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The Pulp and Pleasure of ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark,’ 40 Years Later

Watching the action-adventure classic today is like going on a treasure hunt for traces of the film’s original influences—the dime store novels and pulp fiction stories—that are largely lost on the generation that grew up with it

Jarett Sitter

For me, it’s not the boulder, it’s the book. Anyone who loves Raiders of the Lost Ark can probably name the moment early in the movie when they realized what they were watching. Maybe it’s the hand darting through the crack to grab the fedora. Maybe it’s the smirk on Indy’s face when he thinks his sandbag trick worked, right before the temple—whoops!—starts to cave in. Maybe it’s Belloq waiting outside to relieve Indy of his hard-won treasure, the twist that teaches you the crucial early lesson about what this adventure is going to be like—that the hero is smart and resourceful, but not invincible. He can take hits. He can lose.

Whatever your moment is, it’s the one when you first start to notice the low-key inner glow that tells you this is not just another action movie. It’s the moment you know you’re in for something special, a story where every scene, every set piece, every throwaway line, every happy accident of filmmaking, are going to conspire together in the interest of sheer delight. Consider: Raiders features the greatest movie star of his generation working with the greatest blockbuster director of his generation working with the greatest pop world-builder of his generation; all of them, in their own way, supreme and uncompromising weirdos. It would have been so easy for their quirks and temperaments to blow each other up, like the scenery in one of the movie’s Rube Goldberg action sequences. Instead, the lit match of Harrison Ford’s jadedness somehow did not ignite the spilled gasoline of Steven Spielberg’s ego just as the runaway fighter plane of George Lucas’s imperiousness rolled into it. Raiders is not a perfect movie—more on that later—but if you’re on its wavelength, there’s very little that can rival it as a pleasure-delivery device. Everything just works.

You feel it, when you’re watching a movie like that. It’s like watching someone on an incredible run at a casino; everything that’s supposed to be hard and unpredictable suddenly feels easy and assured. It’s a kind of magic you can settle into, one that elicits a feeling of lucky surrender: Ahh. In all of film history, Raiders may be the one in which the audience is most completely, and in every sense, along for the ride.

Anyway: There’s a moment for everyone when that ahh hits them, and for me, as I said, it’s the book. Indy is back on campus, in his wire-rimmed glasses and his tweed suit. He’s explaining to the Army intelligence men about the Ark of the Covenant, that maybe this is what the Nazis are looking for in the desert; this is what Abner Ravenwood was researching before he disappeared. If you love the movie, this stuff is as familiar to you as your childhood phone number. Lost City of Tanis: check. Staff of Ra: check. The Well of Souls: check. Then one of the Army intelligence guys goes, “What does this Ark look like?” and Indy replies, “There’s a picture of it right here.”

And he puts down this book. It’s a huge, old-fashioned, leather-bound volume, the sort you need a key to open, just the tome you picture a professor-adventurer consulting in front of a roaring fire, in a tufted leather chair, while sipping a glass of port. The book, in other words, is a shameless pulp artifact, and it’s because of that—because we’re happily ensconced in pulpland already—that we don’t even blink when Indy opens right to the page and says, “That’s it.”

Again: He has the book right there. It’s, conservatively, 1 million pages long. He opens to the picture of the Ark in less than two seconds. This is a tiny, almost unmentionably trivial detail; at the same time, I’m positive that nothing more delightful has ever happened in a movie. As delightful? Maybe. But more? The book tells us several things, quietly, all at once. First, it tells us that even more than the worlds in most movies, this is a world in which reality will always furnish whatever is the most atmospheric thing for any circumstance. Need to chase a train through the desert? Here are some beautiful horses. Need to steal a plane from the Luftwaffe? Oops, there’s a 7-foot Nazi beefcake shirtlessly guarding it. Are you in a North African bazaar? Have an adorable, mischievous, superintelligent monkey. I’m convinced that this, the ready availability of the coolest thing for any moment, is what makes the famous scene where Indy pulls his gun and shoots the sword-twirling assassin, so indelible. It extends a logic that’s been part of the movie’s ground rules from the beginning. You expected something good? Here’s something better.

The second thing the book tells us is that Raiders isn’t going to skip the boring stuff, the way most movies do; it’s going to find ways to make the boring stuff fun. We do the research along with the characters, but the research isn’t painstaking or tedious; it’s a magical-looking old book and an eerie illustration and John Williams’s peak-of-his-powers scary-mystical music swelling in the background. In the same way, when we travel anywhere in Raiders, we don’t skip the travel scene. We see the plane superimposed on a map, with a line slowly connecting our point of departure from our point of arrival. I’m sorry, I could probably watch a whole movie just of the plane and the map. We don’t skip the archaeological dig and go right to the treasure; we go to the dig in disguise.

The third thing the book tells us, though, is the most important, and that’s that this is a world in which adventure begins in old books. Secrets hidden in dusty tomes control the fate of the world. Scholars in the Renaissance used to talk about the prisca sapientia, the lost wisdom of antiquity; they believed that the ancients had known much more than they themselves did, that most of this knowledge had vanished, and that their own duty was to try to rediscover the missing pieces. As much glee as the Indiana Jones franchise has always taken in stylizing the advent of 20th-century modernity (see: the gleaming airship in Last Crusade, the atomic explosion at the start of Crystal Skull), it’s always counterpoised its tanks and planes with its own pulp version of the prisca sapientia. The clues to what we’re searching for lie in ancient lore, but there’s always a piece of ancient lore that’s missing: the fragment of the Grail tablet in Last Crusade, the location of the Well of Souls in Raiders. And that means that our adventure isn’t just a treasure hunt. It’s also a quest to fill in the gap in our knowledge. There was no need to put an immortal Grail knight in the fortress in Last Crusade. In its own way, the franchise has always been about talking to the past.

What’s fascinating about this dynamic to me is the way in which it accidentally mirrors a strangeness in watching Raiders of the Lost Ark today. After all, the movie was always about old books, not only on the overt level of plot but on the level of inspiration and conception. Raiders premiered on June 12, 1981, 40 years ago this week. Incredibly, this means that the film is almost as close in time to its mid-1930s setting as it is to us in 2021. When the film came out, it was widely understood to be an homage to the old serials of the 1930s produced by Republic Pictures, a now-defunct studio that specialized in exuberant adventure movies that, years before televisions started appearing in American living rooms, gave their audiences a steady drip of recurrent entertainment. The Republic serials featured stunt-riding cowboys and costumed vigilantes and swashbuckling time-travelers; episodes typically ended with a cliffhanger, to leave the audience desperate to come back next week. (In fact, it was the serials’ love of leaving their heroes dangling from high ledges that gave rise to the term.)

The Republic serials seem like ancient history now, but back in 1981, they weren’t much older than Raiders of the Lost Ark is now. It didn’t take some cunning act of critical interpretation to spot the influence, because many, many living people had grown up with the serials; Raiders’ debt to them was as obvious as Stranger Things’ debt to 1980s fantasy movies. And more than that, the larger context of 1930s pulp fiction, the deeper source of both the Republic serials and Raiders itself, was still relatively familiar to most people. The world of dime novels, adventure comics like Buck Rogers and Prince Valiant, and pulp magazines like Weird Tales and Black Mask was part of many people’s childhood memories. Anyone catching a matinee about a world-traveling, Nazi-fighting professor with a penchant for tomb-raiding would have understood what kind of throwback this was.

And Raiders’ clear connection to the legacy of B-movies and pulp literature would have strongly influenced its original audience’s understanding of it. There are many aspects of Raiders that read differently depending on whether you think of it as a straightforward ’80s movie or an ’80s love letter to a much older genre of entertainment.

That’s true, for instance, of some of the stuff that now seems most politically regrettable—and let’s not sugarcoat this; there’s a ton in Raiders that’s regrettable, from the spear-throwing tribespeople Belloq sends after Indy in the opening to the pervading certainty that plundering other cultures’ treasures because “they belong in a museum” is the right thing to do. That it derives from an older lineage of racist and imperialist entertainment doesn’t make any of that stuff OK. It does, to some extent, modify our understanding of what it’s doing in the movie. For its original audience, Raiders’ exoticized, Depression-era depictions of Arab assassins and skull-wearing jungle-dwellers were as steeped in genre cliché as the sinister Nazis who drive the plot; they were literally cartoonish, the stuff of Tintin (another Spielberg touchstone) and Sunday action strips. Great movies can have moral failings, and I think this is Raiders’—not so much that it traffics in reductive and demeaning representations for their own sake, but that it’s so devoted to reconstructing its source milieu that it never stops to consider its representations at all. The old books and movies are more real, more worthy of care, for Spielberg and Lucas than the people they’re putting on screen.

If the timeline had been a little different, or if attitudes in the early ’80s had been a little closer to attitudes today, it might have been possible to imagine a version of Raiders that tried to preserve the excitement of the exotic while improving on pulp’s dehumanizing cultural representations. That’s more or less the trick the movie pulls off with respect to gender—an area where the moviegoing audience was a little more discerning in 1981, and another aspect of the film that’s best understood in light of its pulp roots. Ford’s performance as Indy is obviously iconic, but it’s Karen Allen’s Marion who makes the movie come to life. The role of the updated damsel in distress—she’s tough-talking and modern, but she still needs to be rescued a lot!—is historically pretty thankless, but Allen finds a live wire in the character and wills a proud, wounded, insolent, funny human being into existence. And it’s through her that we experience Indy as something more than a set of genre characteristics. Allen gives Ford so much to contend with on screen that Indiana Jones—who on paper is about as plausible a character as Daffy Duck—has no choice but to become a human being.

It’s a small miracle that Indy and Marion’s relationship doesn’t seem out of place in the pulp world of the movie, even though it’s not exactly typical of the milieu. I don’t mean to make it sound as though all pulp heroes are square-jawed misogynists or all pulp heroines are empty-headed sexpots, because they’re not. But for the film’s original audience, Indy’s particular brand of masculinity would have been read against the prevailing genre trope of the tough, cynical hero who knows one good use for a dame, and in that sense Dr. Jones is clearly an update. I suspect, actually, that as the early ’80s sat down and caught its breath after the wild and woolly ’70s, Ford’s brand of modernized but recognizably old-fashioned pulp masculinity was one of the movie’s major selling points. Ford’s Indy can be interpreted as a way of incorporating new ideas about what a man should be like into a reassuringly timeless archetype: He brings forward everything a culturally moderate movie audience would want to preserve from the ’70s while dispensing with the scary ambiguity and excess. He’s vulnerable but not sensitive, battered but not weak, sexually charismatic but not hedonistic. (He was more of a hedonist, and more of a womanizer, oddly, in Lucas’s early drafts.) He’s lost his cruelty but not his capacity to inflict violence. He has a capacity for irony, but it doesn’t make him look small or apologetic; he can tell when the joke is on him, but he doesn’t like it. He gives men in the early-’80s audience a new model to emulate that’s framed, comfortingly and convincingly, as an old one. He gives them a way to be modern without acknowledging that anything has changed.

The popularity of Marvel movies has led many new readers to discover and celebrate classic comic books. I have a sense, though, that the opposite has happened with the pulp entertainment on which Raiders of the Lost Ark is based. It’s faded significantly from view in the four decades since the film premiered, with the result that many Indy fans now recognize the distinctive atmosphere of Raiders as something unique to the Indiana Jones movies—not as a tribute, that is, but as something originating with the series itself. (Imagine a version of the future in which E.T. and Dungeons & Dragons are semi-forgotten, but Stranger Things has its own ride at Disneyland.) To some degree, that’s just how culture works; one generation’s set of common references is another generation’s prisca sapientia, and what starts out as a vast genre ends up consolidating in a precious few surviving works. In another way, though, it’s too bad, both because there are many fun and weird and beautiful things in old pulp fiction and because it impedes our understanding of the Indiana Jones franchise itself. In a strange way, this is another aspect of Raiders’ reception history that’s mirrored in the film itself. The mysteries in the old books are seldom entirely solved. Indy wins the adventure, but the gaps remain. The Grail falls into the crevice. The Ark gets wheeled into the storeroom, where old things go to be forgotten—even the things that belong in a museum.