Raiders of the Lost Ark is a perfect adventure film, and one of Steven Spielberg’s very best films – a throwback to the golden era of weekend serials that provided Harrison Ford with an equally iconic role to Han Solo. It’s also a throwback to the romance of nineteenth-century knowledge, as Indy is introduced as “a professor of archaeology, expert of the occult, and obtainer of antiquities” who acknowledges that “archaeology is not an exact science.” When he’s not inspiring and entrancing the next generation of dirt-diggers, Indy travels the world, hunting down relics, and bringing them back to American museums, in accordance with the “International Treaty for the Protection of Antiquity.” The first of his adventures takes place in 1936, and sees him trying to thwart the Nazis as they set out to recover the Ark of the Covenant, and use it as a cornerstone in constructing their “thousand-year Reich.” Along the way, he meets up with Marion, the daughter of his old mentor Ravenwood, played by Karen Allen, and the two quickly join forces to combat the German campaign, led by Major Arnold Toht, a sadistic Nazi official, played by Ronald Lacey, who has enlisted the help of Rene Belloq, Indy’s perennial archaeological rival, played by Paul Freeman. Adding to this charismatic mix are Sallah, an Egyptian archaeologist and longtime friend of Indy’s, played by John Rhys-Davies, and Marcus Brody, Indy’s friend and main museum contact, played by Denholm Elliott.
Written by Lawence Kasdan, from a story conceived by George Lucas and Philip Kaufman, Raiders often feels like science fiction, poised somewhere between Star Wars and The Right Stuff. Each place in Indy’s globe-trotting adventure feels like a different planet, and each new group of locals play like so many alien species. The Nazis are the most alien of these species, a hive mind bent on taking over the universe, and emerging from the coldest, remotest and most improbable place in the film – the heights of Nepal, where Major Toht first appears, shot more like an exotic monster than a human being. The film is deeply nostalgic for a time before the space race, when the earth was its own galaxy, and when travelling from one ocean to another, or one hemisphere to another, was every bit as epic as interstellar travel. Every scene brims with an unashamed affection for exotica, arcanity, and otherness, with a particularly Orientalist fixation on the Middle East as the threshold of the European universe.
To recapture this heightened scale of the earth, Spielberg reaches back to a form of serial cinema that was driven by manic movement above all else – what Gilles Deleuze described as the movement-image. That obsession with movement doesn’t really distinguish between suspense, slapstick and screwball, all of which come together most fluidly in the chase, the pinnacle of serial momentum during the era that Spielberg is homaging here. Many of the chase scenes in Raiders would be equally effective in silent cinema, most memorably a scene in Cairo in which Marion lands on a hay truck just as it is taking off, then dongs a pursuer on the head before being carried away in a basket, all while Indy matter-of-factly draws his revolver on a criminal bearing a scabbard. When Marion cries out “You can’t do this to me – I’m an American!” it feels more intertitle than dialogue, much as the squabbly combative romance – the weak point across the franchise – would work better in silent cinema too, specifically those final years when actors were starting to gesture maniacally towards sound.
Raiders doesn’t merely pay tribute to older genres, but melds them into a fusion that is completely of its own moment in the early 1980s. Spielberg was still working through the different iterations of the blockbuster, as a novel cinematic form, at this point in his career, and the version he comes up with in Raiders is a convergence and synergy of a remarkable array of classic big-screen genres. In that sense, Raiders is a masterpiece of pastiche, the ultimate postmodern adventure film, making a case for the blockbuster as the biggest leap in cinematic spectacle since the silent era. Time and again, it draws on the huge spectacles of silent cinema, through enormous mise-en-scenes crowded with extras, along with the flamboyant stunt work that made these early years of film so heady and exhilarating. Along the way, Spielberg weaves in cues from musicals, war films, supernatural horror and biblical epics, converging them all on the western, the horizon of American genre, reimagined here as a heroic sequence in which Indy chases the Ark on horseback, silhouetted against the sky.
That seamless passage from genre to genre is mirrored in the trajectories of the characters themselves, who are constantly travelling in different ways, as each form of transport becomes a new serial instalment. This postmodern pastiche of the modernist reverence for mass transit tends to focus on air travel, starting with the beautiful map montage of Indy flying from the United States to Nepal, the miniature plane moving just slow enough to emphasise the enormous distance between continents. These maps will become a hallmark of the franchise, and usher in a film that is peculiarly fixated on flight, whether in the Nazi plan to fly the Ark of the desert, in a heavenly parallel to the opening scenes of Triumph of the Will, or the climactic set piece of the second act, in which Indy and Marion dance around, and then on, a rotating plane, which explodes the moment they flee it. During this scene, Spielberg shoots the plane in extreme wide shot, as a splendid spectacle in itself, and a synecdoche for his own film mastery, which he had never rotated with quite so much polish before. Along with planes, Raiders travels by car, truck, boat and submarine, until its characters feel like transport vehicles in themselves, only slowing down when they board some other moving object, evoking a world in the thrall of a new globalised transit network.
Like so many postmodern texts, this focus on moving through space is part of a broader tendency to fetishise space, and turn it into hyperspace. In Postmodernism; or the Cultural Logic of Late Capital, Fredric Jameson associates postmodernism with a waning of our ability to process historical time, which he argues leads to an attempt to access history through space instead. Taking his ideas a step further, directors of this period often tried to access the past through increasingly plastic and reticulated spaces, rather than through traditional veracity, or by trying to capture the mood of a particular era in an “authentic” manner. Something of this process occurs in Raiders, which feels particulary attuned to the new era of theme park adaptations that accompanied the rise of the blockbuster. All of the sets and structures in the film already seem to be morphing into their Disneyworld rides (this is even more the case in Temple of Doom), while the film’s constant movement from one vehicle to the next also gives the sense of being on a ride. This is the core of Spielberg’s project – to remediate the modernist movement-image as a postmodern ride, and so most of the major set pieces are chases or explorations that take us through enclosed spaces (typically caves or tombs) that are rendered in vividly plastic detail. These incredible scenes are prefab rides, complex topographies of pleasure that revel in elaborate machinery, exotic objects, and sudden sightlines, while suspending us over grotesque and abject surfaces, as occurs in any good ride, whether it’s a floor seething with snakes, or a wall of desiccated, cobwebbed skulls.
This is hyperspace – the past as gleefully artificial spatial texture, rather than historical immersion – and produces a plastic expansion of space throughout the film, as Marion realises when she tries to escape an Egyptian tent, only to be casually informed that “the desert is three weeks in every direction.” If the film’s set pieces lean into fairground rides, then these desert spaces anticipate computer game adaptations, the smoothly infinite surfaces of the virtual world, whose imminence and immanence imbues Raiders with a remarkable tactility at moments, as if we’re experiencing it all through a hand-held console – or as if the Ark itself is a console, collapsing Indy into its silhouette the moment he lays hands on it. Veils, screens and cluttered mise-en-scenes accelerate all this to a spatial maximalism, a determination to exhaust space itself as a cinematic vocabulary, that Spielberg will perfect in Temple of Doom, but that we glimpse in the instantly iconic opening set piece here, along with the Bond-like lair, on a remote Greek island, where the final standoff for the Ark occurs.
Of course, Raiders isn’t merely an exercise in postmodern formalist play, since this is also the first film in which Spielberg directly addressed his Jewish heritage. Indy’s main job here is to protect that same Jewish heritage from the Germans, who see the Ark as the ultimate war weapon – “a transmitter, a radio for talking to God” – even as it pre-empts and resists their advances, spontaneously burning away any Nazi symbol that encroaches upon it. Raiders is thus a tribute to the potency of Hebrew myth, building to a primal showdown between Nazism and Judaism that feels like an apocryphal part of Jewish lore, or the fulfilment of a particularly arcane prophecy or escahatological vision buried somewhere deep in the Hebrew apocrypha. This showdown occurs as a Nazi re-enactment of Mount Sinai in which the Germans attempt to expurgate all Jewish significance from the Ark and rebrand it as a vehicle for Aryan supremacy. The Nazis choose to do this in Greece, ostensibly to check that all the components of the Ark are in place before they unveil it in Berlin, but really as an effort to release all the Jewish content before bringing it back into Germany. It’s the ultimate attempt to Hellenise Jewish culture, a symbolic Final Solution, and a precursor to Spielberg’s adaptation of Schindler’s Ark, begging the question of whether Indy is Jewish, as he and Marion are tied to a pole at the start of the ceremony, ritual sacrifices to this final expulsion of the Jewish people from the cultural and religious heritage of their original exile from Egypt.
What ensues, however, is a cosmic eruption of Judaism that shifts the entire visual field of the film. When the Ark is released, it burns a hole in the atmosphere, and propels our one fleeting glimpse of the sacred tablets to the very cusp of outer space, before swallowing them up again. This spectacle instantly destroys the sight of every German looking at it, and burns through the Nazi cameras documenting the ceremony, while ushering in a completely new optic for Spielberg – the exotic gore that will come to fruition in Temple of Doom, which along with this final scene in Raiders remains the closest he has ever come to a full-blown horror film. And in and through that horror, Spielberg seems to be asking what it might take to conceive of a mainstream Hollywood Jewish protagonist, at least one who isn’t presented as a victim or eccentric, making Raiders that rare thing indeed: a masterwork of postmodern play that also manages to glow as one of the most vitally personal expressions of its creator.