The original post for this episode can be found here.
John August: Hello and welcome. My name is John August.
Craig Mazin: My name is Craig Mazin.
John: And this is Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters, such as a little 1981 movie called Raiders of the Lost Ark. Perhaps you’ve heard of it, Craig?
Craig: Raiders of the Lost…? No. Raiders of the Lost…what?
John: Ark. Ark with a “K,” not with a “C.”
Craig: Oh, I always thought it was Raiders of the Lost Art. I’ve never seen the film, but I hear it’s quite good.
John: Well, in later years it was remarketed as Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark.
Craig: Oh, that movie! [laughs]
John: That’s the movie. And so it was directed by a guy named Steven Spielberg who went on to have a pretty successful career and is up for an Oscar this year, which is…good for him. He’s continuing to work. The writing credits on this film are by Lawrence Kasdan — pretty successful writer in his own right — George Lucas, and Philip Kaufman, who collaborated on story.
The actual collaboration that formed Raiders of the Lost Ark is also documented in these audio transcripts which are fascinating reading, which we’ll link to in the show notes. It’s basically these long, day-long sessions where Lawrence Kasdan, and Spielberg, and Lucas are all sitting around a table talking about how they’re going to make this movie, which is great reading material I’ll also link to.
Craig: They are fascinating to read. I mean, amazing to read those. So much fun seeing the genesis of something that you know is going to turn out to be incredible. And, well, I guess we’ll talk about it as you wish. I have so many things to say about one of my favorite movies ever.
John: So, I thought we’d do something a little different this week, and we’re not going to talk about anything other than Raiders of the Lost Ark. Because so often on the podcast we’re talking about little small things, or little bits and details, but it’s very hard for us to talk about the whole movie, or things like structure, or things like set pieces, or sort of how everything works together, because we can’t expect people to read a whole screenplay and be following along with us.
And it’s hard to talk about movies that are in theaters right now because people may or may not have seen them. Most people will have seen Raiders of the Lost Ark. But, I figured it would be best to start with a summary of what actually happens, because I watched it again this last week and I had this sort of memory of what happens, but actually the story unfolds in a different way than I’d remembered.
So, I thought I would talk through a quick summary of what’s going on. We can start and stop a little bit and talk about what’s happening structurally before we get into some of the detail work, okay?
John: Great. So, here’s a plot summary of Raiders of the Lost Ark:
We first meet Indiana Jones and he’s making his way into this Peruvian temple, this lost temple that’s filled with booby traps. The classic moment where he takes the idol, puts the sandbag, and everything seems to be going great. And, of course, everything starts going very, very wrong.
There’s an associate named Satipo, who is played by Alfred Molina, who portrays him at a certain point, and like three seconds later gets killed by one of the booby traps.
We have the giant rolling boulder sequence — iconic moment. Indiana Jones gets out of this temple and is outside and he’s met up with by Belloq — who is going to be the villain of our story — and a whole bunch of native tribespeople who take the idol from him. He barely escapes with his life. He gets onto a seaplane and flies off into the sunset.
That is your opening sequence to Raiders of the Lost Ark.
Craig: Perhaps the best opening sequence of any movie. Ever.
John: Yes. And it’s quoted endlessly from The Simpsons to everything else. All the little small detail moments of, like, grabbing your hat, and the way everything keeps getting worse and worse and worse, and suddenly flying off at the very end.
Craig: And I know you’re doing a summary, but if I can just interject, that opening sequence with also the addendum of where we next meet Indiana Jones is a master class on how to start a movie. It is a master class.
Everything that the movie is about is going to happen in the first ten pages. The tone, the characters, their weaknesses, their strengths, their internal flaw, the promise of what the movie will be, the spirit of the adventure, the rules of the world — everything is not only packed in perfectly, but it’s packed in interestingly and dramatically. It is a master class on how to begin a movie.
John: Craig, how long do you think that opening sequence is? I have the answer.
Craig: From the logo turning into the mountain up until the point where he and Jocko, or Jock, fly away?
Craig: I would guess it is 4.5 minutes.
John: 13 minutes.
Craig: It’s 13 minutes? God, isn’t that incredible?
John: Isn’t that incredible? Really it’s amazing because you realize there’s actually quite a bit that happens here. So, as debates and things come up, I actually have it on my iPad so I will be able to tell you exactly how long things go.
Craig: Isn’t that amazing. Boy, that just… — Man, you know when you talk about page count, and how, you know, a lot of times you’ll get these notes, “Oh, it’s taking forever because it was 15 pages.” You know what? 15 pages goes by in the blink of an eye if they’re interesting. And two pages can be molasses forever if they’re not.
John: Yes. So, as we talk though this, and we’ll go back to the actual plot summary, but one of the reasons why I wanted to bring this up on the podcast today is I think this movie is fantastic. Everyone needs to watch it because it’s great and I love sort of every frame of it.
But, there is a lot of stuff that happens in this movie that if we were to do in a movie right now we would get criticized for. And that’s not saying that we’re right now and they were wrong then or vice versa. It’s just there’s a lot of stuff which actually doesn’t sort of fit the expectations of the kind of movie that we make now, which is ironic because is the template for all the kind of movies we make now.
When we talk about set pieces we’re really referring back to Raiders of the Lost Ark to a large degree. And so much of how it does its thing is different than how we would do it now.
John: And we would be called to the mat for some of the things that work great in Raiders.
John: So, about 13 minutes in, the plane flies off into the sunset, and now we are back to visit Indiana Jones in his normal life as a university professor, to a really quick class, his archeology class. His students are in love with him. The girl has “I love you” on her eyelids. There is a weird little moment where the guy puts an apple on his desk, which I’ll talk about later on.
John: There’s a scene with Brody, who is a museum curator who is essentially his boss. And Brody says the Army wants to meet with him. We then have quite a long scene where the two guys from the Army explain that the Nazis are looking for something. I’m actually giving the Wikipedia summary because it’s pretty complicated what actually happens in this scene.
So, the Army says that they’re looking for Abner Ravenwood, who is Indiana Jones’s old mentor. Ravenwood is the leading expert on the ancient Egyptian city of Tanis and possesses the headpiece of an artifact called the Staff of Ra. Indiana deduces that the Nazis are searching for Tanis because it is believed to be the location of the Ark of the Covenant, the biblical chest built by the Israelites to contain the fragments of the Ten Commandments; the Nazis believe that if they acquire it, their armies will become invincible. The Staff of Ra, meanwhile, is the key to finding the Well of Souls, a secret chamber in which the Ark is buried.
And that’s a huge mouthful and I think I want to circle back around to this later on to talk about how well Kasdan does this scene and how he keeps our hero driving the scene despite all the exposition that’s in there.
Craig: Again, a master class. I love that scene. Maybe it’s my favorite scene in the movie. And I’ll talk about why with you as well when we get to it.
John: So we’ll circle back and get to that. After that scene, which is a five-minute scene, there’s a quick moment back at Indiana Jones’s house where Brody says the Army has authorized his trip to go look for the Ark before the Nazis get there.
So, we’re at 22 minutes into the movie at this point. We’re in a seaplane to Nepal. We’ve got our first animated map. Also on that plane is the first time we see the Nazi dressed in black. There’s this Arnold Toht. “Tote” I think we’re supposed to pronounce it?
Craig: Toht (tote), which is essentially the German word for death.
John: Death, of course, perfect.
Craig: Although, his name is never mentioned in the movie.
John: Oh, how nice.
Craig: Yup, we only know that from afterwards from the credits. But no one ever says his name in the movie.
John: No. So, we are arriving into… — We know that Indy is going to Nepal, but interestingly here for the first time we break perspective and we have a scene with Marion Ravenwood, who is Abner’s daughter, and Indy’s former lover. And she’s in a drinking contest, another iconic moment that’s been quoted a lot of times, where it seems like she’s not going to be able to finish the shot, but then she finishes the shot and is able to drink the other.
I always just thought it was a man, but you watch it again, “Oh, it’s a woman.” She drinks the other person under the table. So, breaking perspective is an important thing that happens here because it establishes — well, we’ll say why it is important, but we do break perspective when we see things from only Marion’s point of view.
Indiana Jones arrives. He explains what he’s looking for. He says he’ll give her $3,000 for this headpiece, for the Staff. She says she’ll think about it. Indiana Jones leaves. Toht arrives. Toht wants the headpiece. He will torture her. Indiana Jones arrives and we have the second big set piece of the movie which is a big fight in this bar. Over the course of this fight the whole bar burns down. Toht get his hand burned on the blistering hot headpiece of the Staff.
Indiana Jones and Marion are safe and alive and Marion says, “I’m going to stick with you because I’m your goddamn partner.” So, they are going to be searching together for this next step of things. So, they still have the headpiece but they know the Nazis are onto it to.
This is 33 minutes into the movie. This is where we could argue is the end of the first act. You could also argue the end of the first act was flying off to Nepal, but this feels sort of more like that moment.
So, Indiana and Marion travel to Cairo where we meet Sallah, an old friend of Indy’s. He says that Belloq and the Nazis, led by Colonel Dietrich, they’re digging for the Well of Souls. And somehow they have a replica of the headpiece. And at this point it’s not established how they have a replica of the headpiece. But, we’re establishing this. We’re meeting Sallah’s family. We meet this charming little monkey who ends up being one of the most despicable creatures in cinema.
Next we have our third big set piece, which takes place in a bazaar. I’m not entirely sure quite what Indiana Jones and Marion are doing in the bazaar, maybe shopping for supplies for this trip I guess, sort of. But these Nazi operatives try to kidnap Marion. They want to get the Staff. They want to get the headpiece.
It ends up being a big giant fight and we have some other iconic moments that happen in here. We have a lot of comedy fighting; a lot of choreographed comedy fighting. We also have the classic Indiana-Jones-pulls-out-the-gun-and-shoots-the-sword-guy. A lot of moments that you really remember.
What I didn’t remember is that Marion dies in this sequence, or at least Indiana Jones thinks that Marion dies.
John: Following this there’s a short scene with Indiana Jones and Belloq where Belloq talks about their differences of philosophy. Indiana Jones starts to pull his gun. He’s just going to shoot him. All of Belloq’s men pull their guns on him. Indiana Jones is rescued by Sallah’s children who say, “Uncle Indy, Uncle Indy.” And for whatever reason these guys won’t kill the children, so the children escort Indiana Jones out. And he is safe at the moment.
With Sallah, Indiana Jones realizes that the Nazis have miscalculated the height of the Staff, the headpiece it’s supposed to be attached to, so therefore they’re digging in the wrong place, so they decide they need to go to the excavation site and find it for themselves.
They infiltrate that. They use the Staff of Ra to figure out the right place on this giant map of the building, of sort of the compound, whatever you call that place — the ruins. A nice little visual effects sequence there where they show the sun and the Staff and all of that working.
Along the way — and again, a moment I had forgotten — Indiana Jones actually finds Marion there tied up and realizes she’s still alive. And he leaves her there because he’s like, “Well, you’re going to get in the way, while the men folk need to go and find this place.”
While Sallah and Indiana Jones are excavating the real place and getting into the Well of Souls, we actually intercut. We intercut between them and Marion and Belloq who are having another drinking contest. And, again, I had forgotten sort of how all this worked. But there is actually quite a few scenes with Belloq and Marion during this time, sort of letting time pass as we’re cutting back and forth between them.
Down in the Well of Souls they find they Ark of the Covenant. And you’re like, “Wow, this is really kind of early in the movie to be finding the Ark of the Covenant,” but they do. They find it. They get it out of the Well of Souls, out of the hole, but Belloq is there, and the Nazis are there, and they are not going to let Indiana Jones out of there. He’s going to be trapped down there with a bunch of snakes. They throw Marion down there and they seem to be trapped down below.
Knocking over a statue, they’re able to escape the Well of Souls, and then we get into our fourth big set piece which is a fist fight on an air strip. We’ve got the giant Nazi mechanic. You have a plane flying around. You have Marion trapped inside. Classic sort of escalation of things and a lot of things blowing up.
That leads right into our fifth set piece which is Indiana Jones trying to chase down the truck that’s carrying the Ark of the Covenant and trying to stop it before it gets shipped to Berlin. He succeeds in doing that.
Indiana Jones and Marion leave Cairo on a pirate ship to take the Ark to England. It’s really vague about sort of whether they hook up and have sex or if he just falls asleep, but it’s a romantic moment.
The next morning their boat gets boarded by Belloq, Dietrich, and all the Nazis. They take the Ark back. They kidnap Marion. Indiana Jones stows away on their U-boat and follows them to this isolated island where Belloq’s plan is to test the Ark to make sure it works before taking it to Hitler. This is 96 minutes into the movie.
Indiana Jones disguises himself as one of the other Nazis. He has a rocket-propelled grenade; he’s going to blow up the Ark unless they release Marion. Belloq calls his bluff and says, “You won’t actually do it,” and he’s right. They take Indiana Jones, they tie him and Marion to a post. Belloq opens the chest, the Ark, a big visual effects sequence which was probably incredibly difficult at that time to do.
John: Indiana warns Marion not to look into the light, not to look into what’s actually happening. They survive. The Nazis all melt. And they survive.
John: Cut to back in DC. They say that the Ark is now someplace safe. Everything is okay and everything is going to be fine. Indiana Jones seems a little bit unsatisfied, but that’s the end of this part of the story. And the final sort of shot shows that the Ark has actually been loaded into a crate and is tucked into a warehouse never to sort of be opened again, at least for quite a long time.
And that’s our movie.
Craig: That is Raiders of the Lost Ark. Now, there is so much to discuss. So much beautiful writing in this. So much exciting writing. So much smart writing.
You and I should really have Larry on. One of the great blessings of my life is that I’ve come to know Larry Kasdan and he is an amazing guy. I love counting him as a friend because I do feel like Larry Kasdan is one of the giants of our craft. And I include all of it, from the beginning of making movies to now. The breadth of the films he’s written and directed are astonishing in their range.
This was one of his finest moments. Larry was kind enough to sign a poster for me because my son became obsessed with Raiders of the Lost Ark, as well he should have been. And I just want to talk through all of the wonderful things from a screenwriting point of view that Larry accomplished. And I want to also give George Lucas credit, because when you look at those transcripts of those early story sessions, there are moments that are breathtaking when you read it because — look, let me take step back on George Lucas:
Everybody gives this guy a hard time. You know, after Star Wars, you know, he made some movies, he was producing some movies, but the prequels came and everybody gives him crap. And the fourth Indiana Jones, everybody gives him crap. But you look at those story sessions and there are ideas coming out of him fully formed that are in the movie.
George Lucas says, “No, no, no, no. He should have a whip.” But Spielberg — and I’m sorry, I’m going to just ADD this for a little bit — Spielberg has a moment in those transcripts, if I’m remembering correctly, that is astonishing. He’s just sort of sitting along, going along with Larry and George. He’s tossing some ideas out; frankly, a bunch of them are bad.
Craig: You’re thinking, “Gee, Steven Spielberg has some bad ideas.” Feet of clay, I’m heartbroken somehow. And then suddenly he goes, “Oh, I have a great idea,” which is always a weird thing to say to people because what if it’s not a great idea. He goes, “I have a great idea. When he’s in that temple he should set off a booby trap and there should be this enormous rolling boulder that comes after him. And he’s running and this thing is just right behind him.”
And you go, “Oh my god, he really did have a great idea, fully formed.” So much cool stuff went on in that story session. If you’re a screenwriter, you’ve got to read that stuff from start to finish. It’s amazing. But, anyway, do you want to go through the beginning? How do you want to do this?
John: Is there anything in the opening set piece that you want to talk through in more specific detail?
John: Because it’s really terrific.
Craig: Okay, so look. Putting aside the incredibly directorial flourishes that made that set piece what it is — you know, even the simplest thing, the very beginning of the Paramount mountain dissolving to an actual mountain, them moving through. The guy saying, “Poison. The Hovitos are nearby. It’s three days fresh.” There’s all this wonderful tension that’s growing and we don’t even see Indiana Jones’s face until someone turns on him. One of his own guys turns on him and tries to kill him. And Indiana whips the gun out of his hand.
And in that moment we learn so much already. We learn that, A) Indiana Jones is a badass guy. We learn that this is a movie where treachery is woven in already into the very fabric of it. Who do you trust?
And we also learn that he has this incredible skill of whipping things out of people’s hands. It’s such a wonderful way of doing it. You know, when we talk about stacking things, it’s a simple screenwriting error to say, “He’s really good with a whip; let’s show him whipping cans off a fence.” [laughs]
How about this? How about instead let’s show a moment of treachery and in that moment of treachery bake in this new information that this guy has this incredible ability to whip things out of your hands. But when they go in to that place, the people around him are running away. They literally don’t want to be near him anymore because he’s approaching someplace that is supernatural and evil to them. And Indiana Jones is completely unconcerned with that.
He is essentially a skeptic. He’s a scientist. He is there after an artifact because it belongs in a museum. And that right there, when those guys run away, is what this movie is about. Indiana Jones doesn’t believe. He instead — his passion for the items, the artifacts has eclipsed his faith in other things, in bigger things. So, that’s just baked right in there without anybody saying a word about it, which I loved. It’s all sub-textual.
There’s incredibly clever and exciting things that go on in that cavern, beautifully smart things like — and wonderfully when Indiana Jones is replacing the idol with the sand because he’s smart enough to know, smart enough to know, that you can’t just take it off that thing, which is also new information to us. He’s afraid.
So, we have now this other thing. He’s not afraid of whipping guns out of guys’ hands, but he is afraid of what the people who built this temple have designed, the way a scientist would be. He’s not afraid of the demons, he’s not afraid of the legends, he’s afraid that darts are going to shoot out or something is going to happen to kill him. Wonderful.
John: I would also clarify: He’s a skeptic but he’s a gambler. Because even at that moment where he’s using the sand to replace the idol, he’s guessing. I mean, he’s like a little bit more, a little bit less. I mean, he’s estimating, it’s like, “Yeah, this should probably do it.” and that’s a crucial thing for not only who this character is, but what this movie is around him.
This is a movie where he will sometimes get lucky, but he will sometimes get unlucky. And because you don’t know which way the coin is going to land in this movie, that keeps you engaged.
Craig: Yes. And he’s passionate. Because in this moment he knows enough to know this is very dangerous. He knows enough to know that he’s guessing. In fact, there’s that wonderful bit while he looks at the sand and decides, “No, I’m going to take some sand out,” which is a fatal error — he second guesses himself.
But his passion…
John: Well, Craig, we don’t necessarily know that. Maybe he actually needed to take more sand out. Maybe it was too heavy.
Craig: That’s true. It’s possible. He miscalculates one way or another, but his passion for the object overrules his sense of self-preservation. He has an obsession, which is very important when we start to talk about Belloq, because then wonderfully after he escapes that huge rolling ball, after we see that Satipo, his guide, played by Alfred Molina beautifully, is dead because of his stupidity. See, Indiana Jones is smarter than everybody. And other people are subject to greed where he is not.
After he escapes all of that, there’s Belloq. And Belloq is his shadow in the best possible way. Paul Freeman, I believe, is the actor, a wonderful actor. And he says, “Once again we see that there is nothing you can possess that I cannot take away.” And here, at last, we see the opposite of Indiana Jones; a guy that is ruthless and willing to kill because he has the same passion — he wants The Thing.
And what’s interesting is later we’re going to find out that these two men are very, very similar. In that wonderful scene in the bar after Indiana Jones is drinking himself to death because he thinks Marion is dead, here comes this guy who says, “These Nazis, that’s not me. I’m working with them because I have to. I don’t care about Nazis. I don’t care about any of this. I don’t even care about money. I want The Thing, just like you do. It’s just that I’m willing to go the extra step to get it.”
So, we have this wonderful villain setup, who is not a mustache-twirler, who isn’t motivated by anything different than Indiana is. He’s just more ruthless about it. And as Indiana Jones escapes, [laughs], we see that he’s definitely afraid of snakes. And what’s so smart about the way Larry did this is that it’s played as a joke. So, the joke is you just whipped a gun out of a guy’s hands, you just went through this death tunnel, you just escaped a rolling ball, you just ran away from a bunch of crazy Hovitos with their blow darts. But snakes are what gets you crazy. [laughs] That’s really cute.
And, of course, quietly setting up something big for later on. Wonderful sequence. Amazing.
John: Well, the snake moment, it’s the one last thing. So, you believe that you’re safe. You believe, like, we’re in the plane, the plane is taking off, and then you realize there are snakes. It’s that moment of like, “Okay, we’re actually here. It’s going to be okay.” And then the snake becomes the one more thing and that’s a terrific little moment.
Craig: Yeah. And a great little performance from Harrison Ford, as he’s running, and we’ve already established that hat, how important the hat is to him, which is a wonderful character touch. This is a man of specifics: His hat and his whip mean a lot to him. And he’s running and he’s got his hand on his hat so he doesn’t lose his hat. And there are all these people running behind him trying to kill him. And he’s, “Start the plane!” He’s screaming in total panic to start the plane.
And that humanity is why he’s funny. He is the opposite… — It’s funny. The inspiration for Raiders of the Lost Ark were all the wonderful serials of the ’50s, but those were the old school heroes, like Doc Savage. I don’t know if you’ve ever read any Doc Savage books when you were a kid?
John: No, I didn’t at all.
Craig: Doc Savage was this wonderful pulp fiction series. I think it was, I want to say ’30s and ’40s. I could be a little off there, but in that general zone. And a lot of what Indiana Jones is is inspired by Doc Savage who is this — Doc Savage, Man of Bronze. He was a brilliant guy. He was a doctor. He was a scientist. He was a surgeon. He was an inventor. He was strong. He wan tan. He was amazing. And he would go on these incredible adventures for artifacts and things and come back. But he was all hero. No fear, ever, the way that James Bond often had no fear.
And here’s this other side of it, of a very human person in the middle of all of it. So, you have in this entire sequence we’ve watched, what we’ve seen absorb on one level is excitement of booby traps, and scares, and thrills. But underneath it Larry has packed in this incredibly rich character that’s going to pay off huge.
John: Who is damaged, and afraid, and funny, and isn’t always right, which is so crucial.
John: So, after this wonderful open set piece, which could be a movie in and of itself — if you could do that as a Pixar film, you could just make that its own movie, and like, “Oh, that’s a terrific little short.” That is all sort of packed up together. — we never see that idol again. We don’t care about that idol. It’s just a thing. It was just the topic of the first little movie.
Now we get onto our real A-plot of the film, which is back at the university. We have a very perfunctory kind of teaching of a class scene. And so he’s talking, you know, it’s just enough lines of dialogue to let us know that he actually does have undergraduate students. That he really is a professor. That he’s not just this wild adventurer and he actually can teach a class, and he can wear glasses. And it’s acknowledged that even in this world everyone does find him attractive, so that’s helpful.
Craig: And yet he’s incredibly modest and oblivious.
John: Yes. But then we get to our real showcase scene, which is the Army has come to talk to him about Hitler and everything else and sort of setting up; once you sort of bring Hitler into it you know, “Okay, well there’s the plot.” Once Hitler’s name gets mentioned we know that there’s actually some real serious stuff at stake.
So, what I found so interesting about — and I really do want to focus on story rather than staging — but this moment, this scene in which the Army comes and talk to him, it’s something that could take place in a little small office, but instead it’s staged in this very big lecture hall, really huge, like 15 times the size of the room you actually need to stage it in. I think largely so because Spielberg recognizes like, “Man, we’re in here for a very long time and I need to be able to move around this space and give some air to this.”
So, it’s very smartly done, directorial-wise, but just in its writing. You look at all the moments that Kasdan has found for Jones to really be leading the conversation, even though the other people are coming in with the challenge and the quest, he’s the one that actually has the information that can get us moving along. He’s the one that actually knows what the city of Tanis is. He is the one who knows this guy. He’s the one who knows what the Staff is and what it’s supposed to be doing, and that you put the Staff in and light goes through it.
He’s setting up so much stuff that seems so important for the back half of the movie, including what actually happens when you open up the Ark. He’s showing us the picture of what this is going to be so we know the stakes of what’s really involved here.
John: It’s really an amazing sequence.
Craig: It really is. And leading up to it, as they’re walking into this auditorium, Denholm Elliott, who plays the curator of the museum and is sort of like Indy’s boss. And he’s saying, “I had it. I had it in my hands. God, I can get it back. I can get it back.” You see his singular obsession over this item. And Denholm Elliott is saying, “It’s okay. Don’t worry about that. And, yes, we’ll buy the other things, but just don’t worry.” This guy is saying, “I’m worried about you.” Without saying I’m worried about you he’s saying, “You’re obsessed over the wrong things.”
And then they enter this auditorium and I agree with you. At first you’re like, “Why do we need this huge room?” And I think part of it, not only aesthetically is it nice to be in this big room, but what is going to be discussed in here needs to be in a big room, because what is discussed in here is of enormous importance. It is metaphysical. It’s cosmological.
And we learn more in this scene than just the details. We also learn what ultimately is the hinge of the character piece of this movie. These CIA agents are saying, “We have a problem. We think that Hitler is looking for this thing. And we are concerned that if he gets it he could use it as a weapon.” Whether they know it or not, the CIA agents are believers. They’re believers because maybe they’re just paranoid and they need to believe everything just in case something turns out that way. They’re very sort of dispassionate and calculating.
Denholm Elliott, on the other hand, Indy’s boss, you can tell is more of a believer. Because like Indy, he’s an expert; he knows that this Ark is tremendously powerful and of great significance and in an evil man’s hands could be something terrible.
But not Indiana Jones. And this is why this scene is so amazing to me. He starts talking with great passion about the Staff of Ra. He starts explaining it. And we are into it because he’s into it. His passion sells us. And this is an important lesson for those of you who are looking to get through exposition — make somebody care. Because what we’ll latch onto is their passion. It’s less about the details; it’s their passion that we love. And he’s talking about the objects and the trick of it, and Tanis. I mean, he and Denholm, they found Tanis. They get so excited because this is the obsession of the object for him.
Craig: But when the CIA agents look at this picture in the book that Indiana shows them of the Israelites carrying the Ark, the open Ark, and this wonderful image of power shooting out of it. They say, “What’s this?” And suddenly Indiana Jones loses interest entirely. And this, to me, it’s the best moment in the movie. He goes, I don’t, something like — I’m paraphrasing — something like, “Lightning, thunder, power of God,” or something. He doesn’t believe it at all. To him, that is hokey baloney.
That’s not what this is about. Hitler is after that. The CIA is worried about that. Denholm Elliott is worried about. But not Indiana Jones. All Indiana Jones wants is The Thing.
John: Yeah. He sees it as an opportunity rather than a crisis.
Craig: Yes. So great. It’s so great.
John: Going back to this moment of exposition, and it’s such a crucial lesson that the things that are said in this story, like the important story points, like my little Wikipedia summary, the CIA people could have known a lot of that ahead of time. They could have found out other stuff and they could be telling this to Jones’s character. It wouldn’t work at all.
And it’s because our hero knows this information, and our hero that we like and trust and believe can speak with authority on this topic that we’re listening to it. If another person came in and delivered this information, we wouldn’t care and you would cut most of it out, or you’d cut the whole scene out. You’d reshoot it somehow because it just wouldn’t work.
You certainly couldn’t sustain five minutes of it if it were someone else telling you all this information.
Craig: Quite right. And the other thing that that accomplishes is it makes us understand, without saying a word, why they want him to do it. Why this guy? Because he knows and we don’t.
John: I will say, just stepping out of this specific movie for a moment, I don’t think even Kasdan could get away with this scene right now. I think at its length it would be under such a microscope for how much stuff is put in this scene. They would ask you to break this into two moments, or just to not let it be this. Or, “Can we walk to a new place while we’re doing this?” Because it does — just looking at it on the page, not seeing it shot — you say like, “Well that’s just too much. That’s just too long. That’s too long of a scene.”
Which is unfortunate, because there are reasons why movies should have some scenes that are setup this way. It’s great.
Craig: Yeah. That’s why they are wrong. And this is why we talk a lot about what is the ideal way to develop a screenplay and make a movie. And I’ve said “writer and director, writer and director, writer and director.” Because what a writer and director know is the proper relationship between what’s on the page and what will be on the film. And it’s very hard sometimes for other people to see that.
They know that this is going to be delivered passionately. They know that there is going to be drama inherent to this conversation. They know that the theme of the movie and the character’s — call it flaw — or his stasis that’s going to change is all gorgeously buried in this wonderful stuff. They know it. And a lot of times other people who don’t make movies, who literally sit and write them and then shoot them, don’t know.
And, so, how did you get away with this back then? Because you had Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, and Larry Kasdan. And they said, “We’re making it this way and that’s the way we’re making it.” And that’s it.
John: Yeah. Done.
Craig: And that’s the way it should be now. And, by the way, I’m not saying to our studio friends who are listening to this, “Therefore you should just trust every threesome of yokels in your office to do stuff.” No. But try and work with Spielberg, Lucas, and Kasdan as much as you can, [laughs], because when you have guys that know what they’re doing, and they’re excited about something, trust that — trust that passion. It will work out.
John: Yeah. A scene I’d forgotten until I rewatched it this week, there’s actually a quick scene after this at Indiana Jones’s house.
John: Which we never go back to in the whole rest of the movie. Brody says that the Army has authorized the trip. And so we have basically just Indy packing and wearing a robe. And it’s an odd little scene, and it’s a scene that you think you could cut out. What’s crucial about it is it establishes that Marion Ravenwood exists, and that’s Ravenwood’s daughter, and that they have a history.
And we also see Indiana Jones tosses in his gun into the suitcase. It’s not my favorite scene of the whole movie, but it’s a helpful scene to sort of establish that Marion Ravenwood exists and in a scene from now we’re going to be spending time with her and that’s who this woman is.
Craig: Yeah. And what I do like, I mean, granted, in terms of everything we’ve seen up to that point, it’s like, okay, that’s just a regular scene. But, again, smartly what it does is it creates an anticipation that they’re going to better, which I always like. Let the audience think they’re going to get the same old meat and potatoes and then give them great meat and potatoes. They’re really just setting up that there is — that this relationship, that he has to actually go talk to the one person he really didn’t want to talk to, and it’s a woman. And they had a romantic past. And you go, “Okay, that’s going to be whatever.”
But when we meet her we realize it’s actually so much tougher than that, which is wonderful. And that’s where we go next.
John: Yeah. The other reason why I think the scene may actually help the movie, even though it’s not a phenomenal scene by itself, is it is short. And we’ve come out of such a very long scene that if we went directly into the Marion sequence in Nepal, which is also a very long sequence, we’re like, “Ah!” like everything just seems very long.
It’s nice to break up the rhythms a little bit, to have a nice little small moment here.
John: So, we’re going from here to the seaplane to Nepal, which is a completely new environment. And what I like about this movie is it doesn’t double back on itself. Once we sort of hit the road, we are on the road, and we’re going to get back to home at the very, very end, but once the road trip starts we’re on the road the whole time through.
John: We get to Nepal. The first time we break perspective — and this is a really crucial thing. Up until this point in the movie every scene has been driven by Indiana Jones. We’ve not had a scene in which other people are leading it. We’ve had the cutaway to Jock at the plane like fishing, but that’s like five seconds before Indiana Jones is running to him.
This is a whole scene being driven by a character we’ve never seen before. And the first time you choose to do that in a movie is really important because it’s putting a lot of weight on this person. And she is the white, beautiful, English speaking person, and we clearly know that she is an important person because she’s getting to drive the scene all by herself.
And so that was an important choice to make. Because you could have just, like, had Indiana Jones walk into the bar and find her there. And by giving her her own moment ahead of time, it greatly elevates her position.
There’s a movie you and I both helped out on a little bit that exactly that discussion came up. It turns a movie from being a one-hander into a two-hander if you early on establish that someone else has the power to drive scenes by herself.
Craig: That’s right. And it’s so important here because Marion Ravenwood, what we come to understand without them ever spelling it out, and again Larry is so good at this, is that the problem between the two of them ultimately is that Indiana Jones had an issue seeing this person as a person but as that Thing — his obsession over things.
The deal with Indiana Jones is he becomes obsessed with these things and sees them as thing-ness but doesn’t see necessarily what’s so important about them. He has a problem putting his faith in things. And you can tell when they do — from the bits and pieces of the story you put together — that he just didn’t love her the way he should have.
And what’s so nice about this scene is that it presents her as somebody worthy of that kind of affection. So, she is beautiful and she’s special, and she’s also formidable.
Craig: I mean, the way we meet her, screenwriters are constantly — constantly — trying to “how do I meet somebody in an interesting way, so not just buying groceries.” That first moment I see somebody should tell me something about them. Well, god, did they nail this one! She is a beautiful woman who is strong as an ox. She is going to be tough.
And he wants something from her. So, you know, we know he’s going to get something from her, and then the next thing Spielberg and Kasdan show us is, “Good luck, because she is tough.”
John: We also know that she’s damaged though. No undamaged woman owns a bar in Tibet. There’s backstory there. And even though we’re not going to get all the backstory, we get a sense that something has put her here in life, and that’s interesting, too.
Even though in the movie we don’t really explore all that much backstory on her, we feel like she existed before this scene started, which is crucial.
Craig: Great point. Because a lot of times what we run into is this problem, well, what’s going on in this person’s life that they can just pick up and go on and adventure with a guy? And here they use that to their advantage. She is hidden away from the world. She could leave this place any time she wants. The whole point is she’s hiding from things.
So, now her decision to go with him is an active choice that relates to her prior choices. It’s not simply an, “Oh my god, a handsome man came here. I think I’ll go with him somewhere.”
John: Yeah. Now, there’s a moment here I don’t love as much. Basically she says, “Well, I’ll think about it.” And he says basically, “I want the headpiece. I’ll give you $3,000.” She’s like, “I’ll think about it.” And then it reveals that she actually does have it and she’s thinking about it.
The evil Nazi arrives. Toht arrives with some thugs and is going to torture it out of her. And Jones returns. And it’s a little bit of a false exit. I do wonder whether in the development there was something more given to like where he was in this interim moment. It works fine, because we sort of know he’s going to come back at some point and probably save her, but it is a strange little moment for me that as I watched it again this last week I was like, “Huh, that was a little bit of a stutter step there.”
Craig: Well, maybe I’m just so deep into my hero worship of this movie that I excuse everything. But for me what I always liked about that moment was that this guy hurt her. And he’s offering her something, and he’s offering her something connected to her father, because it was her father’s medallion. And it’s something that means something to her and she doesn’t believe, or know, that she can really trust him because of what he’s done to her. So, it was rational.
Granted, his return is convenient.
Craig: On the other hand, it is proof positive to her that perhaps Indiana Jones is trustworthy now.
John: Yeah. This fight in the bar, this set piece, is really terrifically done. And it has a lot of comedy and it has a lot of sort of those slap-sticky kinds of moments, but there’s also a lot of like people taking knives. And there’s a fair amount of blood in it, too. And the whole bar is burning down. It’s a great escalation. It’s really well-choreographed and establishes that this is the kind of movie where people are going to get into fisticuffs. They did a great job of it.
Craig: Fisticuffs and death. The stakes of this movie aren’t soft-shoed, you know, or soft-pedaled. And there’s that one wonderful bit where the guy dies and all the blood spills out of his mouth and he keels over in this bar. And you realize that the movie is not pulling punches. This stuff is for real. It just makes everything seem so much more exciting.
There was a time when studio movies weren’t so shy about real violence. And that really kind of blossomed in the ’70s as a reaction to the soft-pedaled, fake, cartoon violence of movies that had existed prior. And you can see that continuing here. That’s the thing, interestingly, when I watch the movie now where I think that’s what they would have the biggest problem with today.
I mean, look at Spielberg’s movies, or even the movies he produces like Transformers. There’s no blood in Transformers, you know? It’s a bloodless action because there’s this fear that somehow this will turn people off when, in fact, in the right context it’s incredibly dramatic and effective.
John: From here, the bar burns down. She says, “I’m your goddamn partner.” And so they’re going to be traveling together to Cairo which is our next big set piece.
It’s interesting when we get to Cairo, it’s sort of like a “let’s catch our breath and have a nice little happy moment.” And so it’s Sallah with his family and the charming little monkey. And there’s opportunity there that we could get into a lot of exposition and sort of talking about the A-plot, and we decide not to. And so instead it’s sort of a happy moment.
Then we go out into the street and we very quickly get into our next set piece which is the big fight in the streets of Cairo, the classic sword fighting. There’s just a lot of terrific detail work in here, but again, very much in a comedy perspective, like hiding in baskets.
John: And it’s much funnier than you remember it being.
Craig: Yeah. Exactly. I mean, the idea of that whole sequence is fun, you know. The bar sequence was dangerous. Toht is a dangerous man who is threatening to torture here. And the death in there is very real and bloody. And then this suddenly is fun. And that’s okay because the importance of that sequence to me is we’ve left our old world behind. We’ve now entered this new world of mystery and we don’t want to just completely blow our wad by going crazy.
Again, that’s not what this movie is about. It’s about adventure and it’s about treachery. And this is really where we get that next wave of treachery. The monkey can’t be trusted. No one can be trusted.
John: Yes. The monkey will give a Heil Hitler salute which is just…
John: …wonderful and bizarre. And it’s absurd and yet it largely makes sense within the context of the movie. And the tone of the movie is pushed enough towards comedy that you can accept that like, well, this happens in this kind of movie. And that’s okay. That little monkey; like to make me want a monkey to die, a charming little monkey to die. I mean, you write movies with monkeys.
John: To actually make the movie where you hope that the monkey dies is a strange feat, but they do it for you.
Craig: Yeah. We made a character out of a monkey. I mean, the monkey in Hangover II is definitely a psychopath. I don’t even think it’s in the movie. I think we cut it out, but there was line — it was always one of my favorite lines — where after the monkey gets shot Alan says, “Oh, no! They shot the monkey!” And Phil turns around and goes, “Who cares? He’s a drug-dealing piece of shit.” [laughs]
Craig: Which is true. And I think we might have cut it out because people really did love the monkey anyway. But, I like bad monkeys. And this monkey is truly the king of all. He’s the Godfather of bad monkeys.
John: Yeah. He also seems to actually understand English. It’s not just that he can follow commands; he’s actually like listening and like sort of doing — he’s far, far, far too smart, and yet it actually kind of works in the context of the movie.
Again, a thing I’d forgotten until I watched it this week is that Indy does believe that Marion is killed because he sees the truck that had the basket he thinks has her blow up. And he believes that she’s dead for a moment. And then he gets a really great little quick scene with Belloq to talk about their differences in philosophy which is, again, a moment you love to be able to find because it’s so challenging to find moments of which your hero and your villain can talk in a meaningful way about something and yet still believe that they can have a rational conversation and wouldn’t just kill each other immediately.
Craig: Yeah, I mean, the notion — I often think about second acts as heroes starting to see glimpses of another way of living their lives. And those glimpses can be challenging and they challenge their central belief of how the world is on their way to eventually realizing, “No, this is how I should live. This is the way the world is.”
And here in this moment where Marion gets killed, we see Indiana Jones coming face to face with the fact that he might care about something more than just its objectness. That there maybe is more to life than a Thing. That perhaps he should even go home because there is something that is more important than finding this object of desire.
So, it’s a brilliant little thing to do to his character because he doesn’t abandon the quest, but he is knocked back on his heels and almost surprised by the depth of his own emotion about it.
John: Yeah. Let’s talk about the next two set pieces because one of the things I think that writers often get sort of perplexed about is like, “Well, how much do we need to focus on plot versus how much to focus on sort of big set pieces?”
As you look through the transcript they really were thinking about set pieces. And, yes, they were thinking about story and they were thinking about sort of what leads to what leads to what. But they were also talking about what are the big set pieces. What are the action pieces that sort of can build in here? And there are things that didn’t make it in here, like a coal mine chase that made it into the next movie.
You do think about those things sort of as packages. And the next two packages in this movie is the big fistfight on the airstrip, and the plane spinning around, and then the chase where he’s chasing down the truck on horseback, which is just beautifully done, and the whole truck sequence.
You really have to think about these things the same way if you were making a musical you would think about, “Where does the song go?” and “Where is the dancing?” because they are these big moments. And they need to — they’re going to be complete little packages in and of themselves. And you can take any one of these little set pieces and break out it out as its own little short film and it has a beginning, a middle, and an end. It has escalation over the course of it.
And think about these little moments. And sometimes they do slide around as you’re figuring out where the movie goes, but you can’t make this Indiana Jones without this set piece. It just doesn’t make sense.
Craig: Right. It’s true. And, again, what I appreciate about that stuff, because to me… — Look, there are a lot of movies that have amazing set pieces. For instance, The Island, the Michael Bay movie, has one of the best car chases I’ve ever seen in my life. It’s stunning. The problem ultimately is that we didn’t quite care enough about the characters and the situation before or after it to raise it to the level of Oh My God.
But here what happens before that stuff is, again, keying off of this notion that Indiana Jones’s life view is being rattles is he’s now forced to make choices. He comes into the tent and he finds Marion there. And he makes a choice to not just leave with her, but to go get the thing.
He’s struggling, [laughs], even when he finally — and then she gets thrown into the pit with him. When they escape, and that’s always a wonderful thing when characters are essentially sent to their death and die, and then escape. You know, so that’s the moment where he dies in the movie to me. And he is reborn when he comes out.
Something inexorably has changed in him. He still pursues the object, but that experience with Marion, you just know something has changed inside this guy. If he started this journey obsessed about an item, now there is this woman who is now on equal footing with the item. He is being torn between the two. And it becomes very important as you proceed through.
John: Yeah. Going back to his burial moment there, I think one of the crucial things that you have to remember as the writer is you want to make things as difficult for your characters as possible at all times. And so, you know, sealing him into that chamber, which there’s absolutely no way that he can escape from, is a good thing because you should make things absolutely impossible. If they had established earlier on that there was some other way out of there, it wouldn’t be meaningful at all, because it wouldn’t have resonance to us.
But the fact that we know it’s just that awful that he’s in there makes it exciting, makes it thrilling, makes it have real weight to it. And so, again, the way they figure out to break out of it is really, really clever and is believable in the course of the world, but it’s great that we didn’t have any inkling that it was possible beforehand.
Craig: Right. And in that moment, when they put them in there, first of all we have the wonderful deliciousness that it’s full of snakes, thousands and thousands of snakes. So, we’ve taken his tiny nightmare and blown it up to absurdity. So, our fear in watching this is not just the fear of the circumstances of fake skeletons and snakes. It’s our sympathetic fear with the character who’s afraid, which is wonderful.
The other thing that’s so smart is when it comes time to put Marion in there, Belloq doesn’t want to put her down there. The Nazis put her down there, if I’m remembering correctly.
John: You are remembering absolutely correctly.
Craig: And that tells us, too, again, that these two men have something in common. And what we start to feel when we see movies where heroes and villains share obsession is that the hero is not so much fighting a person to just get a thing; they’re fighting themselves. Belloq is Indiana Jones. The whole thing of fighting Belloq all the way though is just an externalization of what he’s fighting in himself.
John: I agree. And by finding those sort of small moments where a character who you despise — Belloq — you feel like this little glimmer of sympathy for him, for just a moment, as they throw Marion in. It’s like, oh, well I feel — I mean, obviously I feel much worse for her, but it’s like, “Oh, they’re even dicks to him,” is sort of a great change.
Craig: Yes. And his regret is the sort of diminished regret. It’s lacking the humanity of Indiana Jones’s regret when he thinks Marion dies. His regret is, “Ooh, that’s a shame. That’s a waste of a beautiful thing.”
Craig: You know, and I love that. Because Indiana was drinking himself to death because that was a waste of beautiful human that he loved. And that’s where these two guys are different. And that’s where Indiana Jones is separately himself from Belloq, which is wonderful.
John: Yes. So, I just looked through on my copy of it. And so the truck sequence is a nine-minute sequence. It’s a big, hefty chunk of your movie. And so, so often you think about like, “Well, it’s just one little note card on the board.” Like, “Oh, there’s the truck sequence.” That’s a tremendous amount of movie taking place there. And so there’s not a lot of A-plot story happening there. It starts at a place and it goes to a place, and in the course of the big movie there’s not a lot that actually happens there.
But, in terms of the experience of watching the movie, that’s one-twelfth of your movie is just that truck sequence. And it’s a beautifully done sequence. And, a lot of things which I guess we’ve seen excerpted so many other times since then about sort of how people get onto and off of vehicles and that stuff, but it’s so smartly done.
And evenly the climbing onto the front of the truck. And so you’ve seen Indiana Jones do it, and then you see the other guy try to do the same thing and have the different outcomes, when you jump in with both feet through the window, how that works. You see Indiana Jones get shot in it. Like he gets shot and actually really hurt. And he gets punched in the same arm where he got shot before.
There are very specific details and you really feel it because, wow, that would really hurt a lot. It’s just incredibly smartly done.
Craig: It’s an amazing sequence. And as a kid I think it was one of the most formative things for me. When I look back at what influenced me and how I write things now, when I write comedy, when I write action comedy, I’m always thinking back in a weird way to that sequence, not so much for the mechanics of the car chase itself, which is gorgeously done, but for the human rhythm that’s going on.
And the human rhythm of that scene is this: “I gotcha now. Oh no, you got me now. Oh no, I got you now.” So, there’s this wonderful ebb and flow of confidence, and it becomes most clear when it’s Indiana Jones versus the one guy who knocks him through the windshield. Indiana Jones goes over the hood, goes underneath the car. Manages with that kind of incredible homage to the great…Yakima…
John: Being dragged by the horse, yeah.
Craig: What’s his name, the great stuntman?
John: I don’t remember his name either. The being-dragged-guy, yeah.
Craig: Being dragged by horses and stuff. And so they’re doing this amazing homage to him going under the truck. He comes back around. He beats that guy — he knocks him through the thing and now we laugh because that guys is in the same spot. [laughs] It’s so great. And so that kind of, the kind of switching of control in those situations is why those sequences are so much fun for me because that, again, it just connects back to what’s human.
And I think sometimes in modern action they forget that because they become obsessed with the stuff, you know, the noise and the light.
John: One of the also great moments is about two-thirds of the way through the sequence they show the back of the truck and you realize that, “Oh that’s right, I forgot there’s other Nazis in the back of that truck.” And there’s a shot of them looking, “Wait, should we do something now?” And so they start to climb on the outside of the truck. And you realize that Jones doesn’t have a count of how many people are actually in the back of the truck, so he’s not expecting that they’re going to be jumping in on him, too. It’s a great sort of, you know, another escalation. Like, “Oh yeah, we forgot about that thing.”
John: And it was great that you did not remind us about them until it was actually useful to remind us about them. And it’s very smartly done.
You love movies where the minor characters are doing smart things, and they’re actually doing reasonably smart things and getting hurt in the process.
Coming to the end of the sequence, I will confess that I got a little frustrated that Jones conveniently knew exactly where to drive the truck and have people hide him away. I’m glad he escaped. It felt a little wonderfully convenient that he could do that.
But, he got through the sequence and it was terrific and we all clapped. It was a big sort of flourish at the end. And it’s like a button. It’s a nice little “and now the sequence is done.” The curtain can come down now. The curtain will rise as we’re aboard this sort of pirate steamer tramp ship theoretically headed towards London.
Craig: And take note for those of you who decide to go back and watch this movie: The scene at the dock when he’s talking to Sallah, and the pirate captain, and arranging for transportation and then Marion kisses Sallah, there’s one very long take that Spielberg does there. And just about everybody else would have covered it traditionally. And he just does it in this wonderfully old-school wide shot with this great tracking bit that allows him to change the perspective of where the camera is from whose point of view to whose point of view.
It must have taken forever to block. It’s gorgeous. It’s like a…I’m giving Larry a ton of praise, and he deserves it. I also want to give Spielberg, who I think is incredible. I think Spielberg is just unreal. And what Spielberg does there directorially is, again, a master class on how to stage a scene in a way that you wouldn’t normally think about doing.
John: Yeah. It seems really weird to say that Spielberg is underrated, but watching this movie again I was like, “Oh yeah, he’s kind of underrated.” Like, if something terrible had happened and he weren’t alive for the last 15 years, you’d go back to these movies and like, “Oh my god, he was a genius,” and it’s absolutely true.
He’s done amazing things since then, too, but you just look at this early work and you’re like, “Wow, he really is fantastic. There’s a reason why he’s Steven Spielberg.”
Craig: Yeah. I don’t know if he’s underrated as much as he’s taken for granted.
John: That’s a better way to say it.
Craig: It’s like, “Well, we’ve always had Spielberg and he’s always done that Spielberg thing. And thanks for those great Spielberg movies, Spielberg. But what am I supposed to do? Applaud for you? That’s what you do, you’re Spielberg.”
Yeah, you’re supposed to applaud for him because it’s really, really hard. And he’s incredible. He is singular. I just think… — I met him once, [laughs], and it was so surreal for me. You must have met Spielberg.
John: Well, I made three movies. I worked with him a lot of times.
Craig: Oh, you did, which one?
John: So, Steven Spielberg was attached to Big Fish originally. He was attached to Big Fish for a year, and so I did development with him. I did work on Minority Report with him. And then I did Jurassic Park III for him.
Craig: Oh, that’s right, I forgot, of course, Jurassic Park III. Well, look, you’ve had this wonderful experience. I’m super jealous. I just think he’s incredible. Just incredible.
John: He was one of my last sort of star-struck moments in the sense of I remember during the second Charlie’s Angels, or no, I’m sorry, during the first Charlie’s Angels it looked like Spielberg might sign onto Big Fish and so I said, “Hey, McG, is it okay if I use your office because I need to take a phone call.” And he’s like, “Oh, yeah, it’s fine.” And so I took it and he’s like, “Oh, who were you with?” I’m like, “Oh, Steven Spielberg.” And you can see — it was just so much fun to be able to say, “I have a phone call with Steven Spielberg.”
And just being so nervous on that phone call. And he was lovely. He’s great. He’s wonderful.
Craig: I just think the world of him. Anyway, so they get on the boat, and then, you know, this boat thing to me is — you know, sometimes studio executives or producers will say the following without understanding really what the point is. They’ll say, “Well, and then there’s this low point.”
The low point isn’t always, and this is to me the end of the second act, and the low point isn’t always, “Oh boo-hoo me.” For me, the low point is the character has lost his way. The character is separated from the confidence that they had in the beginning of the movie that this is the way the world is and this is who I should be. They have not yet, however, gotten to a place that they will eventually get to where they have a reformulation of, “This is the way the world is and this is how I think I should be.”
They are trapped between two things. Indiana Jones at this point is with Marion. She is kissing him. And he, in a sense, is — this is the point where he’s not sure. Am I supposed to be with her, or am I supposed to be with my thing?
John: Well, and very quickly he gets to pursue them both because the Nazis are going to come and they’re going to take both of them away from him. And that is very classically the worst of the worst moment that’s happening at 96 minutes into the movie, kind of exactly where you would hope for it to happen.
What I do find interesting is watching the movie again you realize how early he actually gets the Ark. Considering that the movie’s name for the quest to get this Ark, he actually has it in his possession quite early on in the movie. It just keeps getting taken away from him.
John: And it’s, again, a thing that I think development notes would say like, “Oh, he shouldn’t actually find the Ark until the very end of the movie because that’s the quest.” It’s like, well, that’s actually not going to be how it works. That’s not the point.
Craig: That’s exactly right. And that’s my problem with treasure hunt movies is that what you get in the end is treasure. Whoop-Dee-Doo.
See, that’s why I love the way they did this. And they had to give him the Ark in the middle of the movie because you need this moment when it’s taken away from him with her. And you said it perfectly. The Nazis take both of the things he wants. And now he’s going to go through this super human U-boat riding experience, and we’re not sure who he’s after exactly. He’s not sure who he’s after. That’s what is so wonderful about it. That’s why it has to be this way.
In the end we don’t care about treasure. We care about people.
John: Yeah. So, ultimately he’s going to steal this rocket launcher. He has a moment where he has them pinned to this little rocky valley and he says, “Let go of the girl or I’ll blow up the treasure.” So basically it seems like he’s made his choice.
Craig: He’s made his choice.
John: Yes. But, of course, Belloq is able to — like, “I know you will not actually destroy this thing, this precious artifact.” And he hesitates and ultimately does not fire. And then he gets taken from behind by the other Nazis.
I will say, again, in watching this this last week, I wasn’t completely sold on his little moment there, but I think it was a very nice idea for like this is the choice he’s made. It seems, like, “Okay, well I’ve got you pinned here.” He had the upper hand and realizes when he actually has it in his sights that he can’t do it.
Craig: Well, he can’t do it for a couple of reasons. First, let’s remember something important that happens right before the sequence, before he gets on the U-boat, while he’s having his moment in his bunk with Marion on the boat, Spielberg cuts to a shot of the crate that the Ark is in — the crate the Nazis had used to package it. And there’s this wonderful base rumbling sound. A rat keels over and dies. And the Nazi symbol is obliterated by essentially a spreading burn.
And we realize, oh god, it’s real. It’s not just a chest. [laughs] The stuff in the beginning, remember that wonderful scene in the auditorium where he was like, “I don’t know, thunder, lightning, the power of god or something.” Yeah. Power of god. It’s real.
But Indiana Jones doesn’t know that which is important. You don’t want to have your character see evidence of something he must demonstrate faith in. Very important.
Craig: When he gets out there on the cliff he’s going to blow it up, “Let her go or I’ll blow it up,” and Belloq is saying, “No. I’m not going to let her go. If you blow it up you’re going to kill her, too. You’re going to kill all of it.” And he says to him, “You and I are just passing through history. This — this is history.”
And in the moment when Indiana Jones lowers the thing, he’s not just saving Marion from being obliterated. You might think, “Well, oh, is he saving the Ark?” No, because Belloq has the Ark. What he is finally doing in that moment is giving himself over to the fact that this is not just an object. He is demonstrating faith that this is actually something bigger.
In a weird way, it’s a faith that Belloq has always had because, you know, minutes later when Belloq is preparing to open up the Ark, his Nazi cohort is saying, “I’m a little uncomfortable with this Jewish ritual.” But Belloq is completely into the Jewish ritual because Belloq is a believer. It’s just that Belloq is an immoral believer. He’s willing to do anything ruthlessly to get to the power inside. And now Indiana Jones is a believer, and that’s when he’s switched over. It’s pretty remarkable.
John: Yeah. Now, the actual opening of the Ark releases big gruesome visions of the angels of death. There’s wonderful melting. It’s terrific. One could criticize that our actual hero has very little to do in this sequence…
John: …other than to say, “Oh, just don’t look at it.” Oh, that’s a good choice. But you have to say that his hero’s quest, and his arc, has been to get him to that place, and to be the person who doesn’t get melted by god because he’s smart enough to know what not to do.
John: So, they seem like they’re tied up like they’re sacrificial people there, but they’re actually not sacrificed and it’s all the evildoers are put away.
Craig: Yeah. It’s the moment where he expresses the faith. When he tells Marion, “Shut your eyes,” he is saying, “I now believe that there is the power of god in this thing. That this is not an object. And if I believe in the power of god then I believe, in fact, that things like you and me are more important than a chest.”
And so that is the choice he makes. I know people will say, “Well he’s just, it’s a weird thing; your hero is tied up and he’s just passive.” He’s incredibly passive; he can’t even move his feet. He shuts his eyes, which is a huge deal in a way when you think back to where the movie started. And that’s what’s so wonderful about this, and frankly, is a lesson for those who are developing screenplays and writing screenplays who run into a kind of cookie-cutter objection to something like that. You need to articulate why it matters. And you need to articulate why in a subtle, interesting, different way the character actually is being active, and in fact is defying everything that’s led up to this point in his life.
It’s wonderful. It’s the best. Love it.
John: That said, I would recommend that if you have your own movie and you end at a place where your hero and the girl are tied up and a terrible event is happening right next to them, that’s been done. So, maybe don’t do exactly what Raiders of the Lost Ark did.
Craig: Oh, for sure, yeah.
John: I wouldn’t use, like, “Raiders does it” as a defense to do exactly that same kind of thing. Because, I did feel some frustration there, even though I loved and enjoyed the movie, this wasn’t my most favorite spot. And I don’t have a better solution for this moment, but it wasn’t my most favorite thing of all.
You would love to see him make a choice at that moment. And his choices were sort of taken away from him. He was able to make a choice in not destroying it a few beats earlier, but, yeah, that’s…
Craig: Yeah. He makes a choice not to destroy it, and he makes a choice to believe. And, granted, those are not action choices. On the other hand, the movie had so pumped action into that point that in a weird way it’s hard to imagine any action at that moment trumping what had come before. It’s almost like now we come to the place in Indiana Jones where daring do and hijinks and bravery are not what is required. What is required now is faith in something larger, the very thing you never had.
Craig: But, I grant you it is an incredibly unorthodox choice. I think it works amazingly personally.
John: Yeah. Our last sequence sort of harkens back to the — it’s a joke but it’s also sort of the serial nature of what this is, and I think also very smartly feeds into the acknowledgment that this also the same time that they were building the nuclear bomb. Because the whole establishment of, like, this is the mission and Hitler is working on this thing, the parallels for this obviously are that Hitler is doing this thing, but that’s really talking about the A-bomb. It’s talking about the nuclear research.
So, it’s so fascinating that at the end of this story it’s like we’re going to take this incredibly powerful artifact and Jones is so worried that they’re going to study it, like what are they going to do? Do they know the kind of power they have. “Don’t worry, we have our best people working on it.” So, our assumption is like, “Okay, well we’re going to see the Manhattan Project.” They’re going to be doing this and then they just stick it in a warehouse someplace.
John: It’s a nice meta joke for it.
Craig: Well, it’s a great joke that the wonderful line is Indiana Jones says, “Well, what are you going to do with it?” And the CIA says, “We have top men working on it.” And Indiana Jones looks at him, like top men? Obviously he’s the top man. He goes, “Top men? What top men?” And the guy says, “Top men.” And then you see it being shoved away because they don’t know what to do with it.
But then the nice part is Marion says, “Hey, hey,” essentially, “look at me, I’m right here. Forget the object. It’s just an object. I’m real.” And he goes with her and it’s wonderful. And then we cut away to see what happens to objects, and the proper fate of objects which is to be stuck in warehouse and ignored. Wonderful.
Just wonderful. I mean, every choice…I just…and there’s so…the intelligence behind everything. The cleverness. It’s just unreal.
We’ve got to get Larry. I’m going to reach out to Larry.
Craig: We should talk, I mean, he’s the most wonderfully grumpy person in the world, so it will be a really funny podcast. [laughs] But I would love to talk to him about… — And he won’t, by the way. That’s his thing. “Eh, who wants to talk about that? What are you doing?” That’s his whole thing. Like, “Who cares what I’m doing!” Talk to me about Raiders of the Lost Ark.
John: Well, Craig, thank you so much for talking through Indiana Jones with me.
Craig: It was a pleasure. I could talk for 20 hours about it and annoy everybody. I hope everybody goes and watches it again and reads the wonderful transcripts online which I know you’ll post a link to. And I’m going to sing, “I am the Merchant…I’m Merchant of the Sea.” What is that song?
John: [laughs] Yea, what was it? I think it’s Merchant of the Sea.
Craig: [sings] “I am the merchant of the sea.”
I’m going to sing that now.
John: That sounds good. There are a couple more links that are going to be at johnaugust.com. So, we have the transcripts, a link. I also have a link because on Twitter this morning I asked, “What’s the deal with that guy who puts an apple on Indiana Jones’s desk?” There’s the scene that everybody remembers in the classroom is like the girl has “Love You” written on her eyelids. It’s such an amazing moment.
But there’s also this guy who puts this apple on his desk as he’s leaving. And it’s so weird. I think it was meant to place a prop so that somebody could pick it up later on, and he’s sort of a teacher’s pet, but it just came off kind of weird. And that does happen sometimes where it reads as something very different than what it was actually intended.
And so I posted on Twitter, like, “What’s the deal with that?” and a bunch of people wrote back, including Seth Grahame-Smith who sent me a link to a whole thread that dates back to 2002 on the Internet about what is the deal with the guy and the apple, so I’ll put that there as well.
Craig: That’s really funny. By the way, now that I’m thinking about it, it’s probably, “The Monarch of the Sea.” [sings] “I am the monarch of the sea.”
But, regardless, I always thought that that guy was just gay.
John: Oh, and that’s my first instinct, but then I scrubbed back and forth and looked through it and there’s no eye contact. There’s nothing sort of acknowledged. So, Indiana Jones gives like this half-second look but doesn’t sort of deal with it. It’s just odd.
So, it feels like because the scene right before that is the girl falling in love with him, and of course you’re going to fall in love with Indiana Jones because who does not want to sleep with Indiana Jones? Like he’s so incredibly sexy in this movie. So, it makes sense that this guy would have a crush on him. Yet, it just doesn’t play that way. And if you actually see the expression on the actor’s face as he puts it down there it’s sort of like weird disgust. [laughs] It’s such an odd moment when you actually freeze-frame it, so.
Craig: [laughs] Oh, then we should come up with some fan fic for that.
John: Maybe self-hatred. Oh, absolutely. We’ll do a whole backstory of who that guy was. We’ll spin him off as his own character.
Craig: We’ll write a 50 Shades of Grey based on that guy. I love it.
John: I like it. All right, Craig, thank you so much.
Craig: Thank you, John. See you next time.
- Raiders of the Lost Ark official website, and on IMDb, Netflix, iTunes and Amazon
- George Lucas, Steven Spielberg and Larry Kasdan’s Raiders story conference transcripts
- “Apple for teacher? Why’d he do that?” thread on theraider.net (via @sethgs)
- OUTRO: A British Tar from the HMS Pinafore by Gilbert and Sullivan, performed by John Rhys-Davies