In the first of a three-part series, VHS Revival talks war, mythology, and the origins of one of cinema’s most iconic characters.
Some things go perfectly together…cheese and wine, salt and vinegar, Tango and Cash, and for me, Steven Spielberg’s game changing blockbuster Raiders of the Lost Ark will forever be synonymous with Bank Holidays.
Back in the 1980s, the world’s most recognised adventure movie was always shown on TV during Christmas, Easter, or one of the other public holidays. In fact, I am still unable to hear the iconic Indiana Jones theme without a burning desire to open a tin of Quality Street and guzzle a large glass of Dandelion and Burdock.
‘Raiders’ originated from a desire to bring back those old serials that used to play out before films in the cinema back in the 40s, invariably featuring an adventurer or superhero engaging in exciting flights of derring-do, and usually climaxing in a cliff hanger whose goal was to leave you wanting more. George Lucas wrote a treatment in the early 70s for a film version which would serve as a feature length ‘stitching together’ of a series of dramatic set pieces segued into a coherent plot. It was titled The Adventures of Indiana Smith, so we can be thankful that the passage of time, the small matter of a story that took place a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, and a casual chat with pal Steven Spielberg resulted in a name change and one of the greatest movies of all time.
Essentially, the script evolved from a series of brainstorming sessions, with sequences and set pieces originating from a collection of ideas such as a boulder rolling down a tunnel, a monkey giving a Hitler salute, Indy getting punched by a former lover, and a fight outside a plane that was leaking burning fuel. The central concept, involving the race to find the Ark of the Covenant, was already in place, so screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan set about weaving these set pieces into and around that concept. The end result was precisely what Lucas had envisioned all those years ago with a number of incredible action sequences – the discovery of the idol, Nepalese bar fight, chase through Cairo, discovery of the Ark, snake pit escape, plane fight, army truck chase, submarine getaway and the opening of the ark – all breathlessly pieced together with an overarching plot, a little exposition, and a touch of characterisation. A real boy’s own adventure.
The character of Jones had originally been conceived as James Bond without the gadgets, but I see him more as a superhero without the powers. He has his costume, complete with trademark fedora and whip, within which he is able to deal with any situation and rescue those around him. Take him out of his costume at the start of the film and he becomes flustered, distracted and unable to deal with the minor problem of a flirtatious student whilst later, when Marion whips his hat off, he is floored by a mirror and falls asleep! Not so much the hero, more a normal human being struggling through everyday problems.
What I’ve always found interesting about this film is that it takes two relatively dry subjects, archaeology and religion, and draws out the exciting element – namely mystery – the peculiarities of strange cultures, and the links to the supernatural. You don’t need to be religious to buy into the mythology, but it uses biblical stories from ‘Sunday School’ to fuel the action by speaking of the Ark as a thing of unspeakable power, adding that an army that carries the Ark carries the power of God. Nothing even remotely supernatural happens until the film’s climax, but the undertones are there throughout, and are amplified by John Williams’ epic score.
The Ark represents unspeakable power falling into the wrong hands, and reflects the mood of the time towards nuclear war and the fear of the bomb. The spectre of Hiroshima and Pearl Harbour hangs over the film as subtext, as, while in the possession of the Nazis, the Ark becomes a dangerous weapon which when opened destroys everything before it except for those who understand its true nature, producing no less than a mushroom cloud. With God’s guidance, these destructive qualities can be controlled, but such a power cannot be trusted, hence a final scene in which the Ark is boxed and locked up with the promise of further research. Humanity was clearly not ready to handle that kind of responsibility.
Which brings us onto the casting of the Nazis as the villainous driving force. Steven Spielberg has said he was born to tell the story of the Holocaust and would later do so with the masterful Schindler’s List. He also said that if he had been born in another time, he may have suffered a similar fate to those affected by the Holocaust. By casting the Nazis as the villains and fating them with such gruesome deaths, was he perhaps exorcising some personal demons, attempting to right wrongs by having them destroyed by God’s power? Or was it that, in a film mainly conceived as a joining together of action scenes, it was quicker and easier to have already established villains as centre stage? The fact is, it works either way, and the manner in which Dietrich and Toht are dispatched of is a highly satisfying payoff.
At this point it is worth discussing the level of violence on display, which is incredibly high for a family film. Rated as PG in the UK, it did land itself in a little trouble with the Motion Picture Association of America, who were happy to pass the film on condition that Belloq’s gory, exploding-head climax was toned down somewhat. Spielberg got around this by adding more flame effects, which actually works to its advantage. Of course, this is no isolated display of violence. There are plenty of deaths, some of them very graphic, and when you tot up the bloody kills – Molina’s character is discovered with arrows piercing his neck and head; two characters are shot in the head in the Nepal bar fight; the pugilistic Nazi is gorily dispatched by a plane propeller, and both Toht and Dietrich’s heads melt horribly – you wonder why so many parents are willing to overlook the violence in regards to their children.
I believe there are numerous reasons for this universal acceptance. First of all, the gruesome scenes in question are not dwelt upon, are in many ways peripheral. Secondly, the victims are all villains with something of a cartoon element. And third, there is something very playful about the violence, something akin to those figures you see jumping out in front of a Ghost Train. This is something of a rites-of-passage movie for those youngsters, a first taste of the kind of mild horror that Spielberg explored more explicitly in Jaws, and later again in Jurassic Park. Following the release of Jaws, many kids were left afraid of going in the sea, but people only have exhilarating memories of ‘Raiders’, and that, for me, is the difference.
Indiana Jones is an iconic character, and thanks to the success of his first outing we would see him in two more epic adventures during the VHS era – if I call it the VHS era I can legitimately discount the terrible ‘Crystal Skull’…what the hell were you thinking guys? In the second part of The Evolution of Indiana Jones I will delve deeper into the Indy saga by exploring the second movie in the trilogy, a film that in actual fact turned out to be a prequel, and in another sense may fall into the ‘origins’ category.
So with The Temple of Doom on the horizon, I will conclude in typical 80s fashion…to be continued!!!