#3 — Raiders of the Lost Ark (Steven Spielberg, 1981)
Just for fun, consider where Steven Spielberg was professionally when Raiders of the Lost Ark was released in the summer of 1981. He had directed four previous feature films, the most recent of which, 1941, was a notorious bomb. He’d been credited as an executive producer exactly twice, for the first two films directed by his friend Robert Zemeckis. His name didn’t carry the weight of a proven filmmaking brand, not really. The promotional materials were just as likely, if not more likely, to emphasize the involvement of producer (and receiver of a “story by” credit) George Lucas, flush with notoriety and commensurate influence for the Star Wars films, which weren’t yet referred to as a “franchise” and had the recent success of The Empire Strikes Back (no episode number, please) to keep the luster high. This new film even starred Lucas’s Han Solo, Harrison Ford, his blaster traded for a bullwhip and a battered fedora.
Then Raiders was released and Spielberg’s permanent fame came rumbling down on him like a large, spherical boulder through a cavern perfectly sized to accommodate its unstoppable path. Arguably even more so than the following year’s record-breaking E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, the riveting, thrilling adventure of archeologist Dr. Indiana Jones racing against evil Nazis to find a biblical artifact of untold power cemented Spielberg’s reputation as a master showman and a director who commanded the grammar of narrative filmmaking like no one else being given regular access to studio equipment at the time. After this, he never again had to worry about whether or not someone wanted to bankroll his projects, whether or not he could find a studio that wanted to be in the “Steven Spielberg business.” He may have made other films that were more groundbreaking, more profound, more deep or more daring, but, in my estimation, Raiders is shot-for-shot his very best work.
I choose the term “shot-for-shot” very deliberately. Whenever I watch Raiders, I’m freshly struck by the impression that there’s not a single ill-chosen shot, no awkward edits, no failings in the pace or tone. Anyone teaching a “Film 101” class could (and probably should) dip into the filmography of Spielberg to find sequences that perfectly illustrate how to use the central techniques of cinematic storytelling. Whether by careful study or merely an especially productive osmosis, Spielberg knows how to build his films. He doesn’t call on specific filmmakers and sequences the way that, say, Martin Scorsese does, but his every move, in his best films anyway, is informed by the time he spent engrossed by the handiwork of masters like John Ford, Howard Hawks and Alfred Hitchcock. He builds his movies the way a skilled carpenter builds a house, a level of craftsmanship that has inspired some of the director’s naysayers, many of who can’t quite come to grips with the fact that he doesn’t imbue his work with the appropriate levels of angst. Many of Spielberg’s contemporaries fill the cracks in their films’ foundations with distracting gloom; Spielberg’s construction is too tight to need that. Besides, he’s ultimately trying to achieve something different with many of his works, specifically capturing the thrill he once felt when movies transported him away from his own youthful loneliness. Other directors share their pain; at the height of his box office powers, Spielberg shared the dreams that chased his pain away.
Beyond Spielberg’s evident and perfectly employed talent, it’s worth noting that Harrison Ford is a mighty contributor to the success of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Importantly, given the nearly impossible feats his character pulls off in scene after scene, Ford emphasizes the weary humanity of Indiana Jones. He’s not some braying action hero waiting for the moment he can bray a triumphant one-liner as an adversary falls. Quite the contrary, he’s a guy who often looks like he’s exhausted by the excitement he faces, like he’d much rather be lecturing students, lovelorn and otherwise, back in his classroom. The key scene was a famous on-set accident, brought about by Ford’s illness-motivated need to skip out on the filming of a major fight sequence: Indy’s dispatch of a sword-wielding menace in a dusty square with a simple, almost distracted tug on his pistol’s trigger. There’s also the way he slumps off an airplane’s wing when a hulking goon is ready for a fistfight. With perfect body language, Ford conveys that he’s resigned to the moment rather than driven by noble heroism to engage this brute. In further installment of the Indiana Jones saga, the good doctor became more and more superhuman (even Spielberg now mocks the nuked fridge moment of the misbegotten Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull). In Raiders, he’s as human as can be, and that alone makes the action more exciting.
Maybe it’s easy to dismiss Raiders of the Lost Ark as lighter entry in Spielberg’s career, lacking the heft of his later examinations of the terrible way humanity turns on itself. The Nazis here are paste-in villains rather than terrible figures from history, something the director admitted to regretting somewhat after he made Schindler’s List. The view this as pure entertainment, though, is to ignore the transformational authority of cinema that’s able to transport rather than necessarily challenge or educate. Message movies have their place, but when you get right down to it, who wouldn’t rather watch Bringing Up Baby than Gandhi? I respect and admire the more mature works Spielberg has made, but there was something truly special about his ability to channel his youthful clamor for the moments when a movie made your mouth drop open with pure joy and amazement.