For 1 Year, 100 Movies, contributor/filmmaker Trey Hock is watching all of AFI’s 100 Years, 100 Movies list (compiled in 2007) in one year. His reactions to each film are recorded here twice a week until the year (and list) is up!
Life always has a way of derailing even the best-laid plans, and my journey through AFI’s 100 Years, 100 Movies was half-baked at best. Keeping up has been a struggle at times. With any long-term project, at some point it feels less like a cohesive vision, and more like performance art. I’m not quite to that stage of the game yet, but with more than one third of the list behind me, I was certainly glad to see this next film come in at #66. It is a breath of fresh air and a much needed recharge.
It may be impossible to imagine a world before Indiana Jones. The cultural references abound and there are countless licensed ad campaigns for snack chips, diet sodas, or national fast food chains, which can be sited as examples of the cultural invasiveness of this now iconic character. Dr Jones didn’t make it cool for middle-aged men in the 80s to wear battered fedoras, but that didn’t stop the trend. The hero archeologist’s call was just too strong, and what makes this movie really, really awesome would also later spawn poor judgments in taste from its viewers and even its creators.
I know that it seems like I’m a Steven Spielberg hater, but coming off of “Jaws” (1975), and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” (1977) and partnering with George Lucas, who had “American Graffiti” (1973), “Star Wars” (1977), and “The Empire Strikes Back” (1980) under his plaid-loving belt, Spielberg and Lucas were primed to secure their claim to the relatively new phenomenon of the summer blockbuster. They would do so be revisiting the pulp comic book, television, and radio serials of their youth and the youth of their parents.
Beginning with the long version of the movie’s title, “Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark” places the viewer in a world of serial entertainment. Before the first frame lights up the screen, or we are introduced to the main character, we know that these characters have had these adventures before, maybe not in South America, but definitely somewhere.
And oh what an introduction Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) gets. (Sound starts at 3 seconds.)
Lashing out with his bullwhip, disarming a pistol-wielding double-crosser, stepping from the shadows, within the first moments of the film Spielberg tells us we’re going for a ride, and he does not disappoint.
The story itself is relatively straightforward and simple. Indiana Jones is a professor of Archeology and obtainer of rare artifacts. Some government men approach Jones and his academic superior, Marcus Brody (Denholm Elliot) about the Ark of the Covenant. It seems that Hitler is showing interest in various religious artifacts and may be on the verge of finding the Ark. The rest of the plot is summed up in this nicely framed and almost seamless piece of explication, which takes place as Indy prepares for his trip to secure the Ark of the Covenant for the US of A.
Did you see that? Spielberg used to be able to employ amazing restraint and subtlety. He just introduced a main character, Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen), who will show up soon, in a verbal digression from Jones. He is letting the viewers do a little work and not burdening us with handholding or unnecessary explanation. Spielberg’s assuming we’re smart.
So we’ve got the story. Jones, Ark, Nazis, Adventure. Then we dive into what is basically a stylish action movie that packs all of the awesome stuff that Spielberg’s and Lucas’ 13-yr-old selves would have loved into a two-hour movie. Spielberg does an incredible job balancing the cool, with the absurd and always crafting the film so it is believable. Indy and Marion’s chase through the streets of Cairo is exciting, funny, even silly and yet still thoroughly entertaining.
This may all be cinematic urban legend, but I heard somewhere that Indiana Jones was originally supposed to have a big sword wielding fight with the black clad swordsman. On the day the scene was shot, Harrison Ford was ill and not up to it. With a quick rewrite, we have one of the most memorable scenes in modern American film. This could be urban legend, but it’s a legend I want to believe.
The action doesn’t stop. Let me offer a small portion of the chase sequence that, according to Roger Ebert, would far surpass the car chase in “The French Connection.”
This chase uses a horse, a truck, a car, two jeeps, a motorcycle with a sidecar, and countless stunt men. I didn’t even show some of the best parts because it is so long and awesome I didn’t want to overwhelm you. It was shot 30 years ago and still holds up.
Spielberg doesn’t abandon story all together. When the characters are put in troubling positions, their weaknesses work against them and they must suffer the consequences. In this late scene, Indiana Jones attempts to save Marion by threatening the Ark. (Sound starts at 4 seconds.)
Of course a rogue adventurer archeologist can’t blow up the Ark of the Covenant, and instead of making some stupid, sugar sweet moment, Spielberg lets Indiana Jones fail. Young Spielberg knew that well-developed characters with real flaws are more interesting. I wish he would help Old Spielberg relearn that lesson.
“Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark” is a film constructed from the childhood passions of two young filmmakers. It’s a film intended to bring excitement, adventure and joy, with enough story and character to make us care about the people on screen. I really wish Spielberg and Lucas would take a page out of their earlier playbooks, and return to the days when they owned the summer.
Up Next #65 “The African Queen” (1951)
For links to #70 – 79, click on 1 Year, 100 Movies #70 A Clockwork Orange (1971)
For links to #80 – 89, click on 1 Year, 100 Movies #80 The Apartment (1960)
For links to #90 – 100, click on 1 Year, 100 Movies #90 Swing Time (1936)