This week we are analyzing the screenplay for Raiders of the Lost Ark, the beloved 1981 action-adventure movie [screenplay by Lawrence Kasdan, story by George Lucas & Philip Kaufman].
You may download a copy of the script [August 1979] here.
Today we discuss the script’s characters. Here is a list of the primary ones:
Dr. René Belloq
Dr. Marcus Brody
Major Arnold Toht
How would assess each of these characters and their respective narrative functions?
Today we are fortunate to have Part 1 of a two-part analysis of Raiders by screenwriter John Gary:
A few years ago, I was at lunch with a friend and we were talking about character and theme and he said something and then I dropped my fork.
“You know how Ferris Bueller doesn’t have any character arc, it’s the Arc of Awesome, like RAIDERS, where he changes the world around him but he doesn’t change at all –“
And I dropped my fork because it was slippery from the salad dressing but also I couldn’t help but think that that just wasn’t true. Of course Indiana Jones changes in RAIDERS. Of course he has a character arc, and it’s a full one, a complete one.
I have many favorite movies, but RAIDERS is probably the one I’m closest to, owing to it being the one and only VHS tape my family owned for a good four years, from the first day we bought a VCR in 1983 until my dad brought home TOP GUN in 1987. My sister and I watched the movie on an infinite loop for days on end, the soundtrack bleeding into my ears while taking a history test, the design of the cobra’s hood embroidered on the inside of my eyelids when I shut them tight at night.
And then there was Mystery Man on Film – it’s a long-ago shuttered blog written by a guy who had some interesting thoughts on movies, and he also used to write for Script magazine. He posted a scan of the RAIDERS story conference transcripts. At 126 pages, it is a long read, but worth digging into if for no other reason than the realization that yes, George Lucas really does have that many amazing ideas and no, Steven Spielberg is not infallible, serving up some real stinkers. So after Mystery Man posted the transcript, he wrote an article for Script titled “The Case Against Character Arc.” I haven’t been able to find it on line, but RAIDERS is one of the primary examples he uses to prove his point. He answered questions about the article in a blog post, talking further about RAIDERS.
The third thing that happened was during a conversation about central dramatic arguments, which is a way of thinking about theme more organically and creative originated by Craig Mazin. Someone else mentioned that Indy doesn’t change – it’s the world around him that changes, and there is no theme to RAIDERS.
This, of course, is all bullshit.
RAIDERS is a master class in integrating theme and character. Almost every single scene in the film explores the central dramatic argument in a new and different way, and Indiana Jones most definitely changes. RAIDERS shows how potent marrying theme and character can be, and that cohesiveness is a key element in the movie’s strong, magical power.
Let’s phrase the theme like Craig Mazin does, as a central dramatic question, discussed on Craig’s site a few years ago and on the ScriptNotes podcast more recently. I like this way of looking at theme, because it asks a question that should be answered by the end of the script. It also allows for a deeper examination of the theme, and it’s just easier to phrase the theme like this. The central dramatic question of RAIDERS is, “Must you kneel before God?” Nearly every single scene revolves around it.
And even better – Indy answers that question differently at the beginning of the movie than at the end. Oh, look, that’s right, it’s character arc. This is big-time movie-making, you guys: the central dramatic argument of a movie is the question the main character answers differently at the beginning than the end. The character’s growth centers around the movie’s theme.
It’s right there in the first sequence, with Indy in South America capturing the fertility idol. He’s savvy, he’s smart, and he has no time for religious mumbo-jumbo. He’s infiltrating a sacred space, but his only concern is getting in and out alive with the prize. He’s foiling traps, but he doesn’t proscribe to the superstitions of the guides who run away at the site of the statue. So he grabs the idol and escapes, and who does he run into?
Belloq is a fantastic character, mostly because he’s the yin to Indy’s yang, he’s just like Indy except he doesn’t change. And this is what gets him into trouble at the end, of course. Indy and Belloq start out believing the same thing – no need to kneel before God, because they don’t believe in his power, or at least they don’t fear it. The Hovitos answer the question differently; when Belloq holds up the fertility idol, they all bow in supplication.
Belloq and Indy see the idol and other relics as treasure to be possessed. The Hovitos see the idol as a symbol of their gods.
So just in case you had any doubts about what the movie is about, this next scene lays it all out for you. Indy’s in class, he’s teaching, and what is he talking about? “One of the great dangers of archeology … I’m talking about folklore.” Even in class he mentions he doesn’t believe in superstition! Indy could be talking about anything, he could be telling a story about breaking into a tomb, he could be discussing methods of preserving vase fragments, but no. He’s talking about something related to the theme.
The next scene is Indy meeting with the OSS guys, learning about Hitler’s quest for the Ark. Indy tells us right here how he feels about the power of the arc: “Yes, the actual ten commandments, the original stone tablets that Moses brought down out of Mount Horeb and smashed, if you believe in that sort of thing. Didn’t you guys ever go to Sunday School?” The OSS guys seem about as believing as Indy – rolling eyes and shrugging.
I love the bit where they’re all looking at the picture in the bible. “Good God,” one of the OSS guys says. “Yes, that’s just what the Hebrews thought,” replies Marcus. “What’s that supposed to be coming out of there?” “Lightning. Fire. Power of God or something,” says Indy. Disbelief, casual apathy. He’s interested in the mystery and the treasure. Marcus, though, has a much greater sense for the gravity of the situation, and he’s the voice of warning. “The Bible speaks of the Ark leveling mountains and laying waste in entire regions. An Army that carries the Ark before it… is invincible.“ Marcus’s unease carries straight through to the next scene –
When Marcus goes to tell Indy the good news, that he’s been approved to go after the Ark, this is what Marcus says: “For nearly 3000 years, man has been searching for the lost Ark. It’s not something to be taken lightly. No one knows its secrets. It’s like nothing you’ve ever gone after before.”
If you had any doubts what this movie was about, Indy says it right here, loud and clear: “I don’t believe in magic, a lot of superstitious hocus pocus. I’m going after a find of incredible historical significance, you’re talking about the boogie man.” By the end of the movie, he’ll believe in a lot more than the boogie man.
And we’re just 22 minutes in to the movie, and that’s the fourth scene.
Tomorrow Part 2 of John’s analysis of Raiders.
We have another live Tweet-Cast on Wednesday, September 26 at 8PM Pacific. What’s a Tweet-Cast? Everybody lines up a DVD, Netflix, or whatever version of the movie, then hits “Play” precisely at the top of the hour. During the movie, we comment on it real time on Twitter.
We generally have a group of professional screenwriters participate including Tom Benedek, Scott Frazier, John Gary and myself, and anyone is invited to drop by. It’s a lot of fun, but also a great way to break down and analyze a movie. Hashtag: #ROLATC
If you know of any great behind-the-scenes videos or interviews about Raiders, please post them in comments.
For all of the other screenplays and commentary in the GITS Script Reading & Analysis series, go here.
NOTE: THE USE OF THESE SCREENPLAYS IS FOR EDUCATIONAL PURPOSES ONLY.
See you in comments to discuss characters in Raiders of the Lost Ark.