My Favorite Movie – Raiders of the Lost Ark
What is your favorite movie? That’s not such a hard question, is it? You’re thinking, “Oh, there’s so many,” or “I can’t choose just one.” C’mon, now, I’m not asking you to name your favorite child. Everyone has a favorite movie. My answer to that question hasn’t changed since I first saw the movie when I was 10 years old. My favorite movie is Raiders of the Lost Ark, and I coerce my wife and daughter into watching it with me at least once a year on my birthday.
I can’t say why Raiders had such an immediate affect on me as a ten-year-old sitting in that dark theater in 1981. I can say that it was certainly a perfect storm situation of the right movie plus a boy who had already been introduced to the magic of movies by his father at a young age, multiplied by that boy’s Star Wars and comic book obsession.
Growing up, my Dad would always keep an eye on the TV Guide (this was well before cable TV and DVRs or even VCRs), and whenever Errol Flynn’s Robin Hood, The Mark of Zorro with Tyrone Power, a John Ford western or any other movie of that ilk was broadcast, we were sure to be watching. My Dad told me about the Saturday afternoons he spent at the movies watching the serials, the newsreels, the cartoons, and then the features. He introduced me to Hitchcock, to Al “Fuzzy” St. John, to Steve McQueen, to Jaws and to so much more. He worked as a film (later video) editor and cameraman and was notorious for pointing out mismatched cuts or a boom in the shot. That kind of thing drove most people nuts, but I thought it was cool. I started to read as many books as I could about filmmaking. (Remember, I’m old. No internet then.) I wanted to know how movies worked, how the moviemakers created that magic. I was doomed. I ended up going to film school and becoming an editor myself.
For me at 10 years old, Raiders was an awesome adventure movie with the coolest hero ever. Now, Raiders is still an awesome adventure movie with the coolest hero ever, but it also a work of art. Raiders was created by a group of people trying to recreate the feelings and the emotional connection they had as kids watching the Saturday afternoon movie serials, but to also take that up a notch with modern production value and three-dimensional characters. It is a matchless combination of a producer’s great idea, a writer’s near-perfect screenplay, an actor’s specific interpretation of a character, and a director at the top of his game. But then we can’t forget the incredible stunt work, the gorgeous cinematography, the superior (pre-CGI) effects, the sound, the music, editing…somebody stop me.
I’m certainly not alone in my views toward Raiders. In the 30 years since his first adventure graced cinema screens, Indiana Jones has become a pop culture icon. Three more movies, comic books, video games, novels, and a TV series followed featuring the intrepid archeologist. What is it about Indiana Jones that tapped into our collective consciousness? I don’t know.
My love for Raiders of the Lost Ark has not diminished as I’ve grown. In fact, each time I view the movie, I find something new to appreciate. Since there have already been petabytes of data produced analyzing Indiana Jones and his adventures, I thought I would isolate two small moments that I look forward to each time I watch Raiders. These are the areas that I watch, scroll back, and watch again. And again.
I really enjoy the way Spielberg juxtaposes his camerawork and the editing in his movies. The cinematic genius Alfred Hitchcock would describe “pure cinema” thus: you show a person, you cut to what that person sees, and then you cut back to the person to see his reaction. Filmmaking is the only art form that can do this; only cinema can use editing to create an idea. Often, what Steven Spielberg does is to show the person, and then swing the camera to show what that person is looking at, then swing the camera back to get the reaction. It’s as if we are standing next to someone and turn our head to see what he is looking at, and turn our head back to the person to see what he does. I love that. One of my favorite examples of this “Spielbergian” camera work occurs in the great old-fashioned barroom brawl scene.
The Raven Bar – Nepal – 1936. On the hunt for a rare medallion that will provide him with the location of the Lost Ark of the Covenant, Indiana Jones reunites with an old flame—Marion Ravenwood. The reunion does not go smoothly. Nazi thugs arrive, threats are made, fists are thrown, bullets fly, bodies fall, and the bar is set afire. Perhaps midway through the fight, a villain slams Indy down on the bar, holding him there. Indy sees Marion behind the bar. He quietly says, “whiskey,” and the camera pivots to Marion, who then looks up to her left. The camera follows the gaze to the whiskey bottle on the shelf above her. She grabs it and the camera follows her as she passes it to Indy, and he proceeds to smash it across the head of the ruffian trying to kill him. The camera move is so fluid, so smooth, and so simple, and yet it is also so full of energy. Even though I’m a video editor, I love it when a director sets up a shot and lets a scene happen in the frame without over cutting it. Spielberg and his editor Michael Kahn know precisely when to cut and when not to cut. Spielberg was coming off the bloated box-office failure 1941 when he made Raiders. He had to prove that he could shoot a movie quickly, on schedule and on budget. That meant fewer camera set-ups. However, he did not treat this as a hindrance. Instead, he used it as another tool to tell this story.