Raiders of the Lost Ark is at once timeless and transient. Directed by Steven Spielberg and released in 1981, there is something specific to the styling of the film that makes it inextricable from the time period in which it was produced. Like many other pre-millennial Spielberg action films, the current of adventure in Raiders is traversed by a rugged male lead who forsakes convention and assistance. He is motivated to embark on his journey by self interest, but ultimately he embraces the role of hero. In 2019, we’ll have the opportunity to witness Spielberg and Disney again revive the franchise for the contemporary audience, but part of what makes Raiders of the Lost Ark distinctive from its counterpart productions is that it strikes a chord that balances the seriousness of a formidable, realistic enemy against an almost juvenile insistence that the romp will be fun in spite of its gravity.
Indiana Jones is the embodiment of raw masculinity. He’s rugged and commanding. His female students lust after him and his male colleagues are drawn to him. It’s difficult to imagine what Indy – a landmark character of American cinema – would have been without Harrison Ford, and vice versa. Spielberg seemed to know early on he had struck gold, so much so that he trusted his audience to recognize the protagonist by only his silhouette within the first quarter of the film.
His image is an amalgamation of heros and fantasies of men from all walks in life: he is an intellectual, a cowboy, and a swashbuckler who altruistically believes his bounty should be donated to museums; he exudes sex appeal but seems uninterested in leveraging it. The biggest attempt to humanize Indy is his perennial “why’d it have to be snakes?” bit that is established in the opening sequence of Raiders and revisited over and over throughout the subsequent films. Outside of his gruff exterior, there’s very little moral complexity to Indiana Jones, which is part of what makes him endearing to new and old audiences. It’s hard to imagine Indy compromising his ideals of serving the public interest and thirst for knowledge, no matter what the exchange might mean for him – his adherence to the moral guidelines is tested and reaffirmed throughout every installment of the franchise. Outside of his fear of snakes, the only crack in Indiana’s superhuman fortitude is his mystic skepticism. Despite being tasked with recovering the Ark of the Covenant, he does not believe in the power of the artifact. He is excited to hunt down a critical piece of history and learn from the discovery, but he remains unconvinced that whoever possesses the Ark will be invincible. The reluctance to accept a power beyond reason is Indy’s greatest constraint and one that will be revisited throughout his entire character arc.
While Indiana’s unflappable moral rectitude is a core tenant to his character, there is a small moment in his initial exchange with Marion Ravenwood, played by the marvelous Karen Allen, that gave me pause:
Indiana: I never meant to hurt you.
Marion: I was a child. I was in love. It was wrong and you knew it!
Indiana: You knew what you were doing.
It’s fair to argue there’s been a cultural shift since 1981, let alone 1936, that puts this exchange into a different context, but regardless of any circumstantial consideration, this moment is crucial to understanding Marion and her relationship to Indiana. The fact that archaeology is the family business for Marion and her father was Indy’s mentor sheds some light on Marion’s psyche. She is introduced to us mid way through a drinking competition with a Nepalese man whom she manages to surpass in total alcohol consumed, collecting a sizable wad of cash as a reward. What we learn from this scene and the ensuing shootout with the villainous Arnold Ernest Toht is that Marion should not be considered a damsel in distress. She can drink anyone under the table and plans to tromp right alongside Indiana until he compensates her for his latest imposition in her life. Marion’s toughness and cunning is a consistent element of her character, but that said, Marion spends a significant portion of the film being either kidnapped or rescued, inhabiting a role closer to one we’d expect from prototypical female leads in action movies. While this doesn’t detract from the significance of her character, it places her in a different realm on the feminist timeline then say, Ellen Ripley of Alien (1979) or Princess Leia in Star Wars (1977).
The original Indiana Jones trilogy is often used to illustrate the Hero’s Journey and Campbellian storytelling, and there is undoubtedly an emphasis on mythic elements that weave throughout the adventure of Raiders of the Lost Ark. The story itself is about two fundamentally opposing forces: Indiana Jones as pure goodness and the Nazi regime as the embodiment of evil. Mysticism is apparent on the surface of the film (Jones: “It’s said that the Lost Ark will be recovered at the time of the coming of the True Messiah”) and on a deeper level (Belloq: “I am but a shadowy reflection of you. It would take only a nudge to make you like me. To push you out of the light.”) In this context, Marion’s relegation from “partner in crime” to “girl in need of saving” makes narrative sense, even if it is a bit reductive. It also validates Indy’s understated perfection, he has come to embody a reluctant savior, a man who will go to any lengths to defend his convictions and triumph for good over evil, in spite of his skeptic tendencies.