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THIS ARTICLE OBVIOUSLY CONTAINS SPOILERS
OK, OK – I know what you’re thinking. “Seriously? A re-write of “Raiders of the Lost Ark”? Where the hell do you get the rolling-boulder sized balls to suggest making any changes at all to the single greatest action-movie masterpiece of all time??”
Well, first of all – you get no argument from me on “Raiders”‘ status: this is THE action movie to beat them all, bar none (and anyone who disagrees can stop reading right now; you’re not welcome here). But turns out, against all odds, there *IS* a way to improve upon perfection.
Now, lest you chastise me for my hubris, let me point out that this “re-write” is not mine at all – it actually sprang from the minds of the men who created “Raiders” in the first place. You see, a few years back, a wondrous document was made available on the ‘Web: a transcript of the initial tape-recorded story conferences that George Lucas and Steven Spielberg had with Lawrence Kasdan – the man they’d hired to transform their “Indiana Smith” idea (the character’s original name) into a workable screenplay. Toward that end, the three spent a whole week together in Lucas’s office, as he spun out the general beats of the tale and they all worked together to bring it greater specificity and work out its particulars in enough detail so that Kasdan could go away and write the script.
Before proceeding further, I must point out that this is one of the coolest documents EVER to sit and read. (It is available still at The Mystery Man on Film website. If you take nothing else away from this article, film buffs, please, I urge you to bookmark this page and have at it!) The creative process is laid excitingly bare, as we get a privileged glimpse into how much of the story was intact at the outset, and how new ideas were arrived at (or initial ideas re-worked) to form the spine of the perfect movie we all know today. We are reminded what a genius of story construction Lucas once was, and we gain newfound respect for Kasdan’s ability to come fresh into someone else’s playground and learn its rules quickly enough to not only keep up but spin some of his own gold in the process. (Spielberg’s influence is more diffuse, as he doesn’t have nearly as much to say or offer as the other two men. Still, it’s fun to get a glimpse into how HIS mind works in a story conference: as Lucas and Kasdan hammer out plot and character points, he is often translating what they’re saying into specific visual terms, and working out the best and/or most efficient ways of shooting them.)
As you can imagine, there’s stuff discussed that didn’t end up making the final cut – thankfully so in some cases, and others (such as an action sequence set in China) that sound intriguing but whose inclusion may very well have over-stuffed or made too frenetic an otherwise well-balanced movie. (Interestingly, aspects of the China sequence found their way into “Temple of Doom.”) However, the ideas originally put on the table for the film’s climax seem to me, upon reflection, to add up to a BETTER ending to “Raiders” than the incredible one we already know and love. Follow me here.
We have arrived at the submarine base in the middle of the Pacific, and rival archeologist Belloq is planning to open the Ark. However, rather than having this ceremony outside on the island, a white tabernacle is erected in the sub hangar itself. Indiana Jones is sneaking around, trying to get in, while Marion is present inside, tied up and unable to move. Once the Ark is uncovered, the same laser-and-light show ensues – destroying all the Nazis within, and also setting fire to the white sheets put up to create the sides of the tabernacle. The fire rages and spreads to the entire underground base, threatening to detonate a munitions dump housed within. Amidst this chaos, all remaining Nazis are attempting escape. At this point the Ark is unattended, and Indy has a clear shot to try and reach it – but he opts instead to save Marion, leaving the Ark behind. The two escape in an old mining car on tracks that weave through the hardened rock of the island (an idea later lifted for “Temple of Doom”‘s climactic chase sequence). Just as their cart reaches the end of the track and is about to break free into the open air, the munitions dump explodes, catapulting Indy and Marion into the icy Pacific. A poignant moment ensues, as we realize the two estranged lovers have been reunited, and that Indy has sacrificed all in order to save her – but also that they are stranded in the middle of the ocean with no transportation and no means of escape. They will surely die, and they know it, and so they give each other a final last kiss goodbye – and just at that moment up from the water pops the Ark, which they are then able to get on and ride to safety. (The Washington-based epilogue would remain the same.)
Ok, so what makes this a better ending? Well first let me point out that it sacrifices nothing from what is already there: we’d still get the cool wrath-of-God and Nazi face-melting special effects that blew us all away initially. However, the rewritten sequence centralizes the action (no need to go to the island’s surface, which is a superfluous processional that adds nothing to the story) and it gives our intrepid Dr. Jones a more active role. Rather than being simply tied to a wooden stake (which seems a bit of a wimpy finale for such a heroic character), he is looking for a means of saving Marion and escaping the island. Then of course that escape provides a springboard to yet ANOTHER exciting action sequence not present in the movie as it currently stands: the attempt to outrun the flames in the underground mine car. Not to mention the fact that the destruction of the munitions dump housed within the sub base – as unwitting as this is – winds up causing Indy’s exploits to have an actual, practical military benefit within the total war effort (a comment earlier in the expositional section of the movie was to have established that a secret refueling station whose whereabouts are currently unknown is allowing Nazi subs and U-boats to roam unchecked in waters far afield of Germany, making them a greater threat).
But the best thing about this ending, in my mind, is that it provides Indy with a character arc that, in the movie as it currently stands, he simply does not have. (Yes, yes I know – I can hear the joke being made already: he loses the Ark but he gains an arc – funny, very funny. Can we get back to our regularly scheduled program now?) This is a guy who starts off pretty amoral and shifty; the first thing we see him doing is violating a sacred gravesite for his own gain. (As a matter of fact, the very first time we see his face, it is as he is EMERGING FROM THE SHADOWS – that’s gotta be significant.) He denigrates the mystical and cultural significance of the Ark in favor of looking upon it as simply an impressive “find”. And his past relationship with Marion, though only hinted at rather than completely filled in (an intriguing artistic choice), suggests that he uses people when he is done with them, with little regard or care for their feelings – or even their well-being. (He didn’t realize his great mentor Abner had died? His one-time love is stranded in the wastes of Nepal and he could give a shit? This dude is cold.)
And then of course the coldest scene of all: Indiana, upon finding Marion has not been killed as he had suspected, nevertheless leaves her bound and gagged in the tent of his rival Belloq rather than save her and so give away his presence to the Nazis. Any way you slice it that is a brutal, mercenary thing to do. It shows that, given the choice between his reverence for objects and his care for people, he will choose the former every time. He is of course our “hero” in this tale because at least his pursuit of objects is going toward housing them in a museum and the greater good of science blah blah blah – rather than to the fueling of the Nazi war effort. But still, in his methods and his outlook, he is not so fantastically different from Belloq – just smarter and craftier. And, frankly, when a character’s “goodness” can only be defined relative to the Nazis – well, we’re kind of skirting along a very thin moral line.
But that is precisely what makes the “new” ending so great: it gives Indy the opportunity to make that very same moral choice, and to get it right this time. Once the Ark’s power has been unleashed and everyone is running for their lives, he has a clear shot at it. He can try to drag it to a mine car and escape with it, or even untie Marion and have her help him. But no. He goes for Marion alone, and saves her. Because over the course of his hero’s journey, he has learned two important things: one, that he loves her and cares for her more than his precious “finds” – and two, that this particular find can damn well take care of itself! He’s just seen the evidence of what happened to those who tried to open it – it’s a fair deduction to make that maybe he’s better off (maybe we’re ALL better off) simply leaving it where it lies. “I’m talking about a find of major archeological significance,” he tells Marcus Brody early in the movie about the Ark, “and you’re talking about the Boogey Man.” Our new ending displays a changed Dr. Jones – now chastened just a bit, and willing to pay a little bit more heed and respect to that “boogey man” – and to the fact that yes, Virginia there really are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy (a sentence which fulfills my long-held secret desire to wed Shakespeare and “Miracle on 34th Street”).
But then, you see, comes the reward. Because Indy has, in this climactic moment, acted unselfishly, and has placed the safety of his beloved above that of his quest for glory, he has moved out of the moral shadows and has joined the ranks of the righteous. And it is the righteous whom the Ark protects (or so say the legends); so just as it proves a vengeance-wreaking weapon to Belloq and his Nazi conspirators, the Ark now transforms itself into a life-saving raft for Indy and Marion, and provides them a vehicle for their passage home. Gives a whole new level of meaning to Indy’s claim at the end that those damn government bureaucrats just “don’t know what they’ve got there.”
Maybe Lucas and Spielberg themselves did not fully understand what “they’d got there” with this story. Sure, they gave us the greatest action movie of all time, but they stopped short of imbuing it with any moral meaning. And you know what God does to those unrighteous who tamper in his realm without imparting any moral meaning? He saps their power and destroys their essence, leaving them a hollowed-out shell of their former selves. After “Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” can there be any doubt that God has fully exacted his revenge?
“Raiders of the Lost Ark” is available on DVD. So is “Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark”.