During my internet travels the other day I was reminded that Raiders of the Lost Ark was nominated for the Best Picture Oscar in 1981. It didn't win. Can anyone name the winner without looking it up? I couldn't for the life of me. It was Chariots of Fire, a movie I don't think anyone has thought of since the moment it won the Oscar. Goes to show you.
Act II of Raiders ends on a major cliffhanger -- the Well of Souls is open and we're about to find out what's inside. Indiana Jones's soul is in danger, the sky is roiling with what I've come to call "Spielberg clouds," Marion is tied up in the bad guy's tent, the narrative is at its highest point of tension. Then, just as the beginning of Act I, tension is replaced by comedy as we find that the Well of Souls is filled with snakes. We remember the snake on the plane (snake on the plane!) as the low-comedy climax to Chapter 1, and now we have thousands of snakes. The roiling sky disappears and Indy's mania is replaced with weary chagrin as his mystical quest becomes merely physically dangerous.
So -- let's do this.
ACT III (59:00 - 1:30:00) involves a simple (simple!) series of pursuits and thefts, escapes and chases. Indy steals the Ark from the Well of Souls, Belloq steals the Ark from Indy, Indy steals the Ark back from Belloq. Belloq steals the Ark from Indy and "in exchange" gives him Marion, underlining Marion's significance in the story -- Indy can pursue the Ark (that is, power) or he can take care of Marion (that is, be a "good man"), but he cannot do both.
CHAPTER 1 (59:00 - 1:10:00): Indy descends into the Well of Souls as Marion uses her mutant drinking power to try to escape Belloq. The interesting thing about Belloq giving Marion the flouncy white dress and the gourmet meal is that he is, perhaps unintentionally, being the "good suitor" that Indy never was and still isn't. Belloq provides her with dinner, a nice dress and a bottle of wine from his family's private vineyard. He's got money, power and social standing. He's polite, gracious and generous. We know that Marion isn't going to fall for it, and yet she actually says at one point to him that she'd like to see him "under different circumstances." So on some level we see that Marion could go for a version of Belloq, that she isn't necessarily at home in a Nepalese bar drinking locals under the table. This both suggests a poorly-developed narrative tension for Marion and a further example of Belloq and Indy being two sides of the same coin.
Marion, of course, tries to escape and runs into Toht. Toht walks in, they do the gag with the coat hanger, and then Toht sits down and, in a creepy, giggling Nazi voice to rival Peter Lorre, suggests that a long night of torture is about to occur.
The next time we see Marion, she shows no signs of being tortured or even strongly questioned. So what happened with her and Toht? I puzzled about this for a long time, and then, while watching the "making of" documentary of 1941 the answer was presented. The coat-hanger gag, it turns out, was originally part of the sequence on Cmdr Mitamura's submarine. In the earlier movie, it was Nazi Christopher Lee threatening Slim Pickens with the coat hanger. The gag in 1941 is poorly staged and the gag didn't get the laugh Spielberg wanted, so he insisted that he was going to work the gag into every movie he made until it got a laugh. That movie turned out to be Raiders, and here it is, and it works like gangbusters. And what I realized is that Toht doesn't torture Marion, or even question her -- the scene is there only to include the coat-hanger gag. Once Marion reveals that she is not falling for Belloq, that she has gotten him drunk (shades of Judith of Bethulia) in order to escape, the scene is done -- Belloq is betrayed, Marion is caught and Belloq throws her away.
This is, perhaps, the "lesson" Marion needs to learn -- the "nice guy" may have power, wealth and influence, but the rough-hewn rogue will give you independence, freedom and adventure -- when he's not causing you to be kidnapped and murdered, anyway.
Indy and Sallah descend into the Well of Souls (imagine my shock to learn there is such a thing!), nab the Ark (I always cringe when, after lifting up the stone lid of the sarcophagus, Indy and Sallah just chuck it to the floor, where it shatters into dust -- what the hell kind of archaeologist is this? Some history lover!) and head back, just in time for Belloq to show up to throw Marion down with Indy.
Here's a question. Belloq has the Ark, Indy knows Belloq's got the Ark, we know Belloq has the Ark, but does Belloq know he has the Ark? The narrative says yes, absolutely, but after watching the movie oh, approximately fifty million times, I suddenly found myself asking "Hey wait, Belloq doesn't even open the crate to check to make sure that the Ark of the Covenant is inside. How does he know for sure that he has it?" And, more to the point, why does he seal the Well of Souls with Indy and Marion inside? The moustache-twirling villain answer is obvious enough, but again I have to ask, what kind of brilliant archaeologists are these guys? Indy routinely demolishes sacred temples and Belloq seals the Well of Souls without even taking a look inside. Isn't he even curious about what sort of things might be found in a super-secret chamber called the Well of Souls? What other treasures might be squirreled away in such a super-secret chamber? There are mummies-aplenty down there, and thousands of snakes, but Belloq doesn't even seem to care that there might be some cool statuary or illuminative artwork on the walls. He doesn't even remark on the giant jackal statues holding up the roof. If I was a world-renowned brilliant archaeologist, and I had my nemesis on the ropes, and a million Nazis at my disposal, I'd send a few guys with machine-guns down into the Well of Souls to kill Indy and Marion, drop in some poison gas to kill the snakes, and spend a substantial amount of time quantifying all the mysteries of this room that hasn't been seen in, you know, four thousand years. But no, Belloq has his crate, he's perfectly happy to seal up the Well of Souls and head back to Berlin (well, by way of Anonymous Mediterranean Island, to be sure, but still).
Again, another 180-degree character reversal for the protagonist -- he begins the chapter as the most powerful man in the world, and ends it locked in a death chamber, powerless (but with his beloved).
CHAPTER 2 (1:10:00 - 1:20:00) : Belloq's disregard for history is soon topped by Indy, who at least has desperation on his side as he topples one of the jackal statues in order to demolish a wall and get him and Marion out of there.
(Another stupid question: where do the snakes come from, and how do they live down in the Well of Souls? The narrative indicates that they come from outside, and apparently come and go as they please, but there are thousands of them -- what are they eating all this time? And when the army of Nazis are looking for the Well of Souls, how come no one notices the hole in the ground where the thousands of snakes slither out every night looking for food?)
The Escape from the Well of Souls is followed directly by the Fight on the Plane, back-to-back blockbuster scenes, beautifully staged, choreographed and executed. The character beat I note in the Fight is that the Big Guy With Moustache easily bests Indy with one punch, and it isn't until Indy realizes that Marion's life is at stake that he gets up and takes him on. Again, the twin pursuits of Marion and Indy butt against each other -- Indy, faced with BGWM, thinks twice about pursuing the Ark, but when the potential prize is Marion he finds the strength to fight on.
(At this juncture of the narrative, my five-year-old daughter Kit announced "there aren't very many women in this movie." Well, she's got a point.)
Indy and Marion blow up the plane, causing the Nazis to load it onto a truck instead (which Sallah conveniently stops by to announce).
CHAPTER 3 (1:20:00 - 1:30:00) But the Ark isn't on the plane, it's been loaded instead onto a truck. Thus follows a ten-minute truck chase sequence, the longest in the movie, and another tour-de-force masterpiece of action, pace and choreography, ending with Indy getting away with the Ark.
ACT IV involves Belloq re-stealing the Ark from Indy and spiriting it away to the Unnamed Mediterranean Island (with the Secret Nazi Submarine Base), with Indy in pursuit. There is very little character left to be explored in the narrative at this point, just pursuit, capture and spectacle.
CHAPTER 1 (1:30:00-1:39:00) The Ark is loaded onto Capt Katanga's vessel. Capt Katanga is presented as a red herring -- a dark, mysterious, threatening character who turns out to be not only a good guy, but a wily manipulator of others' perceptions. I'd like to see a movie about Capt Katanga and his adventures carrying risky cargo around the Mediterranean in the 1930s. His name is close enough to Kananga's in Live and Let Die that I think it's safe to assume the similarity is intentional (especially when you consider that Indiana Jones was George Lucas's answer to Spielberg's desire to direct a James Bond movie).
Belloq gives Marion a white dress and then throws her into the Well of Souls, then Katanga gives her another white dress (this one nicer than Belloq's, but what do I know). Are we to infer that Marion just doesn't get it, that men who give her white dresses don't necessarily have her best interests at heart?
In any case, Marion appears in her white silk dress and Indy takes off his shirt and Marion and Indy have their almost-love-scene. And I find myself wondering about Indy's relationship with Marion from "ten years ago -- " what did he do to her that was so abominable that it destroyed his relationship with Abner? Here, he's such a thoughtless lover that he doesn't even make it through sex -- he falls asleep in the middle of the first kiss. And I can see Marion sighing and thinking "geez, at least with Belloq I'd get a decent wardrobe and some good food."
Moments later, of course, Belloq turns up in a U-boat to grab the Ark and Marion. I can barely watch the deck scene where Belloq and Katanga barter for possession of Marion -- not because of the sexual barbarism on display, but because the actress playing Marion is quite obviously freezing to death in her flimsy white dress.
CHAPTER 2 (1:39:00 - 1:44:00): Belloq takes off with the Ark and Marion and heads to Secret Submarine Base Island, with Indy secretly piggy-backing on the deck of the U-boat. Head Nazi Dietrich announces that he's uncomfortable with "this Jewish ceremony" of opening the Ark, which made me wonder -- is Belloq Jewish? He's already a Frenchman collaborating with the Nazis, but is he also a Jew? The narrative does not say so explicitly, but Belloq dons the Jewish Priest robes and chants in Hebrew -- is he "putting on a show" for God, or is he actually a Jew, with his own agenda against the Nazis he moves among? Think of that! If Belloq is a Jew, manipulating not only Indy and Marion, but also the Nazis, into getting him the Ark, planning to screw them all and become ruler of the world, just think of how much more interesting a character that makes him -- he's almost a better protagonist than Indy!
On the way to the Place Where They Open The Ark (how did they decide on this location, I wonder? Why can't they open it in the submarine dock? Why do they have to shlep across the island to this non-descript grotto?) Indy catches up to them and, disguised as a Nazi (his second disguise of the movie) threatens to blow up the Ark. Belloq calls his bluff and Indy backs down -- he cannot destroy the artifact, even though it means that Belloq (and maybe Hitler) might rule the world. And so he is bound, literally, to his other prize, Marion.
(Belloq, of course, goes to The Place Where They Open The Ark because it makes for better drama cinematically, the exact same reason why the aliens land at Devil's Tower in Close Encounters.)
CHAPTER 3 (1:44:00 - 1:51:00): A chapter of pure spectacle as the Ark is opened and fireworks ensue. My daughter was terrified at this scene -- she was perfectly okay with the movie up to this point, but the angel/demons and the Wrath of God freaked her out plenty. My wife has some problems with this scene herself, and I have my own issues, although mine are not the same as my wife's.
My wife's problem with the scene is that she feels it's tacky. The movie has been building up to this moment of what is going to happen when they open the Ark? and then when it's opened and the Wrath of God is presented, it's all rather Technicolor and scary and gory, with melting faces and exploding heads, which to her seems like an inconsistency. Myself, I think Spielberg has no higher aspiration here than presenting the Power of God in images that will match those in Cecil B. Demille's The Ten Commandments, and in this he succeeds well enough.
My problem with the scene is that, after dozens of viewings, I'm still not sure what happens in it. Belloq says some magic words, the Ark is opened, and is revealed to contain sand. What does this mean? The first time I saw the movie I thought "well, that's the remains of the stone tablets -- over the years they've been pulverized into sand." But subsequent viewings make me doubt this reading -- we're clearly meant, I believe, to think Belloq has picked a dud Ark, that it's just full of the same sand that was sitting around the Well of Souls, or perhaps somewhere in history the tablet fragments have been swiped and replaced with sand to give the Ark some heft.
But then, in spite of the Ark being filled with sand, the magic happens and everyone gets zapped. Why? What does the Ark actually contain? Is it, as Belloq suggests earlier, not the container of the stone tablets at all, but rather "a radio for talking to God?" which would mean that, strictly speaking, there is nothing in the Ark, but the Ark itself is the artifact? But that makes no sense -- the Ark was built by whomever to house the remains of the stone tablets, it shouldn't necessarily have any powers unto itself.
It is, of course, called "The Ark of the Covenant," which in one way suggests that it's built to house the Ten Commandments, but in another sense it suggests that it houses an agreement with God, a kind of "hot-line" to God. Although it seems like God is cranky about getting unsolicited calls on this particular hot-line, which makes me wonder what the point of the Ark is in the first place. The New Testament God wouldn't zap anyone who tried to open his hot-line, he'd ask them to pull up a chair and have some bread and wine while you chat about your troubles. Or maybe he'd have you whipped and tortured in the public square, you never can tell with the New Testament God.
A literal "pillar of fire" rises into the heavens, makes a u-turn and heads back down into the Ark -- what is this? Is this some divine energy reaching into Heaven? If so, why does it stop short with the ionosphere and head back, to get locked back in the Ark?
More to the point, why are Indy and Marion spared? Because they "don't look?" Does that mean that if Toht had had something in his eye when Belloq opened the Ark and turned away at the proper moment he would have been spared too?
(Dramatically, of course, this makes perfect sense. Indy is, essentially, a scientist, a skeptical inquirer obsessed with knowledge. He survives the Ark incident because he makes the decision to remain ignorant of whatever is inside the box. Shades of Pandora.)
Indy reluctantly turns the Ark over to the folks in Washington (getting screwed by the government, who had previously promised to turn the Ark over to the museum). He loses everything -- he always does -- but gains Marion. "They don't know what they've got there," grouses Indy, answered by Marion's "Well I know what I've got here," and Indy makes one small gesture of gentlemanliness by offering her his arm as they stroll down the steps of the government building.
Indiana Jones, of course, begins every movie cynical and jaded and ends every movie enlightened and humble, then starts the whole cycle over the next time. He never learns a thing, which is one of the things that makes him lovable.
A few posts back, one of my readers asked me if there is a Disney reference in all of Spielberg's movies. I can't find an overt one in Raiders (unless you want to call the roiling clouds a reference to the "Night on Bald Mountain" sequence in Fantasia), but the closing reference to Welles is unmistakable.