Notes On Anti-Fascism And Frivolity In Raiders Of The Lost Ark At 40

In 1981, Raiders of the Lost Ark seemed like mindless entertainment – but its legacy as an antifascist statement has only grown stronger in the last 40 years, finds Steve Erickson

In the final scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark, the Ark of the Covenant is wheeled into a U.S. government warehouse just before the credits roll. With its devastating power having been harnessed, history is done with it. Placing the Ark, which the Bible claims Moses created on God’s introductions soon after the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt, in the middle of a huge room of similar-looking unidentified boxes, suggests that its long history can safely be confined to the past. In 1981, Americans fighting Nazis looked like a safe subject for a self-consciously “fun” and nostalgic homage to movie serials.

As the film marks its 40th anniversary, the ideology of fascism has resurfaced. Confidence that everyone in North America and Europe agrees Nazis are evil and need to be defeated can no longer be taken for granted. Stills from Raiders of the Lost Ark have resurfaced and been repurposed as memes celebrating punching Nazis. (Now that “Antifa” has became a boogeyman for the American right, Americans need a reminder that being anti-fascist was our country’s official policy during World War II.) A fifth film in the Indiana Jones series has just started production. While I doubt this is more than an exercise in IP, the timing is right.

In a prelude in 1936, Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) travels to “South America” – apparently, no individual country in the continent has to be named – to take a golden idol from a temple before his Nazi-affiliated rival Rene Bellocq (Paul Freeman) can. Returning briefly to his university job teaching archeology, he then travels to Nepal and at a bar meets Marion (Karen Allen) – with whom he had a relationship when she was a teenager – rescuing her from torture by Nazi agent Arnold Toht (Ronald Lacey.) Together, Indiana and Marion head to Cairo, meeting up with his friend Sallah (John Rhys-Davies) and learning about the Nazis’ plan to steal the Ark of the Covenant and use its power in warfare.

At the time of release, Raiders of the Lost Ark was a huge hit commercially , grossing $125 million in a single American summer. The few film critics who disliked it saw it as a political film and perceived it as childishly reactionary. Robin Wood called Raiders of the Lost Ark “precisely the kind of entertainment that a potentially Fascist culture would be expected to produce and enjoy. (What exactly are we applauding as we cheer on the exploits of Indiana Jones)? ”in an essay in his book Hollywood From Vietnam To Reagan. Reviewing its sequel Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom for The Village Voice, J. Hoberman wrote: “There’s a kind of willful ignorance here, as though the magnitude of their success exempts Spielberg and Lucas from any moral consideration.” It might be a stretch to judge Raiders by 2021’s standards of authenticity in casting – Rhys-Davies plays a major Arab character – but even when I first saw the film as a teenager, the ugly colonial overtones of the scene in which Indiana Jones suddenly shoots an Egyptian man engaging in an elaborate display of swordsmanship towards him were obvious. Throughout, the violence is casually callous, although the film keeps the tone light by preserving the safety of characters it cares about.

We’re now as far from Raiders of the Lost Ark’s original release as it was from America’s entry into World War II. Spielberg’s filmmaking practice has often been interpreted as a retreat from the more pessimistic and adult-oriented narratives of New Hollywood landmarks like Chinatown, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, The Parallax View and Taxi Driver. Raiders of the Lost Ark is a product of both George Lucas and Steven Spielberg; the former came up with its original idea in the early ‘70s and co-wrote the story with Philip Kaufman, the latter directed it. But even in 1981, the adventure serials Lucas grew up watching on TV were a fairly distant memory to moviegoers, especially since much of the audience for Raiders of the Lost Ark proved to be children and teenagers. Instead, the film’s style anticipated and likely influenced video games, blockbusters and even theme park rides to come. The film’s opening scenes in South America portray Indiana racing around a temple like a game character to avoid traps, culminating in a memorable scene where he triggers the release of a gigantic ball threatening to crush him, which he races to evade.

The film can easily be read as a tale of Nazis trying and failing to appropriate Jewish power. Spielberg is Jewish, as is Harrison Ford. But despite conspiracy theories about Jews controlling Hollywood to use for nefarious purposes, the specifically Jewish aspects of Raiders of the Lost Ark exist but are coded. When not fighting in Egypt and Nepal under a fedora and leather jacket, Indiana presents himself as a tweedy professor wearing a three-piece suit and glasses. (This shift in image suggests American pop culture’s willingness to portray Jewish men as smart and funny, but an ongoing reluctance to allow them to express anger or commit violence – the history of American comedy runs parallel to that of Jewish-American assimilation, but action movies with explicitly Jewish-American heroes are almost nonexistent.) His nickname is so all-American it’s taken from a literal state.

Even so, the Ark was created during a period of Jewish exile. As much as Raiders of the Lost Ark celebrates Indiana both as an individual hero and a representative of American power overseas, it shows the Ark as a supernatural force which has nothing to do with him. He’s needed to retrieve it, but even taken by Nazis on a ship, the Ark expresses its own outrage at being desecrated by a swastika and burning that symbol away. A firestorm unleashed at the end of the film has nothing to do with Indiana; in fact, he and Marion are literally tied up as it happens. A more traditional action movie would end with Indiana getting into a shootout with the Nazis, rather than the Ark itself unleashing its force to destroy them. With its images of the Axis’ agents being destroyed by a deadly light, this scene echoes the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but directs its violence towards active Nazis rather than ordinary Japanese people.

Lindsay Ellis’ video “Mel Brooks, The Producers and the Ethics of Satire About Nazis” argues convincingly that a seemingly lightweight approach can be more subversive than treating Nazis as demonic villains with a coherent ideology that need to be fought on its own ground. She makes a case that the apparent bad taste of depicting neo-Nazis as laughable buffoons in The Producers has proven resistant to co-option by fascists, while the way Edward Norton’s neo-Nazi character is framed by director Tony Kaye and the articulate nature of his racist arguments in American History X upend its intended message, leading it to find a cult following among contemporary fascists. Raiders is shallow by design, with no reflection on how Indiana might share elements of the ideology he’s fighting, but it cedes no ground to the aesthetic of “fascinating fascism.” Named by Susan Sontag in a 1974 essay, the concept suggests, in films like The Night Porter and The Damned, that Nazism was a playground of kinky sex.

Toht doesn’t look cool. I didn’t need to turn to Wikipedia to figure out that Lacey wasn’t actually German. The slapstick violence in Raiders of the Lost Ark is put to both conservative and progressive uses, directed at Arabs and Nazis. The film portrays Jones as a charming rogue while glancingly suggesting that he’s a sexist jerk, in much the same way as Sean Connery’s James Bond movies (except with its libido drastically toned down.) As one measure of its impact, three teenagers in the ‘80s made a shot-for-shot remake on a tiny budget over the course of six years, starting when they were 12. The contradictions of Raiders mirror those of American power. The film never considers how ordinary Egyptians might look at Jones’ quest or the fact that he’s stealing objects belonging to Latin Americans for placement in U.S. museums. But if its action scenes looked abstract in the early ‘80s, they now seem closer to reality with practical effects or obvious special effects. When a recent blockbuster like Godzilla vs. Kong can spend its final half hour showing its monsters demolishing a city that never existed outside a computer, the fact that Raiders had to get real stuntmen to fall from real buildings links it to the past it depicts. Its current meaning has changed with the times, along with the Overton window of politics. In most respects, it’s fundamentally conservative, but the fact that it could espouse an enthusiastic message of anti-fascism distances it from present-day political conservatism. Raiders takes stock of historical tragedies, including specifically Jewish ones, and tries to respond to them in a manner that would speak to the widest possible group of people. If the results are compromised, they also have the virtue of making anti-fascism look like a stance worth taking – because it’s always more pleasurable than being a Nazi. Making a connection between a film as fanciful as Raiders and real-life politics in 2021 isn’t simple or easy. But if it can teach us one thing, it’s how images that might look frivolous at one time could take on greater weight as history – both on screen and off – soldiers on.

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