Saturday, 12 December 2015

Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark in Context

Star Wars and (to a lesser extent) Indiana Jones have taken on lives of their own as some of the most popular franchises in the world. After the first Star Wars became a smash hit, it launched a commercial empire that saw two sequels, a pair of Ewoks TV movies, two animated series (Ewoks and Droids), toys, merchandise, comics, vinyl records, tie-in novels, that star-crossed Christmas Special, and the Star Tours attraction at Disneyland. By the late Eighties and early Nineties it had been all-but forgotten except by a relatively small handful of dedicated fans, until Timothy Zahn wrote the blockbuster Heir to the Empire trilogy of novels and Dark Horse Comics picked up the licence to publish the Dark Empire series. Star Wars entered the public consciousness again, exploding with comics, books, and merchandise, multimedia campaigns like Shadows of the Empire and culminating in the release of the "Special Edition" trilogy and the infamous prequel trilogy (which, oddly enough, is right around the time I stopped being a Star Wars fan, even trading in my Rebel Mission to Ord Mantell record). Now, with Disney's purchase of Lucasfilm, we are looking down the barrel of not only a new sequel trilogy, but a whole Star Wars "cinematic universe" to rival Disney's Marvel brand. Despite four films, a series of books and merchandise, and Disney rides of its own, Indiana Jones was never the same powerhouse as Star Wars. Nevertheless, Disney is also looking to 007 the brand by starting a new series of films with Chris Pratt rumoured to don the hat and crack the whip.

With all of that, it is easy to forget that, at one time, there was only Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark, the pet projects of the auteurs of 1970's "New Hollywood." It's clear just from watching the original Star Wars and Indiana Jones trilogies that these first films were never really intended to be more than they were. The legend that Star Wars was always supposed to be a nine-part saga is absurd on the face of it: "Episode IV" went through a belaboured process of four different screenplays with countless rewrites and refining of the concept. Before becoming Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, the last draft was titled The Adventures of Luke Starkiller as taken from the Journal of the Whills, Saga I: The Star Wars. Even without that background knowledge, its pretty clear that Luke and Leia being siblings was made-up on the fly, as was Darth Vader being their father. There is nothing in the first film to indicate either, and plenty to indicate otherwise. As Red Letter Media observed in their marathon analysis of the prequel trilogy, part of what undid episodes I-III was the undue emphasis on The Dark Lord of the Sith, who is presented in Star Wars as merely the black-clad gestapo creep who roughs people up, the SS occultist operating sideways from the rest of the Nazi regime. Darth Vader is essentially the same character as Toht from Raiders of the Lost Ark, who was himself an homage to the sinister characters played by Peter Lorre in many films of the Forties. There was a definite reason why George Lucas called Star Wars "Episode IV" and it had nothing to do with having eight other scripts in his back pocket. The episodic pretense at least gave him an opening for The Empire Strikes Back and Revenge Return of the Jedi; when it came time to do a follow-up to the neatly wrapped-up and happily-ever-aftered Raiders of the Lost Ark, Lucas resorted to a prequel.

This is why it is valuable to look again at Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark in context. What was going on, specifically in the mind and career of George Lucas, that gave rise to these two films as the standalone pieces of cinematic art that they originally were?

To understand Star Wars and Raiders, we must first go back to Lucas' first feature film: THX 1138. Particularly, we must take into consideration that it was a flop. Released in 1971, it was yet another grim, joyless, dystopian Science Fiction film like so many in the late Sixties and throughout the Seventies. The "Golden Age" of cinematic Science Fiction in the Fifties and early Sixties was fueled by the anxieties of the Atomic Age and optimism of the Space Age. This was the era into which Disney brought 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954) and which produced other beloved classics like Destination Moon (1950), The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), The Time Machine (1960), War of the Worlds (1953), Them! (1954), The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953), Forbidden Planet (1956), Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1956), The Fly (1958), Fantastic Voyage (1966), The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957), Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (1961), Attack of the 50 Foot Woman (1958), and Godzilla (1954). As the Sixties drew to a close, those anxieties shifted. Interest in outer space effectively dropped off after the Apollo 11 moon landing on July 20, 1969, and attention turned to Nixon's withdrawal of troops from Vietnam. Civil Rights, Second-Wave Feminism, Stonewall, the Sexual Revolution, and Woodstock were the new frontiers. Science Fiction itself changed with Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), giving rise to further dour, plodding, pretentious films like The Andromeda Strain (1971), The Omega Man (1971), Soylent Green (1973), Death Race 2000 (1975), Disney's The Black Hole (1979), A Clockwork Orange (1971), Logan's Run (1976), Alien (1979), Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979), and THX 1138... Largely pessimistic stories ruminating on the dystopian outcomes of humanity adrift in an uncaring cosmos.

Trailer for THX 1138.

A few years later, Lucas pondered the reasons why his first feature film was unsuccessful, believing that it "was about real things that were going on and the problems we're faced with. I realized after making THX that those problems are so real that most of us have to face those things every day, so we're in a constant state of frustration. That just makes us more depressed than we were before. So I made a film where, essentially, we can get rid of some of those frustrations, the feeling that everything seems futile." The film in question was American Graffiti. Released in 1973, it was set a decade before in the hot-rodding culture of Southern California and a more optimistic time. Not only was it Lucas' nostalgic glimpse backward onto his own youthful escapades, but it imitated in form the movies of the time period as well, being overly concerned with coming of age and budding romance against the backdrop of greasers, sock-hops, teenage shenanigans, and Wolfman Jack shows. It also brought success and financial opportunity to Lucas, who felt he could leverage it into a pair of films that would be very much like those he watched back in those days.

Trailer for American Graffiti.

Initial thoughts for Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark were jotted down shortly after the completion of American Graffiti. Star Wars itself began not simply as an homage to old Science Fiction movie serials like Flash Gordon and Radar Men from the Moon, but as an outright, licensed remake of Flash Gordon. When Lucas was unable to obtain the rights to the character, he just went ahead and made his own space opera. (Ironically, Flash Gordon would be adapted into a flop in 1980, in response to Star Wars) Thus we find our answer to the riddle of why Star Wars begins with "Episode IV": Lucas was deliberately recalling the effect of the Thirties, Forties, and Fifties Sci-Fi movie serial.
It's the flotsam and jetsam from the period when I was twelve years old. All the books and films and comics that I liked when I was a child. The plot is simple—good against evil—and the film is designed to be all the fun things and fantasy things I remember. The word for this movie is fun.
To best understand it, then, the thing to do is sit down and watch those old serials. Note the parallels here between Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe episode IV and Star Wars "Episode IV"...

Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe chapter 4 (1940)
The form of Star Wars came from these old serials, but they were not exactly renowned for being well-written. For the story, Lucas had to turn to other sources. To this end, he essentially did a one-to-one adaptation of Joseph Campbell's pioneering work of comparative mythology, The Hero of a Thousand Faces. The "Hero's Journey" plot outlined by Campbell, which turns up over and over again in mythology, furnished Lucas with an outline for Anakin Starkiller (who became Luke Skywalker as drafts progressed).

Science Fiction author David Brin has effectively argued that the Hero's Journey is antithetical to true Science Fiction and that this "standard fable-template was co-opted by kings, priests and tyrants, extolling the all-importance of elites who tower over common women and men... Playing a large part in the tragic miring of our spirit, demigod myths helped reinforce sameness and changelessness for millennia, transfixing people in nearly every culture, from Gilgamesh all the way to comic book super heroes." Nevertheless, whether adherence to the Hero's Journey monomyth is beneficial or regressive for society, it helped out Star Wars a great deal. The simple but potent, mythic outline grounded the story so that the other fantastical elements of Death Stars, Wookies, and The Force could be more easily propped up. One of the most startling things about Star Wars is its almost total lack of exposition. The urge to avoid explaining how a Twin Ion Engine works or why certain people can sense The Force easier than others was in part because of the premise of being dropped into the forth chapter of a serial and in part to avoid bogging down the simplicity of the story. We all saw what happened when Lucas decided not to avail himself of this in the prequel trilogy.   

It is also well-known that Lucas sought inspiration from the samurai epics of Japanese director Akira Kurosawa. In particular, he drew inspiration from The Hidden Fortress (1953) and Yojimbo (1961), as excellent examples of adventure films from which he could pull themes, situations, and characters. There are also more than a few allusions to Frank Herbert's Dune series of novels (which were in turn adapted to film in 1984 by David Lynch). When looking for sources to crib for a silly space opera, one could do a lot worse than Akira Kurosawa and Frank Herbert.

Trailer for The Hidden Fortress.

Trailer for Yojimbo.

It is difficult to overstate the impact of Star Wars. It almost singlehandedly turned around Science Fiction in film, drawing to its withering end the dour films of the late Sixties and Seventies to bring about a happier, more action-packed, and more charismatic genre in the Eighties. A perfect example is Star Trek: the success of Star Wars prompted Paramount to cut a proposed television sequel to the original series and utilize those assets to make a feature film. Unfortunately, Star Trek: The Motion Picture was as dull, plodding and pretentious as 2001: A Space Odyssey. In 1982, they went back to the drawing board and released Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, a powerful, charismatic, emotionally-driven film full of vibrant characters and gripping action. It was the success of Star Wars that not only allowed for The Empire Strikes Back (1980), Return of the Jedi (1983), and Star Trek II-VI (1982-1991), but also E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982), Superman (1979) and Superman II (1980), The Terminator (1984), Aliens (1986), Back to the Future (1985), Weird Science (1985), Ghostbusters (1984), and in short, anything by Steven Spielberg, Joe Dante, Robert Zemeckis, James Cameron, and John Landis. Not only did it affect Science Fiction, but the entire genre of adventure and fantasy films, preparing the way for films like The Goonies (1985), Labyrinth (1986), and Willow (1988)It even allowed for Lucas to pursue that other idea he had for an homage to the jungle adventure movies of his youth.

Original (and bizarrely ominous) trailer for Star Wars.

Choosing to concentrate on Star Wars, Lucas put his "The Adventures of Indiana Smith" movie on the back-burner in 1973. It came up again, however, when Lucas was vacationing in Hawaii for a much-needed and deserved break after his silly space opera became a blockbuster. Also vacationing on the beach at Waikiki was his friend Steven Spielberg, and the two got to chatting. It turned out that Spielberg had been contemplating doing a James Bond film. Lucas retorted that he had thought up a character that was better than Bond, and proceeded to outline the "Indiana Smith" plot. Spielberg loved it, with one reservation: he didn't like the name "Smith."  "OK," Lucas replied, "What about 'Jones'?"

Trailer for Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Lucas, Spielberg, and writer Lawrence Kasdan (who was co-writing The Empire Strikes Back at the time and is one of the co-writers on The Force Awakens) got together to throw around more ideas. One clear and obvious influence were the jungle adventure movies and serials of the Thirties and Forties... serials like The Lost Jungle (1934), Darkest Africa (1936), Jungle Menace (1936), and Jungle Girl (1941), and feature films like King Kong (1933), Tarzan the Ape Man (1932) and Tarzan and His Mate (1934), Trader Horn (1931), and King Solomon's Mines (1937, 1950).

Humphrey Bogart became a particular inspiration for Spielberg, and his films also influenced Raiders of the Lost Ark's settings, including Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), The African Queen (1951), and Casablanca (1942). The African Queen, of course, went on to give some shape and inspiration to Disney's Jungle Cruise ride. To bring things around full circle, the Jungle Cruise's setting was adapted to the 1930's when the Indiana Jones Adventure: Temple of the Forbidden Eye attraction was installed in Disneyland's Adventureland.

Trailer for Treasure of the Sierra Madre.

Trailer for The African Queen.

Trailer for Casablanca.  

One of the biggest influences on Raiders was the 1954 Charlton Heston movie Secret of the Incas. In it, Heston plays Harry Steele, a leather jacket-wearing, Fedora-donning rough-and-tumble treasure hunter on a race against time to recover Incan gold from Machu Picchu. Though Steele is much more of a scoundrel, it is easy to see how he served as a character template. Steele's being a scoundrel also gives him the kind of story arc that Indiana Jones lacks: the film becomes a character study in Steele's vagabond life, as he is confronted with a duplicitous sot of a rival treasure hunter who was very much like Steele in his youth, the upstanding professor who vies for the girl's affections, and the girl herself who is captivated by Steele but can't see a future with him. Indiana Jones is a pure pulp hero who changes very little (and why would he? He's so cool to begin with). Jones' lack of a character arc also reflects how little influence he actually has on the story... If it weren't for Jones, either the Nazis never would have found the Ark of the Covenant, or if they did, they still would have had their faces melted off by God. Nevertheless, Secret of the Incas also served as a template for an archaeological adventure filmed in exotic locales.

The Secret of the Incas (full movie)

Another source of inspiration for Indiana Jones were Carl Barks' Uncle Scrooge comics. The globetrotting adventures of Uncle Scrooge and his nephews Huey, Dewy and Louie were themselves based to an extent on the same treasure-hunter movies that inspired Lucas and Spielberg, but there is also one specific comic that Lucas cited: The Seven Cities of Cibola. Published in 1954, the story was based on the myth of seven golden cities somewhere in the southwestern United States or Mexico, as described by Natives to arriving Spanish conquistadors. Uncle Scrooge catches wind of the riches, as do the Beagle Boys, and the usual hi-jinks ensue. Most notable, as seen in the two page scans below, are a treasure that trips off a rock trap. The Uncle Scrooge comics were eventually adapted into the animated series DuckTales in 1987, with a deliberately Indiana Jones-like title.

True fans of the Star Wars and Indiana Jones franchises will naturally be watching these respective films in those contexts, enjoying the interior worlds created by those endless reams of film, books, cartoons, and collectables. Yet looking at the original films in the context of Lucas' works - alongside American Graffiti as modern revivals of the movie serials and adventure films of the Thirties, Forties, and Fifties - is an interesting exercise of its own.  


  1. Excellent analysis! I'm far more a fan of Indy than I am of Star Wars...I think the implication that magnificent adventure and treasure and yes, magic can be found right here on our own planet, as opposed to a galaxy far far away, is what does it for me. I can't really imagine piloting an X-wing in deep space, but I *can* imagine exploring a ruined city in the Amazon or the Middle East. Indy is a much more relatable figure for me.

    1. Well, I just tried piloting an X-Wing in Star Wars Battlefront, and I'm awful at it, so I can sympathize ;)

      As I said in my articles, I used to be a huge fan of Star Wars up to when the prequels came out. It hit most of the same nerves as fantasy, because it IS fantasy dressed up in Sci-Fi drag. My transition away from Star Wars very shortly preceded my interest in Victorian Scientific Romances, for exactly the reasons you stated. Victorian SF hits those notes of scientific interest without divorcing it from the context of human history and culture.

      There is some modern Sci-Fi that touches on some of those same notes... I LOVE the Japanese anime franchise Macross for those same reasons. It's a tale of galactic war, but examines the idea that culture (specifically music) is a civilizing force that overcomes war. It makes Star Wars' "good people are violent for good reasons but bad people are violent for bad reasons!" thesis look pretty trite by comparison.