Anyone who grew up at Saturday action matinees knows the exhilaration of the “good parts”: Steve McQueen in The Great Escape, flipping himself on a motorcycle and out-wheeling the Nazis at every turn; Jim Brown in The Dirty Dozen, dodging German bullets as if he were back on the football field breaking tackles; Gregory Peck in The Guns of Navarone, setting the explosives on massive Fascist guns that…just…won’t…go…off…until their triggers catch and the screen explodes.
Raiders of the Lost Ark, the new nonstop adventure directed by Steven Spielberg for George Lucas’ film company, Lucasfilms Ltd., is the ultimate Saturday action matinee – a film so funny and exciting it can be enjoyed any day of the week. Every bit of it is “good parts.”
Howard Kazanjian, the co-executive producer, recalls how Lucas trickled his dream project down to his Lucasfilm associates. “He’d say, ‘I’m thinking about an adventure movie, something set in the Thirties or Forties.’ Then, a few months later, he’d add, ‘There’ll be Nazis, occult mysteries.’ And finally, he’d admit, ‘I’ve got the hero – a shady archaeologist named Indiana Jones.’ ”
Indiana Jones! The name conjures up visions of those jampacked movie serials Lucas loved to watch on TV as a kid in the Fifties. Lucas envisioned enough adventures to fill three movies beyond Raiders, as Indiana – known as Indy to his friends and closest enemies – careens all over the globe to battle evil. Lucas saw that Indy, as an archaeologist, could open up his audience to wonderful discoveries on earth as Star Wars did in heaven.
And that’s exactly what happens in the new film. The American government employs Indiana Jones to beat the Nazis to a buried treasure – the lost ark of the covenant, which the Bible says contains the remains of the stone tablets inscribed with the Ten Commandments. Indiana gladly agrees to lead the search, a decision he hopes will at last unveil the ark’s mythical secrets. The Hitler-era Germans, of course, are after the same thing – a state of affairs that creates cat-and-mouse, harem-scarem episodes all over the world.
It all began seven years ago when Lucas and another celebrated San Francisco-based filmmaker, Philip Kaufman (Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Great Northfield Minnesota Raid), began concentrating together on the then-untitled project, which Kaufman had wanted to direct. “There was an old doctor I went to in Chicago who was obsessed with the lost ark’s legendary powers,” says Kaufman. “And books have been written about Hitler’s search for occult artifacts, which he thought would make him omnipotent” What Kaufman did, simply, was to place these two separate elements together. And though Lucas and Kaufman went on to other things, Lucas firmly held on to Kaufman’s plot devices.
Over a year later, Steven Spielberg was vacationing in Hawaii with Lucas the week that Star Wars opened. Spielberg mentioned that he’d always wanted to do a James Bond-like picture, and Lucas replied that he had something “better than Bond.” Soon, Lucas’ and Kaufman’s lawyers made a deal (Kaufman still gets a coauthor’s credit), and Lucas signed Lawrence Kasdan to write and Frank Marshall to produce. When Spielberg’s 1941 and Lucasfilm’s The Empire Strikes Back were in the can, they raced to get Raiders to the screen. Associate producer Robert Watts and production designer Norman Reynolds, both Star Wars veterans, sped around the globe, scouting locations in France, Tunisia and Hawaii. Once filming commenced, Spielberg managed to beat an eighty-five-day shooting schedule by twelve days. As many involved said: “We wanted a super B movie.”
At a price of $20 million (cheap), they got an A-quality B movie – and more. Raiders of the Lost Ark doesn’t pretend to be anything more than pulp, but it’s witty, romantic, devastating pulp. Not only does Spielberg stage the action with unparalleled virtuosity and give the film a lavish, old-Hollywood look, but his startling flashes of humor also make the movie seem downright carefree. After battling a gargantuan bald German under the whirring propellers of an archaic Flying Wing, Indy tries to take a thirty-second breather. Then he sees a Nazi truck – containing the ark – hit the road; the prospect of catching up seems hopeless. Still, Indy rouses himself with his usual surly resilience, and when his friends ask what he’s going to do, he grumbles, “I don’t know, I’m just making this up as I go!” Though the movie closely follows Kasdan’s ingeniously plotted script, it too has an improvised feeling – partly because of Harrison Ford’s daredevil dynamo of a performance and the sparks he sets off with Karen Allen, who plays his lover and partner in adventure. Even little boys can enjoy this movie’s love story – there’s no “mushy stuff.”