Lately, I got my hands on The Complete Making of Indiana Jones by J.W. Rinzler, so naturally, I wanted to rewatch Raiders of the Lost Ark. It got me thinking that it’s probably the best-edited film I’ve seen, period. I’m not talking about the desert chase sequence.
Yes, that sequence is incredible and stands as arguably the greatest action sequence ever put to film. But I’m talking about the whole film. Legendary film editor Michael Kahn did a tremendous job, and Raiders still holds up almost 40 years later. There is not a single second I fell bored, and I’ve watched it many, many times. So rather than writing about the most-talked and analyzed chase sequence of all time, I thought I’d talk about the opening scene in which we were first introduced to the title character: Indiana Jones, and how that plays out later in the film.
George Lucas first introduced his ideas for the then-called Indiana Smith to Steven Spielberg back in 1977. He knew for the get-go that this was going to be a series of films. Each story would stand on its own, but it all revolved around the protagonist: Indiana Jones (Steven didn’t like the surname, Smith). It stands to reason that our first glimpse at Indy (Harrison Ford) should tell us everything there is to know about the guy. And rather than having heavy exposition early on in the film, we were given the following open scene…
We Named the Dog Indiana
The scene starts with the infamous mountain (from then on, every Indy film will open on a mountain) before a man—his back on us—wearing a fedora hat walks in front of it, followed by two men and some porters. We follow the party through the deep jungle of—supposedly South Africa— until we get to a stone statue. The porters are struck by terror and flee. The party of now 3 continues one until we get a better glimpse at the two men. They quickly expose the danger: natives are hunting them.
Now they stop near a riverbank. The man with the fedora takes out a map and has a look at it, unbeknownst to the man behind him slowly drawing his revolver. Hearing the cock, he reacts quickly: turning and grabbing his whip and flashing it at his opponent’s pistol. The man steps into the light, finally revealing his face to the audience, and to his opponent who flees. The remaining man stands amazed. And so are we.
It’s not the years, honey, it’s the mileage
So what does that tell us about Indy? Well first, he’s fearless. He might have known the guy would turn on him at any time but decided to risk it anyway. Second, he’s pretty good with his whip and since he’s also wearing a gun but went instead for the whip, it also tells us that, deep underneath, he’s the good guy. He doesn’t kill unnecessarily. Thirdly, you just don’t mess with him. The remaining guy might have tried to turn on him lately, but it’s less likely now.
You just don’t mess with Indiana Jones.
All those characteristics will play out later in the film, but moving on to the temple of the idol. Indy eludes most of the traps leading to the idol, telling the audience that there will be many traps on the way. He grabs it and walks away, only to notice there’s another trap waiting. Yes, Indy will fail at some point, but he escapes. The last guy betrays him and takes the idol for him, but that doesn’t stop Indy: he is relentless. Up until the boulder comes, ’cause Indy never rests and there’s always a surprise waiting at every turn for the audience.
Fortune and Glory
If I haven’t made my point already: this is a brilliantly edited sequence of events. It tells us all we need to know about the guy and what we’re getting into. From that moment on, you’ll clearly understand every decision taken by the hero in his journey to find the Ark of the Covenant. But most importantly: it’s seamless. The hardest part of being a film editor is that our work goes unnoticed, and it’s meant to be that way. If you ever notice how a film is being cut, that means the editor did a shitty job. Unless it’s stylistic.
Each shot is carefully designed to give us the information we need to understand how the story unfolds. And there are put together to give us the sequence of events to understand the what’s going on and reveal character. To do so, the editor must know what the audience will be looking at and carefully put shots together at a certain pace to tell the story. If done well, you won’t even notice the truck that hits a wall and rolls over in one street, only to explodes in another.