It’s Not the Years, It’s the Mileage
Thirty years ago tomorrow, Paramount Pictures released a little tiny movie. It somehow became the top grossing film of 1981, and remains one of the highest-grossing movies ever made. This little movie was made to satisfy the yearnings of its producers for movies “like they used to make” … weekly serial adventures about daring swashbucklers and nasty villains and heroines who could deliver a mad right cross, with impossible chase scenes and supernatural happenings and globe-trotting settings.
“Raiders of the Lost Ark” might be the perfect adventure movie.
I think a distinction can be drawn between movies (like “Raiders”) and films (documentaries and other cinematic creations that aspire to serious and lofty goals concerning serious and important topics). When you make a movie, you set out to entertain your audience: to force them to suspend their disbelief, to suck them completely into your story, and to make them forget there’s a world outside that movie theater. In fact, to make them forget they’re IN a movie theater. The best movies, for the length of their running time, are the only thing happening in the whole world. They are the whole world.
“Raiders” was a Hollywood all-star team. Producer George Lucas, fresh off the success of an unlikely box-office science fiction hit (what was it called again?), and well on his way to being the most powerful independent filmmaker in American history. Director Steven Spielberg, fresh off the success of his summer blockbuster, “Jaws”, and possessing an impressive directorial and creative resume even before “Close Encounters”, “Raiders” and “E.T.” would become American pop-culture touchstones. Composer John Williams wrapping up six years, 1975 through 1981, in which he would add to the list of Tunes That Everybody Knows (and can hum): the “Jaws” shark motif; the opening theme from “Star Wars”; the “Close Encounters” alien five-note contact theme; the fanfare from “Superman”; Darth Vader’s theme; and the Raiders March (no other film composer has had this profound an effect on American pop culture). And Harrison Ford, swinging a bullwhip and delivering terse one-liners, taking his place among the pantheon of Hollywood’s great leading men: Humphrey Bogart, Errol Flynn, Clark Gable, Gregory Peck, Cary Grant, Jimmy Stewart, Paul Newman…
There are plenty of examples of all-star teams that didn’t quite live up to expectations. A friend of mine once described a particular late-night television program’s house band as “less than the sum of its parts”. “Raiders” is considerably more than the sum of its parts. Every time I watch the thing, I’m freshly impressed: there is not a single false note in this movie; not a single line of dialogue you’d like to rewrite; not a single scene in which the actors fail to do their jobs; not a musical cue that is out of place; not a single special effect that causes a viewer to say, “whoops! Blue screen. Matte painting. Miniature model.” – except perhaps when the poor villains get caught up in the Ark of the Covenant’s Biblically violent revenge during the finale – and somehow, even if you know that the melting heads were in fact the product of wax head models, a hair dryer and some time-lapse photography, that makes it all the more fun to watch. (For the DVD release, they even fixed the jump cut that had previously showed Harrison Ford looking through a surveyor’s scope at the desert dig site and then suddenly standing straight up.)
When I think of “Raiders of the Lost Ark”, I think of specific moments, big and small, blunt and subtle – creative imagery and fun little quotes (as excerpted from the original screenplay):
 INT. TEMPLE:
Indy reaches the altar. The tiny idol looks both fierce and beautiful. It rests on a pedestal of polished stone. Indy looks the whole set-up over very carefully. From his jacket he takes a small, canvas drawstring bad. He begins filling it with dirt from around the case of the altar. When he has created a weight that he thinks approximates the weight of the idol, he bounces it a couple times in his palm concentrating. It’s clear he wants to replace the idol with the bag as smoothly as possible. His hand seems ready to do that once, when he stops, takes a breath and loosens his shoulder muscles. Now he sets himself again. And makes the switch! The idol is now in his hand, the bag on the pedestal. For a long moment it sits there, then the polished stone beneath the bag drops five inches. This sets off an AURAL CHAIN REACTION of steadily increasing volume as some huge mysterious mechanism rumbles into action deep in the temple.
 EXT. IN THE AIR – DAY
A DC-3 flies west from Nepal to Egypt, skimming around towering cloud formations. Simultaneously, a map appears beneath the plane, and a red arrow extends across it, describing the route of the plane.
 EXT. CAIRO MARKETPLACE
[This scene reportedly was not scripted but rather improvised on location, thanks to Harrison Ford's rather severe case of dysentery, contracted during weeks of filming in the Tunisian desert. He, um, didn't want to spend too much time away from easy access to a restroom, so a rather lengthy fight scene was cut and became the movie's first genuine belly laugh. Interesting how it lines up with another Ford line in another movie: “...there's no substitute for a good blaster at your side, kid.”]
 INT. TANIS MAP ROOM
The moment has arrived. Even the tension of the circumstances cannot distract Indy from the purity of what he is about to do. All his calculations are adjustments complete, Indy takes the Staff of Ra and places it—CLINK!– in the right depression on the base line. This is as active and exciting a moment as any archeologist can dream of and, at heart, that is exactly what Indy is. The sunlight catches the very top of the headpiece and moves within a fraction of an inch of the tiny hole in its sun. The edge of the sunlight moving across the miniature city is still a good two feet beyond the spot Belloq has settled on. And now that line of light is broken by the shadow of an ornate sun at the top of the staff. Indy’s face reflects his concentration. And then his immense pleasure. He sees what he came for. Out of the miniature city, one small building is being lit by a tiny beam of sunlight in the center of the shadow of the metal sun. And by some trick of ancient artistry, this one building responds to the sunlight like none of the others. The golden light permeates it: it seems to glow. The building is in a direct line with Belloq’s – all the Frenchman’s other calculations were right – but it is a foot and a half beyond it.
[And John Williams' musical cue for this scene is majesty, mystery, history and Biblical bombast, all in one.]
 INT. WELL OF THE SOULS
Indy drops his torch to the floor of the Well. This is answered by the most horrific HISSING imaginable. WHAT HE SEES: That thick dark carpet is moving. It’s alive. It’s thousands and thousands of deadly poisonous snakes – Egyptian asps. And the only thing that seems capable of avoiding this venomous groundcover is the altar. The snakes ebb and flow near it, but never encroach on it, as though repelled by some invisible force.
SALLAH: Asps. Very dangerous. You go first.
 EXT. AMONG THE TENTS – DAY
Sallah and Marion look at Indy. Belloq and Gobler climb in the back seat of the front car and the caravan [carrying the Ark] pulls out. Indy watches it go, thinking hard.
INDY: I’m going to get that truck. I’ll meet you at Omar’s. Be ready for me.
Sallah nods. Marion looks at him like he’s nuts.
MARION: How are you going to get that truck?
INDY: I don’t know. I’m making this up as I go.
 INT. INDY’S CABIN – NIGHT
INDY: (to Marion) It’s not the years, honey; it’s the mileage.
 INT. GOVERNMENT WAREHOUSE
The Ark of the Covenant sits in a wooden crate. A wooden lid comes down and hides it from view. The lid is solidly nailed to the crate as we read the stenciled message on top– “TOP SECRET • ARMY INTEL. #9906753 • DO NOT OPEN!” The hammering is completed and hands shift the heavy crate onto a dolly. THE END CREDITS ROLL AS WE SEE– a Little Old Government Warehouseman begin pushing the crated Ark down as aisle. Soon we see that the aisle is formed by huge stacks or crates. They come in many and sizes, but when it comes right down to it, they all look like the one that holds the Ark. All have markings like the message we’ve just seen. Pretty soon we’re far enough and high enough away from the Little Old Government Warehouseman to see that this is one of the biggest rooms in the world. And it is full. Crates and crates. All looking alike. All gathering dust. And then we notice that the Little Old Government Warehouseman, pushing his new crate ahead of him, has turned into another aisle and disappeared from view. FADE OUT.
Tip of the iceberg, actually.
I’ve watched “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” and “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade”, and although they’re fun, they’re typical sequels: close, perhaps, but no cigar. I can’t say any of the same things about them that I can say about “Lost Ark” – and in each case, most of the same people were involved. “Lost Ark” is a prime example of right people, right place, right time, right creative environment, right moment in American history, add a lightning strike and you get something very, very special. All the technological improvements in cinematic production in the world probably will still never recreate this 1981 movie’s magic.