Remembering Raiders of the Lost Ark – 35 Years On | Part I

Are you sitting down? I hope so as what I’m about to say may shock you. This summer Raiders of the Lost Ark turned 35. I know, incredible! It’s hard to think of so familiar a property, so recognisable a character, being anything other than timeless. At 35 Raiders ages us, its fans, more than it does itself especially when you consider that a lot of cinema has come and gone in those 35 years, yet Raiders still possesses a certain kind of magic which even the most sensible of adults can’t deny. But why? There are more than a few reasons but a good place to start is the fact that Raiders of the Lost Ark is rated PG. A PG rating considerably broadened the audience base and a lot of those pre-teens who sat in cinema’s across the globe that summer in 1981 are those same sensible adults mentioned earlier who get a little giddy every time the theme tune is heard; they grew up with Indiana Jones, he belongs to them.

While lasting popularity can be partly attributed to a romantic notion of ownership, it also certainly helped that the cinematic universe of the early 1980’s was not really awash with worthwhile action/adventure films. Before Raiders an adventure film was probably more akin to Herbie Goes To Monte Carlo or The Three Musketeers, films designed as family-friendly romps. A romp Raiders most certainly is not; people die, they get skewered, poisoned, liquidised by an airplane propeller, tossed to their death off a cliff, even the wrath of God melts the faces off a load of nasty old Nazi’s (hard to believe it’s PG, right?). For a kid starved of adventure with a bit of bite, Raiders was every dream come true. In 1981 Los Angeles Times critic Sheila Benson said, “… for audiences parched for heroes and for the pure, intense joy of moviegoing, here comes “Raiders of the Lost Ark” with Indiana Jones, a boyish Bogart with a bullwhip.” Benson picks up one of the most important aspects of Raiders – it is a film made with a lot of love for a bygone era of action adventure films. Raiders of the Lost Ark is a throw back to an age of cinema that had virtually disappeared in the 1970’s and early 1980’s – a hero, a villain, a love interest, daring do, adventure, humour and heart; pure entertainment in other words.

Raiders was shot by the brilliant Slocombe. -
Raiders was shot by the brilliant Douglas Slocombe. Source

Yet Raiders is more than just an entertaining action adventure film, it’s a beautiful looking action adventure film. While directed by one of the greatest filmmakers of the time, Steven Spielberg, it should be acknowledged that Douglas Slocombe, the cinematographer, had more than a little input into making Raiders a classic of American cinema. Slocombe, who recently passed away at the ripe old age of 103, was 67 years old when Spielberg invited him to shoot Raiders (and the two subsequent sequels in the 1980’s). In fact he became so important to the Indiana Jones series that Slocombe, at the age of 95, was personally asked by Spielberg if he would consider coming out of retirement to shoot Kingdom of the Crystal Skull in 2008 (he didn’t, and Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is all the worse for it). Slocombe was a master of using shadows and silhouettes; think of the scene when Indy first enters the bar in Nepal, we only see his shadow thrown across the wall, or of Indy pacing forward and back across the roof of the Well of Souls with a setting sun behind him, vivid and astounding images. No other character is as recognisable by his shadow as Indiana Jones is. Douglas Slocombe, the man who made Indy an icon while also demonstrating that action films have every right to look beautiful.

While technically marvellous to look at, when you’re 8 years old you’re not too interested with light and shade. For a kid, you want your heroes to be cool and there can be no denying that Indiana Jones is cool. Just look at his costume – battered leather jacket, a tired looking fedora, three day’s stubble, a leather satchel and a whip. Individually these things don’t really work but can you imagine Indy without any of the above? I didn’t think so. And of each of these his whip and his headwear are probably the most important – how many moments in the series as a whole is Indy missing his hat? Very few – even when he goes over the cliff edge in Last Crusade the hat finds its way back to him. In Temple of Doom when the door to the secret chamber is closing Indy reaches in at the last second to grab it or tumbling through the sky on an inflatable raft or rattling down the white water river in India, Indy’s hat doesn’t budge (the Last Crusade making-of documentary shows Harrison Ford answering the how-does-the-hat-stay-on-your-head question by picking up an industrial stapler and stapling it to his forehead).  In fact the tag line for Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom read, quite simply, The Man With the Hat is Back.  For Last Crusade it read, The Man With Hat is Back…And This Time He’s Bringing His Dad. While his whip made him different, his hat made him instantly identifiable.

Indiana Jones with his trademark hat and whip. -
Indiana Jones with his trademark hat and whip. Source

Yet Indy’s costume is far from original. There were many inspirations, one of which was Fred C. Dobbs, the character Humphrey Bogart played in The Treasure of Sierra Madre, but the chief muse for his attire comes from the 1954 adventure film Secret of the Incas, starring one Charlton Heston. Indy’s costume is almost a carbon copy of the one worn by Harry Steele, Heston’s adventurer. Deborah Nadoolman, the costume designer for Raiders recognised this in a 2007 interview, “We did watch this film (Secret of the Incas) together as a crew several times, and I always thought it strange that the filmmakers did not credit it later as the inspiration for the series.” While it may not be an entirely original costume, there is no doubt that none wore it better than Harrison Ford.

Yet it isn’t just the costume that makes Indy cool – in this case clothes do not entirely maketh the man. While other franchises have changed their lead actor over the years the very idea of an Indiana Jones film starring someone other than Harrison Ford is virtually unthinkable to all Indiana Jones fans. In the character of Indiana Jones, Ford, the prickly yet likeable everyman, invested his own natural surly sense of humour and vulnerability. Indeed the late River Phoenix, who played a teenage Indy in Last Crusade, said that he did not take inspiration for his portrayal of Indy from the two previous films but from Harrison Ford himself (and he had ample time as the pair starred in Peter Weir’s The Mosquito Coast a year previous to filming Last Crusade). Take his interactions with his Scout friend in the mine at the very start, or his father later on. River Phoenix is not trying to be Indiana Jones as a lot of Indiana’s traits had, at that stage, not yet been developed (no fear of snakes for instance); no, he was trying to be Harrison Ford. Look at his mannerisms and hand movements, those are what Ford brought to Indiana Jones and so Phoenix embraced Ford’s personality instead of delivering an imitation of Indiana Jones.

Yet actors and costumes cannot be responsible for the type of affection and admiration that Indiana Jones is held in. Indiana Jones is loved because of his little character flaws and his uncanny ability to both think and fight his way out of any situation. He is an imperfect hero and far more relatable to than the modern cinematic efforts of Tony Stark or Batman. Indy is a working joe who just happens to be street savvy and able to mix it in a fistfight as easily as he can in a battle of wits. He is that perfect blend of everyman and action man – what every guy wants to be if we are completely honest. The character of Indiana Jones tickles the daydreamer in all of us – the globe trotting adventurer, bold and courageous, morally sound and treated with respect and apprehension in almost equal measure. He believes in preservation and not exploitation (something all the antagonists in the four Indiana Jones films – Belloq, Mola Ram, Donovan and Irina Spalko – do not).  

The unfortunate end of Major Arnold Toht. -
The unfortunate end of Major Arnold Toht. Source

And unlike those four villains, Indiana is not cruel (for the record, in all four films, Indy does not directly kill any of his adversaries. God smites Belloq, Toht and Dietrich in Raiders, crocodiles put paid to Mola Ram in Temple of Doom, God steps in again to take care of Donovan and Elsa in Last Crusade and the “interdimensional beings” finish off Irina Spalko in Crystal Skull). He does not hurt those who do not deserve it, the bad guys get their comeuppance and it is usually met with a fist pump of satisfaction from the audience when it does – come on, who didn’t let out a little whoop when Indy battles the Nazi’s in the truck carrying the Ark or the soldiers by the flying wing airplane.  And Indy doesn’t take himself too seriously either, when asked by Sallah how he intends to get the Ark back from the Nazi’s he pauses a moment, looks away and answers “I don’t know, I’m making this up as I go.”

Read Part Two Here 

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