts to summon forth the power of the Ark with a Jewish ritual, Indy keeps his eyes shut and advises Marion to do the same—which saves them both from the destruction wrought upon Belloq and the Nazis by the Ark, much as Lot saved himself by not beholding the devastation of Sodom. The couple’s bonding through Nazi-fighting then sets up the closure of their romantic arc at film’s end.


Though I believe that the main symbolic thread here is psychological—that of a world-weary man putting aside the lure of adventure for at least some romantic attachments—I also think RAIDERS has some strong metaphysical content. When I first saw the “death angels” that come forth from the Ark at the climax, I thought Spielberg, being of Jewish extraction, might have playing with the traditional idea of the mystic Shekinah. Now I think that’s a little ambitious. Still, when the Ark’s power manifests in a fiery “pillar of cloud,” that image is almost certainly derived from the narrative of the Jews’ exodus from Egypt. Even in my first viewing I thought it odd that the Nazis, the enemies of Jewry, would have thought they could call on an Israelite relic’s power with impunity, though I suppose the base idea might’ve been the real-life Nazi notion that all the great occult discoveries stemmed from Aryan ancestors.


Arguably, the aforesaid James Bond model does rear its head in the next three Indiana Jones films, one of which asserts that the Indy-Marion romance of the first film did not have a happy ending. Perhaps Lucas wanted his hero to have more latitude in his sexual conquests, though if so, Lucas never succeeded in making audiences think of Indiana Jones as a major lady-killer. Still, taken by itself, RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK stands as the premiere salute of the “movie brats” to the adventure and romance of Classic Hollywood. 


  1. It's interesting, given your Bond comparison, that one of Timothy Dalton's Bond movies essentially swiped the stunt where Indy crawls over the bonnet (hood) of a truck in Raiders. The Bond films were pretty tired by this time, though they perked up when Brosnan came aboard.

  2. Thanks for the comment. I started to see more Bond-isms in INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE and less of the Old Hollywood salutes. Not sure if INDIANA AND THE REFRIGERATOR OF DOOM aligns with either of those groupings...