Raiders of the Lost Ark | Review by Richard Schickel

Richard Schickel called Raiders of the Lost Ark a return to form for Spielberg, demonstrating a competence not seen since Jaws. He described it as a film Walt Disney would have made were he still alive.

Richard Schickel called Raiders of the Lost Ark a return to form for Spielberg, demonstrating a competence not seen since Jaws. He described it as a film Walt Disney would have made were he still alive, featuring an “enchanting” combination of fantasy and cinematic movement.

Cinema: Slam! Bang! A Movie Movie

by Richard Schickel

In Raiders of the Lost Ark, Lucas crafts a real cliffhanger

Indians armed with poisoned darts and arrows. Arabian assassins in black masks wielding wickedly whistling scimitars. Nazis by the jackbooted legion, including a Gestapo sadist always dressed in black, always giggling in happy anticipation of torturing someone. A cave where tarantulas drop from the ceiling by the bushel. An underground chamber alive with deadly snakes—7,500 of them.

Flying wings and flying boats. A car chase and a barroom brawl. Abduction by submarine. Supernatural forces. A brainy professor who turns into a roguish soldier of fortune between semesters. A heroine who talks tough, loves hard and punches with either hand. A traitorous monkey—yes, a treacherous little bundle of chattering fur who constantly betrays the good guys until he is dispatched by a poisoned date, not a minute too soon.

Raiders of the Lost Ark has it all—or, anyway, more than enough to transport moviegoers back to the dazzling, thrill-sated matinee idyls of old. It is surely the best two hours of pure entertainment anyone is going to find in the summer of ’81, and it is almost equally certain to be the great commercial hit of the season—a blockbuster on the order of Star Wars and Jaws. Which is as it should be, since it is produced by George Lucas, 37, who created the former, and directed by Steven Spielberg, 33, who made the latter.

This is good news, a cheerful prospect to contemplate as the air conditioner goes on the fritz and the kids go into a frazzle. One begins to wonder: What did people do in the summers before George Lucas started making movies? But there is more to the success of Raiders than the simple, “Let’s see it again” pleasure it is going to give audiences, though that, of course, is its most basic virtue. In a troubled time for the American movie, a time of runaway costs, indifferent craftsmanship and stiffening competition from new entertainment technologies, Raiders is, in fact, an exemplary film, an object lesson in how to blend the art of storytelling with the highest levels of technical know-how, planning, cost control and commercial acumen. Most of its relatively low, $20 million budget (half what Michael Cimino was permitted to squander on his out-of-control flop, Heaven’s Gate) is, as they say in Hollywood, “on the screen.” It will therefore surely make money. The only question is whether it will rival the huge worldwide grosses of Star Wars ($500 million) and The Empire Strikes Back ($300 million).

Raiders represents Spielberg’s best work in years, a return to the briskness and coherence that have been missing since Jaws. But in the end it is very much a producer’s film, a George Lucas film, reflecting not only his taste in entertainment but a carefully evolved production style that leaves plenty of room for creativity and none at all for miscalculation or self-indulgence. The film began as “a daydream” back in 1973, when Lucas first got the desire “to make a B movie I wanted to see,” and was modeled on Republic serials, those thrill-a-minute kiddie-matinee favorites of the ’30s and ’40s.

His reverie centered on a college professor who, when not off on foreign adventures, could be found in a nightclub with a slinky, ’30s-style blond on each arm. With a little help from Writer-Director Philip Kaufman, who worked on the story for two weeks, the blonds and the nightclub disappeared. Lucas’ archaeologist hero (along with anthropology, it was the producer’s favorite college course) finds himself recruited by the American Government, circa 1936, to foil, singlehanded, a huge German team that is on the brink of rediscovering the long-lost Ark of the Covenant, in which the tablets containing the Ten Commandments were placed after they were brought down from Mount Sinai.

Beyond its intrinsic value as the ultimate object of religious veneration, the ark is believed to be capable of conferring mystical power on its worldly possessor; legend has it that an army with the ark in its van is invincible—hence the scramble between Nazis and Yanks.

There the story rested until Lucas, cooling out on a Hawaiian beach after launching Star Wars, began embroidering his tale for Spielberg, his friend. “I felt like I was eating a barrel of popcorn at a noon matinee,” Spielberg recalls. Two years later they called in Screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan, who shared the screenplay credit on Empire, for a marathon “pitching” session. For five consecutive nine-hour days the three men shouted, argued, paced and acted out the story until its line was firm. “We are general practitioners,” explains Spielberg. “The best work I do is when I’m locked in a room with people I respect and have fun with.”

Ruling out Bondian improbabilities, they settled on the adventure-serial structure. Cliffhangers usually came in twelve parts, and by a happy coincidence there are a dozen major menacing situations in Raiders. Each time there appears to be no way out for the hero, Indiana Jones (named after Lucas’ beloved Malemute dog, whose “character” was previously borrowed for Star Wars‘ Wookie), or the heroine, Marion, a reincarnation of the “Hawksian woman,” that sexy, spirited lady the late director Howard Hawks always included among the boys in his action films. At one juncture it appears that Marion, played by the lovely Karen Allen, 29, may have been killed in an explosion; at another she faces a choice between dishonor (offered by oily No. 1 villain, Paul Freeman) and slow death (eagerly threatened by No. 2 menace, Ronald Lacey). If Indiana finds a secret passage out of a sealed tomb, you may be sure he’s soon going to have to grapple with a goon amid whirling airplane propellers—and then, bloodied and bushed, roar off on a spectacular chase. The great difference between Raiders and its humble progenitors is that one doesn’t have to wait a week to find out where the escape hatch is hidden.

There are moments when the audience can catch its breath, but they are brief and shrewdly calculated. Says Lucas: “My films are closer to amusement-park rides than to a play or a novel. You get in line for a second ride.” If that were their only distinction, they would not be substantially different from any reasonably well-made action-adventure picture.

What gives them their uncanny appeal is a depth, a resonance, that works almost subliminally on the viewer.

Much of this special quality can be traced to the quiet linkages, never blatant or campy, that Lucas’ movies make with everyone’s shared movie past. These linkages are affectionate and gracious acknowledgments that after almost 100 years movies have built up an honorable set of visual traditions and character conventions. Such references can be as broad as the heroine’s manner, as subtle as a glimpse of exaggerated shadows on the wall during a fight scene, or the animated map tracing Indiana Jones’ progress from continent to continent as he pursues his grail-ark. Says Harrison Ford, 38, Star Wars‘ Han Solo, who plays Indiana:

Raiders is really about movies. It is intricately designed as a real tribute to the craft.” Spielberg agrees, noting that the film’s opening image, that of Paramount’s famous mountain logo dissolving into a perfectly matched real mountain, “is the first hint that you’re in for a trip.”

But these historical references are not the only bows to tradition in Raiders. The simple craftsmanship evident throughout, the attention to detail, which, as the special-effects people like to say, “sells the shot,” puts the viewer in mind of an almost vanished habit of meticulous moviemaking. Two examples: when Indiana makes his escape from a sacred cave, a tribe of outraged Indians in hot pursuit, puffs of dust are shaken loose from his clothes with each pounding stride; later, when Marion loses a shoe as she is pushed into the snakepit, the camera cuts to a shot of an asp slithering through the open toe, as economical a suggestion of terror as anyone has ever made.

Movies can be made without such things.

But when they are present, they make the difference between the merely good and the truly memorable.

Indeed, the whole Lucas emphasis on special effects, on loading his films with optical tricks that can be created only in movies, has a transforming effect on his work. It opens the audience’s mind—again with great subtlety—to the connections between a seemingly simple tale of adventure and the richer realm of myth. It is Homer’s trick, the trick of all the saga spinners and tale bearers down through the ages. And like them, Lucas leaves his listeners free to choose the level on which they will appreciate his work. When, at the end of Raiders, the Nazis pry open the ark and let loose the defender demons it contains, the effect is so breathtaking that one almost forgets that this is the final horrific conflict between the forces of light and darkness.

Indeed, Lucas insists that he resorts to special effects mainly because they are economical, a way of delivering good movie value at affordable prices. “I make films that generate emotions,” he says, adding that the challenge is to “make them well enough so that they work at 51% effort. If the movie is made at 100% effort, it is indulgent.” And likely to suffer unbearable cost overruns. “Cimino made Heaven’s Gate at 150%.” Moviegoers, says the frugal Lucas, will buy a weakish special effect or even stock footage as long as their emotions are engaged. “If it gets dreary, then they notice,” he says. In Raiders, only sharp-eyed cineasts will know that a shot of a DC-3 flying in the Himalayas was bought from the remake of Lost Horizon or that a 1930s street scene came from The Hindenburg.

Like another great craftsman, Alfred Hitchcock, Lucas prefers to present himself as a pure entertainer, perhaps fearing that references to more profound aspects of his work will put the public off. “Francis Coppola likes to think of film as art,” he says. “I don’t take it that seriously. Art is for someone to figure out 100 years from now.” Spielberg agrees and disagrees. “We both see movies through youngsters’ eyes,” he says. “I don’t make intellectual movies. George, however, is really an intellectual.”

Slight, softspoken, reclusively inclined, Lucas wears that mantle as lightly as he wears the garb of his Star Wars success. He drives a Toyota, wears plaid sports shirts and high-top basketball sneakers, works in a home-office complex in Marin County, across the bridge from San Francisco. He loathes Los Angeles (“Hollywood doesn’t care about film; they live to make deals”) and does not like to direct. He runs his Lucasfilm operation tightly but benignly. His top executives are often film-school graduates and always knowledgeable, low-key, untemperamental. They have to be smart since

Lucas, unlike most producers, can do anything that needs to be done around a production. He ran a second camera for Spielberg on one of his infrequent visits to a Raiders location. Uncredited, he supervises all editing and is final arbiter of everything turned out by Industrial Light and Magic, his special-effects shop down the road. A man who believes in careful preplanning—all his films are meticulously story-boarded—he simply cannot be conned into spending money needlessly by a careless line producer or a runaway director. Typical is his attitude toward casting. “All I care about is good acting.

Star value is only an insurance policy for those who don’t trust themselves making films.”

This does not imply a lack of generosity when it comes to sharing credit or profits. When Empire struck gold, for example, Lucas gave 25% of the windfall to his coworkers. And he is not threatened by talent, as insecure executives are. Says Spielberg, who went substantially over budget on his last three pictures: “Raiders was wonderful because George is in no way intimidated by me. Also, it is hard to spend your friend’s money.” All the friend intended to spend, in any case, was $20 million — but he insisted that it look like $30 million on the screen. The film was shot under schedule in a London studio and on location in Hawaii, Tunisia and La Rochelle, France. “There was no time for indulging inspiration,” says Spielberg. “It was spontaneous combustion, a relay race.

We didn’t do 30 or 40 takes — usually only four. It was like silent film — shoot only what you need, no waste. Had I had more time and money, it would have turned out a pretentious movie.”

That, emphatically, it is not. It is all zip-zap, biff-bang. Yet so strong is the imagery, so compelling the pace, so sharply defined are the characters, that one leaves the Lost Ark with the feeling that, like the best films of childhood, it will take up permanent residence in memory. Such filmgoing experiences are, of course, what turned Lucas and Spielberg into film makers. The latter speaks particularly of the lasting impression Disney’s Fantasia made on him — “life seen through different eyes.”

Spielberg has made the kind of movie Walt Disney might have made had he lived into the 1980s, an entrancing combination of pure cinematic movement, good-humored lack of pretense and allusive fantasy. And he has been collaborating with the man who is Disney’s logical successor. For with the old master, George Lucas shares certain values — Wasp, smalltown, morally conservative — and certain talents — for technological innovation, cost-conscious super vision of team creative effort and responsible merchandising of motion picture offshoots. Lucas also holds to Disney’s vision of a community of creative film makers living and working together in a Utopian atmosphere. The Disney studio never came close to that, but Lucas has already started construction on his communal Lucas Valley compound, north of San Francisco.

The question for Lucas is whether he can sustain his idealism in an envious and highly competitive field, where success is usually measured by the bottom line. For Disney, Utopia turned into creative stasis and the once vaulting fantasies gave way to the commercialized thrills of Disneyland. If Lucas can preserve himself from commercial temptation, he may yet realize his larger ambition, which is to use the profits from his popular movies for more experimental work. “I want to push film further and still get some emotional pull,” he says.

In the confused and beleaguered movie industry, this is a tall order. But Lucas is still a very young man. And an endlessly gifted one.

Time, June 15, 1981


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