Sunday, June 12, 2016

Taking a Roller-Coaster Ride With Indiana Jones

Marion (Karen Allen): You're not the man I knew 10 years ago.

Indiana (Harrison Ford): It's not the years, honey. It's the mileage.

When George Lucas co–wrote "Raiders of the Lost Ark," which premiered on this date in 1981, his intention was to re–create the movie serials of the 1930s and 1940s.

That was before my time, but my parents used to watch the movie serials when they were children, and I gathered from their reaction to the movie that Lucas succeeded in his objective.

Film critic Roger Ebert apparently agreed with them, even though he was born in 1942. Movie serials continued to be made into the early 1950s so he was probably old enough to witness the end of that era — but certainly not its heyday. Nevertheless, his homage to the serials was as entertaining as it could be. I watched it again recently, and I probably enjoyed it as much as I did the first time I saw it.

Ebert wrote nearly 20 years after its debut that the movie "plays like an anthology of the best parts from all the Saturday matinee serials ever made," but he added that "I haven't seen much discussion of the movie's other driving theme, (director Steven) Spielberg's feelings about the Nazis."

Ebert went on to observe that Spielberg gave us his adult treatment of the Holocaust in movies like "Schindler's List," but it was Spielberg's inner teenager who made "Raiders of the Lost Ark."

It was full of edge–of–your–seat adventures from Nepal to Cairo with snakes, spiders, explosions, Nazis — and Karen Allen, who played Ford's sidekick, his best of the series, in my opinion. And it had moments that one remembers years after seeing them — like the iconic scene at the beginning of the movie in which Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) outran the big ball.

That was in the first seven minutes. After that, no one should have had any doubt about what to expect in the next hour and a half. And what followed was most of the stuff that tends to appeal to teenage boys — primarily action and pretty girls.

It was a roller–coaster ride, from one adventure to the next, each one loosely connected to the central theme of the race between the Nazis and the good guys to find the Ark of the Covenant.

Perhaps the most amazing thing about it was that it worked.

I have seen only a few original serial episodes, but that was probably enough to get a good idea what the serials were like, and my impression was that they were, in a word, preposterous.

I suppose they had to be. The plot, as it were, existed solely to get the hero into some kind of predicament so, no matter how unlikely the premise might be, the viewer would accept it — it was the price that had to be paid to see the hero hanging from a cliff by his fingernails or something like that.

(It is much like the strategy my journalism professors encouraged for prodding a reader to read one's story all the way through. Newspaper readers, we were told then, give — on average — less than half an hour to the daily newspaper, and with so many news sources available today I am sure the average is much lower now. Most newspaper readers, our professors told us, skim the headlines and read the first paragraph or two of stories with headlines that intrigue them.

(My professors told us never to reveal everything we knew about a story in the first paragraph — or the second or the third ... Instead, we should give just enough information for the reader to want to be hungry for more and continue to the next paragraph — and the next and the next. Before they knew it, the readers had read the entire story — even if that had not been their original intention. Well, that was how it was supposed to work. And sometimes I guess it did — or does.)

And, too, I suppose that the serials seem more preposterous to me in 2016 than they did to someone in 1946 because moviemaking technology is so much better now with computer–generated graphics and all that stuff that didn't exist during the serials' heyday. It can make even the most preposterous plot seem plausible.

And yet ...

Was it so implausible to think that the Nazis would devote all those resources to locating a biblical artifact that may or may not have existed outside of the pages of the Bible?

After all, it is pretty well known that the Nazis sought supernatural support and justification for their cause — and, according to legend, any army that possessed the Ark was invincible. Could the Nazis have resisted such a concept?

It is beyond doubt that the Nazis actively sought any advantage they could get in World War II. The prophecies of Nostradamus, for example, were used as propaganda tools, and we know the Nazis were in a race with the West to develop a nuclear weapon.

Is it so far–fetched to think they might have been looking for the Ark, just as Spielberg and Lucas suggested?

I guess that is a matter of opinion. But the truth of the story was mostly irrelevant because, as Ebert noted, it was "just plain fun" — whether you were a teenage boy or not.