After-Image: ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’ (1981)

After-Image looks at single images and the emotional and narrative weight they carry. This week: “I found him.”

Sometimes we get so caught up in world-building, or narrative that we forget that cinema is a visual medium. In this occasional series we look at single images and the emotional and narrative weight they carry. This time: “I found him.”

“The entire sequence is brilliantly constructed; the emotional wallop leading to a real ‘punch the air’ moment.”

As people who love movies, we have favourite movies. We also have favourite moments, favourite lines, favourite bits of business. Rarest of all, though, are those moments which make the hairs stand up on the back of your neck, that send an electric thrill down your spine. There’s an alchemy to it, a Kind of Magic to borrow The Great Pretender’s phrase. It’s a mixture of who you were when you when you first saw it, your emotional attachement to the characters, your state of mind and the artistry of the film makers. If you’re really lucky, you’ll end up with a few of them. Some wane over time but others keep their power and can still make you giddy as a school child even when you’re into middle age. This is mine:

Indiana Jones is a great character in three great movies*. A resourceful, improvisational every day set against the rigid order of fundamentalists he both a peculiarly American kind of hero while at the same time maintaining a European-style intellectual heft. This is what sets hims apart from all the carbon copies who failed to take off in his wake; they went purely down the two-fisted punch route of rugged individualist and forgot that Indy is Doctor Jones; he wins, in all three movies, because he out-thinks his opponents.

Yet the moment that gives me chills – even now, just thinking about it – is a purely physical moment. It’s the single greatest heroic moment ever committed to celluloid and it’s just tossed off as a throwaway. Jones and Marion have acquired the Ark and set sail on the Bantu Wind, a cargor ship crewed by a fairly unprepossessing lot that Marion describes as ‘pirates’. But those dastardly Nazis have caught up with them, led by the perfidious frenchman Belloq – and the glorious, shame free way the Indiana Jones movies embrace the national stereotypes of a previous age of cinema is surely one of their secret weapons – and seize the Ark. Jones has disappeared, and the Captain of the Bantu wind – showing his true colours, being on the side of the angels – claims to have killed him in order to sell Marion. This is a PG, by the way. Belloq claims Marion as part of his price – an interesting aside here is whether he does this out of lust or whether to rescue her from her apparent fate. This slight blurring of motivation is pure Lawrence Kasdan, throwing a shade of light into the darkness of a villain.

Anyway, the Nazis board their U-Boat and leave. The Captain of the Bantu Wind, Katanga, is joined at the ships railing by his first mate. “I can’t find Mr Jones, Cap’n. I’ve looked everywhere,” he reports. “He must be around here somewhere. Look again.”

And then it happens.

The first mate sighs as Katanga looks back at the ship. And he says:

“I’ve found him.”



And he points.

We cut from the pirates to Indy, climbing aboard the U-Boat. In pursuit of the Ark – and, more importantly, Marion – he’s thrown himself into the ocean and swum to a Nazi U-Boat. No plan, no ideas, no whip. He just knows he has to do something. As he climbs aboard, John Williams’ magsiterial Radiers’ March is restated as a triumphant brass led motif; big brass ones, celebrating the magnificence of what we’re seeing. The crew of the Bantu Wind cheer – how can they not? – and Indy flips them a cocky salute. We cut back to the disreputable crew, clapping and cheering in sheer delight and see Katanga return the salute.

The entire sequence is brilliantly constructed; the emotional wallop leading to a real ‘punch the air’ moment. The absence of Indy – something which is repeated even more effectively in the sequel and used again by Russell T. Davies to help sell the Tenth Doctor in The Christmas Invasion – makes us eager to see him again and share the impatience of Katanga. But key to it is that shot at the railing; the framing, breaking most rules of composition, is split down the middle so that the empty sea waits; the composition makes sense the moment the first mate points – his arm leads into the other half and restores the harmonious balance of the thirds with a sense of rightness. The click as this falls into place allows the audience to predict what they’re about to see in the split second before the camera cuts to the reverse and we see Doctor Jones doing what he does best. The music is just the icing on the cake.

The power of this moment is evident in the way that it lets the film skirt over a major issue  -how does Indy survive hanging on to the outside of a U-Boat? The simple answer, given the heroism we’ve just seen is ‘how could he not’?

So that is why a shot of a bunch of sailors standing at a railing makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end. I know what’s coming next: and I love it.

* yes, three. It’s my column, deal with it. Although Crystal Skull has one of my all time favorite Indy moments that gives me a lump in my throat every time – “They weren’t you, honey.”

 Herbert West – when he’s not reanimating the dead – teaches at a secondary school in the north of England. He is the host of the Trial of a Timelord podcast which can be found on Twitter at @WhoTrial

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