Essentials #12: RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK (1981)

Brilliantly well-crafted and tremendously fun, Indiana Jones’s glorious entry into the cinematic universe set the bar for the “blockbuster film.” Also, incredible blocking by a master.

Steven Spielberg’s RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK is one of those movies you can see anytime, anywhere. You don’t have to get in a certain mood to watch it like other movies. If it’s playing on TV, a bus, a bar, or a theatre, it doesn’t matter. You can enjoy it. It’s the perfect blockbuster movie because there’s a little bit of everything for everyone: adventure, comedy, intrigue, romance, and action. Lots of it. I rewatched the trilogy recently and every time the credits rolled, I was grinning from ear to ear. To paraphrase that reviewer cliche: I was on the edge of my seat!

That’s the Spielberg touch.

I can’t think of many directors who craft their films like an amusement park ride in a way that you don’t want it to ever end. It’s not surprising there’s actually an Indiana Jones ride at Disneyland. Like it’s rollercoaster counterpart, what makes this movie magical isn’t the delivery. No.

Indiana Jones is all about the set-up.

We eagerly follow the adventure because Spielberg & Lucas place importance on making the characters appealing, the places they go to exotic, and the situations they get themselves into awesomely absurd. While the story and plot is arguably the most important component on a film, in a movie like this, you don’t reality question its reality. For example:

  • Yes. I know the Nazis weren’t actually destroyed by the Ark of the Covenant
  • Yes. I know that archeologists rarely leave the office, let alone travel in undercover missions. Alone.
  • And yes. Indiana Jones should have died at least 50 times throughout the series, if not the first 10 minutes of RAIDERS.
Image for post
Image for post

In the world of realism, these criticisms are valid. But this is a movie movie! Spielberg’s gift is that he’s able to lure the audiences’ inner child and let them enjoy that part of themselves for a couple of hours.

As a viewer, it feels so good to escape into this fantasy.

When I was a kid, I used to reenact the famous rolling ball scene (partly inspired by the other brilliant Simpsons parody). I remember using my belt (in place of the whip), a toy pistol, and a Indy hat I bought from Disneyland. And between you and I, there are moments as a now-25 year old watching, where I wish it was socially acceptable to take those things out from the garage and play along with this film. Why is this movie so damn good?

I strongly believe it’s the ‘blocking,’ or staging of scenes which makes it so alluring to watch. The great director Steven Soderbergh wrote an interesting piece on the staging of RAIDERS and I think he has a point. Soderbergh states:

It’s true. Spielberg’s blocking of actors and camera in this film is nothing short of immaculate. Every filmmaker should study it. Dude was only 34, 35 at the time and had more skills than most filmmakers have in a lifetime. The way he orchestrates the shots, edits, line readings, and music all together is ingenious. Best of all, most people won’t even notice it (in fact, that’s probably why it’s so good).

Image for post
Image for post

But first, you might ask: what’s blocking?

Wiki definition: Blocking is the precise movement and staging of actors on a stage in order to facilitate the performance of a play, ballet, film or opera. So for example:

  1. Think of where the actors are standing in the shot.
  2. Now think of where they are standing in relation to the other actors the shot as well as important objects in a scene.
  3. Now add a camera to the mix.
  4. Now think of all of this space demonstrated (via #1, #2) in relation to the camera lens.
  5. Add some camera movement, 100s of extras, and the scene becomes a visual ballet of cast and crew all trying to make their marks for the camera. Just watch this scene.
Image for post
Image for post
Everyone in this shot is carefully posed and framed and when the camera moves, THEY move with it. We don’t see that many visual touches anymore.

If you want to make movies, try it. It’s extremely difficult to get right. You must have an understanding of what makes an audience react on a visual and auditorial sense first. Then deconstruct that idea and turn it into a shot list for your entire cast and crew to recreate.

Blocking not only forces you to understand the space shown on-screen, but it also forces the audience to imagine the space that we don’t see. Hypothetically, the audience should follow the action and movement much easier if the cinematography, editing, and actors are all in-sync with one another.

When you see the film, I want you to get into the mentality of a director and how he or she might approach shooting a scene: Is the shot wide? Close? What angle? What vantage point? Where are the actors standing in relation to the camera and each other? When are the cuts happening? How fast or slow are the cuts? What portions of the actors’ performance should the audience see at what given time?

The answers to these questions always have to be correct or the scene won’t have the same impact. All of this is running through a [good] director’s head and when you really think about, it’s ridiculously fucking hard to imagine how Spielberg envisioned these sequences this in the first place.

Spielberg did this in 1981 without any of the pre-visualization technology we have now. This means he must have directed much of the picture in his head first.

That’s FUCKING impressive.

And there are so many well-directed sequences throughout the series that deserve tons of rewatch and study. RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK is a seminal work from a master filmmaker who is consistently able to merge art and commerce into one, damn good piece of filmmaking. I recommend the trilogy to anyone wanting to have a fun time at the movies and appreciate the craft. It is summer after all.

OTHER HIGHLIGHTS:

  • The John Williams score. I get chills every time the theme plays. Fucking amazing.
  • Nazis and the Occult. I’m in.
  • Harrison Ford and Karen Allen have such great chemistry for the leads. I wish they would have kept Marion Ravenwood for the 2nd and 3rd films. She’s the reason why this movie is the best of them all.
  • I love the way the minor character actors look. All the way from the Peruvians to Nazis and middle-eastern extras. Great casting!
  • Major props to the prop and set design; they did an impeccable job.
  • While some of the matte paintings are a bit outdated, the special effects are nonetheless, incredible. Mhmm…melting Nazis.
  • That truck chase scene should be mandatory study for action directors.
  • Harrison Ford is the perfect actor for this role. I know they’re planning to remake this film but there’s just no other comparisons. So stop.
  • In interviews, Spielberg is quoted as saying he wanted to make an “American James Bond.” Indiana Jones is our James Bond. He’s what every man wants to be: suave, witty, intelligent, brave, athletic, and a lothario. Can’t argue with that.

This is part of an ongoing series where I will be doing movie reviews from my original ESSENTIALS Film List.

Written by

Filmmaker | Photographer | MatthewOquendo.com

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store