George Lucas had exactly two good ideas. Which were really just two sides of the same idea. In the early ’70s, he imagined making one movie in the spirit of the ’30s Flash Gordon serials, and one in the spirit of ’30s adventure serials. The adventure idea came first. It would be about an archaeologist named Indiana Smith. Lucas got sidetracked with his Flash Gordon meets Edgar Rice Burroughs flick for a few years, but soon came back to his adventure movie. He roped in Spielberg to direct and young screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan to tie together the action set-pieces he (and Philip Kaufman) had come up with. After tossing aside a ton of unworkable notions–Indiana oughtta be a drunk, womanizing gambler, or else some kind of Bondesque international playboy!–and coming up with plenty of good ones–they’re going after the Ark!–they cast their pal Harrison Ford in it, story-boarded the heck out of it, shot it all over the world, and hey presto, they had themselves a movie. They thought it was pretty good.
Little excitement surrounded the opening of Raiders of the Losk Ark in 1981. Exhibitors and audiences had their sights set on Superman II, For Your Eyes Only, Cannonball Run, Stripes, and History of the World: Part I. Not that it was a little movie. Spielberg might have had a bomb with his most recent picture, 1941, but he was still the guy who’d made Jaws and Close Enounters, and Lucas had had a couple of, oh, say, modest hits with Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back. Still, who cared about some throwback adventure flick? With Han Solo as an archaeologist?
As a kid back then, I was already so obsessed with movies I kept a running list of everything playing I wanted to see, in the order I wanted to see them. Raiders wasn’t high up. But like everyone else on Earth, the moment I saw it, I realized it was what I’d wanted all along.
Raiders killed. It was the most exciting movie in ages, if not ever. Or so it felt. And it was funny. Spielberg’s “comedy” had tanked, but Raiders was packed with gags I swear had people falling out of their seats. Spielberg has never made a funnier movie. When Toht puts together his coat-hanger, audiences lost consciousness they were laughing so hard. And Indy shooting the mighty swordsman? And Marion knocking Indy in the chin with the mirror? We’ve all seen the movie so many times these moments only get a smile, but at the time it’s hard to overstate how big these jokes went over.
Money-wise, it started out strong, seemed to fade a bit as new summer releases came out, and then–then it played in theaters for close to a year, and was nominated for a Best Picture Oscar.
Watching it last night for the first time in a few years, I wasn’t surprised by how well it still plays. This thing moves! So well shot, so well edited, so well written. It manages to be real, serious, goofy, fantastical, dopey, and profound all at once. It was conceived in the ’70s, and shot in ’80, so it looks like a ’70s movie–but only sometimes. Sometimes it’s something new, it’s got one foot in the future ’80s look, and anyway it’s Spielberg, who’s ’70s movies never quite look entirely ’70s to begin with. His realism was always tinged with the unreal. It’s a movie that feels set in our world, only with a professor who’s also a wild adventurer, who’s got no qualms about shooting anyone who gets in his way, who doesn’t believe in a bunch of hocus-pocus, yet who isn’t thrown for a second when supernatural forces leap from the ark, melt faces, and zap a bunch of Nazis. Just another day’s work for one intrepid archaeologist. And Marion! My god I was in love with Karen Allen back then (and every time I watch Raiders I am again). Maybe she doesn’t have enough to do in the movie, and it still rankles when she’s traded like a piece of luggage among various slimy men (“the girl”), but she’s a rare strong woman for the era, and I never tire of watching her make a monkey of that dope, Belloq.
What I got to thinking last night was how impressive Lucas’s two ideas are, and why. They’re impressive for giving audiences something they didn’t know they wanted, that Lucas surmised they’d want not because that’s what they’d been gorging themselves on, but because of its total absence, because they’d forgotten such a thing existed. This is what artists are supposed to be doing. Even mercinary ones like Lucas, with his eye forever on the bottom line. We want artists to make what they want to make, what they think we need, even though we don’t know we need it. That’s how we wound up with the franchises now destroying filmdom in the first place. Artists made something new way back when, when they were allowed to take those risks, when they wanted to take those risks.
Lucas gave up on this idea of the new immediately following Raiders. He was bored to death of Star Wars, seeing the third one primarily as a means to sell toys. The lesson he learned from Raiders was that audiences wanted non-stop action. So that’s what he’d try to sell them forever after. Spielberg was still on a run. He made E.T., another story people didn’t know they wanted but fell head over heels for. Then took a swing and a (then) miss with an unusual sequel in Temple of Doom.
It’s not surprising that Indiana Jones has survived as a beloved character. It’s because of this one movie, made with love and daring and, yes, a desire to sell tickets. The sequels keep coming, and never fail to measure up. They can’t, because they’re looking backwards, just like every big budget behemoth.
Imagine today’s studio exective eyeing the work of young directors and writers and tapping them not to direct the latest sequel/comic book/reboot, but to go out and make what they think audiences need, and here’s the budget to do it with. That’d be something. I’m not holding my breath. But I can dream.