Raiders of the Lost Ark | Review by Pauline Kael

The whole collapsing industry is being inspired by old Saturday afternoon serials, and the three biggest American moviemakers are hooked on technological playthings and techniques.
Harrison Ford in Raiders of the Lost Ark

Pauline Kael was critical of Raiders of the Lost Ark, saying Lucas and Spielberg had thought like marketers in creating a film that would appeal to the broadest masses. Kael said though Raiders was a sophisticated update of older serials, avoiding cliches with clever editing, it was too focused on surpassing each previous action spectacle to the detriment of characterization or plot progression. She opined the failure of 1941 had made Spielberg too cautious, and scenes evidenced he was rushing and not achieving the best possible take as in his previous work. Lucas later named a villain in his 1988 fantasy film Willow after Kael.


by Pauline Kael

The marketing executives are the new high priests of the movie business. It’s natural. They’re handling important sums of money. And they dispense the money dramatically, in big campaigns that flood out over the country. It’s not unusual for more to be spent on marketing a picture than on making it, and this could become commonplace. (Everybody takes it for granted that more is spent selling soap than manufacturing it.) Right now, the easier a project looks to market, the easier it is to finance. And the scope of what these priests think they can sell becomes narrower all the time. Except for the occasional prestige picture that offers middle class group therapy (Ordinary People, The Four Seasons), it’s all fantasy. There isn’t a human being on the screen. Having lost the habitual moviegoers, the studio heads have no confidence that if they approve projects they like, an audience will be attracted; they’re trapped by empirical evidence to the contrary’. And so they listen to the marketing men, with their priestly jargon—”normatives,” “skewed,” “bimodal audience.” The mysterious phrases are soothing to the worried studio heads. And when the new geniuses are given what they want—comic strip pulp or slobby horror—they swing into action heroically. Daggers menace us in TV commercials, magazines, and newspapers, and sometimes the slob movies do become hits. But if you boil out the feathers what it comes down to is: When there’s a flop, the marketing men cluck their tongues and say. “Well, boys, the picture just didn’t have it.” When there’s a hit, the marketing men pound their chests like King Kong and say, “Boy, did we know how to sell it!”

These marketing divisions are a relatively new development. (In earlier years, there were two much smaller departments—advertising and sales.) Their growing power isn’t in any special effectiveness in selling pictures; it’s in their ability to keep pictures that don’t lend themselves to an eve popping thirty-second commercial from being made or. if they’re made, from being heard of. In the new Hollywood wisdom, anything to do with people’s lives belongs on TV. (As a result, television now makes contact with us in ways that movies no longer do.)

Like poor relations, the print media are the residual legatees of the huge marketing campaigns for pictures. The thinking is that anything associated with a big new hit will become a hot ticket. So magazine editors, ever eager to increase their newsstand sales, prepare their cover stories. Alan Alda, publicizing The Four Seasons, is the perfect cover boy for the women’s magazines; if his film makes money, the writers and editors will feel they guessed right. I can’t think of a single occasion when a small movie that really needed help got a slick-magazine cover, no matter how much the in-house critic liked it. The magazines try to ride on a hit picture’s tail wind.

This month, God knows how many publications are featuring Raiders of the Lost Ark, a collaboration between George Lucas and Steven Spielberg— both still very young (Lucas is thirty-seven, Spielberg only thirty-three), and each responsible for some of the very top box office successes in the history of movies. If anybody has a chance to turn movies around, it would seem to be these two (or Coppola). But Raiders is a machine-tooled adventure in the pulp esoterica spirit of Edgar Rice Burroughs; it appears that Lucas and Spielberg think just like the marketing division. According to modern movie legend, Lucas, who had watched the serials of the thirties and forties on television in the fifties, has long cherished the idea of a hocus pocus series “following the exploits of an adventurer/archeologist, Indiana Jones,” but he got more interested in his other idea—Star Wars—and put Raiders aside, for later. Over the years, he worked up the story idea with Philip Kaufman—the first picture was to be set in 1936, in order to take advantage of Hitler’s well-known interest in the occult—and in 1977 he offered it to Spielberg to direct. Spielberg, who was then finishing Close Encounters and was committed to making 1941, agreed to do it after that, and Lawrence Kasdan, who had done the rewrite on The Empire Strikes Back, prepared the screenplay.

A Lucasfilm, financed by Paramount, Raiders is an old fashioned cliff-hanger produced with incredible sophistication of means. The images have an unreal clarity: the camera show’s us more than we could possibly take in if we were there on the spot. And the hero—Indy Jones (Harrison Ford), the daredevil archeologist, whose weapon is a bullwhip—makes the kind of bright eyed entrance that’s so intensely dramatic it’s funny. Spielberg—a master showman—can stage a movie cliché so that it has Fred Astaire’s choreographic snap to it. He transcends the clichés by sensational, whiplash editing. But Spielberg’s technique may be too much for the genre, the opening sequence, set in South America, with Indy Jones entering a forbidden temple and fending off traps, snares, poisoned dans, tarantulas, stone doors with metal teeth, and the biggest damn boulder you’ve ever seen, is so thrill-packed you don’t have time to breathe—or to enjoy yourself much, either. It’s an encyclopedia of high spots from the old serials, run through at top speed and edited like a great trailer—for flash. It’s like a hit number in a musical which is so terrific you don’t want the show to go on—you just want to see that number again. When the action moves to Indy back home lecturing to an archeology class, you know’ that Spielberg, having gone sky high at the start, must have at least seventeen other climaxes to come, and that the movie isn’t going to be an adventure but a competition–Spielberg versus Spielberg. Even if he could keep topping his own showmanship (and he can’t), he’d still be the loser, because the audience is fresher at the start. The central story is the search for the Ark of the Covenant (a chest holding the broken stone tablets of the Ten Commandments). Hitler, we’re told, means to use its invincible powers to lay waste opposing armies and proclaim himself the Messiah. Indy, working for the United States government, races to find the Ark ahead of his arch enemy, the suave, amoral Belloq (Paul Freeman), who is in cahoots with the Nazis. And the picture races along with Indy.

Kinesthetically, the film gets to you. It gets your heart thumping. But there’s no exhilaration in tills dumb, motor excitement. The best of the satirical pulp adventure movies—the 1939 Gunga Din (with a plot lifted from The Front Page)—was carefree: there was fresh air between the thrills and the gags, there was time for digressions and for the pleasure of seeing actors you knew horsing around. The picture made you feel good, as if you were singing along with it. In the past, Spielberg has demonstrated a talent for just that kind of elating silliness, and he has a lot of it going here, especially with Harrison Ford, who docs mammoth double takes, recoiling in disbelief. But Raiders is so professional and so anxious to keep moving that it steps on its own jokes. You can almost feel Lucas and Spielberg whipping the editor to clip things sharper—to move ahead. (I say the two, rather than just Spielberg, because this picture gets dangerously close to cancelling itself out, in a way that recalls more American Graffiti, which Lucas also produced.) The effect of the obsessive pace is that the picture seems locked in. Our eyes never have a second just to linger on a face or on an image of planes coming out of the clouds. The frames fit into each other, dovetailing so tight that sometimes it seems as if the sheer technology had taken over. It’s all smart zap—a moviemaker’s self-reflexive feat.

Yet it isn’t beautifully made—not like Spielberg’s other pictures, anyway. He has always been a conventional director, but he could do conventional material better than just about anybody else around, and he did it with a gleeful spirit. There’s a gag here that shows the true Spielberg touch—slapstick so precise that it seems inspired: Indy flips a date into the air, meaning to catch it in his mouth, like a peanut; in that instant, his Egyptian friend, Sallah (John Rhys Davies), registering that the date is poisoned, grabs it in mid air, leaving Indy with his mouth open. It’s so quick it’s a visual haiku. Yet in the very next shot Spielberg blows what should be the capper: when Sallah shows Indy that a pet who stole a date from the dish lies dead, the timing is slightly off, and Spielberg fails to give the pet its due. It’s an unfeeling shot, when it could have been a beautiful little sick joke. Spielberg rushes; he cuts corners and takes the edge off plot points. I’ve never seen him settle for approximations before or just throw effects at you, hoping that some of them will stick.

The moviemaking team appears to have forgotten the basic thing about cliff hangers: we had a week to mull over how the hero was going to be saved from the trap he’d got himself into—we enjoyed testing our ingenuity against the moviemaker’s. There’s no room for speculation here, and Spielberg even loses track of what we want to see in a scene; he rides right over the dramatic possibilities. Does the film reproduce the plot holes of the serials deliberately, or does it stumble into them? (Why is the Well of Souls, where the Ark is buried, so exposed that it could hardly have escaped discovery before? Why isn’t Indy’s dig at least over the next ridge from Belloq’s, so we can believe that Belloq doesn’t spot it until the crucial moment? Why are we shown scenes that prepare us for Belloq to have a change of heart when he doesn’t? And so on.) John Williams’ pounding score could be the music from any old Tarzan movie, though with a fuller orchestra and at ten times the volume. Like just about everything else in the picture that misses, the klunky music can be said to be intentional to represent fidelity to the genre. Yet, with the manicured wide-screen images and the scale of this production, klunkiness sticks out in a way that it didn’t in the serials, which were usually all of a piece. Parody can be a true form of homage, but these moviemakers aren’t aiming at parody—they’re trying to reinstate a form that they just can’t help parodying. So the script doesn’t seem worked out. There was something else basic about cliff-hangers: our longing to know who the real evil power behind all the crimes was. This mystery has been eliminated, without any other kind of suspense replacing it. (Why not allow Belloq to change sides? His pangs of conscience are rather elegant.)

The actors are mostly just bodies carrying pieces of plot around. They sound as if they were ordered to read their dialogue on the run—all except Paul Freeman, who has the luck to play a character torn in different directions. He manages to make the ambiguous Belloq a little laid back. (At one point, when Freeman begins to speak, a fly walks into his mouth and he goes right on and delivers his lines. What a trouper?) The character of Sallah is defined completely by the word “friend,” and the film continues the process of turning Nazism into comic book mythology—the Nazis are fiendish clowns. The heroine, Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen), who is the daughter of a famous archeologist, and so the possessor of a medallion—the headpiece to the Staff of Ra—that Indy needs in order to find the Ark, is fearless, resourceful, and as perky as all get out. She hops around conking people on the head—she’s playing Sabu in The Thief of Bagdad. At the same time, we’re supposed to take her for a woman with a past: Indy—somehow we know that that’s really for Independence, not Indiana—loved her but left her ten years before, and she’s been running a dive in Nepal. Yet even when she’s wearing a hideous long dress with a bustle, or clinging satin, she struts as if she were chipper little Shirley Temple trying to walk like a soldier. I liked Karen Allen in the strip poker scene in The Wanderers, and her first moment here—sitting with a man who looks like Brendan Behan and drinking him under the table—isn’t bad, either, but the filmmakers seem to have a fix on tomboy gumption. There’s no space for sex. When Marion and Indy finally kiss, the music rises with such a clatter and shriek you think the theatre has been nuked. The people in Raiders reminded me of a friend’s saying that her five-year old niece, who was sitting back watching the Mandrell Sisters on TV, suddenly got up, put her face right up against the screen, squinted, and asked. “Are those puppets?”

Indy tries to keep the Ark from falling into the wrong hands because he’s the intrepid archeologist hero who goes after treasures; to him the Nazis are no different from the half naked tribesmen shooting poisoned darts in South America—it’s all in the day’s adventure. The holy artifact itself is just a Mac-Guffin, and a dull one at that—one more super death machine that could enable Hitler to win the war. And when the Ark must do its mystic tricks it sprouts poltergeists that recall the impish flying saucers of Close Encounters without living up to them. There’s nothing at stake in Raiders—no revelation, and no surge of feeling at the end. (The Ark is disposed of in a sour, open-ended modernist way.) The thrills are fully consumed while you’re seeing this movie, and it’s totally over when it’s over. It’s a workout. You feel as if you’d been to the desert digs: at the end your mind is blank, yet you’re parched, you’re puffing hard—you want relief.

What’s at stake is outside the movie: it’s how the picture will do at box offices worldwide. And maybe the anxiety about grosses is what has emptied the film of emotion. When Marion kisses Sallah a grateful goodbye, you’re surprised by the show of affection: they barely seemed to have met. Despite its daring surface, Raiders is timid moviemaking: the film seems terrified of not giving audiences enough thrills to keep them happy. It’s an amalgam of Lucas’s follies—plot for its own sake, dissociated from character or drama; the affectless heroine, who’s a tougher version of Carrie Fisher’s spunky Princess Leia in Star Wars—and effects that Spielberg the youthful magician has already dazzled us with. I kept wondering if it was the drubbing that the press had given Spielberg on 1941 (where he was trying new things) that made him so cautious. He seems to have accepted the Lucas pulp repulped format as a safety net. It’s not right for him. The movie comes alive in the kinetic comedy: in the lowdown, rowdy slapstick, when the Nazi sadist Toht, played by Ronald Lacey, picks the medallion up out of the fire, drops it from his blistering hand, and runs out screaming; and in the balletic slapstick, when Marion is the prisoner of the Nazis and Toht arrives and takes out a metal apparatus that Marion—and we—think is an instrument of torture but turns out to be a coat hanger. But Spielberg fumbles a lot of his action sequences, such as the ones on a tramp steamer and a U-boat, and even the early chase, in which Marion disappears. And some of the episodes are simply tired: a fight between Indy and a huge, sadistic German wrestler; a sequence with Indy jumping on a moving Nazi truck that’s full of soldiers, chucking them off one by one, and ramming other cars in the convoy, to the accompaniment of soul grinding music. Seeing Raiders is like being put through a Cuisinart—something has been done to us, but not to our benefit.

It’s a shocker when the big time directors provide a rationale for the marketing division—when they say, as Spielberg does, that “the real movie-lovers are still children.” And there’s no doubt he means that in a congratulatory sense. The whole collapsing industry is being inspired by old Saturday afternoon serials, and the three biggest American moviemakers are hooked on technological playthings and techniques.

Behind Raiders is the soft spoken George Lucas, who says things like “I’m really doing it so I can enjoy it. Because I just want to see this movie.” I believe him. I wish I didn’t. I wish I thought he talked that way just as a come on for Raiders, because if Lucas, who is considered one of the most honorable people who have ever headed a production company, weren’t hooked on the crap of his childhood—if he brought his resources to bear on some projects with human beings in them—there’s no imagining the result. (There might be miracles.) I don’t think the deterrent to his producing movies with human characters is just financial risk. Lucas, who keeps a tight rein on budgets, probably wouldn’t stand to lose too much of his own or other people’s money. The bigger deterrent may be Lucas’s temperament and tastes. It’s not surprising that he takes pride in the fine toys that Star Wars generated, and controls their manufacture carefully; essentially, George Lucas is in the toy business.

The New Yorker, June 15, 1981


3 thoughts on “Raiders of the Lost Ark | Review by Pauline Kael”

  1. Wow. She basically predicted Hollywood’s descent into infantile comic book nonsense movies.

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