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Help Support Features Articles Raiders: The Ultimate Adventure

Raiders of the Lost Ark:
The Ultimate Adventure

by Michael French - posted on May 17, 2002


A combination of all.
An imitation of none.

On June 12th, 1981, the world was introduced to a character named Indiana Jones in the film Raiders of the Lost Ark. This film was a landmark in many ways. It was the highest grossing film of 1981 and it was also the first project that combined the talents of Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, the creators of the two highest grossing films ever, Jaws and Star Wars respectively. Even the movie poster for Raiders of the Lost Ark said, "Indiana Jones - The new hero from the creators of Jaws and Star Wars." Arguably the two most creative minds of the 1970s, Lucas and Spielberg had come together for the first time. Both have stated since Raiders and its two sequels, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom(1984), and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade(1989), that the character made famous by Harrison Ford was inspired by and created with the intention to pay homage to the classic adventure serials of the early cinema. However, there are many aspects of Raiders of the Lost Ark that hardly resemble the cardboard adventure serial. There is much more to Indiana Jones than the action and the artifact.

Ultimately, Indiana Jones was created on a beach in Hawaii. Hiding in those pacific islands from the possibility that Star Wars may be a failure, George Lucas was relaxing on the beach with his long-time friend and fellow filmmaker, Steven Spielberg. In the midst of their conversation, Spielberg was telling Lucas that Universal had denied him rights to direct the next James Bond film. Lucas seized the opportunity and pitched an idea to Spielberg that he had been playing with since 1970. Lucas suggested to Spielberg that they should do a film with the flavor of an old adventure serial. Both of the men had grown up on the old adventure shorts such as Flash Gordon and Commando Cody, with their stereotypical emotionally flat heroes and non-stop action element. Both Lucas and Spielberg wanted to have that kind of tongue-in-cheek action in Raiders of the Lost Ark. Lucas stated that he "wanted to do an adventure serial that had the same impact and pace as the old serials used to have."

Lawrence of Arabia

Much of Indiana Jones' physical character is a reminder of the fearless action hero and the times in which the serials were filmed. Like all the heroes of the serials, Indiana Jones wears a felt fedora, which was a look mainly taken from such characters as Humphrey Bogart's worn traveler in Treasure of the Sierra Madre and Charlton Heston's adventurer from Secret of the Incas. Another inspiration from the classic shorts was the bullwhip at Indy's belt made famous by Douglas Fairbank's Zorro serials. The rest of Indy's costume, though usually overlooked, is also meticulously crafted to allude to early 20th century adventure. Indiana carries a Webley Mark VI revolver, best known as the pistol of choice for T.E. Lawrence, also known as Lawrence of Arabia, who was famous for his adventures in the Sahara of North Africa in the early 1900s. Indiana actually wears Arab clothing that resembles the garb of T.E. Lawrence for a good portion of Raiders. Indy's leather jacket looks similar to that of a biplane pilot's and his shoulder bag is a British Mk-VII gas mask pouch used by British soldiers in the 1930s and 1940s. Indiana Jones' whole look was carefully tailored by Spielberg and Lucas to suggest classic adventure, yet the combination of these elements is the disguise which keeps Indy unique and apart from the Zorros and Lawrences of Arabia. The only aspect of Dr. Jones that does not allude to the adventuresome past is his name, inspired by Lucas' female Malamute named Indiana. Essentially, Indiana Jones is a combination of all adventurers and an imitator of none.

If Indiana Jones stopped at his clothes, he would be nothing more than a copy of a serial adventurer. However, his personality was as carefully developed as his clothes. Unlike the stereotypical serial hero, who has about as much emotion and background as the gun in his hand, Spielberg and Lucas were very involved in giving Indiana Jones a personality. Both filmmakers had their own ideas about the direction Indy's personality should take. They agreed that Indy should have a very unique life beyond his archaeological exploits. Lucas originally pitched the idea that Indy should be a James Bond type that partied at night in a tuxedo with blonde bombshells. Ironically, Spielberg, who had wanted to do a Bond film, disagreed. Raiders scriptwriter Lawrence Kasdan, and actor Harrison Ford also disagreed. They opted to push the idea of Indy having a job as a college professor during his off time. This duality gives Indiana two very different personas within Raiders of the Lost Ark. One minute, he is an intellectual professor of archaeology. The next minute, he becomes a two-fisted, tough talking, street smart, worldly adventurer. Never in Flash Gordon did the hero retreat into another personality. He was always a fearless galactic adventurer. The James Bondesque ideas conjured up by Lucas were never totally abandoned and are hinted at throughout the sequel, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, in Indiana's relationship with a blonde singer named Willie Scott. Arguably, had Indiana become a tux-wearing playboy when he was not cracking the whip, his character could have become stagnant and two-dimensional like his serial predecessors.

Another aspect of the serial hero that Spielberg and Lucas felt would not appeal to modern day audiences was the hero's lack of worldly problems and concerns. There are many hints within Raiders of the Lost Ark of Indiana Jones' complexity. Admittedly, they are subtle and sometimes overlooked, but they exist. For example, when government agents visit Indiana to tell him about the Nazis and their search for the lost Ark, they ask him about Professor Ravenwood who was an expert on the Ark and Indy's former teacher. Indy states to the agents, "I haven't spoken to him for ten years. We were friends, but…. We had a bit of a falling out I'm afraid." Here, Spielberg and Lucas attempt to bring a third dimension to the serial hero and give him a past.

Indiana subsequently travels to Nepal where he hears that Ravenwood was residing. When he arrives, he finds only Ravenwood's daughter Marion. The reason for his falling out with Professor Ravenwood is revealed by Marion to be a love affair he had with her. Later in the film, Marion says to Indiana, "You know, he loved you like a son. It took a helluva lot for you to alienate him," to which Indy replies "Not much. Just you." Again, Indy is set apart from the serial hero. Unlike James Bond, Indiana's relationships with women are far from perfect. By the last installment, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, it is shown that Indiana has familial problems as well with the introduction of his father, Henry Jones. After Marion seemingly dies in a truck explosion in Cairo, Indy is seen sitting at a small table with a shot glass and a half-empty bottle of whiskey. This scene hints at a facet of Indy's character that Spielberg wanted to explore, but Lucas and Ford underplayed. Spielberg suggested that Indy should have an alcohol problem, much like Humphrey Bogart's character in Treasure of the Sierra Madre. The classic serial hero never had a problem with chemical abuse or women. Spielberg and Lucas added these touches so that Indiana would be human. They wanted the audience to identify with Indy in some ways.

Both the serial hero and Indiana Jones find themselves in the same general predicaments. The action sequences in Raiders are direct references to the adventure short. Like Tarzan, Indy swings from a vine into the river at the start of the film. Indy's jump from a horse to the side of the Nazi truck is reminiscent of the old western cowboy trying to stop the runaway stagecoach. When Indy is thrown out of the front of the moving vehicle and slides under it to climb back on from the rear, the sequence is an emulation of a famous stunt in the Zorro serials in which Zorro slides under a stagecoach and climbs on from behind. Both the serials and Raiders have the impossible odds, the grand chases, and the nick-of-time escapes. Unlike the serials though, Indiana does not escape unscathed like Zorro and Flash Gordon. Spielberg and Lucas wanted Indiana to represent the "everyman". Indiana Jones gets hurt more often than not. By the end of each film, he is bruised and cut, his shirt ripped and untucked, and the dust and dirt of the adventure covers his trademark hat and jacket. Flash Gordon never even had a bad hair day and Zorro never looked bedraggled. Indiana Jones cannot be visualized unbedraggled. He is even shot in the arm towards the end of Raiders and yelps in pain when Marion attempts to apply some antiseptic to his wounds. Finally, unlike the undaunted serial hero, Indiana Jones has a great personal fear. Indiana has a phobia of snakes which is exploited during Raiders, showing that the hero is not fearless. This is very unique from the serial plot.

Ford as Han Solo.

Through these devices, Spielberg and Lucas show the audience that, unlike the serial hero, Indiana Jones is human and is not invincible. This aspect of Indy's character was one of the deciding factors in casting Harrison Ford for the role. Spielberg saw Ford in The Empire Strikes Back as Han Solo, the Star Wars series' most down to earth character. People liked Han Solo because they could identify with him better than the Force wielding Luke Skywalker. Han was always asking the questions and lacked the Force, being limited to his own strength and devices. Spielberg saw Ford as the perfect basis for Indy.

Another major deviation in Raiders from the typical serial formula is the relationship between hero and villain. Spielberg and Lucas are both famous for their clear-cut definitions of good and evil. Brody versus the shark and Luke Skywalker versus Darth Vader epitomize the battle between good and evil. No questions are asked and ambiguity is not present. This was the formula of the serial with the white hatted "good guy" and the black hatted "bad guy." Critics have stated that Spielberg and Lucas continue to use very defined lines of good and evil, with Indy, the all American good guy versus the Nazis, the definition of evil. However, when looked at a little more closely, one can see that there is more moral gray area in Raiders. Admittedly, there are the black hatted Nazi spies who peek over magazines and attempt to burn Marion with a hot iron, but they are not the main antagonists of the film. They are merely the small homages to the cardboard villains of the serials.

Indy talking to Belloq.

Indy's true enemy in Raiders is Renee Belloq. The relationship between Indiana Jones and Renee Belloq, the French archaeologist working for the Nazis, is not comparable to Flash Gordon and Ming the Merciless. In Raiders, Belloq and Indiana have a discussion in Cairo in which Belloq shows Indy just how alike the two of them are. Both are very loose archaeologists, more easily defined as grave robbers than intellectual professors. Through Indy's obsession with finding artifacts for museums, Lucas hoped to legitimize Indy's grave robbing tendencies. Of the Ark, the focus of obsession for the two men, Belloq says, "Men will kill for it. Men like you and me." This is an honest statement, for both Indiana and Belloq kill throughout the film in their attempts to take possession of the Ark. Belloq kills through the Nazis under his temporary command and Indy kills with his Webley. This is a reference to the serial western where the lone cowboy stands against a whole slew of Indians or Mexican bandits.

In Raiders, the lines between cowboy and bandit are not so clearly drawn. The Lone Ranger never sat down with the evil Mexican bandit to hash out their similarities. The Lone Ranger was never looked upon as anything but pure good. Within the tense conversation, Belloq makes the observation to Indy, "Our methods do not differ as much as you pretend. Archaeology is our religion, yet we have both fallen from the purer faith." This complex relationship between the hero and the villain further sets Raiders apart from the typical serial.

Serials were famous for their dirty bad guys and their courageous heroes. They were also famous for their heroines as well. Every serial had a damsel in distress in one episode or the other. Usually, the purpose of the damsel was to get captured by the bad guy and become a point of tension. The evil madman would tie her to the railroad tracks or chain her to a log cutter and then force the hero to fight his way to save her before the train came or the spinning blade cut her in half. Raiders has many such scenes. Marion, the film heroine, is almost scalded by a hot iron from the black hatted Nazi spy, Toht, when Indy saves her in Nepal. Indy rescues her from a flying wing as a trail of burning gasoline threatens to end her life with the life of the plane. Indy catches her in the Well of Souls when she falls from a high statue, and then proceeds to keep the snakes away from her. From this information, it would seem that Marion is a direct copy of the damsel in distress. However, there is much more to Marion's character.

Damsel in distress.

In their wish to appeal to a mass audience of the feminist 1980s, Spielberg and Lucas knew that they could not make the heroine the typical whiny, screaming damsel of the serial screen. Instead, they gave Marion a very independent nature. When Marion first appears in the film, she is drinking men under the table, and when Toht threatens her, she says, "Listen, airmac. I don't know what kind of people you're used to dealing with, but nobody tells me what to do in my place." At one point, she even blows cigarette smoke in his face. In the bar fight that ensues, Marion hits a thug over the head with a log and shoots another with a Mauser pistol. How did she get caught in the flying wing? She had just hit the pilot in the head with a set of aircraft tire stops when the cockpit fell shut around her. Marion breaks the damsel mode in many ways. In the classic serial, the girl is always saved in the end. Spielberg and Lucas added a scene to the film where Marion seemingly blows up with a Nazi truck, successfully deviating from the formula. Later on, Marion awakes in the Nazi camp and Indy finds her, but refuses to rescue her. Flash Gordon would never leave Dale Arden in captivity under any circumstances. Unlike the normal heroine, Marion begins her own escape. She drinks Belloq into a stupor and then pulls a knife on him, only to be stopped by Toht once again. Notice in the escape from the flying wing towards the end of the film, Marion and Indy flee the imminent explosion in step with each other. They are running side by side. The serial hero is not dragging the weak damsel out of danger. Marion and Indiana are portrayed as equals.

The last aspect of Raiders that deviates from the serial formula is the most consistent part of the classic adventure short. In the ending of the classic serial, the good guy always saves the girl and gets the prize. In the ending of Raiders, Indiana saves the girl and gets the Ark. However, the final scene in the film is a heated conversation between Indiana and the government agents who have taken the Ark from him. Indy asks very angrily "Where is the Ark?" to which the agent replies, "The Ark is somewhere very safe." This becomes the standard Indiana Jones ending throughout the series. He never actually gets the prize. The Ark is stored away in a secret government warehouse in the famous final shot from Raiders. The golden idol is lost to Belloq. The Sankara stones in The Temple of Doom are lost in an alligator infested river, the diamond in Shanghai in the beginning of the film is retaken by Lao Che, and the Holy Grail falls into a chasm in the climax of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Unlike the serial heroes, Indiana Jones rarely has anything to show for his efforts.

Clearly, Raiders of the Lost Ark is not a mere retelling of the adventure serial. Indiana Jones is a protagonist with real relationships and earthly problems. He is not a two-dimensional Lone Ranger or Zorro. Indiana Jones feels pain and has the potential to fail his quests. There are many subtle facets to his persona, from his past relationships to his partial alcoholism. His villains are not always the blackest of men and he himself is not the purest of angels. The heroine of Raiders is not a screaming, whining, helpless damsel. Marion is self-reliant and independent. When Spielberg and Lucas created Raiders of the Lost Ark and Indiana Jones, they deviated from the serial formula for many reasons. Evidently, modern society would not accept the lack of character development and sexism that was prevalent in the classic serials. Lucas and Spielberg wanted to appeal to a mass audience. At the same time, they were also determined to make Indiana Jones unique.

Yes, Raiders of the Lost Ark is an homage to the classic adventure serials because it captures the spirit of the action and excitement. Yet, at the same time, Raiders is uniquely different. With its very real and three dimensional main character, Indiana Jones, Raiders of the Lost Ark not only paid homage to, but redefined the adventure genre. As the theatrical poster for Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom states, "If adventure has a name, it must be Indiana Jones."


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