On the occasion of the 30th anniversary of Raiders of the Lost Ark, first released on June 12th, 1981, an excerpt from my book Blockbuster How Hollywood Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Summer :—
Indiana Jones is not a very good archaeologist. His sprinting has pace, his whip-handling real snap, and his classes in archaeology are unusually well-attended, but as a practitioner, Dr. Jones is, one regrets to say, singularly unproductive. In the opening sequence of Raiders of the Lost Ark we see him recover a Peruvian statuette from a booby-trapped cave, only to deliver it to the feet of his rival Belloq (Paul Freeman). Never one to miss a beat, Indy fixes his sights instead on the ark of the Covenant, only to lose that, too, to Belloq, who crows, “Once again, what once was yours is now mine.” He recovers it one more time, only to lose it, finally, to the American government, who stash it at the film’s end in a cavernous, Kane-style vault. A quick glance forward to the other films in the series confirms that his luck does not improve much. Of the three Ankara stones which he spends so much of Indiana Jones and the Temple Of Doom trying to retrieve, two he loses into a ravine and the third he gives away to a crowd of deserving villagers. The same with the Holy Grail in the third movie, which according to Jones “belongs in a museum” although what he obviously meant to say is that it belongs at the bottom of a deep lava-spitting crevasse. The trilogy records a massive strike out. Indiana Jones’s contributions to the the sum total of archaeological findings is precisely, zero. One hopes that Marcus Brody’s museum has a large and profitable gift shop. “He's not very good at what he does," says Spielberg. " Everything that hapopens with Indian Jones becomes soemthign he learns that will sreve him in his next adventure but he brings back no spoils. He saves the girl, he saves himself, but he doesnt bring enough back to Marcus Brody to really earn him tenure. It's something that George and I joked about a lot.”
A fault in an archaeologist is, however, a major plus in the hero of a blockbuster film franchise, for it is precisely Indy’s failure to acquire any baggage that allows each film to reset its bean counter and begin again: the women are different every time; all he takes with him are his hat and his whip, snatched from the under closing doors, in the nick of time. Everything else returns to zero, cancels out, comes full circle. In this, he is very much a George Lucas creation, for there is no thriftier imagination in modern movies; just as Star Wars had shaped up as a sort of intergalactic rag-and-bone-shop of floating junk, endlessly recycled and reused, so too with the Rube Goldbergish world of Raiders, a world abhorrent of waste, in which economy and equilibrium rule, in which the junk is just that little bit older, and even old testament caskets double up as a handy “telephone to God.” If you were 12 years-old — or thereabouts — when Raiders came out, you probably left the theatre, floating lightly about a foot above the sidewalk, thinking: right, that’s it. Everyone can go home now. Someone has finally cracked it. They’ve broken the sound barrier, worked out what the formula is. E equals MC2. The secret is out. Soon, a brave new world of movie excitement will be upon us, and your next thought was to feel a little sorry for Spielberg and Lucas, who would surely, you felt, be left behind, as one unbeatably exciting action-adventure gave way to the next — a little like Chuck Yeager in The Right Stuff, breaking the sound barrier all on his own, scoring his own quiet victory, while the astronauts jet off into space. Well. The era of non-stop action adventures did arrive, but not in the form we imagined. It was certainly non-stop, but the pace of Raiders would easily turn punishing, in film after film, while the “action comedy” would turn into Hollywood great graveyard genre, swallowing such blushing debutantes as Ishtar, Hudson Hawk, and Last Action Hero, in which the action and the comedy, far from engaging in sylph-like dance, sat in opposite corners of the theatre, sulking. The fusion turned out to be harder to achieve than we thought. E did equal MC2, but nobody else understood why.
It helped matters that the competition in 1981 was creaky as a zimmer-frame, of course. The other action-adventurers that year were for the most part a procession of over-the-hill eyebrows: Burt Reynolds’, frowning over the conundrum of his own sexiness in The Cannonball Run; Sean Connery’s, furrowed with the task of figuring out the differences between Outland and Alien; and Roger Moore’s, arched with amusement at the thought of his 12th outing as Bond in For Your Eyes Only. Here was one offer made by Jaws and Star Wars that Hollywood was happy enough to refuse: their disavowal of stars, and the same goes for Raiders, for while it made Ford a star, it wouldn’t have worked had he been one already: Indy needed to arrive under his own steam. Despite two outings as Han Solo, Ford had followed through with roles in such uber-dreck as Hanover Street and Force Ten From Navarone, and in 1980 was working as a carpenter to make ends meet, which fed perfectly into Indy’s weary fatigue, his air of a man who while perfectly happy to leap across ravines would be altogether happier at home putting up bookshelves. Raiders had its debt to Bond, of course, not least in its pre-credit sequence, bowling Indy along in front of that giant boulder before you’d even had a chance to take you seat, like someone greeting you with a tap of their watch, but Ford’s ability to turn a stumble into a run, and to grope for rope with a blind man’s fingers — all his gifts for conveying physical extremity — work to keep Indy subtly off-balance throughout. Bond was this stirred but never this shaken.
Nor did you get from the Bond movies anything like the careful daisy-chaining with which Spielberg links up his action: the truly exhilarating thing about Indy escaping that boulder is that he escapes it only to land right at the feet of Belloq — the solution to one conundrum proving the set-up for the next, the film batting Indy from one danger to the next with the lightness of a badminton ball. It was these powers of concision — all the stuff that had been chopped out from beneath Indy’s feet — as much as the speed, that left you breathless, giving the film its distinctive weightlessness, and pushing its tone outwards towards giddy comedy. “I’m making this up as I go along,” says Ford, not itself an unscripted line, but it rings true to the picture’s feel of goosy, light-fingered opportunism: when Nazis plug a casket of liquor in Marion’s bar, she stops briefly to grab a mouthful before getting on with the fight. Lucas would never have shot that, or if he did he would have cut it, but for Spielberg, such touches are, you feel, almost the reason for shooting the film. While speed excites Lucas — because it seals him off from what blurs past — it seems almost to relax Spielberg, loosening him up for his most debonair dabs of characterisation and his best gags: it is Raiders, rather than 1941, that is Spielberg’s true homage to the art of slapstick, to the finely-callibrated chaos of Mack Sennett and Buster Keaton, and most of it plays perfectly well with its sound down. The moment when Indy shoots the swordsman is funny precisely because Indy says nothing, turns on his heel and gets on with the chase. Bond wouldn’t have been able to resist a wisecrack — a bit of comic relief, to lighten up the action — but Spielberg works on the assumption that action is already inherently comic, and in no need of relief: when Indy spins like a top when punched, or uses an Nazi’s gun, still in the dead man’s hand, to shoot down another as he advances, the choreography of thrills and laughs is so tight, it is difficult to tell when the action stops and the gag starts, exactly — a twinned-tone caught perfectly in Ford’s lopsided grin, which could go either way, up or down, depending on the proximity of the nearest ravine.
“Theres a lot of slapstick in Raiders," says Spielberg. "which is why one of the great lines in Last Crusade is Sean Connery turning to Indy, talking about the grail diaries saying, ‘I should have mailed it to the Marx brothers’. I have a lot more courage with comedy when Im selling action, adventure and drama than when I'm selling a comedy. I've never made a movie that was intended to be funny. E.T. has a lot of funny things in it but the premise of E.T. is about divorce. As long as I know I’m not making a comedy I can be brave about my humour.”
Here’s one thing that Raiders didn’t do: it didn’t ‘open’ big, taking just $8,305,823 on its opening weekend, June 12th. Spielberg remembers the look of disappointment on the face of Paramount’s head of distribution, although today it would have resulted in someone losing their job, not just their composure. Nobody at Paramount knew how to sell the film. “Steven had an idea for the teaser trailer,” says Sid Ganis, then Paramount’s head of marketing. ‘Somewhere in the deepest desert there was an artefact, nobody knew its power, nobody understood its value...’ then you saw sand blowing in desert and the ark opening up to reveal the title of the movie. George said, ‘no, no, no, no, no, no no’.” So they shot another trailer, this emphasizing that it was a throwback to another kind of movie, a cliffhanger; and this time it was Barry Diller that put his foot down. So: the marketing was a mess, and while the film would eventually take $209 million, more than any film in Paramount’s history until that point, it did so under its own steam and in its own time, chugging around at the one-and-a-half-million-a-week mark for the best part of the next year, so that by March of 1982 it was still taking $1,362,289. In other words, Raiders arrived with little fanfare, punched above its weight, fought for its fingerhold, and then held on for dear life. Sounds like Indy.