Raiders of the Lost Ark is a truly great film. How many of you remember that it was actually nominated for Best Picture? Well, it was, and I can make a strong case that it should have beaten Chariots of Fire, which took the award home on Oscar night. Raiders is more entertaining than Chariots, it has a better story structure, it’s shot better, and even has a more memorable score. It also has higher stakes, which leads to greater drama and tension. I’m sure that most people think of Raiders of the Lost Ark as an action/adventure popcorn movie, and it certainly is that. But when you take a deeper look, you see a film that has a strong and dramatic story in which the stakes could not be higher, incredibly well developed characters with compelling relationships, and action sequences that propel the story forward.
A veritable dream team of film makers came together to create this wonderful film. Long time friends George Lucas and Steven Spielberg had already separately created Star Wars and Jaws to go along with American Graffiti and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, so the two of them were already considered to be among the best of a new generation of film makers. But their secret weapon was Lawrence Kasdan, who wrote an absolutely perfect screenplay. Kasdan had already written the screenplay for The Empire Strikes Back so this would be his second collaboration with Lucas, and many Star Wars aficionados consider Empire to be the strongest film in the entire series. With George Lucas providing the big idea of the Raiders universe, Lawrence Kasdan organizing those ideas into a well-structured screenplay, and Steven Spielberg combining it all into a singular vision, Raiders of the Lost Ark became an iconic cinematic experience. I’m not alone in that thinking, as Raiders of the Lost Ark was ranked at #60 on both AFI’s Top 100 American Films as well as the 10th Anniversary of the list.
Also, let’s not forget that the character of Indiana Jones is one of the great characters in the history of cinema. Again, I’m not alone in that thinking, as AFI has him ranked as the #2 hero of all time, trailing only Atticus Finch (To Kill a Mockingbird), and ahead of such venerable heroes as James Bond, Rick Blaine (Casablanca) and Rocky Balboa (Rocky). This is also the role that put Harrison Ford into the stratosphere of Hollywood super-stardom. Ford had already made a name for himself as Han Solo in Lucas’ Star Wars films, as well as smaller roles in American Graffiti and Apocalypse Now, but the role of Indiana Jones really showcased Ford’s ability to simultaneously be a leading man and an action hero who could carry a scene with both his wit and his bravado. Indeed, even as Indiana Jones does battle with the Nazis and their henchmen, we feel his vulnerability over his feelings for Marion (Karen Allen) and we’re able to grieve with him when he thinks that she’s been killed. That’s what makes Indiana Jones such an effective character. He is a character with unrivaled depth for an action/adventure film. That depth of character was provided by Kasdan’s writing, brought to the surface with Spielberg’s direction and made real by Ford’s performance. No one in any audience anywhere would have any reasonable expectation of being able to empathize with a hero like Indiana Jones, and yet here we are rooting for him and relating to him as though he were a close and intimate friend.
One of the things that makes that possible is the relationships that Indiana Jones has with the other people in the film. Even though Raiders of the Lost Ark isn’t a particularly emotional film, there is a lot of emotion in it. That emotion comes from the relationships that Indiana Jones has with the other people, whether its the complicated romantic relationship with Marion, the rivalry with Belloq or the friendship with Sallah, we see that Indy has emotional feelings towards the other characters in the film, and he is in fact our emotional guide for how we should feel about those characters. The relationship with Marion is particularly masterful. I had a screenwriting instructor tell me one time that you should always have a love interest because it gives your hero more to lose. It doesn’t make your movie a love story, but love is a basic emotion that everyone has felt and is an easy way to create empathy for your character. Spielberg masterfully used Marion in that role, as Indy had already lost her before the movie even started, then he loses her two more times over the course of the film. The first time that he loses her is particularly effective because we watch the two of them connecting as they walk through the marketplace. Then, when they’re attacked, a slapstick-esque fight ensues that is just as much about showing personality as it is about action. At the end of the fight, it appears that Marion is killed when a truck explodes, and in the next scene we see Indy coping with his grief by getting drunk in a bar. It’s the most vulnerable that we ever see him, and it allows him to lose the superman shell, if only for that one scene, and allow the audience to empathize with him. It’s also a scene in which we see that he’s ready to commit cold-blooded murder when he threatens Belloq in the bar. He’s then saved physically by Sallah’s children who interrupt the scene calling Indy out of the bar and then he’s rescued emotionally by Sallah who tells him that his children are the proof that life goes on. The emotional beats of the sequence are clear and concise and the whole sequence is demonstrative of the exceptional story telling that’s going on in this film.
There are also other great relationships between other characters as well. Belloq’s relationship with Marion helps to humanize him and allows us to see the wit and charm that he has as a character. Just like you don’t what your hero to be 100% good, you don’t want your hero to be 100% bad, and Spielberg and Kasdan once again use Marion to bring out the goodness in Belloq. Yes, he wants the Ark, but he is legitimately concerned when his Nazi allies put Marion in danger. He then seems to save her later on, but she clearly rejects his sexual advances, and we see him more as disappointed than angry.
Speaking of story telling, the story and the story structure within the script are also exceptional. This is another one of those stories that when you really dissect it and take a closer look, you see that it’s actually told in four acts rather than three. There are three distinct points where the plot changes direction and Indy is given a new set of challenges to attain his ultimate goal. This is also another one of those stories that has an excellent and clear Hero’s Journey as laid out in The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler. Every stage of the journey is represented in this script, and this is actually quite a good script to study for any aspiring screenwriter.
Rather than dissecting it through the Hero’s Journey, I specifically want to focus on the Act breaks and why I think that this is really a 4-Act movie. (Actually most movies are really 4-Act movies, but that’s a subject for another blog). If you think of a film as being told in four acts, the structure would appear thusly: Act I is the so-called Ordinary World where we’re introduced to the main character and he, in this case Indiana Jones, receives his call to adventure. The second act is when the hero crosses the threshold into the special world and starts trying to attain whatever goal he was set on in Act I. The stakes are raised at the end of Act II, which sends us into Act III where the hero has to adjust accordingly. Act IV begins with the hero seeming to lose everything, but using what he’s learned over the course of the story to overcome whatever flaw he may have had, or using his new knowledge in a way that helps him overcome his enemies and win the day.
With that structure in mind, Raiders of the Lost Ark is a perfect example of of telling a story in four acts. Indiana Jones’ Ordinary World is that of a college professor of archeology. We also learn that his life is a mixture of adventure and academia and that he has rivals and mentors, and that he needs to use his brain as much as his muscle. He receives his Call to Adventure when his Mentor Marcus Brody (Denholm Elliott) introduces him to two agents from the Federal Government who give him information that allows him to figure out that the Nazis are close to discovering the Lost Ark of the Covenant, an artifact which the Bible implies will make any army invincible. The plot changes direction when Indy agrees to search for the Ark and find it before the Nazis do. That’s the end of Act I and the beginning of Act II. Act II is all about finding the Ark. He finds his ex lover, Marion in Nepal while looking for her father, Abner, who he believes to have an artifact necessary to find the Ark. Marion tells him that Abner is dead, but he discovers that Marion has the piece. After fighting off their first batch of Nazis, they go to Cairo and meet up with Sallah who can get Indy in to the Nazi camp. Using the artifact he got from Marion, he discovers that Ark, and Sallah recruits some other diggers to excavate it under cover of darkness. If Indy’s goal was to get the Ark, he has now accomplished that, and that signals the end of Act II. Since he has the Ark, the stakes are now raised, and Act III becomes about keeping the Ark out of the hands of the Nazis. A series of adventures and fights go from there until it finally appears that they have the Ark safely on a ship that will transport it to England. That is until the ship is intercepted by a German submarine and the Nazis take the Ark and Marion with them. Indy has now failed in keeping the Nazis from getting their hands on the Ark and that’s the end of Act III, and Act IV now becomes about rescuing Marion and getting the Ark back from the Nazis, which he finally does, only to turn it over to the U.S. government and have it stowed away in some nondescript warehouse. He didn’t get what he wanted, but Marion is still by his side, so he definitely got what he needed. That’s it. Raiders of the Lost Ark as told in four acts.
Finally, the last thing that makes Raiders of the Lost Ark so essential is that it is a highly entertaining film, and that, at the core, is what movie watching is all about. I will say that all of the factors that I mentioned above, as well as many more that I haven’t had time to alliterate combine to make this movie as entertaining as it is. It’s an action movie with a compelling story and deep and relatable characters. It’s a movie that wasn’t made so much as it was crafted. Finally, it’s a movie that not only aspiring screenwriters can learn from, but so can directors, VFX artists and even actors. It might not be a perfect film, but Raiders of the Lost Ark is as close to movie making at its best as you could possibly find.