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Meet the Reader: Revisiting Raiders

Earlier this summer, I had the opportunity to attend a 30th anniversary showing of Raiders of the Lost Ark at AMPAS. From a screenwriting perspective, I was impressed all over again by Lawrence Kasdan’s terrific script. It’s a textbook example of great screenwriting.

Earlier this summer, I had the opportunity to attend a 30th anniversary showing of Raiders of the Lost Arkat the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences in Beverly Hills. Presented by the Academy’s Technology Council, the screening featured a gorgeous new digitally-restored, digitally-projected print of the Steven Spielberg-directed classic.

Seeing the film again was a treat – it remains as exciting and entertaining and just plain fun as it was when it was first released in the summer of 1981. Watching it play out on the massive screen in the Academy’s Samuel Goldwyn Theater was also a treat, as well as a powerful reminder of what a different experience it is to see a movie on the big screen as opposed to watching it on a TV monitor. I’ve seen Raiders dozens if not hundreds of times on television and home video over the years -- and have enjoyed it each time -- but the film I saw at the Academy had a completely new feel to it. Writ large, the shots and the editing have an entirely different rhythm and impact than they do when they are presented in a more compact fashion and, because the images are so much larger, more details are noticeable in the images, the sets and the performances, giving the film much more nuance and subtlety than it has on the small screen. Cinema Raiders is a very different movie than TV Raiders. It’s also a better one.

From a screenwriting perspective, I was impressed all over again by Lawrence Kasdan’s terrific script (based on a story by George Lucas and Phillip Kaufman) – the construction is as precise as that of a Swiss watch, the characters are strong and engaging, and the dialogue is witty and sharp. It’s a textbook example of great screenwriting and there are many, many lessons that both aspiring and professional scripters can learn from studying Kasdan’s work. The lesson that really jumped out at me this time concerned the movie’s famous opening sequence, in which intrepid archaeologist and treasure hunter Indiana Jones (played by Harrison Ford in the role that made him a star) enters a booby-trapped cave to retrieve an ancient golden idol. Indy successfully cops the statue, but in the process triggers the booby traps, forcing him to flee from a volley of poison darts, a rapidly-descending stone door, and, most memorably, a giant boulder that rolls down from the ceiling and pursues him down a narrow tunnel.

As everyone that sees the film does, I once again enjoyed this sequence as the thrill-packed roller coaster ride that it is, but what really impressed me this time is how brilliantly it demonstrates one of the cardinal rules of screenwriting: that you need to clearly establish everything – the characters, the story, and the world of the movie – in the first 10 or so pages of the script (and, thus, the first 10 or so minutes of the movie). Look at what happens in the initial segment of Raiders:

  • The film’s opening image – the Paramount mountain dissolving into a real mountain (an image which, to be fair, was not included in the script but was improvised by Steven Spielberg during location shooting in Hawaii) – tells us that Raiders is going to be a movie about movies, which is entirely appropriate, since the film was conceived as a riff on classic Hollywood adventure movies, primarily the great serials of the 1930s and 1940s, and includes many sly references to them throughout.
  • A superimposed title immediately tells us when the story takes place: 1936.
  • The opening sequence establishes Indiana Jones as mysterious character -- highly capable, a little bit dangerous, and very handy with a bullwhip. The South American location, a raggedy treasure map, and the golden idol itself tell us that he is someone who will follow tenuous clues to the far corners of the globe in search of ancient treasure. The fact that he involves himself with duplicitous desperados tells us that he is a bit of a mercenary. The opening sequence will later demonstrate that Indy has a tendency to get himself into tight scrapes and potentially deadly situations, but that he has the grit, perseverance, and skills necessary to extricate himself from danger (although he tends to get banged up a bit in the process). In the final beat of the South American sequence, we learn that Indy is phobically scared of snakes. The scene immediately following tells us that he is also a professor of archaeology at a tweedy Ivy League university who sells the treasures that he finds to museums.
  • The opening sequence also outlines the overall plot of the film (as well as the three sequels that followed): Archaeologist and adventurer Indiana Jones will follow a series of clues to distant, exotic lands in order to find a mysterious object; that he will encounter and survive many life-threatening situations before finally obtaining that object; that he will overcome even more threats to life and limb in order to bring the object back; and that after all that travail, he will ultimately lose the object in the end.
  • These first 10 minutes also introduce the story’s primary villain: renegade French archaeologist Reneè Belloq (elegantly played by Paul Freeman) – an old colleague-turned-enemy who takes the idol from Indy in the opening and will attempt to do the same with the Ark later in the picture.
  • The nature of the dangers Jones encounters in the opening sequence – treacherous companions, ancient booby-traps, and a tribe of bloodthirsty natives – and of the stunts he performs – jumping across a vast chasm, outrunning the massive boulder, and swinging from a tree into a river before climbing aboard a speeding airplane – indicate that the style of the film is going to be slightly larger-than-life, although it will never go beyond the bounds of reality (a limit that a few of the sequels would unfortunately violate).
  • The straight-faced tone of the opening sequence tells us that this film is not going to be camp or a spoof and that it is meant to be taken seriously, although a few well-placed moments -- such as Indy’s companion Satipo’s encounter with a large number of spiders, the sight of a lone Jones being chased over a hill by dozens of natives, and Indy’s squeamish reaction to the snake he finds in his colleague’s airplane – let us know that the movie will include some humor as well.

By the time this initial sequence is over, the audience has been well-prepared for everything that follows. (Well, almost everything. The one element of the story that is not properly established in the opening is the presence of the supernatural forces that manifest in the climactic sequence in which the Ark of the Covenant is finally opened, although, in Kasdan’s defense, apparently most of this material was devised following the completion of the screenplay and was never meant to be as extensive as it ended up becoming). This allows them audience to sit back and enjoy the ride, all thanks to one of the niftiest pieces of screenwriting ever devised.