RogerBW's Blog

Raiders of the Lost Ark 17 October 2021

1981 adventure, dir. Steven Spielberg, Harrison Ford, Karen Allen; IMDb / AllMovie. In 1936, the treasure-hunting "archaeologist" Indiana Jones tries to beat the Nazis to the lost Ark of the Covenant.

It's a thrill ride – sometimes literally, as each action sequence tries to outdo the last. And on that basis it works very well. The problems come when one wants to dig through the meringue and find the ice cream in the middle of the Baked Alaska; Lawrence Kasdan did his best with the connecting scenes after Spielberg and Lucas had set up the action, but there's very little time to develop anything beyond the basics. Yes, we very quickly learn what sort of person Indy is and what he does; but we learn very little more than that. Films before this would usually try to have some cleverness in between the action, but the huge success of Raiders made it clear that that really wasn't necessary. It's entertainment that feels, too obviously, carefully crafted to produce this feeling at that moment; most obviously, John Williams' score suffers from the same problems as Jaws, in that it's very clear how you're supposed to feel, but this time he mixes in the primary theme repeatedly too, thereby losing a fair bit of potential for variation.

Of course it was actually Himmler who was a "nut on the occult", but Hitler certainly didn't mind using it if people he had to convince believed in it.

Roger's Aircraft Corner: it's obviously meant to be a Pan Am Clipper that draws the first red line across the map, but it's actually a Short Solent. Fair enough; there weren't any Clippers left in 1981 (and they weren't in service until 1938 anyway). Though Tales of the Gold Monkey the next year did a decent job of a mockup!

Roger's Guns Corner: too many anachronisms to name, from the P38 to the MP40 and the Kar98K. But clearly someone was sent off to the props warehouse with the brief "get a load of WWII German guns", and didn't realise that 1936 isn't quite the same thing as far as the development of firearms is concerned. More interesting is the anti-tank rocket used in what, in dramatic rather than action terms, is the climactic scene, Indy's threat to destroy the Ark; there simply was no weapon of that class at that date, but using the historical equivalent (a heavy anti-tank rifle) wouldn't project the same degree of threat.

Serial-style storytelling relies on cliffhangers… but if you don't have some time to wonder about the cliffhanger, to think "how will they get out of this one", it can lose some of its force. (Thus the lesser enjoyment of watching say the episodes of a classic Doctor Who story all in a row.)

I still like it. I wouldn't put it in my favourite films but it's one I can enjoy in spite of the way Marion turns into a screechy wreck whenever she's on screen with Indy, in spite of the casual assumption that the right place for a gold artefact is not among the descendents of the people who made it but in a museum on another continent, in spite of the hero's basic irrelevance to the plot. (As I see it, he probably saves Marion's life, but without him in the film Todt would get the medallion from Marion, the Ark would be found and flown to Berlin, Belloq would insist on checking it before showing it to the Führer, and there'd be a meltyface incident there rather than on a random Mediterranean island.)

(And this, and Star Wars, were where the young Roger first heard of Spielberg and Lucas – not realising at the time that they'd been bad boys of the Hollywood New Wave, because here especially they're showing how utterly commercial they can be.)

As usual if you want more of my witterings you should listen to Ribbon of Memes.


  1. Posted by Dr Bob at 07:29pm on 17 October 2021

    So, um, Indiana Jones is responsible for WW2, because without him perhaps there would have been a meltyface moment with Hitler and several of his High command in the room...?

  2. Posted by RogerBW at 07:48pm on 17 October 2021

    I don't believe so, but I'm leaning hard on one exchange (in the submarine pen):

    Dietrich: I am uncomfortable with the thought of this… Jewish ritual. Are you sure it's necessary?

    Belloq: Let me ask you this. Would you be more comfortable opening the Ark in Berlin? For your Führer? Finding out only then if the sacred pieces of the Covenant are inside? Knowing, only then, whether you have accomplished your mission and obtained the one, true Ark?

    Combine that with the idea that they were originally going to take the Ark to Berlin in the flying-wing, and I think Belloq would have insisted on opening the thing up before actually showing it to Hitler. At which point some bunch of people in Berlin get melted; we can probably assume that the Ark doesn't have much influence on the war thereafter…

    (Heh, I should have put the cellar in Berlin that nobody's allowed to go into in my WWII campaign.)

  3. Posted by dp at 11:50pm on 17 October 2021

    Well, if a bunch of medium-rank Nazis DID get melted by the relic, but Hitler wasn't among them, then the Nazis now know occult weapons are real, and might redouble their effects to find more tractable ones. It might not do them any good if the only functional ones are antithetical to them, but it could be very bad if they find their way into Thor vs. Captain American territory...

  4. Posted by RogerBW at 09:26am on 18 October 2021

    Yeah, at that point you need an actual cosmology, and I don't think anyone involved wanted to do that much world-building.

    (Also, how does the Ark get from unnamed island to the USA? The obvious people to call for help would be the Royal Navy, and I don't think they'd casually give it up once they had it.)

  5. Posted by Robert at 05:48pm on 18 October 2021

    I blame Bill Donovan.

    I bet Marcus blabbed to him after half a bourbon and branch water.

  6. Posted by RogerBW at 09:27am on 19 October 2021

    Bill Donovan would never not have used the thing. Somehow. Even if it were just as an assassination device, leaving it around for people to find.

  7. Posted by Robert at 10:45pm on 20 October 2021

    I agree with that. He was “wild”.

    Ok. I’ve thought about this too much now but maybe we’ll need this legwork for a gaming session someday.

    Maybe John Van Antwerp MacMurray. He had the academic connections to know Brody, had controversial views on Japan that got shelved, and came on as ambassador to Turkey in March 1936.

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