Monday, January 24, 2011

Raiders Of The Lost Ark - Act I breakdown

All right, so I’m a little late getting started this New Year. Actually, I think I deserved that break after driving cross-country with two angry cats, dodging the worst winter weather in maybe centuries. Although it did take me less time to drive than it took some people to fly….

I also started off the year teaching an online class, which is always fun but which I should know by now is not possible to do and blog at the same time.

But I think I’m back. Hope everyone’s been having a good new year so far. I have to say my work load is terrifying, but in general things are already much better than last year. Two weeks of temps in the 80s in LA isn’t hurting a bit.

Anyway, I know when we left off I was doing a breakdown of SENSE AND SENSIBILITY, but in the interim I got caught up in RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK. (It’s a long story…) Sooner or later I’ll do all of both films, but this week, you get RAIDERS. Another film that I never, ever get tired of watching – I see new things in it every single time, and it’s helping me to isolate some story elements I haven’t spent much time talking about. So here’s Act I.

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Screenplay by Lawrence Kasdan
Story by George Lucas and Philip Kaufman
Directed by Stephen Spielberg

115 min.



Typically stories begin with the hero/ine in the ORDINARY WORLD, but here we are thrown right into an action scene, a common technique with high-adrenaline genres like action, adventure, thrillers, and horror. And often with these opening action scenes we see the villain in action, and then we cut to the unsuspecting hero/ine in the ordinary world. But in RAIDERS, the opening action scene depicts half of Indy’s ordinary world, and sets up a huge number of story elements; it’s always astonishing to me how much gets packed into this 11 minute sequence.

OPENING IMAGE: the visual joke of the Paramount logo dissolving in to the South American mountain starts the whole story off with a laugh – one of the enduring charms of this film is that it doesn’t take itself too seriously.

The PROMISE OF THE GENRE is right up front (actually multiple genres). The first few minutes promise adventure, exotic settings, comedy, pulse-pounding suspense, and big danger.

INTRO TO HERO: Indy is shot from behind at first, a mysterious figure. The shot is also a stylistic nod to the movie serials that inspired this film: “action movies set in exotic locales with cliffhangers every second.”

A title lets us know this is SOUTH AMERICA, 1936

Indy and his party of three guides trek through the jungle – nice eerie lighting. There is a RULE OF THREE going on here: the three guides will be eliminated one by one as the dangers unfold.

The very first encounter and shock moment, less than 2 minutes in, is an introduction of THEME: one of the guides chops through undergrowth to reveal a huge, demonic statue. The terrified guide runs away, screaming. It’s a reference to the awesome power of the gods. (And a reference to Indy’s CHARACTER ARC – he begins the movie without fear of the supernatural; by the end he understands that there are things he will never understand.)

Several other, more human dangers are set up immediately (these are also PLANTS). First, the poison dart in the tree indicates that natives are after the party. Dialogue underscores the danger: a second guide says: “If they were here, they would have killed us already.” Indy also says that his colleague Forrester died trying to get the idol – and Forrester was “very, very good.”

(I have to say here I’m not very comfortable with the portrayal of the cowardly guide, although he’s meant as a comic character.).

We see the HERO’S SPECIAL SKILLS, right up front.

- He’s the man, completely in charge, obviously used to these rough settings. (I also like that you can feel the dirt and sweat and humidity. So many “action” and “adventure” stories are unrealistically clean.)

- He reads the birds flying as an indicator of the cave. He’s following an old map, which sets up this half of his profession: he’s a treasure hunter.”

- He also has uncanny perception – he senses immediately when one of his trail guides pulls a gun on him. Indy whips the gun right out of the traitorous guide’s hand (shows Indy’s skill with the whip as well, and this is a SET UP for the betrayal that will come in a few minutes.)

No matter what genre you’re writing, it’s good to get specific about your hero/ine’s SPECIAL SKILLS – not only will this help to define the character, but it also gives the audience or reader a reason to love and root for the character.

The sneaky guide runs away – two guides down. Now Indy and his one remaining guide enter the booby-trapped cave, one of the most famous SETPIECES in film history.

It’s a sequence of the HERO PASSING A SERIES OF TESTS, and full of DANGER AND FEAR – all of these traps are potentially deadly.

The entrance to the cave is temple-like, part of the visual THEME of world religions and mysticism.

Inside the cave, Indy pushes through a veil of cobwebs. At first this just looks cool and spooky (and maybe is subconsciously symbolic of piercing the veil between reality and the supernatural or divine). But then there’s the payoff of the tarantulas: a few on Indy – and dozens on his guide. (Creepy creatures also figure prominently in this film).

There’s a strange light which Indy figures is a booby trap – and the shock discovery of the mummified body of Forrester, who apparently did not see the trap (PAYOFF). The film uses a lot of images more typical of the horror genre than action-adventure – mummies, creepy creatures, grotesque corpses, disfigured faces – the filmmakers throw in anything that will keep that adrenaline spiking.

Then there’s the chasm to jump over. That whip comes in handy. Indy saves the life of the guide (SET UP), which makes the guide even more of a villain in a few seconds when he betrays Indy.

Beyond the chasm Indy and the guide pass by a gold Aztec calendar (or something like one!) at the entrance of the cave. This is THEMATIC IMAGERY: there are many visual representations of world religions throughout the film. The calendar is also part of the ongoing theme of mysticism and the supernatural; note the eerie music.

And finally, the inner chamber and the altar with the gold idol – another religious image. Indy susses out another booby trap: the stepping stones – if you step in the wrong place, poisoned darts fly.

Indy nimbly navigates the stepping stones (while the primitive stone carvings on the wall watch, more mystical imagery…) and stops in front of the altar with the gold idol. He somehow knows that he has to replace the gold idol with its exact weight (if you ask me, the idol looks heavier.) Nice comic payoff when he turns out to be wrong and the whole place starts to collapse. Now one nailbiting danger after another as Indy and the guide run back through the chaotic traps. The guide double-crosses Indy at the chasm… Spielberg really milks the scene as Indy scrambles to keep from falling into the pit – and then the PAYOFF and poetic justice of the guide impaled like Forrester. (This is black and white good vs. evil, here and throughout. Evil gets its due, time and time again.)

And then of course, just when Indy thinks he’s in the clear - the enormous stone rolls out of the passageway - again, one of the most famous shots in film history. (And don’t for a minute think that filmmakers aren’t INTENDING to make film history when they design shots like that!)

Just as Indy makes it out of the cave – there’s the reversal and defeat that the natives are right there with bows and arrows (PAYOFF) and Belloq steps up to take the idol away from him. INTRODUCTION OF SECONDARY OPPONENT. Belloq is French (so must be a bad guy!) and more educated than Indy (even more of a bad guy). Hollywood’s eternal ethnocentricsm in all its glory.

When Belloq holds the idol up, all the natives bow down to it – THEME of the power of the gods and the necessity for reverence.

Indy takes that moment to run, and there’s a chase – Indy pursued by an entire tribe of warriors with poisoned darts, and Belloq’s maniacal laugher echoing through the trees. Nice comic moment with the pilot not really wanting to give up the fish he’s just landed, and finally letting it go to start the plane.

And as Indy barely scrambles onto the moving plane, a big PLANT – he’s terrified of the snake in the back seat. We laugh and immediately forget it as just a comic moment, but it will come back later for a big comic and suspense payoff. Also of course this is a phallic joke, just in case we didn’t notice Harrison Ford’s hotness.

The plane flies off into a gorgeous sunset, climaxing SEQUENCE ONE.
(12 min. 48 seconds)

Big location change to SEQUENCE 2. Or SEQUENCE 1, if you want to call all of the above a PROLOGUE. Or you could say the following is all part of an extra long SEQUENCE 1, which sets up these two sides of this complex and iconic hero, Indiana Jones. Any or all of the above – whatever works for you!


ESTABLISHING SHOT of the university campus, and then a fun comic scene of Indy in tweed jacket with elbow patches and horn-rimmed glasses, lecturing to a class of swooning coeds. There is some really nice layering in this scene – Indy is talking about excavating royal tombs, all a SET UP – at the same time as the comic bit goes on with the girl batting her eyes so Indy can see the LOVE YOU painted on her eyelids (SET UP that this is a romantic story as well), and Marcus is also introduced.

I swear, this is one of the best films to use to study COMPRESSION: it’s amazing just how much you can make one scene do, without ever making it look crowded.

Denholm Elliot wanders onto the scene, one of my favorite actors ever, the total professor, as Marcus. With this man as a MENTOR you just know Indy is a good guy. Marcus serves as a HERALD here, too, summoning Indy to the meeting with the government guys, who will deliver the actual CALL TO ADVENTURE. It’s worth noting as a technique that having this double layer to the CALL – first a Herald appearing to say to the hero/ine, “There’s someone here with a job for you”, and then escorting the hero/ine to a different location where another set of messengers delivers the call, builds up the importance of the moment and the mission.

And the location of this next scene, where the government guys (US Army Intelligence) explain the mission, is very significant here. This scene could have been set just in an office. Instead, the filmmakers make it a SETPIECE all on its own by putting it in a huge, elegant, high-ceilinged auditorium with stained glass windows, creating a cathedral-like ambiance. The setting gives us a feeling of the import of this mission. And since the CALL TO ADVENTURE is one of the most exciting and crucial moments of any story, why not give it a setting to create an extra layer of excitement and significance?

We learn from the government guys that a Nazi telegraph has been intercepted and Hitler’s men are looking for Indy’s old mentor, Abner Ravenwood. Indy and Marcus interpret the telegraph: The Nazis have discovered an archeological site where supposedly the Lost Ark of the Covenant has been buried for millennia, and they think Ravenwood can help them pinpoint the exact location of the Ark.

Hitler has been sending teams of Nazis out all over the globe collecting occult artifacts (this is historically true). Ominously, the legend of this particular artifact, the Ark, is that it will make any army who bears it invincible.

These are the really huge STAKES of this story, and our FEAR: If Hitler gets the Ark, it will make the German army invincible. World domination = not good.

So now we get a glimpse of what Indy is up against: his real OPPONENT is the ultimate bad guy: Hitler and the whole German army.

And our HOPE is that Indy finds the Ark before Hitler does.

The Ark is the MACGUFFIN, Hitchcock’s word for “the object that everyone wants.” A Macguffin story is a specific kind of story that has its own structural form; if you’re writing one it’s good to take a look at how other storytellers have handled MacGuffins. ROMANCING THE STONE, THE THIRTY-NINE STEPS, LORD OF THE RINGS, and HARRY POTTER AND THE SORCERER’S STONE are just a very few examples. In RAIDERS, as in a lot of MacGuffin stories, one MacGuffin leads to another: the medallion leads to the Ark. But also, in the very first scene, the idol is a MacGuffin that Indy is racing Belloq for.

In this case the MacGuffin is also a CURSED OBJECT, a staple of horror, fantasy, and action-adventure.

This is also a good example of an EXPLAINING THE MYTHOLOGY scene – you often see these when the mission is convoluted, or fantastical – such as in horror movies, sci-fi, fantasy – and the scene often includes the hero explaining the rules to an outsider, as here and in INCEPTION, where the hero and his team explain the technology of dream invasion to the new team member, Ariadne. But you also see this scene in THE GODFATHER – when at the opening wedding sequence Michael Corleone explains the rules of his family, his father, and the major players to outsider Kay. Often the mythology is explained to the hero/ine by the mentor: as in THE MATRIX, and sometimes by the allies – as Hermione and Ron do constantly in the first Harry Potter (of course Harry’s mentors do a lot of explaining in that story, as well.) And sometimes the hero will explain the mythology directly to the audience, as Hiccup does so with such wry charm, winning our hearts in the opening narration over the first action sequence of HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON.

Here, it’s Indy and Marcus explaining the history of the Ark to the government guys. And they also explain that the Nazis want to find Ravenwood because he has a medallion that can be used to pinpoint the exact location of the Ark (Indy draws all this on a blackboard, a SET UP for when we see him do for real it at the Midpoint.)

There is also a big SET UP with the illustrations of the Ark bringing down the wrath of God on a blasphemous army – it’s a sketch of EXACTLY what happens in the final scene.

However, although Indy knows the mythology of the Ark, he quickly adds, “If you believe all that stuff.” – indicating that he himself does not believe it. This is an action-adventure film, there isn’t a huge CHARACTER ARC here, but this is what it is: Indy starts out scoffing at the supernatural and mystical and ends up barely saving his life and Marion’s precisely by believing in the power of the Ark and showing reverence. (The secondary character arc has to do with reconciling romantically with Marion, although in the trilogy that doesn’t last long. There is a reference to this GHOST when Indy says, with some shame – that he and Ravenwood had “a sort of falling-out.”)

Also, adding to the theme of world religions, there are several Judeo-Christian references in the University scene – the auditorium that looks like a church, with the stained glass windows, the leather-bound text that looks like a Bible, the references to the story of Moses and the Israelites and the Lost Ark of the Covenant and the wrath of God. Marcus’s voice echoes in the auditorium like the voice of a priest.

The tag line of the scene is Marcus saying: “An army carrying the Ark before it was said to be invincible”, leaving us a moment to think about that most important point as the scene changes.

(20:26) In the next scene, Marcus visits Indy at home. Marcus has convinced the government agents to send Indy after the Ark. His first line of dialogue states the PLAN in no uncertain terms: “The government wants you to get the Ark before Hitler does.”

This is the PLAN, CENTRAL QUESTION, and CENTRAL ACTION of the film: “Will Indy get the Ark before Hitler does?”

Again, beautiful set design and dressing in this scene: Indy’s cluttered but elegant office has bookshelves full of books, idols displayed and lit on the top, a globe on the desk, and a very interesting Picasso-like painting of nude women – a reference to Marion and romance.

The two men drink to the biggest mission of Indy’s career, “the culmination of everything we went into archeology for”. Indy says he knows where to start looking for Ravenwood, but worries about Marion – (HERO’S GHOST and SET UP) – how she’ll react to him. Marcus says Marion is the least of Indy’s worries. This is a mission unlike anything Indy’s ever undertaken before, not to be taken lightly (As he said in the last scene “the Ark is a source of unspeakable power.”) WARNING BY MENTOR. Indy scoffs at Marcus’s superstitious fears: “You’re talking about the boogeyman.” Indy clearly does not believe in the supernatural or the mystic power of the Ark. (CHARACTER ARC).

(22: 16) We see Indy board a wonderful antique seaplane, and one of the passengers is a weird little guy in a Fedora watching him from behind his Life magazine – with a Nazi officer on the cover. (I thought this character was Toht, but Imbd says it's not.).

The device of the plane flying superimposed over a map detailing the journey is a fun period effect that also serves as a SEQUENCE CHANGE or CURTAIN.

Film, and drama in general – love CONTRAST, and we descend now into the icy mountains of Nepal. Huge change from the steamy jungle and the quaint Midwestern college town.

This contrast contributes to the globe-hopping excitement of the film: from jungle to mountains to desert.

(23: 27) The Nepalese Bar. This fantastic SETPIECE scene really is a miracle of set and staging. Starting the journey off in a tavern is a staple of the Mythic Structure - think of the original Star Wars, the first Harry Potter, LOTR - and even Romancing the Stone!

Inside the primitive bar, a terrific CHARACTER INTRODUCTION to Marion Ravenwood, so much more colorful than a typical LOVE INTEREST, here, as she drinks an enormous Nepalese under the table in a drinking contest, and collects bet money from the roughnecks cheering them on. Clearly this woman is a match for Indy. Marion’s drinking skills are also a SET UP for a later scene with Belloq.

When she closes down the bar, more than a little drunk, she sees Indy’s shadow on the wall in a nice hallucinatoric moment. The glass shattering as it drops from her hand is a nice symbolic sound effect for her broken heart. There’s a beautiful reversal as she pretends to be happy to see him, “I always knew one day you’d come walking back through my door” to get close enough to punch him. Great delivery of backstory as a heated fight between the two of them. Indy gets down to business and asks for the medallion; he’ll pay her 3000 now and 2000 when they get it – enough to get her home and “in style”. While Marion barters for the money it’s clear her real desire is for Indy, but she keeps the whip hand, and tells him to come back tomorrow – “Because I said so.”

After Indy leaves Marion pulls the medallion out from her blouse, where she wears it on a chain. There’s a mystical moment with the music and the light on the medallion – a wind blows eerily through the candle flame as she looks at the piece.

(28: 50) Now the door blows open and enter Nazi Major Toht (INTRODUCTION TO SECONDARY OPPONENT) with three flunkies, a raging snowstorm behind them. Toht also wants the medallion. Marion is unimpressed, blowing cigarette smoke in Toht’s face, but Toht will be delighted to torture her with a hot poker to get it. Fortunately Indy has hung around and comes to her rescue, whipping the poker out of Toht’s hand.

I’m not what anyone would call an aficionado of fight scenes but if you ask me this is one of the best-staged film fight sequences ever, with action, suspense, comedy, character quirks, and wonderful use of fire and lighting juxtaposed against a snowstorm. Note the MacGuffin-based suspense of the medallion being exposed in the middle of all the fighting: who will get it first? There’s the fantastic SET UP of Toht burning his hand on the medallion – it’s also poetic justice that he gets burned right after he was about to burn Marion with the poker. At the climax of the fight, Marion shoots the flunky who was about to shoot Indy, and they run out of the collapsing fiery bar with the medallion.

As the bar burns down behind them, they shout at each other in an admiring exchange which advances the love plot.

Marion: Well, Jones, at least you haven’t forgotten how to show a lady a good time!
Indy: Boy, you are really something!
Marion: (holding up the medallion) Until I get my five thousand dollars back you’re gonna get more than you bargained for. I’m your god-damn partner!

Now THAT’S an ACT ONE CLIMAX! Total exhilaration. And note how deftly this climaxes both the adventure plot and the love plot.

(33 min. 40 seconds).

And I just wanted to recap the thematic image systems that have been set up so far:

1. The visual themes of world religions –

- The demonic statue that terrifies the first guide
- the Aztec (sort of!) calendar in the jungle.
- The opening scene is pretty obviously set in Peru, a mystical power spot.
- The gold idol, guarded with all kinds of booby traps.
- The god-figures in the inner chamber of the cave “watch” Indy cross the floor
- When Belloq holds the idol up, all the natives bow down to it – the reverence for the gods.
- Indy’s lecture in class is about royal burials
- You get the references to Judeo-Christian religions in the University scene – the auditorium that looks like a church, with the stained glass windows, the leather-bound text that looks like a Bible, the references to the story of Moses and the Israelites and the Lost Ark of the Covenant. The wrath of God.
- Nepal is another mystical power spot– just a bit of a subliminal reference there (or I’m making that up!)
- The medallion itself is introduced as a mystical object.
- And up next, Cairo – the mysticism of Egypt, another world power spot.

2. Exotic locations, vast distances.

3. Creatures: the tarantulas in the cave, the monkeys, the huge snake in the plane seat, the snakes to come.


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Shannon said...

Nice break down. I love the Indiana movies. Can't wait to read the Act II and Act III break downs.

Martin_B said...

One theory is the current holder of the Ark is Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe. Centuries ago it travelled to Yemen, then to Africa via the Lemba tribe, who have Semitic DNA. It eventually ended up in a museum in Harare, where Mugabe seized it.

I heard author Tudor Parfitt give a talk on the subject. He was very persuasive. Apparently the Ark is a large war drum.

That's by the by. I enjoyed your first act breakdowns and hope acts 2 and 3 are coming soon.

T. B. Wright said...

This is a great post. You never realize just how packed each scene of a really great film (or book) is until it is broken down to meticulously like this. Excited to read the next two Acts.

Melisa said...

Alex - Just curious. I hope this doesn't sound silly though it will ring with being a novice. If you were writing this book, approximately where would this page count be at the end of Act 1?

By the way, I love the picture of you throwing your hair up and it being captured by the camera.


Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Thanks, Shannon! This is actually the only one I love, but I never get tired of it - I see new things in it every time I rewatch.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Not at all, Melisa. The first act break in a novel would be at about 100 pages in a 400 page novel. The midpoint would come at 200 and the act two climax at 300 pages.

Stephen D. Rogers said...

Hey Alex,

The last time I watched RAIDERS I found myself wishing they'd skipped the prologue and started with Indy in the classroom.


Catherine said...

You're amazing Alexandra! I LOVE READING YOUR BLOG! It's a wealth of information and your knowledge and intuition go hand in hand with each analysis.

Just wondering... could weaponry/methods of death be a visual theme/image system for this act? The whip, the guns, the darts, bow and arrows, the mummification, the large stone, fire poker, fighting, etc.

All of these mechanisms of injury and death, while effective and real, are minimal compared to the true power of the Ark.

Perhaps this is a way to make the audience aware of the seriousness of the threat of the Ark.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

TB, I couldn't agree more - this film really blows me away with how much it does in every scene - every beat, really.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Hey Stephen, Happy New Year!

I know what you mean - I've kind of felt that myself, but I'm pretty sure that's because I already KNOW who Indy is as a treasure hunter and we get to see so little of him as this professor. I don't think the movie would work anywhere near as well if it didn't have the first scene and then the contrast.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Great point, Catherine, I think you're absolutely right. I'm not one to notice weaponry but a lot of people are, and there's a huge variety in this film, not just in the weaponry, but in the methods of death.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Hi Martin - sorry, didn't see your comment before. Thanks for the footnotes! I'm not sure how it works that the Ark is a large war drum, but I know there are a lot of interesting theories about where the Ark really is. There's at least one documentary on those speculations.

Rhonda Lane said...

These breakdowns are always so helpful. Thank you, Alex. I realized I've been "shorting" my Call to Adventure scene. I'll have to remedy that.

Zac Thraves said...

I really loved this breakdown and glad I have stumbled across your blog. By chance I was researching for a book I wanted to write and my idea was to use classic adventure like Raiders as a chapter template. Such a great film and this is a wonderful description of the action, it played out in my head as I read it. Thank you and I will keep on following your really interesting blog.

David Comfort said...

Great breakdown and found it very useful. I saw you did a breakdown for Act II, but hadn't finished the rest of "Raiders." Are you planning to do a breakdown of the rest of film?

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Rhonda, that's a great realization! The Call to Adventure is absolutely one of the most crucial scenes in any story. Absolutely, give it its due!

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Thanks, Zac, really glad it helped!

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Hey David - yes, eventually I'll finish the breakdown. Not too soon, though - I have four books due in a row and breakdowns are so time intensive.