Review of Raiders of the Lost Ark, Directed by Steven Spielberg
When I was growing up, I read a lot of The Hardy Boys and The Sugar Creek Gang series, adventure stories in which boys solve mysteries, chase bad guys, rescue strangers, discover mysterious caves, explore abandoned mansions, recover exotic artifacts from far off lands, and learn Important Life Lessons along the way. Much later I learned these were the latest in a long and venerable tradition of boys adventure serials that were churned out in pulp and early film for decades. Each story gave me a new ambition in life: after the one where they put out a blazing inferno, I wanted to be a fireman; after the one where they solved a mystery, I wanted to be a detective; and so on.
Then one day, I knew with absolute certainty that I was going to be an archaeologist.
Indiana Jones is a near-perfect embodiment of the action hero, a distillation of a century of boys adventure stories. The fedora, bullwhip, leather jacket and permanent scruff is the exact image of the adventurer: ready to plunge through jungles, raid an ancient temple, evade booby traps, outrun a massive boulder, escape marauding tribesmen, leap into a passing plane, and promptly suit up for the next adventure that will take him from the Himalayas to the sands of Egypt. Indiana Jones is my hero.
Raiders of the Lost Ark is unlike most entries on AFI’s Top 100 list (which I am attempting to blog my way through). There are lots of dreary dramas, like Raging Bull (1980) and Schindler’s List (1993); a few really old movies that are just there out of sheer tradition, like The General (1927) and Intolerance (1916). That is not to denigrate dreary dramas; but Raiders (AFI’s number 66) is one of the few on the list that is just plane fun.
Raiders follows Jones, an American archaeologist, as he is hired by the U.S. government in 1936 to find the Ark of the Covenant–yes, that Ark–before the Nazis do. That’s the set-up; the rest is Jones flying to Nepal for a flaming barroom brawl over a girl and a medallion; linking up with an old buddy in Egypt; finding the Ark; getting trapped in a pit full of snakes; fighting bad guys on trucks, motorcycles, and a submarine…you get the idea. All to the tune of John Williams’ immortal score.
Raiders had lots of predecessors and inspired scores of copycats, but no one did it better than Steven Spielberg and Harrison Ford. It’s a straight-up genre film, and it’s as close to perfection as you can get (which is why it was nominated for eight Oscars, including Best Picture and Director). And I appreciate that the movie took the time to give a Biblically accurate depiction of the Ark of the Covenant.
Let’s pick just one thing to think about. Indiana Jones is brash, headstrong, and reckless, yet even he realizes in the end that there are some things you just don’t mess with.
Raiders ends on a particularly gruesome note. The Nazis open up the Ark to discover and exploit whatever powers it might contain. The Ark unleashes spirits of the dead, electrocutes an army of Nazis in a cool show of synchronized lightning, and somehow knows to melt and explode the heads of the two main bad guys. Raiders’ gory ending became so notorious that the MPAA had to invent the PG-13 rating to accommodate the bloody denouement of its sequel a few years later.
The thing is, the Nazis basically get what they deserve. And I don’t mean they’re punished for being Nazis (the movie takes place in 1936, after all, well before their worst crimes). No, the Nazis’ crime in this movie is simply looking at the Ark and trying to exploit its power. Raiders very rightly treats this as a horrible transgression.
Now, I don’t mean that if the physical Ark actually existed today that it would still be the unapproachable seat of the Holy of Holies. In the Old Testament, God struck down and killed one man for daring to touch the Ark (2 Samuel 6:1-8) and killed dozens of others for daring to look into it (1 Samuel 6:19-21). That was appropriate because God had chosen the Ark as a physical vessel on which he made his presence especially manifest when it was in the Temple. It was a symbol of God’s holiness and presence. As sinners, we cannot stand in the presence of God and live.
Things have changed with the advent of Christianity. Christians no longer need a temple to worship in: we are the temple of God. We do not need an Ark to host the Spirit of God: he resides in us. If the Ark still existed today, I expect it would just be a really old golden box. Raiders is wrong to portray Old Testament realities so literally in a modern context.
However, as a story, it is still useful because it reflects the truth that we should treat the things of God with dread reverence. Indiana Jones and Marion are saved in the final scene by closing their eyes and choosing not to gaze upon the mysteries inside the Ark; by averting their eyes and acknowledging they are unworthy, they receive grace and are spared while the Nazis are supernaturally slaughtered around them.
Proverbs 1:7 reminds us that “the fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge.” In Hebrews we read that “Our ‘God is a consuming fire’” (Hebrews 12:29), and that “It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God,” (Hebrews 10:31), images the movies seems to have taken quite literally. Early in the movie, Indiana Jones and his companions speak of the Ark in hushed tones, as if they were afraid of offending someone–or Someone–if they spoke too casually of it. Later one character tells Indy “For nearly three thousand years man has been searching for the lost ark. It’s not something to be taken lightly. No one knows its secrets. It’s like nothing you’ve ever gone after before.”
This, I think, might be a good picture of what fearing the Lord might look like– at least at the beginning. As we come to know the Lord, we understand that he invites us to a wedding feast; he asks us to present our petitions to him; and he desires to give good gifts to us as a father to his children. We are not to spend our lives quaking in terror of God’s power and judgement. But we are to reverence him. American evangelicalism may be too informal, too casual, too ready to take God for granted. Learning, like Indy, a little bit of dread awe now and then might be a good thing.