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“Stay Out of the Light”: The Black-and-White Morality of “Raiders of the Lost Ark”…

This August, the podcast that I co-host, The 250, is doing a season looking at all four Indiana Jones films as part of our “Indiana Summer.” Last week, we looked at Raiders of the Lost Ark, and I had some thoughts on the film.

Raiders of the Lost Ark is a film of stark contrasts.

This is true in a very literal sense. Director Steven Spielberg and producer George Lucas had envisaged the film as a loving homage to classic black-and-white film serials, so it only makes sense that cinematographer Douglas Slocombe would populate the film with shadows and silhouettes. Spielberg has talked about wanting “a much moodier, almost neo-Brechtian style of light and shadow for this film”, and it’s notable that the lead character’s costume design was intended to be “immediately recognisable in silhouette.”

While Raiders of the Lost Ark is a visually rich film saturated in deep colours and strong images, it is also a movie obsessed with light and shadow. Indiana Jones is first introduced literally stepping out of the shadows. “Stay out of the light,” he warns a companion during the film’s opening scenes. Many of the film’s most striking images – like Jones visiting an old flame or workers toiling in the desert – are shot to make use of shadow and silhouette.

After all, much has been made of Steven Soderbergh’s Raiders, an experimental edit of the movie that strips out all sound and colour to repurpose Raiders of the Lost Ark as a black-and-white silent film. Soderbergh did this in an effort to force the audience to “watch this movie and think only about staging”, drawing attention to how carefully constructed Raiders of the Lost Ark was as a piece of film. After all, the movie is arguably as pure a cinematic rollercoaster as ever existed, a triumph of pure filmmaking.

However, there’s something revealing in this sharp contrast – in the clear boundaries that Raiders of the Lost Ark draws between light and darkness in its cinematic storytelling. At its core, Raiders of the Lost Ark is a movie about good and evil at work in the world, and the movie is anchored in the belief that good will prevail and evil will be judged. It’s a fascinating film, one that provides an interesting contrast with Steven Spielberg’s later work at the turn of the millennium on projects like A.I. Artificial Intelligence, Minority Report, Munich and even Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.

Raiders of the Lost Ark is a striking piece of cinematic mythmaking, one that feels very true to its time and one firmly anchored in its director’s sensibility.

Raiders of the Lost Ark was Steven Spielberg’s first film following 1941. To this day, 1941 remains one of the most contentious and divisive films in Spielberg’s filmography. At the time, it was regarded as a massive misstep from a populist director who was seen as the future of American cinema. After all, Spielberg had established himself as one of the brightest talents of the seventies with movies like Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, so there was a lot of anticipation for 1941. The film’s perceived failure was massively embarrassing to the director.

To be fair to 1941, the film has accrued a small but vocal fandom trying to reclaim it as a lost classic. Writer Bob Gale is very careful to stress that the movie “was not the total flop that some claimed it to be”, and that it eventually made its way to profitability. However, critics were far from kind to the film. More to the point, there was a sense that Spielberg had stumbled, and that 1941 had been a massive miscalculation on the part of one of the industry’s brightest young talents.

It seems possible that Spielberg was conscious of larger trends in Hollywood towards the end of the seventies, and so was very keenly aware of the need to react against this sort of failure. After all, Spielberg was one of the crop of young directors who had enjoyed smash success and had leveraged massive creative freedom from that. The late seventies were populated by directors brought low by their own hubris, with strings of box office bombs like William Friedken’s Sorcerer or Martin Scorsese’s New York, New York.

The industry was changing. By the time that Spielberg began working on Raiders of the Lost Ark, there were already rumblings that Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate was going to be a cataclysmic disaster for all involved. When the movie was eventually released, it was such a massive commercial failure that it destroyed United Artists and effectively ended the New Hollywood movement. Spielberg had always been a director particularly sensitive to public tastes and perception, so it makes sense that his response to the failure of 1941 would be shaped by this.

After all, Spielberg was arguably the only one of the “Movie Brats” to truly survive the transition away from the New Hollywood movement. Martin Scorsese responded to the failure of New York, New York by throwing everything he had into Raging Bull as a feat of “kamikaze filmmaking.” Scorsese would spend most of the eighties trying to figure out the new rules of the game, building up cachet with work on projects like The Colour of Money. Even Francis Ford Copolla’s career stumbled and flailed during the decade, with failures like One From the Heart or The Cotton Club.

1941 had pushed Spielberg outside his comfort zone. The film was adapted from a screenplay by Bob Gale and Robert Zemeckis, two talents that Spielberg would support and mentor over the following decade. In many ways, 1941 feels like an easier fit with Zemeckis’ later work, such as the interrogation of nostalgia in Back to the Future and the ambiguous irony of Forrest Gump. The film was a rather bleak comedy about paranoia and militarism sweeping through the United States in the aftermath of the attack on Pearl Harbour, a biting and bitter satire of the so-called “Greatest Generation.”

By Bob Gale’s own admission, Steven Spielberg was “a little bit out of his depth” on 1941. The film’s caustic and bitter irony existed at odds with the rich sentimentality that defined Spielberg as a director. Spielberg is a director who is enthralled by the mythology of the Second World War, with many of the director’s films inspired by his father’s service in the conflict. Spielberg has talked about how he “grew up with” his father’s story of time in the service. In making Saving Private Ryan nearly two decades later, Spielberg talked about “wanting to acquit his war with honor.”

As such, at least at the time, Spielberg lacked the cynicism about “the Greatest Generation” necessary to make 1941 work. It is revealing that one of the best scenes in the movie is anchored in sentimental sincerity, as Major General Joseph W. Stilwell cries watching Dumbo. Many critics pinpoint the failure of 1941 as a pivotal moment in Spielberg’s evolution as a filmmaker. New Yorker film critic Richard Brody has described 1941 as a rare Spielberg movie “in which he cut loose” and argued that its failure “inhibited him maybe definitively.”

With that in mind, Raiders of the Lost Ark feels very much like a reaction against 1941. In particular, it is a movie that aggressively rejects the ironic deconstruction of 1941 and earnestly embraces the pop mythology of the Second World War as “the good war.” Although Raiders of the Lost Ark is technically set a few years before the Second World War, it is still a film shaped and defined by the popular memory of the conflict, the tale of a rugged American hero fighting against the evil Nazis. (To the point that it’s hard not to read Belloq as a stand-in for Vichy France, despite the fact that Vichy France didn’t exist at the time.)

Raiders of the Lost Ark is a movie that believes in the idea of good and evil at work in the world. Although Spielberg “wasn’t really a practising Jew” until the birth of his first child, and his experience of childhood antisemitism pushed him away from expressions of faith, Raiders of the Lost Ark has been described as an explicitly religious movie. Roger Ebert suggested that the movie contained “the daydreams of a young Jewish kid who imagines blowing up Nazis real good.” Gabriel Saunders described Raiders of the Lost Ark as “the most audacious Holocaust movie ever.”

There is some truth to this reading. After all, the eponymous religious artifact is explicitly anchored in the Jewish faith. One of the central tensions of Raiders of the Lost Ark is the idea that Hitler plans to use a Jewish relic to further his goals, which include the eradication of the Jewish the people. It is possible to read all four Indiana Jones films as stories about a rational and skeptical man who is confronted with the reality that divine authority exists in the world – the God of the Old Testament, the Hindu gods, Jesus Christ, even the “interdimensional beings” with the power to remake worlds.

Central to this idea is the moral authority of the Ark of the Covenant. The Ark of the Covenant is not some generic superweapon that can be targeted and deployed, aimed and fired. It is an object with implicit moral agency. Similar to Steven Moffat’s conception of “the Moment” in The Day of the Doctor, the Ark of the Covenant is effectively “a weapon of ultimate mass destruction [that] can stand in judgment” on those who would use it.

It is notable that the Ark of the Covenant repeatedly and consciously rejects the Nazi. Sitting in the hold of the ship, the Ark of the Covenant rejects the brand of the swastika on the wooden box that contains it. At the climax, as Belloq tries to dial the “radio for speaking to God”, he discovers that God is not a passive observer. At the climax of Raiders of the Lost Ark, God stands in judgment of the Nazis that would try to harness the power of the Ark of the Covenant. God finds them very wanting indeed, and what follows is a horrific sequence in which the Nazis are brutally murdered.

In recent years, there has been a persistent criticism that Indiana Jones is largely irrelevant to the plot of Raiders of the Lost Ark, that the character has no real impact on how the plot of the movie plays out. This criticism can be traced back to The Big Bang Theory, and it reflects a particularly unsettling brand of modern film criticism that boils the merits of a film down to nothing more than plot. However, the character’s uselessness during Raiders of the Lost Ark doesn’t represent a flaw in the film. Instead, it serves as an expression of the film’s core themes.

In the world of Raiders of the Lost Ark, Jones doesn’t need to defeat the Nazis. God will do that. In some ways, it feels like a very literal expression of American Exceptionalism, particularly in the context of the looming Second World War. In the world of Raiders of the Lost Ark, God really “has favored [American] undertakings.” This makes sense in the context of how Spielberg would approach the Second World War, particularly coming off the back of his awkward attempt to interrogate the Greatest Generation in 1941.

It’s notable that Raiders of the Lost Ark is very explicit in painting the Nazis as villains. The premise of the film is rooted in the reports of Hitler’s obsession with the occult, which has become a fascination for historians of the conflict. Some observers have remarked that stories like this tend to overstate Hitler’s enthusiasm for arcana, perhaps as a way to perpetuate the notion that the Nazis were a special (and perhaps even supernatural) form of evil rather than an expression of largely political and social trends. It is easy to “other” the horrors of the Third Reich by tying it to occult mysticism.

More than that, the film is an aggressive deconstruction of fascism. Raiders of the Lost Ark is populated with images that openly mock the symbolism of the Third Reich, as if to underscore how hollow it all is. Jones uses a Nazi flag as a rope at one point. During a fight at an airfield, a swastika gets covered in blood. The Ark itself burns off the swastika brand. Even during the movie’s big truck chase, a Mercedes Benz logo twists and breaks, as if to illustrate how empty these symbols are without any meaning or morality to support them.

The climax of Raiders of the Lost Ark is built around the emptiness of fascism as an ideology. The entire plot of the movie involves Hitler appealing to the Jewish God in the hopes of exploiting the power of the Jewish faith, which underscores how empty the Nazi belief system must be. If Hitler and the Nazis actually believed what they said about the Jewish people, then they would not dress in Jewish robes and faithfully recreate a ritual from Exodus. “I am uncomfortable with the thought of this Jewish ritual,” complains Dietrich, in a late addition to the script, but they still go through with it. Because they don’t believe in anything.

Spielberg understands the power of cinema, particularly in the context of fascism. It’s arguable that his later movies like A.I. Artificial Intelligence and Minority Report are films about the way in which cinema can be used to manipulate the audience’s response. After all, much of the power and prestige of Nazi Germany came through propaganda – particularly the work of Leni Riefenstahl. The camera is an important tool in constructing this mythology. It’s notable that Spielberg goes out of his way to feature a camera during the climactic sequence of Raiders of the Lost Ark.

This ties back into the cinematic language of Raiders of the Lost Ark. This is a movie that is, on a very fundamental level, about the battle between light and darkness. During the movie’s early brief scene, Jones discusses the “lightning” that is said to come from the Ark of the Covenant to smite its enemies. Jones uses a ray of focused light to guide him to the resting place of the Ark of the Covenant. This feels somewhat appropriate given the movie’s meditations on the power of imagery and iconography, particularly in cinema. To borrow a cliché, what is cinema but “painting with light?”

As such, Raiders of the Lost Ark feels like a distillation of the popular myth of the Second World War. It is a black-and-white story of good versus evil, of American heroes with God on their side fighting monstrous fascists who don’t believe in anything beyond their own hunger for power. It is miles away from the cynicism that Gale and Zemeckis baked into their script for 1941. Although Spielberg would embrace more nuance and more ambiguity in later films, and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull feels in some ways like a response to Raiders of the Lost Ark, it feels in keeping with Spielberg’s worldview.

This arguably makes sense in the context of the time. After all, Raiders of the Lost Ark arrived at the dawn of the eighties. As discussed, in some ways it feels like a response to (or perhaps an evolution of) the New Hollywood movement of the seventies. It also reflects certain shifts in American popular culture. The seventies had been an era of paranoia and cynicism, shaped by the twin traumas of Watergate and Vietnam. Many of the defining films of the seventies fed into that vibe, like Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now or Alan J. Pakula’s All the President’s Men.

Indeed, it’s possible to see those themes in Spielberg’s work during the seventies. Notably, Jaws can be read as a reflection of both Watergate and Vietnam anxieties. It’s notable that one of the most memorable characters in the film is Larry Vaughn, the local mayor who proves absolutely incapable of providing the leadership that his community needs in a time of crisis and who collapses into a nervous wreck that isn’t too far removed from portrayals of Nixon at the time. Similarly, the central horror of Jaws is a threat that lurks beyond America’s shores, a gaping maw eager to consume a generation of young Americans, like Vietnam.

However, by the eighties, America seemed ready to move on. The Reagan era was marked by a less explicitly political popular culture. Action movies embrace a more conventional and uncritical masculinity. Many of the blockbusters of the era were very much defined in opposition to meditations of the trauma of Vietnam. It’s notable, for example, how many eighties action movies sought to re-appropriate the imagery and iconography of Vietnam by casting American action heroes as guerillas fighting numerically, technologically or tactically superior foesPredator, Rambo: First Blood, Die Hard, Red Dawn.

There was a sense that American popular culture was no longer interested in wading through the moral ambiguities around the Vietnam War. This might explain why Raiders of the Lost Ark resonated so strongly with audiences. Raiders of the Lost Ark is a movie that aggressively rejects any sense of shading or moral ambiguity, eschewing the murky moral quagmire of the Vietnam War to embrace the popular memory of the Second World War. In doing so, it embraces a very black-and-white perspective.

There are parts of Raiders of the Lost Ark where this gets particularly thorny, such as the presentation of the Ark of the Covenant. If Raiders of the Lost Ark is a wholesome story about the heroism of the Second World War, which portrays the conflict as a moral imperative against evil waged with a divine mandate, then the Ark of the Covenant rather complicates the analogy. After all, the Ark of the Covenant is a weapon of mass destruction. It is a weapon of untold power. It is a device that fundamental changes mankind’s relationship with the larger world. To put it simply, it is equivalent to the atomic bomb.

To be clear, this is not a new reading of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Michael Castelle has described the film as “a fairy tale about the origin of the atomic bomb.” Spielberg certainly shoots the Ark of the Covenant in such a way as to evoke the atomic bomb. A pillar of smoke reaches up to the clouds in the heaven. Faces melt. Blood boils. Electric devices short out. There is a wall of fire. The light is so bright that the characters cannot even look at it. It is horrifying. It is awe-inspiring.

This certainly fits with the mythology of the atomic bomb. Before the final test, Robert Oppenheimer famously framed the development in explicitly religious terms, quoting the sacred Hindu text The Bhagavad-Gita, “I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.” Much like anxieties over the operation of the Large Hadron Collider, there were similar discussions about whether the atomic bomb might ignite the atmosphere and destroy the entire planet. Although the process was rooted in science, the implications were almost beyond human comprehension.

However, it’s notable that Raiders of the Lost Ark is clearly intended as a reassuring myth about the atomic bomb. After all, the atomic bomb is a detail that very much complicates the myth of the Second World War as “the good war.” The atomic bomb was a weapon of mass destruction that was employed against largely civilian targets. It certainly isn’t the only moral ambiguity of the conflict, but it is certainly the largest. The United States remains the only nation to ever use a nuclear bomb as a weapon of war, and it did so by targeting civilian populations, killing over 100,000 people.

The United States has struggled with the legacy of the atomic bomb, particularly in the context of the Second World War. During the mid-nineties, there was a miniature culture war waged over the Smithsonian’s planned exhibit of the Enola Gay that would have acknowledged the controversy around the bombings. Even as recently as the Obama presidency, there has been controversy around the extent to which the White House can acknowledge the horror of Hiroshima and Nagasaki – a problem compounded by issues within Japanese politics around the bombings.

With this in mind, Raiders of the Lost Ark appears to offer a consciously sanitised take on the atomic bomb. Notably, the Ark of the Covenant is used by the Nazis rather than the Americans, with Jones just a spectator unable to look at the horror head-on. More than that, the Ark of the Covenant does not kill indiscriminately. It doesn’t kill civilians or innocents – both Indiana Jones and Marion Ravenwood survive the opening ceremony. It kills with a moral imperative. At the end of the movie, as the Ark of the Covenant is taking into American custody in the lead-up to war, it is locked away presumably so it can’t be used.

There is something unsettling in all of this. Interestingly, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull grapples with thorny implications of Raiders of the Lost Ark. In the film’s opening sequence, the Ark of the Covenant is found in Area 51, apparently untouched in the decades since the events of Raiders of the Lost Ark. However, Indiana Jones is then confronted with the real horror of atomic power as a bomb destroys a mock-up of American suburbia. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull trades the moral simplicity of the Second World War for the moral ambiguity of the Cold War.

Still, Raiders of the Lost Ark offers an interesting snapshot of the mythology of the Second World War, a film that embraces a very black-and-white view of the conflict and which believes the era operates in sharp contrasts.

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