It’s a common misconception that Steven Spielberg first confronted his Jewish heritage and the tragedy that goes with it in Schindler’s List (1993). The truth, however, is a little more complex. His Holocaust drama may be his most explicit depiction of his ancestry to date, but traces of its impact on Spielberg’s life can be seen in many of his early films, including the first Indiana Jones adventure, Raiders Of The Lost Ark (1981).
Made at the start of a decade of tremendous personal and professional change for Spielberg (who became a father and a husband, and made his first drama during the 80s), Raiders is an ostensibly light-hearted romp inspired by the escapist adventures of its director’s youth. With its rousing theme tune, breathless set-pieces and charming lead performance from Harrison Ford, it deliverS what remains one of modern cinema’s most enduring blockbusters.
And yet, Raiders is a surprisingly violent yarn. Its heroic leads (Indy and Karen Allen’s Marion) kill 23 people between them and 63 are slain all in all. Indy shoots an Arab swordsman in cold blood, watches as a pilot is mangled by one of his plane’s propellers, and pummels and runs down a Nazi soldier as they battle for control of a runaway truck.
Such scenes are surprising coming from a man who’d found such success in suggesting threat rather than explicitly showing it in Jaws (1975) and who would go on to make E.T. (1982), and they drew stern criticism.
The film’s writer, Lawrence Kasdan, has described the swordsman sequence as “brutal”, while in his biography of Spielberg, writer Joseph McBride argues that the film’s violence is “exploited for purely visceral thrills…[and] presented in a winking tongue-in-cheek style to anesthetise the audience’s moral sense.”
While McBride goes too far in suggesting the film anesthetises the audience’s morality, the “winking tongue-in-cheek style” is certainly clear and it’s out in force in the climactic scene. Having failed to wrestle the Ark of the Covenant from the Nazis, Indy and Marion find themselves on a secret island hideout where Indy’s rival archaeologist Belloq (Paul Freeman), Nazi commander Dietrich (Wolf Kahler) and henchman Toht (Ronald Lacy) begin a ceremony that will open the artefact.
The scene ends, of course, with the three men suffering deaths so over-the-top that Looney Tunes legend Chuck Jones – who acted as visual consultant on Raiders‘ predecessor 1941 (1979) – would have taken pause. But dismissing the film for its cartoonish violence is somewhat missing the point. Raiders is a revenge movie and its director’s anger is generated from the passion of a man looking to exorcise the ghosts of a childhood spent at the mercy of bullies.
Growing up in five different towns, the young Spielberg found settling difficult and his awkwardness made him easy prey for other kids. Some of the resulting taunting took the form of anti-Semitism and he later described his experiences in Saratoga, California, where he finished his high school education, as “Hell on Earth”.
His mistreatment was by no means exclusive to Saratoga, though. Throughout his childhood, Spielberg had to endure repeated bullying. He was mocked because he didn’t celebrate Christmas and would hear kids coughing ‘Jew!’ as they walked past him. “I felt as alien as I have ever felt in my life,” he confessed during publicity for Schindler’s List. “It caused me great fear and an equal amount of shame.”
Spielberg was also made aware of his heritage through the Holocaust stories he’d hear from relatives and the elderly students in his grandmother’s English classes. One showed him the numbers that had been tattooed onto his arm at Auschwitz, while his mother Leah told him about a woman who was so panicked by a Nazi soldier’s threat to chop of her finger so he could claim the ring stuck on it that the ring eventually slipped off.
“It just freaked me out, I’m sure it affected Steven,” Leah has explained. “Some of the stories were so horrible that there was almost a movie-like quality to them.”
It’s fitting then, that Spielberg would learn to master his feelings of persecution through a movie. Made in 1961 while the director was still at school, Escape To Nowhere is a war film that starred one of Spielberg’s bullies in a primary role. After a rocky start, their relationship began to shift and suddenly wimpy Spielberg was transformed in Director Spielberg and in that position he could boss his actor around.
“Even when he was in one of my movies I was afraid of him,” Spielberg would later say. “But I was able to bring him over to a place where I felt safer: in front of my camera. I didn’t use words. I used a camera, and I discovered what a tool and a weapon, what an instrument of self-inspection and self- expression it is…I had learned that film was power.”
It’s a lesson Spielberg has exercised throughout his career. Whether it’s the theatricality of Hook (1991), the blockbuster meta-textuality of the Jurassic Park films (1993 and 1997) or the self-aware artifice of Catch Me If You Can (2003), Spielberg films are, as Empire Of The Sun (1987) screenwriter Tom Stoppard noted, “’about’ cinema before they are about anything else”. Even his more serious efforts feature movie references, most recently War Horse (2011), which finishes with a prolonged nod to Gone With The Wind (1939).
The climactic scene of Raiders Of The Lost Ark is no different. The island that Indy and Marion are taken to is littered with cameras and lights, and an army of soldiers are on hand to operate them. With Belloq, Toht and Dietrich standing at the head of the stage, the scene is like a movie set, the three men the actors, the soldiers the behind-the-scenes crew. Tied up, Indy and Marion can only watch and so represent the audience. All that’s needed is the star attraction.
When it finally does arrive, it manifests itself through technology. A generator explodes; setting off a chain reaction that sends sparks across the lights and all the soldiers’ guns. The scene falls dark and quiet. John Williams’s mysterious Ark theme begins on the soundtrack and slowly white-blue light emerges.
The spirits of the Ark seem benevolent at first, celestial streams of light dancing around the men in a display of typically Spielbergian wonder. It’s the end of Close Encounters Of The Third Kind (1977) and the audience is primed for life-affirming spectacle.
But the mood soon changes. One of the spirits flies up to the three men, craning its neck to look directly at them. Spielberg shoots this moment from the men’s point of view, the spirit looking at the camera, through to the audience. Slowly, the benign face turns into a malevolent skull that screams piercingly. Vengeance is at hand.
An orange light pours from the Ark, smothering Belloq’s head and projecting out across the soldiers. It impales all the soldiers, including – significantly – the one operating the camera, and finally returns to Belloq, Toht and Dietrich, the latter two’s faces melting, the former’s head exploding. A great purging fire covers the base, incinerating any Nazis left standing.
Indy and Marion have survived, but their place as the audience has changed. Realising the threat, the pair had closed their eyes before the spirits appeared, thus saving themselves from the Nazis’ fate. The Ark, like film, is power and those who look upon it must do so with the proper reverence – or suffer the consequences.
Spielberg would return to Indiana Jones in Temple Of Doom (1984), removing the Nazis’ disrespect and replacing it with Indy’s own arrogant search for “fortune and glory”, and again in The Last Crusade (1989), which brought the Nazis back and punished a Belloq substitute (Julian Glover’s egotistical Donovan) with a similarly nasty fate for his pursuit of the Holy Grail.
The films are often dismissed as Spielberg’s most impersonal efforts and, co-created as they are with George Lucas, perhaps that’s true. But regardless of authorship, the Indiana Jones franchise provided Spielberg with an important bridge between the popcorn entertainment he excelled at in the 70s and the serious-minded drama he’d produce in the 90s.
Film was power, Raiders had helped him prove. Now it was time to turn its might onto reality.