Spielberg: Raiders of the Lost Ark part 2
A comment from Bill Willingham yesterday reminded me of something. Mr. Willingham mentions that the narrative of Raiders could get along just fine without Indiana Jones in it and still turn out exactly the same. I disagree with him on this, but his comment brought my attention to the Indy/Belloq dynamic in the movie. Indiana Jones is an adventurer and trailblazer, while Belloq is an exploiter and opportunist. Belloq uses Indy throughout the narrative as an unpaid employee, both in Peru and in Cairo. Indy does all the work while Belloq follows Indy around, waiting for him to discover missing pieces and solve puzzles so that Belloq can benefit from Indy's work. He does this with the Peruvian idol, the Headpiece of the Staff of Ra, the Well of Souls and the Ark itself. In addition to these artifacts, he does it with Marion herself, which I'll get to below. This dynamic reminds of George Lucas, who is and has always been an unabashed exploiter himself, not a trailblazer or innovator but a keen recognizer of talent and innovation from others. Strange that he would, consciously or not, cast himself as the villain of Raiders. Or perhaps he sees himself as both Indy and Belloq, which is why Belloq has several monologues about how he and Indy are alike.
Anyway, enough idle speculation. Forward.
ACT II of Raiders encompasses everything in Cairo up to the opening of the Well of Souls, from 33:44 to 59:00. Everything in the act drives toward this moment, at which point the narrative will shift again. The split in Indy's twin desires will also be most fully exploited here.
CHAPTER 1 (33:44 - 42:16) Indy and Marion, now a couple (it is not made clear that they are intimate, although it seems clear the Indy would like them to be, and they have certainly set up housekeeping together) arrive in Cairo and meet up with Helpful Animal Sallah, who informs them that Belloq is the guy in charge of the Nazi dig in Cairo and also "knows a guy" who can read the Headpiece of the Staff of Ra for them. John Rhys Davies does a great job of being Mr. Exposition, much better than the poor white guys with the briefcases in Act I, and I'm not sure if it's the actor, the role (which gives Sallah a family, a background and a love for Gilbert and Sullivan) the script (which puts a trained monkey and several colorful locals in the scene) or merely the colorful new location that makes this beat work. The best expository scenes in the Indiana Jones movies are when the necessary information is simply spat out by the required actors and something completely unrelated is happening onscreen. The "chilled monkey brains" dinner in Temple of Doom comes to mind. It's important for the narrative to come together, but it's even more important for the senses to be entertained, and entertainment of the senses is something at which Spielberg excels.
Indy and Marion (and the monkey) head out into the marketplace, and Indy goes to great pains to explain to Marion what a "date" is. This has confused me for years -- certainly world-traveler Marion Ravenwood could not be confused as to what a date is. Is Indy making a pun on "date," as in "this is a date, and we are also on a 'date'"? Or is the "date" in Raiders merely the equivalent to the "oxygen tank" in Jaws and the "radiator hose" in Duel, a piece of information Spielberg was afraid the audience wouldn't get if he didn't explain it to us?
In any case, Marion, in short order, goes from being partner to victim as a bunch of guys suddenly attack, kidnapping Marion and making Indy think she is dead. And while it's not immediately clear who has planned this attack, the net result seems to be that Belloq wants to kidnap Marion in order to get the Headpiece of the Staff of Ra (he must sense that his information on the headpiece is faulty) and kill Indy before he can get to the Ark first.
Indy begins the chapter relaxed and confident that his adversaries are buffoons, and ends it devastated by the death of his girlfriend, whom he had already betrayed once and whom he has now gotten killed.
(It has always bothered me that no one, Indy included, ever bothered to check the burning wreckage of the truck to make sure that Marion was, in fact, a charred corpse within, or even try to put out the fire.)
CHAPTER 2 (42:16 - 49:33) Indy mourns Marion, and it occurs to him that this trip was, perhaps, not worth it. The Ark of the Covenant is great history, he feels, but Marion was a human being and a potential soul-mate. In the depths of his mourning, Indy is shanghaied by some Nazis and delivered to Belloq.
This scene confuses me -- why does Belloq send for Indy, when earlier in the afternoon he was trying to kill him? The pragmatic reason is that the protagonist needs to meet up with the antagonist somewhere in the act, otherwise the dramatic tension goes slack. But realistically (realistically!) Belloq has no reason to summon Indy to his table in the hookah bar. His monologue to Indy is pitched as a seduction, but what is the point? Is he going to try to use the "death of Marion" as a lure to get Indy to work with him? How is that supposed to work? "Hey, I just killed your girlfriend, how about you wise up and join the winning side?" Whatever Belloq is trying to get out of Indy, Indy does not give him the satisfaction and Sallah's children come to rescue Indy not from getting killed but from him killing Belloq.
The other function of the attempted seduction" scene is to reveal Belloq's endgame -- he has no plans to turn over the Ark to Hitler or anyone else, he plans to keep it for himself and rule the world. How exactly he plans to do this remains a mystery, but I'm guessing it has something to do with him dressing up as a Hebrew priest at the end of the movie -- is he planning on opening the Ark, zapping all the Nazis and taking off with the Ark himself, thinking he's fooled God into thinking he's one of the Chosen? Or is he actually Jewish? The movie doesn't say, which to me suggests he is not.
Indy goes home to hear Some Old Guy gas on about the Headpiece of the Staff of Ra. This is another densely expository scene, this time spiced up with an attempted murder involving a poisoned date. That's why Indy explains to Marion what a date is -- so that when this later scene revolves around Indy eating-or-not-eating a poisoned one, we understand that a date is a kind of food. Of course, Indy may be flirting with the date because it reminds him of Marion, with whom he had just eaten dates with earlier that afternoon, but that seems like a stretch to me. In any case, the scene works because we don't really care about the pure information the Old Guy is spouting, we just need to know it so that the following chapter will work. What we need to see is more suspense, which the scene delivers exceedingly well, at the expense of the little Nazi monkey.
Indy begins this chapter mourning for Marion and doubting his motivations for this adventure and ends it by becoming convinced of his absolute advantage over his adversary, amid greatly-raised life-and-death stakes.
CHAPTER 3 (49:33 - 59:00): Indy puts on a disguise (this confused both my children, who didn't know why we were suddenly following around this guy in a turban) and heads into the Nazis big dig with Sallah to divine the location of the Well of Souls. This sequence, like all the best sequences in the Indiana Jones movies, presents the protagonist and his team with a series of physical challenges, which is good cinema and is where Spielberg lives. No one conveys pure action, in both captialized and lower-case senses, better than Spielberg and the simple presentation of "characters doing things" are always the best parts of Spielberg movies, whether it's Roy Neary building Devil's Tower in his living room or Chief Brody killing a shark in a sinking boat or a Martian spaceship laying waste to Bayonne.
Action, suspense and humor all mesh in the Map Room sequence, which then raises the stakes by bringing in a supernatural element. Indy and his Headpiece of the Staff of Ra doesn't just locate the Well of Souls, it beams a laser of blinding light that forms an aura in the shape of a pair of wings. Those wings will show up later on the lid of the Ark, and will also emanate from the hearts of the Nazis who get zapped by the Ark in the movie's climax.
What's going on in Indy's mind here? He's just witnessed a minor miracle (he had ignored the instant storm that cropped up at the Old Guy was going on about the Headpiece of the Staff of Ra the previous night -- he was more interested in his date than the Wrath of God). Is he becoming convinced that the Ark is truly what Belloq says it is?
It sure seems that way, because minutes later he stumbles across Marion, alive if not quite well, tied up in Belloq's tent. Here his split is most fully exploited -- he can rescue Marion, whom he was mourning just the night before, but that would mean giving up the Ark, which, the day before he was discounting as folklore. The angels'-wings light display in the map room hints at the stakes involved for Indy -- Marion might be a human being, but the Ark, it seems, is something else.
Indy hires a crew (somehow) to dig up the entrance to the Well of Souls, right under the Nazis noses (there's a fun phrase to type), taking off his disguise and "becoming his old self" again. Night falls and, as the entrance to the Well of Souls is opened, Indy's face turns maniacal and power-mad. Is he becoming what Belloq threatened? Is he also scheming to make off with the Ark and use it to take over the world? That's how the chapter would end in a traditional serial, and so ends this act.