Raiders of the Lost Ark is one of my all time favorite films. I know, I know, that doesn’t exactly make me one of a kind. Everyone loves Raiders. And part of that is simply its understated competence. It isn’t flashy the way, for instance, Tarantino’s films tend to be. Spielberg is the master of the workmanlike film style. His films aren’t usually loaded with bells and whistles. You hardly notice them on a stylistic level. They simply work. But none of that means that his films don’t innovate. And Raiders works all the better for the unusual way Spielberg structures its conflicts and resolution.
Raiders is fundamentally a work of genre fiction. In the same way that Star Wars takes the old pulp-paperback space opera books and updates them for film audiences, Raiders builds upon the pulp adventure stories: stories of adventurers, explorers, and “archeologists,” men who always manage to find more magical artifacts and damsels in distress than valuable scientific data. But Spielberg makes one significant change to the old genre, and that change is the groundwork of what makes the Indiana Jones series so much more compelling than its source material. He takes the hardbitten and unflappable James Bond types who fill their pages, and he cuts their hamstrings.
The traditional model of conflict for pulp adventure stories was almost entirely physical: falling boulders, pits of vipers, enemies with guns (sound familiar?). But, in those stories, the heroes were always up to the challenge. They were smarter, faster, stronger, more macho than normal people, and therefore more than a match for the physical challenges thrown at them. Indiana Jones, on the other hand, is not cut from such a super-human cloth. He’s smart, and fast, and strong to be sure, but he’s always a little out of his depth. The challenges thrown at him, whether physical or otherwise, are always just a little bigger than he can handle. The great innovation of Indiana Jones’s character is that he tends to lose.
And that means two things. First, it means that we can relate to him much more intimately than we can relate to other pulp heroes. No one identifies with James Bond, unless they’re some kind of sociopath. We watch Bond because he’s cool and unflappable, and that’s fun to watch. But we don’t see ourselves in him. We do see ourselves in Indie though, and that gives the story a much more personal and intimate feeling. Second, placing Indie’s abilities just below the level of his challenges keeps the tension high. No matter what he’s doing, no matter how hard he tries or how much he learns, Indie is always going to be outmatched. He’s always going to be the underdog, desperately trying to play catch-up. And that makes the danger feel far more real.
This pattern follows through to the resolution of the film. Indie loses. There’s no two ways about it. He ends his final gambit of the story tied to a stake beside Marion, the helpless captives of their Nazi antagonists. The film’s happy resolution comes, not through any agency on Indie’s part, but because the Nazis go a step too far. They open the Ark, and God literally smites them. Talk about a Deus Ex Machina ending. It’s everything a writer is taught not to do, and it’s brilliant.
In general we avoid Deus Ex Machina resolutions because they feel tacked on. They take the story out of the hands of the character and put it in the hands of an outside force. But in this case it’s incredibly appropriate. The story up to that point isn’t really about Indie’s quest for the Ark. It’s about him and Marion, their love, and their struggle to survive the Nazis’ quest for the Ark. The resolution distills that fact. Indie isn’t up to the challenge of finding the Ark and taking on the whole Nazi army in the process. But he is up to the challenge of surviving.
In the end Indie is finally shorn of his pulp-heroic trappings. He doesn’t have the whip, he doesn’t have the gun, he doesn’t even have freedom of movement. He’s just an ordinary human being in over his head. But the secret of the film is that he’s never been anything more than that. And that’s what makes him such a compelling character.