jp-30 wrote:Thanks for the heads up on the Nazi issue - I also figured this would be the case. They're just background goons in the movies anyway, for the most part.
The Saturday serial aspects of "Raiders of the Lost Ark" have been much commented on, and relished. But I haven't seen much discussion of the movie's other driving theme, Spielberg's feelings about the Nazis. "Impersonal," critic Pauline Kael called the film, and indeed it is primarily a technical exercise, with personalities so shallow they're like a dew that has settled on the characters. But Spielberg is not trying here for human insights and emotional complexity; he finds those in other films, but in "Raiders" he wants to do two things: make a great entertainment, and stick it to the Nazis.
We know how deeply he feels about the Holocaust. We have seen "Schindler's List" and we know about his Shoah Project. Those are works of a thoughtful adult. "Raiders of the Lost Ark" is the work of Spielberg's recaptured adolescence, I think; it contains the kind of stuff teenage boys like, and it also perhaps contains the daydreams of a young Jewish kid who imagines blowing up Nazis real good. The screenplay is by Lawrence Kasdan, based on a story by Philip Kaufman, George Lucas and an uncredited Spielberg, whose movie is great fun on the surface -- one of the classic entertainments -- and then has a buried level.
Consider. The plot hinges on Hitler's desire to recapture the long-lost ark. "Hitler's a nut on the subject," Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) is told by a government recruiter. "Crazy. He's obsessed with the occult." But not just anything occult. The ark, if found, would be the most precious Jewish artifact imaginable -- the chest that held the Ten Commandments that God gave Moses on the mountain top. "An army which carries the ark before it is invincible," Indy says; Hitler wants to steal the heritage of the Jews and use it for his own victory.
Throughout the film, there is a parade of anti-Nazi symbolism and sly religious satire, as when a desperate Indy grabs the hood ornament of a Mercedes truck, and it snaps off. And when a Nazi torturer grabs a sacred relic and it burns a stigmata into his hand. When the ark is being transported in the hold of a Nazi ship, inside a stout lumber crate, the swastika and other Nazi markings spontaneously catch fire and are obliterated. A Nazi officer, uneasy about opening the ark, says: "I am uncomfortable with the thought of this Jewish ritual." And of course when the spirit of the ark manifests itself, it's as a writhing column of fire that skewers the Nazis. ("Keep your eyes closed," Indy desperately tells his sidekick, although one assumes the holy fire would know friend from foe.) There is even a quiet in-joke in the character of Belloq (Paul Freeman), the Frenchman who tries to play both sides against the middle, just as Occupied France did.
Nazis were favorite villains of Saturday serials, prized more for their costumes and accents than for their evil beliefs. Spielberg here makes manifest their values, and then destroys them: "Raiders of the Lost Ark" has all the qualities of an exuberant serial, plus a religious and political agenda. That Spielberg places his message in the crevices of the action makes it all the more effective. "Raiders" may have an impersonal superstructure, but its foundations are personal, and passionate.
I make these points to place it more firmly in the mainstream of Spielberg's work, since "Raiders" is widely enjoyed but just as widely dismissed as something Spielberg tossed off between more important films. It comes between "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" and "E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial," films Kael compared to "a boy soprano singing with joy." That voice couldn't be heard in "Raiders," she felt. I think I can hear it: not singing, but laughing, sometimes with glee, sometimes in triumph.
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