WATCHING Raiders of the Lost Ark is somewhat akin to strapping yourself into a P-58 Mustang, which, as any old fighter pilot will tell you, was as close as you would ever want to come to strapping yourself to a cannonball. The Spielberg Lucas summertime epic starts off at a hellish pace and then refuses to slow down: there are Nazis and naked savages, reptiles and archeologists, pyramids, legends, car chases, curses, and even--albeit abstractly--a visit from the Supreme Creator. It is, in short something of an adrenalin mosaic: the first movie in a long time that can go from 0 to 60 before the titles even roll.
Of course, you have to use the word epic loosely when speaking of a movie like Raiders. Epic implies a range of concerns that are completely in congrous with anything Raiders is aiming for. If anything, it's that pop-epic quality of the old double DC comies that the movie aspires to: the epic of the old serials or the best of the careening Tom Swift books in which the young Tom was always building some giant robot or other to mine gold on the moon and/or play tennis. In those worlds, there existed a natural order that we seem to gravitate to naturally. Swift & Company workers admired the hell out of the young Tom, and Tom himself was a benevolent employer even though he wasn't near old enough to drink. Young geniuses were just lucky that way. People who worked with young geniuses were lucky too.
Of course. Tom himself had yet to achieve hero status. One could imagine even the young inventor going home to read Tarzan, or, as the times changed, sitting in a theater to watch Sam Spade or Philip Marlow or Humphrey Bogart. Or watching newsreels of Lindbergh. Even Tom would respond to that hierarchy. It may have been an unprecedented spree of hyperbole, but the newspapers called Lindbergh's landing "The biggest news story since the crucifixion of Christ." Well, obviously, it wasn't the biggest story since Roman times--but it might have been the biggest news story. News, after all, started out chronicling heroes. Homer and Vergil were only carrying on a tradition that started with cave paintings when they put the Odyssey and Iliad to verse. Praises of exceptional men were to be sung. News today may be little more than bookkeeping, closer to ledger accounting than anything else. But even now we respond, almost intuitively, to heroes. Maybe with a little mistrust, to be sure, but still intuitively. Even Fortune magazine profiles petroleum executives in terms of bloody business combatants: vicious merger bids being the modern equivalent of a head on a lance.
Which is to say nothing new, except that it was bound to happen--that eventually someone would have the gumption to just jettison all the psychological persiflage in favor of the basic things that make people gape. Heroes and adventure.
Of course, that's not as easy as it sounds today. A dumb hero on the order of Sylvester Stallone just won't flv, for all intents and purposes. There's a thin line between innocence and sophistication, and it is there that Raiders manages to remain balanced. The movie is ostensibly about the search for the lost Ark of the Covenant, a mystical vessel rumored to hold the remains of the tablets of Moses and possessing an awesome power. The year is 1936, and the U.S. government has learned that Hitler, a fanatic about the occult, has a team of storm troopers led by the opportunistic French archeologist Belloq, searching for the Ark. To counteract this threat, the government employs Indiana Jones, an improbably handsome archeology teacher and part-time adventurer to find the Ark before Hitler's henchmen do. After that, it's all pretty much irrelevant as far as plot goes. Suffice it to say Jones travels halfway around the world, through Nepal, Egyptian bazzars, through Cairo and the Mediterranean, flung headfirst into an impossible maze of threats, subterfuge and adventure.
AND RARELY has there been such grace under velocity in a film. Speilberg and Lucas, of course, have the credentials to pull is off if anyone does. Lucas started out with American Graffiti before he hit upon the Star Wars saga, and Spielberg has made possibly the best thriller ever with Jaws before moving on to the constantly mutating Close Encounters, All of those movies managed to hold that line--exuding innocence without necessarily being shallow (though Star Wars, arguably, was not so successful at this). Spielberg and Lucas, along with Coppola, are the epitome of the new breed of film-school film-makers--they are technical whizzes, well-practiced, aloof from the slow strangulation that was the studio system.
And yet, they're not technicians. Proficiency for them is not an end to itself. With the benefit of over half a century of film behind them, they are the first generation of filmmakers who have some semblance of a film vocabulary to work with. They have been trained as comparison directors--and the sly references, the adapted framings, the taking of a certain technique just one yawing notch beyond what was done before, is what makes them much more than simple imitators. Throughout Raiders there are references to Hitchcock, to the old B-Movie serials, to the team's own previous movies. And yet, they never stop the flow. They simply flash and are registered, adding that much more for sheer cleverness, but never distracting. Instead, they give the feeling that you are in the hands of a master--which immediately gives the film added resonance. Suddenly, Raider's quirky internal logic seems natural. You stop looking for holes, because you know there won't be any. You stop looking for three-dimensional realism, too, because this movie doesn't operate that way. From the first moment you see Indiana Jones walking through the Peruvian jungle with his leather jacket and snap-brim hat, zapping nasties with his bullwhip. Raiders ripples with confidence and intrigue. You simply don't have any more time to think. Cinematographer Douglas Slocombe, best known for more elegant films like Julia or Nijinsky, has shot the movie in a sumptuous style that is exaggerated and resonant without being too obvious.
As Indiana Jones, Harrison Ford masterfully combines self-deprecating humor with a certain grittiness and sensitivity. He's something of an unlikely hero, who himself doesn't always seem to sure about the situation. In his academic tweeds he's boyish and bumbling--but as soon as the leather jacket is on he magically transforms himself into an amalgamation of most of the great movie heroes from Bogie to Bond. He has none of the arrogance of, say, a dashing pilot in a WWII film, or of his evil counterparts (good, as always, balks before prevailing). Instead, he is allowed to be caught improvising, caught as badly in the sheer rush of things as anyone, and this makes him admirable without any hint of reverence.
Lucas and Spielberg have also updated Jones's girlfriend to give her none of the stodginess but all of the cool of the great old heroines. Karen Allen plays Jones's companion with a wonderful blend of humor, cynicism and toughness--a hardy, reliable beauty whose prettiness is just a little bit off and who is a perfect counterpart to Indiana's laconic stoicism. Allen was wonderful in The Wanderers and then, for reasons best known to God, also starred in the abysmal Small Circle of Friends. Allen has always exuded more energy, though, than her troglodyte roles were willing to deal with. But in Raiders, Allen is allowed to go all out.
OF COURSE, in the end Raiders is a director's movie. Aside from keeping pace with the plot, there is little to be done for the actors short of giving wonderfully telling looks. That is not to cut anyone down. Everyone, from Belloq (who comes off looing like Francois Truffaut's alter ego) or Toht have distinctive characteristics that are easily enough identified, and a hint of more. But if more were delivered, it would only weigh the movie down. For it is Spielberg's sense of timing that propels Raiders into the realm of the magnificent. He is a master of setting an audience up for the obvious terror and then defusing it, or feigning a breaking only to let things go one step too far. It is not easy to surprise a movie audience today, and most efforts are in the realm of the increasingly unsurprising special effects. But Spielberg has gone back to the essential elements of the old classics. Right when there couldn't possibly be another convolusion in the script, another hired gun, another secret passage, another unforseen danger--here it is. That such stockpiling is witty and clever makes this so much more than some Bond adventure. The effect is sheer exhileration that anyone could think of that, let alone film it.
And, in the end, it's that feeling of go-to-hell individualism, that heady velocity, that separates Raiders from its more strident counterparts. It's not a movie that's trying to fake an adventure so much as it is an adventure, both as fiction, and as a movie. The story, the directing, the acting--all of the elements--are just a little out of control, careening just a little too fast. And yet, almost impossibly, it manages to hold the curve. Spielberg and Lucas have brought high adventure both back into movies and, indeed, into movie making.