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The crystallised spectacle of Indiana Jones: 40 years of 'Raiders of the Lost Ark'

Raiders of the Lost Ark

One of the most iconic Hollywood creations of all time, the quasi-mythological figure of Indiana Jones has inspired multiple generations of children and adults to explore the world’s mysteries. With the fifth film of the franchise scheduled to come out next year, we revisit the glorious origin of the series — Steven Spielberg’s unforgettable action-adventure romp involving Nazis, pirates, historical horrors and monkey espionage.

Undoubtedly the finest instalment of the Indiana Jones saga, it was George Lucas who first came up with the idea of Raiders of the Lost Ark back in the early ’70s and improved it with the help of Philip Kaufman. Lucas wanted to make a B-movie with a hyper-cool archaeologist named after his dog (initially calling it The Adventures of Indiana Smith), but he paused that project to focus on a space opera that would be known as Star Wars. A few years later, Lucas urged Spielberg to make the film after Kaufman pulled out.

Indiana Jones was designed as an amalgamation of James Bond, Clint Eastwood and Toshiro Mifune. While Spielberg wanted to turn Jones into an anti-hero, Lucas envisioned the dashing archaeologist as a more prototypical protagonist with a moral compass. In an interview, Spielberg elaborated on the specifics of the iconic character: “Indiana Jones was never a machine. I think one of the things we brought to the genre—and we didn’t coin the genre; it’s been around a lot longer than we’ve been around.”

Adding, “One of the things that George [Lucas] and I and, originally, Larry Kasdan, the writer of Raiders of the Lost Ark, brought to the genre, was the willingness to allow our leading man to get hurt and to express his pain and to get his mad out and to take pratfalls and sometimes be the butt of his own jokes. I mean, Indiana Jones is not a perfect hero, and his imperfections, I think, make the audience feel that, with a little more exercise and a little more courage, they could be just like him. So he’s not the Terminator. He’s not so far away from the people who go to see the movies that he’s inaccessible to their own dreams and aspirations. He’s not even Bond. Bond’s not a superhero, but he’s more impenetrable.”

Set in 1936 and contextualised by the rising paranoia of the second World War, Raiders of the Lost Ark stars Harrison Ford as the part-time professor/full-time badass who jumps headfirst into the most dangerous places on the planet. We follow him around the world as he embarks on an epic search for the elusive Ark of the Covenant, hunted down by Nazis and terrorised by armies of snakes. Interestingly enough, it is evident that Spielberg and Lucas agreed to a compromise since we see a deconstruction of the concept of heroism itself. As Spielberg admitted, Indiana Jones is so appealing to audiences because a major part of his undying charm is his uncanny ability to always get away by the skin of his teeth.

More than anything else, Raiders of the Lost Ark is Spielberg’s homage to his heroes – Akira Kurosawa, John Sturges, David Lean and John Ford, among several others. We can see elements of their visual styles embedded in the very framework of Douglas Slocombe’s cinematography. Some action sequences even pay tribute to the choreography of silent films, most notably the chase sequence through the markets of Cairo featuring the film’s alcoholic femme fatale (played by Karen Allen). When watching Raiders of the Lost Ark, it is impossible to ignore the undeniable fact that this project is done by a man who loves cinema.

Although it is largely seen as one of the greatest action films of all time, Spielberg also indulges in the occasional commentary on more complex issues such as colonialism. For example, it is not a coincidence that Indiana Jones is seen whipping indigenous people while the Nazis force others into submission to mobilise them against Jones. The perfect example of this can be observed in the famous scene where Jones confronts a skilled Egyptian swordsman and nonchalantly shoots him with his gun. In just a few seconds, Spielberg manages to display how modernity was weaponised by the colonisers to dominate the colonised subject.

Raiders of the Lost Ark remains crystallised in time because of what Indiana Jones represents. He is a fictional symbol, reassuring the audiences that it is possible to endure the monotony of the mundane by escaping into the exotic world of ancient history. It efficiently romanticises the usually boring world of archaeology, perpetrating the fantasy that it’s all just labyrinths of cleverly designed booby traps that are littered with invaluable ancient treasures. However, it all works so well because that fantasy is irresistible.