June 19th 2021

Raiders of the Lost Ark: 40 Years On

"Again, we see there is nothing you can possess which I cannot take away."

The cinema was a rare and expensive treat in my youth, so I first came across Raiders of the Lost Ark by recording it from television onto a poor quality VHS. I only mention this as it meant I watched a slightly different film to the one intended, as my copy somehow missed off the first 10 minutes. For those not as intimately familiar with the film as me, this is just in time to see a Belloq demand Dr. Jones hand over the Peruvian head (see above), just in time to learn that Indy loathes snakes, and just in time to see the inadvertent reproduction of two Europeans squabbling over the spoils of a foreign land.

What this truncation did to my interpretation of the film (released thirty years ago today on June 19th 1981) is interesting to explore. Without Jones' physical and moral traits being demonstrated on-screen (as well as missing the weighing the gold head and the rollercoaster boulder scene), it actually made the idea of 'Indiana Jones' even more of a mythical archetype. The film wisely withholds Jones' backstory, but my directors cut deprived him of even more, and counterintuitively imbued him with even more of a legendary hue as the elision made his qualities an assumption beyond question. Indiana Jones, if you can excuse the cliché, needed no introduction at all.

Good artists copy, great artists steal. And oh boy, does Raiders steal. I've watched this film about twenty times over the past two decades and it's now firmly entered into my personal canon. But watching it on its thirtieth anniversary was different not least because I could situate it in a broader cinematic context. For example, I now see the Gestapo officer in Major Strasser from Casablanca (1942), in fact just as I can with many of Raiders' other orientalist tendencies: not only in its breezy depictions of backwards sand people, but also of North Africa as an entrepôt and playground for a certain kind of Western gangster. The opening as well, set in an equally reductionist pseudo-Peru, now feels like Werner Herzog's Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972) — but without, of course, any self-conscious colonial critique.

The imagery of the ark appears to be borrowed from James Tissot's The Ark Passes Over the Jordan, part of the fin de siecle fascination with the occult and (ironically enough given the background of Raiders' director), a French Catholic revival.

I can now also appreciate some of the finer edges that make this film just so much damn fun to watch. For instance, the comic book conceit that Jones and Belloq are a 'shadowy reflection' of one other and that they need 'only a nudge' to make one like the other. As is the idea that Belloq seems to be actually enjoying being evil. I also spotted Jones rejecting the martini on the plane. This feels less like a comment on corrupting effect of alcohol (he drinks rather heavily elsewhere in the film), but rather a subtle distancing from James Bond. This feels especially important given that the action-packed cold open is, let us be honest for a second, ripped straight from the 007 franchise.

John William's soundtracks are always worth mentioning. The corny Raiders March does almost nothing for me, but the highly-underrated 'Ark theme' certainly does. I delight in its allusions to Gregorian chant, the diabolus in musica and the Hungarian minor scale, fusing the Christian doctrine of the Holy Trinity (the stacked thirds, get it?), the ars antiqua of the Middle Ages with an 'exotic' twist that the Russian Five associated with central European Judaism.

The best use of the ark leitmotif is, of course, when it is opened. Here, Indy and Marion are saved by not opening their eyes whilst the 'High Priest' Belloq and the rest of the Nazis are all melted away. I'm no Biblical scholar, but I'm almost certain they were alluding to Leviticus 16:2 here:

The Lord said to Moses: “Tell your brother Aaron that he is not to come whenever he chooses into the Most Holy Place behind the curtain in front of the atonement cover on the ark, or else he will die, for I will appear in the cloud above the mercy seat.”

But would it be too much of a stretch to also see the myth of Orpheus and Eurydices too? Orpheus's wife would only be saved from the underworld if he did not turn around until he came to his own house. But he turned round to look at his wife, and she instantly slipped back into the depths:

For he who overcome should turn back his gaze
Towards the Tartarean cave,
Whatever excellence he takes with him
He loses when he looks on those below.

Perhaps not, given that Marion and the ark are not lost in quite the same way. But whilst touching on gender, it was interesting to update my view of archaeologist René Belloq. To countermand his slight queer coding (a trope of Disney villains such as Scar, Jafar, Cruella, etc.), there is a rather clumsy subplot involving Belloq repeatedly (and half-heartedly) failing to seduce Marion. This disavows any idea that Belloq isn't firmly heterosexual, essential for the film's mainstream audience, but it is especially important in Raiders because, if we recall the relationship between Belloq and Jones: 'it would take only a nudge to make you like me'. (This would definitely put a new slant on 'Top men'.)

However, my favourite moment is where the Nazis place the ark in a crate in order to transport it to the deserted island. On route, the swastikas on the side of the crate spontaneously burn away, and a disturbing noise is heard in the background. This short scene has always fascinated me, partly because it's the first time in the film that the power of the ark is demonstrated first-hand but also because gives the object an other-worldly nature that, to the best of my knowledge, has no parallel in the rest of cinema.

Still, I had always assumed that the Aak disfigured the swastikas because of their association with the Nazis, interpreting the act as God's condemnation of the Third Reich. But now I catch myself wondering whether the ark would have disfigured any iconography as a matter of principle or whether their treatment was specific to the swastika. We later get a partial answer to this question, as the 'US Army' inscriptions in the Citizen Kane warehouse remain untouched.

Far from being an insignificant concern, the filmmakers appear to have wandered into a highly-contested theological debate. As in, if the burning of the swastika is God's moral judgement of the Nazi regime, then God is clearly both willing and able to intervene in human affairs. So why did he not, to put it mildly, prevent Auschwitz? From this perspective, Spielberg appears to be limbering up for some of the academic critiques surrounding Holocaust representations that will follow Schindler's List (1993).

Given my nostalgic and somewhat ironic attachment to Raiders, it will always be difficult for me to objectively appraise the film. Even so, it feels like it is underpinned by an earnest attempt to entertain the viewer, largely absent in the affected cynicism of contemporary cinema. And when considered in the totality of Hollywood's output, its tonal and technical flaws are not actually that bad — or at least Marion's muddled characterisation and its breezy chauvinism (for example) clearly have far worse examples.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the film in 2021 is that it hasn't changed that much at all. It spawned one good sequel (The Last Crusade), one bad one (The Temple of Doom), and one hardly worth mentioning at all, yet these adventures haven't affected the original Raiders in any meaningful way. In fact, if anything has affected the original text it is, once again, George Lucas himself, as knowing the impending backlash around the Star Wars prequels adds an inadvertent paratext to all his earlier works.

Yet in a 1978 discussion prior to the creation of Raiders, you can get a keen sense of how Lucas' childlike enthusiasm will always result in something either extremely good or something extremely bad — somehow no middle ground is quite possible. Yes, it's easy to rubbish his initial ideas — 'We'll call him Indiana Smith! — but hasn't Lucas actually captured the essence of a heroic 'Americana' here, and that the final result is simply a difference of degree, not kind?

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