Film review – Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

29 June 2012
Raiders of the Lost Ark: Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford)

Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford)

During the period when the New Hollywood era was winding down while the modern blockbuster was being born, one of the greatest mainstream films of all time was made. The story of Indiana Jones, an adventurous archaeologist in 1936 searching for the Ark of the Covenant before the Nazis find it, has lost none of the fun, wonder and excitement it had when first released in 1981. Director Steven Spielberg had already made his mark on cinema with films such as Jaws (1975) and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) while George Lucas, who conceived the story and was one of the film’s producers, had enjoyed success with films such as American Graffiti (1973) and the game-changing Star Wars (1977). Along with other key collaborators, Spielberg and Lucas made Raider of the Lost Ark into one of the most loved adventure films of all time, nostalgically recalling the adventure serials of the 1930s and 1940s that played before the main features in cinemas. Today Raider is a testament to the passion, respect, joy and knowledge that the filmmakers at the time had for cinema as an art form with the power to entertain on a mass scale.

While so much can be said about how entertaining Raiders is to experience once more on the big screen, what is notable about watching it again in 2012 is how progressive it is for an early 1980s boys-own adventure film. Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones is clearly masculine, but he doesn’t possess the hyper masculinity that would come to define many of the action films of the 1980s through characters played by actors such as Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Indiana is extremely resourceful and knows how to use his gun, whip and fists when required, but he’s not an indestructible superhuman either. He openly acknowledges his intense fear of snakes – to great comedic effect – and in the film’s opening sequence he states he is scared of the situation, compelling him to take extra precautions that then pay off. He can take a beating, but only to a point and the film is not afraid to show him knocked down. One of Ford’s greatest acting moments in the film is during his fistfight with a burley German on the airfield when Indiana gets punched and falls to the ground. He goes to get up to resume the fight, but can’t and the look of panic and bewilderment on his face betrays his realisation that his body is starting to fail. Moments such as this remind the audience that Indiana is human.

Like Ford’s other iconic character Han Solo from the original Star Wars trilogy, Indiana in also something of a rebel. He’s not an anti-hero, but he’s not clean cut either. He doesn’t play by any rules and has no problem abandoning notions of a ‘clean fight’ when he needs to. In most of the fight scenes Indiana uses dirty tricks to win, most famously in the scene where he shoots a swordsman challenging him to a duel. The stories about that moment being the result of on-set improvisation rather than scripting are now well known, but the important thing is how well the resulting moment captures Indiana’s worn out and no-nonsense attitude when it comes to fighting. He doesn’t care if he fights honourably or not; he just wants to get the job done without accumulating too much more mileage.

As the title of the film informs us, Indiana is a raider, or a plunderer, of rare and ancient objects. He doesn’t discriminate though – an ancient Peruvian treasure is just as worthy of his attentions as an Old Testament Christian artefact and he’s happy to remove both from their rightful resting places. His motivation is nobler than the Nazi villains, but he is still essentially grave robbing to satisfy an obsession with finding rare treasures of great archaeological significance. This leads to another important character trait that indicates why he is so likeable: he delivers the brain along with the brawn. He works as an archaeology lecture at a university to make ends meet while waiting for funding to come through for his next expedition, making him an underpaid and under-appreciated member of the education sector. He is not a tough guy sent on a mission, he’s not out for revenge, he’s not searching for his fortune and he’s not an Alpha Male thrill seeker; instead he is pursuing his intellectual curiosity, which back in 1981 could be portrayed as something that was appealing without cynicism. The fact that he was also a man of action makes Indiana Jones almost an anomaly in the action and adventure genres.

While Indiana may be seen as morally dubious in some regards, he is still the hero and that is best established by the presence of his ‘shadowy reflection’ in the form of rival archaeologist Dr René Belloq (Paul Freeman). Both Indiana and Belloq are raiders of ancient artefacts, except Belloq prefers to let Indiana do the work and then turns up afterwards to claim the prize. Both are pursuing the Ark of the Covenant on behalf of foreign powers and both would prefer to keep it for themselves, but Belloq is working for the Nazis and Indiana is working for the Allies, specifically the American government. Belloq wants the Ark to harness its power himself while Indiana wants it for its historical and cultural significance. Belloq seeks personal glory and power while Indiana wants to improve humanity’s understanding of the past. It’s individualism versus the common good.

Indiana may be yet another white, male hero – a character-type that is overrepresented in mainstream cinema to the point that it is often mistaken for the norm – but the film reflects a mostly enlightened attitude towards women and other ethnicities. Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen) may be the only female character in the film, but she is for the most part far from being a mere love interest or damsel in distress. Like she says to Indiana, ‘You’re gonna get more than you bargained for. I’m your goddamn partner!’ And indeed she is, at least in the first half of the film where she’s introduced literally drinking a man under the table, going on to shoot and punch the villains alongside Indiana, and even saving his life. Later in the film when she does require rescuing she remains tough, cunning and spirited. She’s assertive with Indiana to the point that their eventual love scene is preceded by her smashing him in the chin with a mirror and then getting impatient with him for complaining about how much it hurts when she dresses his wounds. The final punch line of the scene is that while she is ready to go, he falls asleep.

Similarly, despite having a character who steals cultural artefacts as the hero, Raiders is reasonably progressive towards other cultures. The Hovitos tribe at the start of the film are a threat to Indiana, but only because they have been unknowingly duped by Belloq. In the scenes set in Cairo it is established that a characteristic of the Nazis, whom Belloq is working with, is to shanghai the local population into working for them. The film therefore casts the villains as colonialist-type figures, who are the real threat to Indiana, not the local population working for them. After Indiana and Marion, the other major character in the film is Sallah (John Rhys-Davies) an Egyptian excavator. Sallah is privileged in the film for his knowledge, bravery, resourcefulness and kindness, and like Marion saves Indiana’s life. A smaller but significant role is Captain Katanga (George Harris) who also protects Indiana at a crucial moment. Raiders never goes out of its way to fly the flag of racial diversity, but in a film where the villains are a group notorious for their racial hatred it is notable that so many of the supporting cast that are portrayed as heroic are from a broad mix of ethnic backgrounds.

Curiously the follow up to Raiders was Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984), which was set a year earlier, but went back many more years in terms of its representation of gender and race. The female lead was, to quote Kate Capshaw who played the part, ‘Not much more than a dumb screaming blonde’ and the depiction of Hinduism and Indian culture drew a lot of understandable criticism for being wildly inaccurate and grotesque. Indiana is also a far more mercenary and macho character, making him much less likeable than the roguish yet evolved version that appears in Raiders. Although Temple of Doom is still an enjoyable guilty pleasure, it is fortunate that the third film in the franchise, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989), is far more in the spirit of Raiders.It’s anybody’s guess what Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008) was trying to achieve.

Watching Raiders of the Lost Ark again in 2012 is a strange yet rewarding experience. So much of the film is recognisable having been continually imitated and parodied over the past 30 years, and yet it still feels fresh and exciting. It is such an overt exercise in nostalgia, doubly so now that it is playing to audiences who remember it from when it was first released, and yet its inventiveness allows it to hold its own with anything released since. Indiana seems like such a conventional character, but his mix of intellect, action, charm and deviousness distinguish him from so many other iconic action heroes. Raiders is a classic and repeated viewings, especially when presented properly on the big screen, only reinforce this further.

Thomas Caldwell, 2012

Film review – Labyrinth (1986)

5 April 2012
Labyrinth:  Sarah Williams (Jennifer Connolly) and Jareth the Goblin King (David Bowie)

Sarah Williams (Jennifer Connolly) and Jareth the Goblin King (David Bowie)

In the quarter of a century that has passed between Labyrinth first appearing in cinemas in 1986 to now being digitally remastered, it doesn’t seem too outlandish to suggest it is on its way to becoming a children’s fantasy classic. Similar to the books loved by the film’s young hero, which include Peter Pan, Snow White, The Wizard of Oz and Where the Wild Things Are, Labyrinth is a wildly inventive and imaginative adventure story combined with a parable about maturity. While not a success upon release at the time, Labyrinth now has cult status to the extent that it does feel like part of the collective folklore that includes all the fairy tales, fantasy stories and mythology that it references.

Unlike director Jim Henson’s equally magnificent previous feature film The Dark Crystal (co-directed with Frank Oz in 1982), Labyrinth is more traditionally a family film. Its young star Jennifer Connolly is Sarah Williams, who has to solve a perplexing labyrinth in order to save her baby half-brother Toby (Toby Froud) from Jareth the Goblin King (David Bowie), after she impulsively wished that Jareth would take Toby away. The presence of Monty Python’s Terry Jones as the films only credited screenplay writer (there were others) ensured that the film was filled with plenty of humour and absurdist touches. Much of the humour in the film is memorable, such as the farting and belching Bog of Eternal Stench, while other comic flairs are so subtle that they are only discovered after several viewings, such as the two milk bottles waiting to be collected outside the doors to the Goblin Palace.

Watching Labyrinth again in the cinema for the first time since its original release, the most striking aspect of the film are its visuals. Combining the puppetry magic of director and legendary creator of The Muppets Jim Henson with the concept design of fantasy illustrator Brian Froud (who previously worked with Henson on The Dark Crystal), Labyrinth is a gorgeous demonstration of ‘old school’ special effects that rely on matte paintings, puppetry and other in-camera visual effects with restrained use of post production computer generated effects. There is a tangibility to the film that makes its dream logic inspired sequences and playful manipulation of perception even more impressive.

Bowie’s presence in the film is both a complete oddity and also perfect. In terms of his music career, Labyrinth came out at a low point between the recording of his two weakest studio albums and yet the songs he performs in Labyrinth are terrific. There’s the fun ‘Magic Dance’, the darkly romantic ‘As the World Falls Down’, the celebratory ‘Underground’ and the strange and menacing ‘Within You’, which is performed during a striking scene inspired by MC Escher’s lithograph print ‘Relativity’. Bowie is marvellous as Jareth and gives the seductive yet cruel character the same otherworldly intensity that he had used for the various personae he had adopted during his music career. The only unanswered question about his role in the film is what were the filmmakers thinking when they fitted him out with those grey tights? Was the intention to provoke delighted snickering all these years on?

It is within some of the film’s more surreal moments that the underpinning themes of maturity and responsibility are best expressed. The heroic journey that Sarah must take to rescue her half-brother is a parable for the emotional journey she must take to let go of childish things and become less selfish, without completely losing her ability to imagine and dream. She has to navigate a tricky path between freeing herself from childish impulses without succumbing to adulthood cynicism and dangerous suitors. The labyrinth and its inhabitants are physical manifestations of her imagination, with the objects in her bedroom seen at the start of the film appearing throughout the labyrinth as living creatures. Sarah moves between her bedroom, the labyrinth and a sort of dreamscape world often without logic explanation. In one key scene she falls from her hallucination, into her bedroom and then the labyrinth’s rubbish tip pours in making her realise that all the material objects she has hoarded are meaningless junk.

While Sarah’s experiences in the labyrinth teach her the importance of taking responsibility, caring for family and the harsh life lessons that nothing is fair and things will always change, the film is also careful to not suggest that she should completely ‘grow up’. In fact, the greatest threat Sarah faces is forgetting about her childhood during the scene where she hallucinates herself attending a masquerade ball, which represents the world of adulthood. The other guests wear false faces and even Sarah appears distorted when she sees herself in the mirror. Despite all the tricks and traps of the labyrinth, this adult space is where people are most not what they seem. Sarah anxiously searches for Jareth, who delights in her confusion and distress, like a manipulative lover. As both tormentor and much older seducer, the truly sinister intentions behind Jareth’s behaviour is spoken at the end of the film when he confesses that all he wants is for her to ‘Just fear me, love me, do as I say and I will be your slave.’ It’s a classic plea/demand of a controlling, self-pitying and dangerous obsessive. Fortunately Sarah has become a much stronger character and remembers the crucial lines required for such a person – ‘You have no power over me.’

Labyrinth has stood the test of time astonishingly well, and it’s extraordinary looking back at the personnel involved; not only Henson, Jones, Froud, Bowie, Connolly and Henson’s team from Jim Henson’s Creature Shop, but also George Lucas as one of the film’s producers and as people who saw Being Elmo will know, it was also the first major production that Kevin Clash worked with Henson on. The resulting film is truly a testament to the creative energies of all involved, but most of all Henson who did so much in making high quality entertainment for people of all ages that was fun, imaginative, not afraid to be subversive in content or form, but most of all humane. It was Henson’s final feature film and a wonderful gift from a person who really did make you believe that even as you got older, everything magical that you treasured from your childhood and all your imaginary friends were never too far away. Should you ever need them, for any reason at all.

Thomas Caldwell, 2012

Film review – American Graffiti (1973)

22 April 2011

American GraffitiAt first glance American Graffiti appears to be a nostalgia trip back to the early 1960s, the teenage years of its now legendary filmmakers – producer Francis Ford Coppola who at the time had just directed The Godfather and writer/director George Lucas who would go on to create the Star Wars franchise. Made in 1973 and set over one summer night in a small town in California in 1962, American Graffiti depicts the adventures and misadventures of a group of teenagers on the brink of adulthood. Upon closer reflection American Graffiti casts a bitter/sweet shadow over a time of perceived innocence, suggesting that the ideal of a simpler way of life was just a front for a far bleaker and cynical reality. It’s one of the all-time great feel good films, but its sly cultural commentary is what makes it the masterpiece that it is.

In many ways American Graffiti set the template for the coming-of-age teen film. The characters are all distinctive types and the film is set over just one night, where the revelations that the characters experience have a profound impact on how they view themselves and their place in the world. The four main characters are the nice guy Steve Bolander (Ron Howard), the tough drag-racing guy John Milner (Paul Le Mat), the awkward nerdy guy Terry ‘The Toad’ Fields (Charles Martin Smith) and the slightly whimsical Curt Henderson (Richard Dreyfuss).

American Graffiti: Curt Henderson (Richard Dreyfuss)

Curt Henderson (Richard Dreyfuss)

Over the course of the night all four characters are either revealed to the audience in a new light or see the world around them in a new light. Steve’s treatment of his high school sweetheart Laurie Henderson (Cindy Williams) suggests that under the small-town politeness and boyish good looks he is not such a nice guy, while John is shown to be a bit of a softy. More importantly John realises that by becoming the king of the road he faces a future of either being eventually usurped by a young challenger or forever being a big fish in a small pond. While Terry learns the more conventional lesson that being himself is enough to impress a girl, it is Curt’s story that is most interesting.

Curt has the most reason and opportunity to break free from the path set out for him. Unlike Steve, who was presumably always destined for college, Curt seemingly would have been destined to remain in his childhood town with John and Terry if he hadn’t earned a college scholarship and therefore his ticket out. On the eve of his departure he is nervous and anxious about leaving, making his night a journey of self-discovery to assess what he should do. While hankering for the past and developing an impossible and intangible obsession with a mysterious blonde woman in a Ford Thunderbird, Curt finds fewer and fewer reasons to stay. Like Truman in The Truman Show, Curt sees behind the scenes for the first time and it changes his entire worldview. His teenage years are over now that he can see that the world is much less glamorous, noble and exciting than it once seemed.

American Graffiti: John Milner (Paul Le Mat)

John Milner (Paul Le Mat)

The car has long been a symbol in American cinema for freedom and status, and in American Graffiti cars play a very important role in the lives of the characters. Cars are status symbols to admire, they are used to assert dominance when revved at traffic lights and they can take the characters out of town to secluded spots for make-out sessions. As the cynicism begins to creep into the film images of car crashes increasingly become a fixture in the film in dialogue, setting and storyline to once again indicate a dying mythology for both youth and America in general. As the lyrics ‘We’ve been having fun all summer long’ by The Beach Boys fades over the film’s final credits, it is difficult to shake off the sad feeling that now that summer is over the fun is over too. It won’t ever be the same again and now the characters have little to look forward to other than mediocrity or worse.

American Graffiti functions as a final farewell to childhood dreams before reality steps in. The main sting in the tail is that the film also signifies the end of the post-WWII American Dream. It is especially telling when Curt is teased about his ambition to one day shake hands with President John F Kennedy. Audiences now and in 1973 will recognise that Curt will never fulfil that ambition as a year later Kennedy would be assassinated.

American GraffitiFor the most part American Graffiti is a joyous and frequently very funny vicarious night in the life of a likeable group of characters. The film’s multiple intersecting narratives and exhilarating constant use of diegetic music (heard by the characters in the film as well as the audience) create a wonderful sense of time and place. American Graffiti has lost none of its charm or energy, making it one of the many great masterpieces of the New Hollywood era.

Thomas Caldwell, 2011

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