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The 1981 film, Raiders of the Lost Ark, the first in the popular Indiana Jones adventure franchise is an action-oriented homage to old-time serial films that introduces us to the now legendary Jones character, but also the tone and direction that would remain the constant throughout (give or take as it progressed). From two of the most influential filmmakers in the industry, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, their collaboration in creating the now iconic character and story (with the help of Lawrence Kasdan writing the screenplay) made for some of the most celebrated films ever made. Even if you haven’t seen these movies, you surely know the name. Indiana Jones has become one of cinema’s most enduring and endearing heroes, a figure so deftly-defined and executed, he is synonymous with adventure. Brought to life by actor Harrison Ford, the look and feel of Jones has become just as renowned and cherished as the stories he occupies.
Raiders of the Lost Ark is a relatively simple story. Jones, who, in one of film history’s most thrilling character reveals, establishes himself as the fedora-wearing, daring-do adventurer, and is soon sought by the government for help in what could be the biggest archeological find ever. Set just prior of the outbreak of World War II, the Nazis have come upon proof that the legendary biblical Ark of the Covenant, which houses the stone tablets of the ten commandments, exists and can be found. The Nazis are close, and need to be stopped. Jones, who is well-known for his skills in returning lost and ancient relics of antiquity, is hired to beat Hitler and his evil henchmen to the dig.
What follows is Jones gathering clues and working to outsmart the enemy–who he learns has misinformation–and get to the Ark first, which if put in the wrong hands, would invite an apocalyptic reign of terror. As things must go in this kind of story, Jones does acquire the Ark but quickly loses it again and therefore must pursue. If for some reason you have not seen this movie, we are about to discuss in length a crucial sequence, which contains spoilers. Fair warning.
In Tanis, Egypt, the Ark is found in a chamber called the Well of Souls. Jones secretly discovered the site and uncovered its location with the help of Salleh (John Rhys-Davies), a man of influence in the area and friend to Jones. Unfortunately, the Nazis, led by misguided fellow archeologist Dr. René Belloq (Paul Freeman), it is stolen away from Jones and he is trapped in the Well of Souls with Marion (Karen Allen), the daughter of a former adventurer and love interest for Indy who had the talisman needed in finding the chamber. They escape and destroy the plane meant to transport the Ark and elude capture while Belloq and crew pack the treasure in a convoy and decide to drive to Cairo and eventually to Hitler. Upon seeing the truck depart, realizing the Ark is in one of them, Jones remarks to Salleh and Marion, having reunited, that he’s going after the truck, to which the astonished Shalleh asks, “How?” His answer: “I don’t know, I’m making this up as I go.” That confession is crucial, and for much more than its intended comedy. Let’s consider.
Because of his confidence and success, there is a prevailing sense of judiciousness to Jones, that yes, he’s got things well under control. That’s what we expect in our heroes. Yet this remark is what truly defines Indiana’s entire philosophy, and is testament to how well the character is developed. Indeed, he is making things up and yet we completely trust in his every action. Despite his academic background and professorial position, which would require careful planning, out in the field, that is abandoned. It fact, in many respects it must be, as chaos applies to the world of adventure. Quick-thinking and on-the-spot decision-making are essential to survive. But there is also a bit of reckless disorganization to his approach, which we see at the start when he removes the golden Chachapoyan Fertility Idol from the underground temple in Peru. His uncertainty and doubt in assessing the proper weight for the sandbag he will use to replace the idol–which requires an exact weight or will set off an elaborate system of traps designed to protect it–reveals that he is making it up as he goes. He is a man of immediacy who reacts best to situations when he’s directly it. And that means taking risks.
Back to the truck chase. The lengthy sequence where Indy follows and then overtakes the convoy is widely considered to be one of the best action moments in the movies. After he nabs a horse and catches up, he goes about fighting the men in the trucks, even taking a bullet to the arm until he finally gets in the cab of the truck with the Ark and drives, itself sealed in a crate in the back. In front of him is Belloq and some cronies in a convertible.
Behind him, a Nazi (played by stuntman Terry Leonard) is climbing up and over the canopy, making his way to the front. He eventually kicks his way in and after a brief scuffle in the cab with Indy, tosses him out the front windshield and onto the hood, where he rolls off and momentarily gets stuck on the grill.
Belloq signals to the driver of the truck to speed forward and allow the car and the truck to collide, crushing Jones, but Jones isn’t having any of that. After the metal rods of the grill begin to fall away, he lowers himself under the chassis and scrambles along the bottom of the vehicle until he is out the back end. He then scrambles up and over the top, just like the driver had done and repeats the same moves of the Nazi, even tossing him out the windshield where the soldier clings to the broken grill, which gives way, forcing him to fall to the ground directly into the path of the truck’s spinning tires, which soundly crush him as Indy speeds on. Not long after, ridding himself of Belloq (temporarily), he makes his escape.
The stunt itself, an homage to the now classic scene in John Ford‘s 1939 Western, Stagecoach, performed by legendary stuntman Yakima Canutt, and done here by Leonard, is a critical moment in the shaping of the Indy character. A resourceful man, as seen in a number of set pieces prior, he reveals a tenacity that differs from the boulder chase from the beginning and even the fist-a-cuffs with burly bare-back bald-headed airplane mechanics and giant turban-wearing Sherpas (played by the same man, interestingly enough). Those were spontaneous moments, sudden acts of survival that had Indiana running or punching his way free. With the truck chase, and especially the retaking of the Ark, we finally see Indy act with purpose. It’s an important distinction and one that greatly impacts how we perceive him, even if we aren’t really aware. It’s the ‘hero’ moment where he escapes death with ingenuity and courage and then asserts his power by overcoming the thing that once nearly defeated him. By having Jones and the driver basically replay the other’s actions with differing results, we subtly learn that what the Nazis can do, Jones can do better, and that his cleverness is unmatched. While we might laugh with joy at the immediate humor in seeing first the Nazi come over the truck, him knocking Indy out onto the grill, and then Indy climbing around to do exactly the same, part of us recognizes that Indy’s action is not only determined and cunning, but also curious. That he duplicates and does better exactly what the Nazi did hints at a need to demonstrate superiority, to show his enemy that you may have had an upper hand, but it also proved your weakness. To take out the driver the same way the driver had taken him out is like a schoolyard punching contest that Jones refuses to lose. It’s a wonderful bit of filmmaking that sublimely illustrates, without exposition, a driving character trait that will become signature as the franchise moves forward.
It is the lifelong commitment to ‘making it up as I go’ that has helped Indiana Jones to prevail as well as he does. He has no hesitation, doesn’t overthink, and is able to see outcomes far more quickly. The bigger picture is in the details, and Indy is able to make judgments about them with speed and effectiveness. What’s more is the humanity of it all. Indy, instead of being the know-all, calculated protagonist, is a much more approachable hero, an everyman that becomes identifiable. He’s easy to get behind because there is a sense that he is vulnerable, like us, even though we know, nah, he’s totally not.
The truck chase scene is pivotal in the continued growth of the Indiana Jones character and a very telling moment in the film. Our attachment to the character stems from many factors, but it is his considerable believability, his sentiment, and his welcome approachability that have made him who he is, one of our favorite screen heroes.
Lawrence Kasdan (screenplay), George Lucas (story by)
Harrison Ford, Karen Allen, Paul Freeman, John Rhys-Davies