not in our stars, but in ourselves
After all the uncertainty, horror, and surrealism of the past week, I needed the kind of rigid structure and clear answers that only Steven Spielberg can provide. I hasten to clarify that I’m not generally a fan of his work, but when he gets it right, he really gets it right. And as far as I’m concerned, he has never gotten it more right than he did with Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981). It has been a favorite of mine since I was very young, and it’s the kind of old friend that I’m always happy to meet again. And I have met this friend many, many times – so many that I know the soundtrack’s gunshots and airplane engines like a song.
In case you’re less familiar than I, this is the first installment in the Indiana Jones film series (I would say “trilogy,” but alas, we have to include the execrable 2008 addition to the franchise that will remain unnamed on this blog), set in 1936. Jones (Harrison Ford) is a professor of archaeology by day. He seems affable and awkward, and completely befuddled by his mostly female students’ adoration. However, he knows his stuff. Military intelligence officials come to meet with him and his friend, Marcus Brody (Denholm Elliott), because they’ve intercepted a wire from Nazis in Cairo to Berlin headquarters. The Nazis are looking for the Ark of the Covenant in the Egyptian desert, and they want Jones’s old mentor, Abner Ravenwood, to help them. Jones agrees to go find Ravenwood, and of course the Ark, before the Nazis do. He ends up finding Ravenwood’s daughter, Marion (Karen Allen), with whom he had a disastrous relationship back when she was a teenager and he was a young man. They go to Egypt, find the Ark, fight some Nazis, and everyone has a darn good time.
So here are some reasons Raiders is a perfect movie.
First: Marion. Marion is the greatest romantic interest from any action movie ever, and I will actually fight you if you disagree. She’s tough. She drinks a huge Nepalese man under the table. She doesn’t follow Jones because she’s some weak-willed little damsel-in-distress – she demands that he acknowledge her as his partner. Her feelings for Jones are actually complicated, and they develop throughout the film. He really did ruin her life, and she’s angry at him for it, but they’ve both grown up – and he proves himself to her. She doesn’t just take him back. He has to go through a hell of a lot to get back into her good graces, and so he should. If you can name even five other romantic foils from any action movie who are similarly badass, I will eat my hat. As far as I can tell, Marion is the top.
Second: Spielberg is at his best when he’s having fun at Nazis’ expense. Raiders and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989) both feature Nazi antagonists. Raiders and Last Crusade are not only the most enjoyable two movies in the franchise, they’re also the best. When Indiana Jones triumphs over the most recognizably evil force of the twentieth century, your satisfaction is nearly guaranteed. History was much sadder and more nuanced, and everyone knows that, Spielberg especially. But if you’re going to offer escapism, what better escape is there than seeing Nazis get their asses handed to them by a one-man army?
Third: the score. You know it. Da da da-daaaah, da da dahhh, da da da-daaaaah, da da da da da. Reportedly, John Williams wrote lyrics to go with the famous Indy march: “Indiana Fucking Jones/Indiana Motherfucking Jones/Indiana Fucking Jones/Bite my ballsack, you Nazi/’Cause I’m Indiana Joooooooones!” Try getting that out of your head. I know I can’t.
Fourth: government conspiracy! You know how I love those! The very end of Raiders is like the very beginning of The X-Files, and who wouldn’t love to see a crossover there? Well, I would, anyway.
And fifth: the wrath of God. This is somewhat related to the second point, but isn’t it great to see God actually smiting Nazis? Isn’t it nice to see the omnipotent deity of the Abrahamic religions using some of that omnipotence to make a point? Wouldn’t it be lovely if that really happened once in a while? If, say, Jesus took out a full-page ad in the New York Times to tell the Westboro Baptist Church that they know as much about the Bible as Fred Flintstone knows about quantum physics; if Allah and seventy-two virgins staged an elaborate Busby Berkeley musical number to inform Muslim extremists that they’d better cut it the fuck out with the suicide bombings and honor killings; if YHWH sounded a trumpet and told Israel to just give Palestinians their own place to live and for everyone to try to co-exist as grown-up humans, instead of territorial hornets. You know, that kind of thing. That kind of certainty would be nice.
P.S. You know, one of my cousins is an archaeologist. Several of my friends are academics. There is no way any of them could ever be as accurate a shot as Indy, or as tough, or as skilled at getting out of tight spots. Most of them don’t know enough to come in out of the rain – but that is a very small quibble, and it’s more endearing than anything else.