With Indiana Jones’ return, looking back at the opening scene of ‘Raiders’
By Jason Bailey
“Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny” (now in theaters) is the first film in that franchise not directed by Steven Spielberg, who developed the character all those years ago with George Lucas and Philip Kaufman, as well as screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan. Yet the handoff of directorial duties to James Mangold doesn’t feel like a strain, because Spielberg established the character of the globe-trotting archaeologist and the style of his cinematic escapades so adroitly over the first four films.
In fact, he set them in stone in the very first sequence of the very first movie — as we can see in a shot-by-shot look that classic sequence today.
We first see Indiana Jones less than 30 seconds into 1981’s “Raiders of the Lost Ark” — but it’s a carefully prepared hero entrance, holding back Harrison Ford’s distinctive visage as long as possible. Instead, we first see him from the back, in a frame that nevertheless introduces the character and his distinctive iconography (his hat, bullwhip and jacket).
This continues for a few minutes; we only see Indiana Jones from behind, in shadow or in disembodied close-ups, like when he uses his bullwhip to snatch a pistol from the local who is about to betray him. “That’s when you first see him with the bullwhip,” Lucas explained in a 1978 story conference that was tape-recorded, transcribed and made available a few years ago. “That’s where the plot comes alive.” After that move, we finally see his face as he steps into the light.
Our first look inside the cave is creepily atmospheric — dark and torchlit, with our view of our hero initially blocked by cobwebs. “This is the first scene in the movie,” Spielberg, at the time still best known as the director of “Jaws,” strategized. “This scene should get at least four major screams.”
Part of the M.O. of the Jones movies is how sequences constantly top themselves. We get a prime early example of that when Satipo (future “Doc Ock” Alfred Molina) is alarmed by a sprinkling of spiders on Indy’s back — only to turn and reveal his own back covered in spiders.
Few filmmakers are as aware of their audience as Spielberg, and he uses Satipo as an audience surrogate; he reacts as we do, registering shock and fear at the various dangers, booby traps and skeletons they encounter along their way.
Yet the director always plays fair. We see all of the dangers of the cave, at normal speed, on their way in — so we’re prepared for Indy and Satipo to face them, at top speed, on the way out.
With both his good looks and lightning-fast reflexes established, we also quickly get a sense of Dr. Jones’ intelligence. He sees every potential trap and carefully sidesteps it: where he walks, the light his body crosses, the careful replacement of the idol with the sand bag.
Spielberg cuts tautly, back and forth, between Indy attempting the switch and Satipo watching in fear (again, the audience surrogate), building tension that seems to deflate when he successfully manipulates the swap.
And then all bets are off.
In their breakdown of the sequence, Spielberg voiced three different variations of one idea: “What we’re just doing here, really, is designing a ride at Disneyland.” (There would, subsequently, be an immensely popular Indiana Jones ride at Disneyland.) And that’s what they do, creating a lightning-fast, whiplash-inducing series of ascents and dips, traps and saves, fake-outs and tight squeezes. Indy finally seems home free … and then comes the topper.
The most memorable image in a scene full of them plays out just as Lucas described it in 1978. “There is a 65-foot boulder that’s form-fitted to only roll down the corridor coming right at him,” he explained. “And it’s a race. He gets to outrun the boulder.”
And shockingly, he does. He ends up covered in cobwebs and escaping empty-handed, but at least he escapes …
… using a conveniently placed vine to make a skin-of-his-teeth getaway, accompanied by, for the first time, John Williams’ unforgettable main theme. And then, once in the plane, we find out that (the previous sequence notwithstanding) there is one thing Indiana Jones is afraid of: snakes.
“In the end all it is a teaser,“ Lucas said of this opening, as they mapped it out years in advance. And he’s right; it’s a marvelous preview of the thrills, chills and laughs of the film that will follow. But the “Raiders” opening did more than that: it set a template for the “Indiana Jones” series — and for the thrill-ride blockbusters of the 1980s and beyond.