Monday, 4 July 2011

They're digging in the wrong place...

I recently landed a gig as writer for the website Comic Booked http://www.comicbooked.com/

I'm very excited and overwhelmed by the welcome and the size of the community they seem to have. I was selected to join their team in order to contribute articles and reviews on the strength of a piece I wrote especially for them. The subject was the impact of Raiders of the Lost Ark: one of my favourite films. Here it is.


We open on the exotic squawk of the South American jungle in 1936, treated to a character introduction so economical it doesn’t require words. The ten minutes that follow give us one of the most entertaining and iconic action set piece of all time, burning Raiders Of The Lost Ark into the public consciousness and onto the landscape of cinema forever. It has influenced generations of filmmakers and inspired legions of ten-year-olds to buy a fedora. Its impact has been colossal, and still felt in most modern blockbusters. But what was the magic ingredient that makes us remember Henry Jones Jr. and forget the rest? There have been many pretenders, but what was so special about Raiders Of The Lost Ark?



Conceived for release in 1981 by George Lucas and Steven Spielberg while on vacation in Hawaii following the Star Wars explosion, Raiders of The Lost Ark was intended as pure entertainment: a Saturday matinee pulp from the 1930’s, a classic ‘roller-coaster’ story structure lent the muscular stunts and sharp editing of an emerging 1980’s kind of film. Raiders of The Lost Ark, along with others, helped shape this identifiably 80’s new breed. It came to define not a film but a popcorn movie, a blockbuster with all the connotations the word implies: action, suspense, romance and mystery. It also made a steamer-boatload of money. Unfortunately, this treasure hunt seems to be the driving force behind many of the imitators that have followed. It opened the flood-gates for many success stories, but became responsible for an unfortunate (at least in this reviewers eyes) and uninspiring trend.
Raiders has had a hand in shaping literature (Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code), video games (Drake’s Fortune), and, of course, graphic novels (Hellboy, Fear Agent). Many of the best examples can be found in genre mash-ups, loving homage’s, and creative re-imaginings (Peter Jackson’s King Kong.) Shot for shot, Indy’s character introduction is filmed using the language of comic books - all whip-pans, close-up revolvers poised to shoot, and traitors fleeing at the crack of a whip. It is strangely cyclical that Lucas, inspired by the pulp comics of his youth, produced a film that had an effect on the media form it made homage to.
John Carpenter’s 1978 slasher Hallowe’en, although not the first of its kind, spawned decades of flicks which lacked the film’s uniquely suspenseful and ominous tone. Similarly, the action-adventure films that have followed Raiders have been lazy, adopting the easiest, most thoughtless elements of what made it great. The list of films that have drank too greedily from its Holy Grail are endless – Tomb Raider, Pirates Of The Caribbean, National Treasure, Prince of Persia, as well as most superhero films of the last two decades. Raiders’ power can be felt everywhere, most notably in the new trailer for Marvel’s Captain America, full of evil Nazis and period derring-do.
But Indiana Jones and his debut are cut from a different cloth entirely. He is a hero defined by his intellect and resourcefulness not by his combat skills, as his shooting of the Arab swordsman will attest (in itself an improvisation following Harrison Ford’s encounter with suspect Egyptian food). He is made charming not through his violence, but with the knowledge that he is always one step behind his opponent, never quite hitting the mark of proficient action hero. It helps that Ford delivers the whole thing with an ironic shrug as a reminder that the whole thing isn’t to be taken too seriously (another misstep of those Hollywood beefcakes that have followed him through the cinematic desert). The brain and the heart are missing. We need look no further than The Lord Of The Rings trilogy to see that talent, not property, are behind successful modern blockbusters.
What endures, and marks Raiders out as the yardstick by which all other blockbusters are measured, is the gleeful verve in which the story is told. The story itself is deceptively simple -effectively ‘Nazis have Ark, Indy has ark’ - but the structure is watertight. The Pirate’s Of The Caribbean scriptwriters, who openly admit to lifting from Raiders, would learn much from this uncomplicated plot. Suspense and atmosphere are integral (legendary composer John Williams, cinematographer Douglas Slocombe, and production designer Norman Reynolds are largely responsible for Raider’s earthy, timeless hue). Suspense: that vital element now reserved only for the genre of horror cinema. A knuckle-fest for the ADD generation this is not. That is not to say the pace of the film isn’t relentless (it is edited within an inch of its life), but unlike many modern blockbusters the action scenes carry an emotional heft and the slower scenes become more enticing once you know the film inside out. Belloc’s cafĂ© speech, the inept government lackeys, Jones’s history with Abner Ravenwood – all enrich the universe created. Huge admiration must go to scriptwriter Lawrence Kasdan, who laces scenes of extended action with wit and intelligence.
Raiders of the Lost Ark is not a flawless film. Marion Ravenwood (however great) is treated as just one of the boys, and her romantic interactions with Indy are hesitantly sketched. Under intense scrutiny the film also proves morally problematic. Indy kills henchmen left and right for merely taking part in an archaeological dig and the Nazis rack up a zero body-count for the whole running time. But otherwise, Jones (unlike Inglorious Basterd’s murderous manifesto) remains defensive not offensive, his goal being to prevent the Nazis using the ark to enslave the earth.
Although criticism has been levelled at the lack of emotional complexity, or the revenge fantasy of a Jewish American boy recapturing his adolescence by reigning ‘the wrath of god’ down upon the Nazis, they miss why Spielberg made it and why his audience adore it. Schindler’s List is Spielberg’s mature response to the holocaust – Raiders is his childhood response. Indiana Jones isn’t beloved by so many for its nuanced character portraits and mythology. It is at its heart a story of good versus evil, and the set pieces have made it legendary. That Raiders managed all of this whilst remaining effortlessly cool and, ultimately, iconic, seems to me the reason why others have since attempted to climb the same peak and failed. The boulder. The basket chase. The vine swing. The snake pit. Many of these happen in the first ten minutes. The man’s silhouette is iconic. Ford’s character has become a by-word for adventure with a capital A.
Perhaps that is the missing ingredient, the buried artifact the popcorn movie just cannot excavate. Studios are spending a fortune trying to artificially reconstruct a quality that came easily to friends Lucas and Spielberg in the early 80’s. Whisper it, ‘fun.’ However effortless Raiders of the Lost Ark looks, the secret is not to be found in the iconography of the film. This is thoughtfully crafted and intelligent mainstream filmmaking. And intelligently made popcorn movies are something we, as a modern audience, are sorely lacking.

Stay tuned for more on my work with comic booked.

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