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The Indisputable Matt Maxwell Presents:



One of the things I get to do now, that I didn’t get so much of during the first several years of dadhood, is time to watch videos. Don’t get me wrong, I like ALADDIN as much as the next guy, but after the first hundred viewings, it loses some of its luster. Though that sort of repeated viewing lets you pick up on all the storytelling cues without any external distraction, since the movie is pretty much boring you out of your skull. So I guess that’s a point in its favor.

Anyways, one of the videos I got to watch again recently was RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK. Now, if you’re tired of people who endlessly praise the first movie in that series and cringe away from the other two, then you best hit up the next bookmark in your daily trawl. Though I must admit the temptation to watch the second one again is strong, just to see if I haven’t changed my mind about it. But I’ve got a long Netflix queue to work through, so it’s going to be some time before I get to TEMPLE OF DOOM. Sure, there’s people who say “Just look at the comedic timing of that sequence in the Club Obi Wan that starts things off.” Okay, great timing. But there’s another 100+ minutes of movie after that you have to contend with.

But back to RAIDERS. And let’s get this next point right out of the way. RAIDERS is the best-written Republic Serial that never was. It’s also the best-shot, best-produced and smartest. So, its bones are the fifteen minute cliffhanger, a most inauspicious origin if ever there was one. Let’s be real, no matter how entertaining those shorts were, they’re not well-remembered, and generally for a good reason. Of course, one could make that argument for most of the comic output of the last thirty years and get little argument from me. So the heart of RAIDERS is the cinematic entertainment of the 30s, got it.

RAIDERS would not have happened without the inspiration of those serials. But that doesn’t mean that RAIDERS wanted to be nothing more than that. Even if you’d never watched a single one of them, you could still get your money’s worth of entertainment from watching Indiana Jones brawling his way from Nepal to Egypt and to the unnamed island at the film’s climax where the mystery of the Ark was revealed (in a manner of speaking.) You’d still have the menace of Belloq, backed up by his Nazi masters. You’d still have the perfect balance of wisdom and buffoonery of Sallah (as opposed to the lopsided stupidity that he and Marcus Brody would be reduced to in the last installment.) You’d still have the feistiness of Karen Allen’s portrayal of Marion Ravenwood. Everything would remain intact. You don’t need to be schooled in anything before your butt hits the seat.

You know why? Because RAIDERS was inspired by those old serials (as much as STAR WARS was), but it wasn’t a slave to them; it wasn’t an exact recreation. It didn’t need to be. It had its own legs to stand on. What’s more, RAIDERS set the bar for action sequences for some time to come, thanks to brilliant stunt work (so much more crucial to the show than the special effects that would go on to dominate things – and I’ll note, I’m a visual effects guy through and through.) RAIDERS is paced perfectly, striking a bargain between story advancement and character and unrelenting action. And how’s this or a sterling example of pacing: the discovery of the Well of Souls to Marion’s escape (and recapture), the actual raiding of the Lost Ark, Indy and Marion’s subsequent doom and escape, the fight on the airstrip (featuring the Biggest Nazi Ever as well as a top-secret flying wing – a sure shortcut to my heart if ever there was one) and finally the horseback pursuit of the Ark in the Nazi motorcade and fight to regain the Ark. All of that is packed into about twenty-thirty minutes, and yet you’re not overwhelmed. None of the scenes felt like they were there just for their own sake or to keep the stunt team bored.

But the movie didn’t end there (though that was certainly the climax in terms of rollercoaster action.) You still had to deal with the resolution of Indy’s character: when dared by Belloq, his dark reflection, to blow up the ark. Not to mention Indy’s realization that there was indeed something to all the mystical hocus-pocus and superstitions that surrounded his work, else he and Marion woulda been good and melted by the Ark at the revelation of the central mystery in the film. Ultimately, there was a real difference between the at-first mercenary Indy and Belloq. Belloq didn’t respect the mystery. He wanted to take it by the hand when he was clearly not worthy to (and by extension neither were those nasty Nazis.) No, it’s not a heavy and deep character study, filled with layers of nuance and ambiguous meanings. It doesn’t have to be. But there is a turn of character, one that didn’t have to happen.

And a few words on the production itself. It’s beautifully shot, period. This was a hallmark of Spielberg’s early work, where he was able to infuse a sense of magic into every scene, every set. Granted, it takes an army of people helping you to do so, but he still pulled it off. Staging, blocking, angles, everything worked to build shorthand cues for the characters instead of spelling it out explicitly in dialogue (mostly—there’s a couple hiccups here and there, between Marcus and Indy at Indy’s home for instance). This is the kind of thing that Spielberg’s reputation was build on, and for good reason. His films were unmistakably him. RAIDERS succeeds in telling the story with the language of film (though certainly not an overly ambitious story) instead of just being a threadbare plot to string together action sequences.

Now, why for the love of all that is holy, were the makers of this film able to screw it up so completely in subsequent installments? Working from memory, TEMPLE OF DOOM was unrelentingly grim and dark, a much more personal tale of horror, degradation and redemption, and yet none of it ringing true. LAST CRUSADE was bloated with action pieces, poorly written comedy and only a few sterling moments (some between Ford and Connery, but those were too brief; some at the film’s conclusion, but far too late.)

The big problem in my view? They were trying to write an INDIANA JONES movie instead of just writing a movie about Indiana Jones. Okay, let’s see, there were scary snakes in the first one, so let’s have lots of scary insects and then rats! Yeah, that’ll be great! People loved the action in the first one, so let’s have more and bigger action! Hey, RAIDERS got us in a little hot water with its being on the edge in terms of violence and ick factor, so let’s ratchet that up! We’ll make a billion. Oh, and that sorta funny stuff that people liked? Yeah, pump it up.

Bigger in every respect but the one that mattered. That’s what they got with this recipe. In short, they were trying to be aware of what made RAIDERS a success and missed completely. Even in the third, which was dubbed “The Apology” after the dark mess of the second film, they missed by overcompensating in the wrong direction. Self-awareness failed. Or it was pointed the wrong way. Or delusions of grandeur set in.

Me? I think that it was a simple matter of the first one not trying to be anything other than what it was. It didn’t have self-awareness to gum up the works. And I’m probably using the wrong word here, since this self-awareness was thrust upon it by the audience of the film, as well as the producers involved in subsequent productions. RAIDERS didn’t have to be more, because they were just figuring out what it was in the first place. The same thing hit the STAR WARS franchise, too. Though I’ll step up and say that THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK was a far better movie than its predecessor. Some things got bigger, but then, the script and characters did too, not just the explosions and window dressing. RETURN OF THE JEDI is problematic, but could have been handled with body and fender work on the script and writing out the Ewoks. Enough, however, of that digression.

Let the movies be what they are. Let the story be what it needs to be, and not subject to the whims of people who think that they need to make it just like the first one only bigger. A little self-awareness might be poisonous (but probably required these days), but too much of it? Man, that stuff’s deadly.

Matt Maxwell

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