Indiana Jones movies and Raiders of the Lost Ark: Why the original still stands alone

A long read on Harrison Ford’s first and greatest star-vehicle role, the religious ideas (or lack of them) in each of the movies — and why it matters that there’s no such movie as Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark

SDG Original source: Catholic World Report

I was 12 when Raiders of the Lost Ark opened in 1981, and it changed my relationship with movies. I was already an avid moviegoer; what’s more, between the first two films in the Star Wars and Superman franchises, along with Jaws and Close Encounters, John Williams was a huge part of the soundtrack of my childhood. Steven Spielberg and George Lucas were already giants in my world. But Raiders did something to me no prior movie had: It made me want to make movies. I had long wanted to be Luke Skywalker, but I never wanted to be Indiana Jones, only to film Indiana Jones.

I spent countless hours planning and storyboarding an ambitious Raiders spoof. My uncle drove a pickup truck with a rack that would be suitable for a Nazi truck–type sequence — and he was willing in principle to play the lead. I climbed all over that truck planning the stunt sequences. My grandfather let me borrow his Super-8 camera, and, while I never actually made my Raiders spoof, I did shoot a few scenes of an unfinished silent science-fiction spoof. It was called Cyborg; I played a renegade robot. Another uncle played the mad scientist who built me, obligingly rolling over backward when I came to life and clobbered him. There were a few very simple substitution-splice special effects which I was proud of.

The world is no poorer for the loss of my one feeble effort at cinematic storytelling. I was never going to be the next Steven Spielberg. The point is, though, watching Raiders made me want to be. I had watched Superman II any number of times, but Raiders I studied from a young age — and then I began applying the habit to other movies. Before long I was watching At the Movies with Siskel & Ebert, and my life’s path was more or less set.

Many movies I loved when I was 12 I have since realized do not deserve my love. Raiders remains a masterclass in moviemaking — a reality brilliantly highlighted by Steven Soderbergh’s 2014 black-and-white, silent version of the film. By stripping away dialogue, color, and cues from the score, Soderbergh directs viewers’ attention to how Spielberg uses light and shadow, depth of field, camera movements, editing, composition, and shot sizes — how he uses the camera like an artist’s brush, not just telling a story, but creating mood and atmosphere and emotion; or like a musician’s instrument, playing not just the notes but the audience. (Less exotically, of course, listening to John Williams’s score without the film is also an education.)

The first two Star Wars movies had made Harrison Ford a star in an iconic trio of heroes. With Raiders, at the peak of his considerable powers — cynical and swaggering, rugged but not invulnerable — he established himself as a superstar and, for another decade and a half, an A-list box office draw, which was a thing back then. Ford would go on to play more complex, interesting characters, but Indy remained his greatest star vehicle. (My favorite Ford role is John Book in Witness. The extent and limits of his range are on display throughout his peak years in roles both righteous [The Fugitive; Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan] and compromised [Blade Runner; The Mosquito Coast; Presumed Innocent]. Among less successful efforts were attempts at romantic comedy [Working Girl; Sabrina].)

Like Bond, Indy is an action hero who can throw a punch and take a punch — but he’s also one who winces and can be worn down and overwhelmed, whose setbacks in action may be played for laughs, who aches and complains afterward in ways I’m aware of no prior Hollywood tough guy doing.

Raiders began with an idea for a hero that Lucas described to Spielberg as “something better than Bond.” Bond was a fantasy icon of a flawed masculine ideal: tough and self-reliant, attractive and suave, yet callous, at times murderously violent and vengeful, sexually predatory and occasionally downright rapey. If Indy is some of these things, for good and ill, Raiders is somewhat more critical of its hero than the Bond franchise ever was of 007 (prior to the Casino Royale reboot, anyway). Indy is a womanizer with a history of statutory rape, but no Bond Girl ever socked 007 in the jaw and told him it was wrong and he knew it, like Karen Allen’s scrappy, jaded Marion Ravenwood. His reluctance to meet the Army intelligence men and their awkward first exchange is at least some acknowledgement of the shadiness of Indy’s extracurricular activities as a looter of cultural heritage. On the other hand, we all laugh when Indy unexpectedly, casually guns down an assailant armed with a sword, because that’s how Spielberg sells it.

Action, Adventure, Indiana Jones, Religious Themes, SDG Goes Long