Raiders of the Lost Ark

Trigger Effect
Eric Kohn on Raiders of the Lost Ark

Indiana Jones represents pop culture at the movies writ large. Much more than a hazy outline of unmitigated heroism, the character embodies escapism yet retains the pathos of an everyman. Hardly an unrepentant badass akin to Bruce Willis’s John McClane of the Die Hard series, or the freakishly invincible powerhouse constructs of Arnold Schwarzenegger, Harrison Ford brings a delightfully human quality to the icon hereafter affectionately called Indy; a sucker for adventure, he offers viewers the promise of a good time.

Indy looms larger in movie memory than a boulder trap in the Amazon jungle. His presence has overwhelmed the popular trilogy that sustains his narrative life. That Raiders of the Lost Ark was a masterful showcase for Steven Spielberg’s action-driven storytelling, while the two profitable follow-ups felt comparatively thin and forced, is fairly irrelevant. Similarly, the plot of the upcoming fourth installment, which will reunite the now wizened senior citizen Ford with Spielberg after two decades of dormancy, didn’t just elate thousands of fans—they expressed sheer joy over the resurrection of an old friend. The trailers for Live Free or Die Hard might elicit some “fuck yeah!” virility by stirring up the mythology of that franchise’s unstoppable supercop, but Indy’s ongoing popularity reverberates with a more personal tone.

Sympathetic male characters can be found throughout Spielberg’s oeuvre, but no others have walked such a spectacular line between blockbuster fantasy and affable down-to-Earthness. Indy makes an ideal hero because he combines lust for the great unknown with the ease of engaging in routine; after a typical day of brushing shoulders with murderous Nazis and vengeful deities, the nimble archeologist seems content to hang up his hat and whip, teach a class or two, grab a drink and hang loose.

Despite Spielberg placing him within scenes of sensational, fast-paced bravado, the epitome of Indy’s charm is embodied in one brief moment embedded within the incessant forward motion of Raiders. It owes nothing to special effects or clever fight choreography; the climax arrives in a basic shot/reverse shot scheme, but that very structural precision is crucial to the vivacious protagonist’s legacy.

The context is somewhat irrelevant, save for the fact that the setting is Egypt, providing a Middle Eastern backdrop. Indy loses track of his female companion, Marion (Karen Allen), a hardened compatriot in the race against Nazis to find the mythological Ark of the Covenant. Realizing that she’s been kidnapped, Indy launches a one-man rescue mission in a crowded market. Seemingly operating under the guidance of John Williams’s upbeat orchestral score, the mood suddenly shifts from suspenseful to comedic. Desperately making his way through waves of faceless Arabs, Indy becomes a straight-faced slapstick figure, bound against his will to the whims of traffic. Like much of Spielberg’s feature debut, the fantastic minimalist thriller Duel, these scenes could function as silent cinema, relying on visual cues that no dialogue could possibly convey. Lawrence Kasdan’s script describes the entire action thusly: “Indy must fight a flow of humanity as powerful as an ocean riptide.”

And so he does, until the crowd suddenly parts to reveal a daunting figure engulfed in black robes, twirling his sword with a menacing chuckle. As though initiating a battle round in Mortal Kombat, the two men are left alone on the street; the pedestrians organize along the sidelines to watch, joining us as spectators. The anonymous villain, framed in a medium shot, assuredly wields his weapon, and we logically expect him to apply those fancy dicing skills to some violent maneuver. But a sudden cut back to Indy rules out that possibility.

Our hero grimaces, mildly annoyed, and reaches for his holster. In a long shot positioned over Indy’s shoulder, he pulls out his gun and fires. The swordsman goes down; the crowd hoots in amusement. Indy wins the battle with the ease of an exasperated shrug.

What gives the sequence its memorable charge is Indy’s bemused reaction shot—an interruption to the sword-twirling antics that announce spectacular danger, but don’t black out his practicality. Indy overcomes his foes as though swatting flies. Who needs fight choreography when a bullet does a fine job in less time? A slight maneuver that, in retrospect, makes more sense than any overwrought escape plan, it fits the dynamic of humor present in Spielberg’s finest works, so that the production back story—the original plan called for Indy to defeat his foe with the whip, but Ford was suffering from dysentery on the day of the shoot—barely matters. The director settled for a better option, and the verdict in regard to his creative panache can be grafted onto the results.

As an invisible narrator toying with audience expectations, Spielberg tells his best jokes when avoiding broad strokes (i.e., the oft-cited clumsy satire of 1941) and firing sudden, intimate moments into large-scale situations. Integrating relatable minutiae into the unwieldy realm of massive productions, Spielberg serves as Hollywood’s masterful ironic entertainer. Among the clique of Seventies-era movie brats that redefined the standards of commercial filmmaking, only Spielberg managed to discover formulas for successfully combining awe and understatement. The throwaway cut to Indy evolves from Roy Scheider’s memorable deadpan declaration in Jaws, moments after witnessing the terrifying white shark up close: “You’re gonna need a bigger boat.”

In Raiders, the rationale follows the same path with more scathing results. As Quentin Tarantino explains via Tracie Thoms in Death Proof: “You know what happens to motherfuckers who carry knives? They get shot!” Simple as that—and yet, beneath the surface, not so simple. In Directed by Steven Spielberg: Poetics of the Contemporary Hollywood Blockbuster, Warren Buckland’s impressively detailed analysis of the director’s technique, the author calls out three consistent elements in the film: “Off-screen presences, the last-minute rescue (or the last-second rescue), and an escape scenario, in which the hero has to escape from a seemingly impossible situation.” In the single cut to Indy’s split-second decision to fire off a single pointed shot, bluntly ending the peril at hand, all three ingredients combine harmoniously. And without a moment’s double take, he turns away, hat in place and whip at his side, to keep the adventure afloat.