Raiders of the Lost Ark: tempering your nostalgia

by Sebastian Wurzrainer | 8/10/18 2:05am

Fedora. Bull whip. Leather jacket. Snarky smile. “Trust me.”

I need not say his name. Few images are as indelibly burned into America’s cinematic conscious as the profile of Indiana Jones. Likewise, few films are as highly regarded as his first outing, “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” Even Steven Spielberg, the film’s director, confesses that it is perhaps the only film of his which he can watch without a lingering sense of regret, disappointment and frustration.

While “Star Wars” was the true behemoth towering over my cinematic psyche as a child, it’s sister franchise, “Indiana Jones,” was never far behind. This makes sense given that the two are in many ways inseparable; the genesis of one lies in the success of the other. Yet as I grew older, my affection for “Star Wars” only increased, while “Indiana Jones” slowly joined the ranks of half-remembered films that had once been critical to my childhood. I mention this because I’ve long since had the opportunity to reconcile my childhood nostalgia for “Star Wars” with my more recent understanding of it in light of my introduction to critical film theory. Thus, I’ve been able to accept the franchise’s many flaws and accept that I love it nonetheless. The same cannot be said for “Indiana Jones.”

For the unaware, the Hopkins Center for the Arts will be hosting a free screening of “Raiders of the Lost Ark” at 8:30 p.m. later today. In preparation for writing a review, I decided to watch the film for the first time in years. I expected it to be little more than a reminder of everything I loved about the film as a child. After all, I had long since determined that “Raiders” was truly the pinnacle of its franchise. As fun as some of the sequels might be, none could compare to the original. Indeed, despite all the things I felt the need to re-evaluate after my re-watch, I never once questioned the film’s craftsmanship. It is truly a stunning  technical achievement. In 2014, director Steven Soderbergh published the film in black-and-white without the sound onto his website. He encouraged fans to instead focus on Spielberg’s staging and editing. It isn’t hard to see why Soderbergh felt compelled to use “Raiders” for his little experiment. Due to budgetary and technical concerns, Spielberg claims that he only shot three to four takes per scene, in stark contrast to his usual 30 or 40. Rather than diminish the film’s overall quality, these limitations explain why the final product is a masterclass in efficiency. 

Yet none of this belied the minor crisis brought on by re-watching the film after so many years. As I watched it with a friend, we both realized for the first time how pervasive the problem of Orientalism is throughout the film. Compound onto that its depiction of indigenous people and its valorization of the most problematic aspects of archeology, and you’ve got yourself one troubling viewing experience. It’s not that I wasn’t already aware of how applicable Edward Said’s theory of Orientalism is to films like “Raiders.” Rather, it’s one thing to conceptualize that and quite another to see it grotesquely represented on-screen. 

As both Spielberg and co-creator George Lucas have confessed, the conceit of “Indiana Jones” was heavily inspired by Scrooge McDuck comics and the adventure serials of the 30s and 40s. The aesthetic of “Raiders” is thus like an Orientalist mise en abyme. “Raiders” isn’t creating an original Orientalist vision; it’s copying that vision from the aforementioned inspirations, which were themselves undoubtedly imitating the pulpy adventure stories that preceded them, and so on. One can safely infer that malicious intent was never a factor in Spielberg and Lucas’s joint vision; rather, a woefully misguided affection for racist media was. None of this, however, negates the genuinely harmful effects of this imagery. 

In the midst of the crisis, I was reminded of one of my favorite film reviews of all time: Roger Ebert’s Great Movies review of “Raiders.” In it, he contends that the film is actually a subversive satire created by a Jewish filmmaker as a means of sticking it to the Nazis. Ebert argues that if “Schindler’s List” is Spielberg’s mature take on the Holocaust, then “Raiders” is the fantasies of a Jewish boy rightfully seeking retribution against some of history’s greatest monsters. Ebert notes that the film is littered with jokes and asides that viciously mock the fascism and anti-Semitism of the Nazis. Indeed, I had the pleasure of noting a few references that Ebert never mentioned. For example, when the Ark of the Covenant, which Ebert describes as “the most precocious Jewish artifact,” is branded with the swastika, it causes a rat excruciating pain; Jews were, of course, frequently compared to rodents in Nazi propaganda. Similarly, one character compares the Nazis to the Pharaohs, a clear reference to the enslavement of Israelites in Ancient Egypt. But is this satirical element, an element I had always admired, cheapened by the film’s Orientalism? Not necessarily. Rather, both facets of the film must be accepted in their entirety, even if they can never be fully reconciled. 

Coming face to face with the problematic side of a work of art that was important to your childhood is always unreasonably difficult. Even now, a part of me wishes I didn’t have to relinquish the naivete of childhood. After all, everything I used to love is still there. Indiana Jones is still Harrison Ford’s best role. Paul Freeman makes his rival, Belloq, easily the franchise’s most compelling villain. And Karen Allen still shines with fiery intensity as Marion Ravenwood, Indy’s love and equal. Besides, there are countless scenes that work beautifully, even in isolation. Marion seeing Indy for the first time in years; Indy and Belloq’s meeting in the bar; the confrontation with the cobra in the Well of Souls; the greatest truck chase of all time. Yet as wonderful as much of the film may be, its flaws remain. Recognizing that is essential to growing up. So, have fun tonight as you watch it. In the process, though, don’t let it dull your critical thinking skills. Because every film, no matter how beloved, is beyond reproach.