Raiders of the Lost Ark‘s climax is unique among Hollywood blockbusters in that the hero and heroine are curiously passive. The film’s villain, rival archeologist Belloq (Paul Freeman), taunts Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford), who has pursued the golden relic of the occult with two-fisted courage, moxie, and even recklessness. But his girlfriend, Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen) has been captured, the Nazis have stolen the prize away to a remote island, and Jones surrenders and allows himself to be tied up because, as Belloq says, “You want to see it opened as well as I.” For an action-adventure film, Lost Ark is about spectatorship, and our hero transforms into a stand-in for the audience.
When the ark is opened, it’s as a Steven Spielberg-George Lucas laser light show of lightning, smoke, and holy fire, as well as a chamber of horrors where skull-faced ghosts swirl through the air and the faces of the various bad guys start melting into crimson jelly. It’s unnerving and spooky, and a fitting conclusion to this strange, surprisingly dark bit of pulp filmmaking. It’s the A-version of a B movie, but it assumes that the kids in the audience will be able to take whatever the filmmakers throw at them. It’s reminiscent of serials and cartoon strips from the World War II era, which also assumed that the audience was tough enough to handle muscular action and bizarre terror on screen. Lost Ark is a throwback to that kind of storytelling, and also a reminder that in 1981 movies for children were less soft and didn’t bother coddling. You were expected to cover your eyes.
Lost Ark starts off with a morbid adventure, with Indiana Jones entering into an underground cave and navigating a series of nightmarish traps. The caverns are appropriately ominous, with pitfalls, arrows, spikes, boulders, spiders, and a nefarious sidekick (Alfred Molina) who can’t be trusted when he says during a moment of crisis, “No time to argue! You throw me the idol, I throw you the whip!” Jones himself is first glimpsed in silhouette, a quiet and intense figure who seems possessed by self-interest as much as charisma. Spielberg makes him alluring by keeping him mysterious—not necessarily a good man, but a committed one. With his stubble, dark leather jacket, and battered gray hat, Ford resembles less the cocksure Han Solo than a half-crazed Roy Dobbs from Treasure of the Sierra Madre. The less we know, the more we can project on him, the more appealing a hero he is. By the time the sequels came out, he had become cute in his cockiness, and easier to target as a moral figure.
Why is it that nowadays movie characters in blockbusters have to conform to a limited idea of righteousness, or if they’re selfish jerks they have to somehow reform themselves into being the hero always inherent in who they are? Indiana Jones was more human somehow because he was a bit of a jerk, and even in that opening sequence where he tries (and fails) to steal an ancient golden artifact, we felt for him simply because he was trying willfully to achieve a goal. One of the moments that attach the audience to him is when he’s hanging off of the edge of a precipice, having barely caught hold of a root jutting out of the ground, and Spielberg cuts to a close-up of Ford, smiling in relief that he’s saved his own neck, but when we go back to the wide shot, the root pulls itself out of the ground and he’s about to fall into oblivion. That close-up locks us into identification with Indiana Jones—that fleeting “Whew! Close one” before he fumbles and nearly dies.
Lost Ark holds up for many reasons, not least of which is because of Spielberg’s consummate skill as a visual storyteller and his ability to draw charged performances from his actors. Each standalone set piece is virtuoso in its pacing, timing of jokes, and emotional payoff. The sequence in Marion’s Nepalese bar starts off with a burly drinking game (she wins). This is quickly followed by some sexual tension as Indiana returns to her life and they negotiate over a presumed missing artifact she may still have in her possession. Eventually, Nazi thugs show up led by a swarthy, bespectacled, wheezing creep dressed all in black (Ronald Lacey) who, after referring to Indiana as being “nefarious,” proceeds to try mutilating Marion with a steaming hot poker. The action set piece that follows has Indiana Jones blazing into action and blowing away a bunch of bad guys, but it’s all the small moments in the sequence that make it memorable: bullets flying into a bucket of whiskey and Marion leaning over to take a gulp as it spills; Jones brawling with a giant thug whose arm is on fire; and the Nazi ringleader ordering his machine gun-wielding colleague to just go ahead and shoot them both. Unlike most action films, where it feels like you’re waiting for one thing to happen, then another, in linear sequence, Spielberg creates dynamic pictures with diverse on-screen action. In other words, Lost Ark never sits still long enough to get boring.
The opening sequence announces Dr. Jones as a man of action (“If adventure has a name,” the tagline memorably proclaimed, “it must be Indiana Jones”). Throughout the story, he solves problems by shooting at them or cavalierly stealing from his enemies. He’s not a moral boy scout like Luke Skywalker, such as in the infamous scene where he confronts an expert Arab swordsman and, after not being impressed by the fancy scimitar swordplay, whips out his revolver and blows the guy away. Indiana Jones didn’t fight fair and had a casual attitude toward death, unlike the goody-goody Skywalker who was like a cloying teenager whining about hot rods and whose attitude toward girls was chaste and pure. Jones, on the other hand, ditched his true love Marion in the middle of the desert, and now she’s a tough, cigarette-smoking broad in Nepal besting the locals in drinking games and, like Jones, punching people out as a way of solving problems. The vaguely immoral nature of Indiana Jones leads to the fascinating ending, where our hero wants to see the Ark opened just as much as his Nazi captors.
The process of softening Indiana Jones began with the first sequel, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, where he takes on a serious case of white man’s burden and saves a village full of children. That process of ennobling him seriously denigrates what separates Lost Ark from so many other films of its era. It’s strange, considering that Temple of Doom is a significantly more brutal and violent film, depicting children in peril, scenes of torture, and moments where our heroes are transformed into murderous zombies. The dark side of Lost Ark is tempered by the fact that it’s essentially a boy’s adventure story, complete with varied locales and a hero who swings to the rescue on his trusty bullwhip. For all the callousness of Indiana Jones, he also was throwing himself full-tilt into the games kids imagine when they are running around in the woods. If anyone doubts that children’s games are dark as well as exhilarating, they lack an understanding of the true nature of kids. Remember it was Spielberg’s hero, Peter Pan creator J.M. Barrie, who said that thus life goes ever on, so long as children are gay and heartless.