Steven Spielberg, the master director behind the 1980s action adventure hero, Indiana Jones, was only 34 years old when Raiders of the Lost Ark arrived in cinemas.
Yet, by then he already had five previous films on his resume, that included TV movie Duel, The Sugarland Express, Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and screwball World War II comedy 1941. Helping forge the modern Hollywood blockbuster such as Jurassic Park, he was a much younger filmmaker when he brought one of the most iconic film characters to life with help from confidant George Lucas.
Despite both Jaws and Close Encounters giving a clear indication of Spielberg’s mastery of cinematic storytelling, it was, after all, Raiders that stands out as a true masterpiece of the Hollywood studio system. And yet, it still surprises me when I hear young film students declaring they haven’t yet seen it.
Perhaps it doesn’t help that the cause, that the most recent Indiana Jones (4th in the series) lacked the heart and sense of adventure that bridled the first three films, hidden behind over-rendered CGI that helped tarnish the series – much like the turn of the century revival of Star Wars. Some could argue that the special effects featured in a film more than thirty years old are just as bad. Yet, I genuinely believe, for someone who is just being introduced to the technical world of filmmaking, an insight into action editing, matte paintings, lighting tricks, practical stunts and effects cannot be displayed better than in Raiders. Yes, it may have aged since 1980, but Raiders has aged with grace and wisdom.
Spielberg crafts a loveable, flawed hero. A type of protagonist that young filmmakers should strive to include in their films. Dr Henry ‘Indiana’ Jones Junior is an adventurer with humility and respect for the true meaning of archaeology, preserving and sharing the knowledge of the past. The antagonists are no truer opposite, a rival archaeologist lust to reap the fame and fortune of history’s hidden treasures, and the Nazis hell bent to use relics to conquer the world. It is this clear and simple dichotomy between good versus evil that informs how character motivations can drive story forward, even if quite simple in their actions. Indiana must get to the ancient relic first to succeed in his quest and conflict in the story grows from him failing to get there, or being slowed by obstacles in his mission by the villains.
The obstacles are best represented in Raiders as the three key action sequences that exist in the second act of the film. There’s a foot chase through Cairo, which includes the infamous non-sword-fight scene that sees a sword-wielding henchman meet his humorous demise from a single shot from Indiana’s pistol. Next is a spectacular ‘David vs. Goliath’ fist fight on and around the wings of a WWII German bomber. Finally, the iconic desert truck chase. These action scenes form an integral part of why Raiders works so well and remains a piece of iconic cinema. The action progresses the adventure forward, and referring directly to Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey, acts as the challenges and trials for Indiana on his quest.
There is no coincidence that George Lucas’ involvement in the project sees such a defined use of the Hero’s Journey thesis for film’s story telling. Star Wars: A New Hope is also another well-versed example that follows Campbell’s approach. Yet, despite both films featuring an iconic Harrison Ford role, I believe that Raiders is written and directed better, and has rarely been beaten by anything since.
Raiders of the Lost Ark‘s accomplishment and execution stands as one of the greatest action films ever made. This is why film students should not simply disregard it due to its age or subject matter. Understanding classic hero stories will inform young filmmakers on how to create their own heroes and produce their own mini-masterpieces.