The kids in the darkened theatre cheer when the hero mounts his white horse and gallops after the bad guys. The popcorn is fresh, the Yanks are winning and all is right with the world. It's a Saturday matinee in America, 1981. The movie is the new megabuck release from George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, "Raiders of the Lost Ark".
It's gonna be a monster, as they say in Show Biz. Meaning: it's going to make as much money as Lucas and Spielberg's biggest previous productions (Star Wars and Jaws, respectively), and do a great deal to shape our national fantasies for the next year or two, besides. From a strictly-entertainment point-of-view, that's fine. Raiders is a socko movie, brilliantly edited to a staccato, thrill-a-minute clip, with great sight-gags and a Dolby soundtrack that makes every punch and slap sound like bombs bursting in air.
Viewed in a political perspective, however, "Raiders of the Lost Ark" is less enchanting. The more-American-than-apple-pie hero--who bears the felicitous name Indiana Jones--lashes his way through a variety of Third World locales, scattering crowded marketplaces and demolishing construction sites in his quest to outmuscle the villains and rescue the damsel in distress. Of course, the simple natives love him anyway, because Jones sticks it to the "really" evil guys--German Nazis, circa 1936. We can tell they're evil because they speak in menacing accents and wear uniforms. Jones, he wears old clothes and this boyish beard, and his speech is Midwestern, direct, flat.
So, there are no troubling questions of conscience in this movie, no unsettling ambiguities. WE are the Good Guys, and THEY are the Bad Guys, and we beat the bejeesus out of them, period. "Raiders of the Lost Ark", despite its big-budget gloss, is a conventional action picture, artistically and politically conservative, drenched in nostalgia for a time when Americans believed themselves to be politically pure and militarily omnipotent.
Raiders is of a piece with Lucas' earlier films, such as "American Graffiti", a nostalgic look back at the director's high school days--made when he was still in his twenties--and "Star Wars" and "The Empire Strikes Back", in which the values of an idealized American past are set in a futuristic conception of outer space.
Spielberg's track record is more complex. It includes pictures that explore ambiguity and doubt, such as "The Sugarland Express" and even "Close Encounters of The Third Kind", in which the benevolence of the saucer people is left up in the air until the film's final climactic moments. With Raiders, Spielberg appears to be turning his back--only temporarily, one hopes--on subtle colorations of character for the simple clarity of a world viewed in black and white.
"Raiders of the Lost Ark" depicts not just a quest for the Lost Ark of the Covenant, but an invocation of lost innocence--the Golden Age of America's past, when we outproduced everybody and won all the wars. In a scene toward the end of the film, Jones (played by Empire's leading man, Harrison Ford) is nearly run over by a German plane that unfortunately bursts into flame before it can do any harm. Although I'm sure it's coincidental, the wreckage of that plane looks like nothing so much as the famous photograph of the smoldering American helicopters in the Iranian desert widely circulated last year. In movies, where wishes come true, it's the other side's aircraft that crack up and burn.
It is, perhaps, a sign of the times that these popcorn passion plays are being produced by young directors-- Spielberg and Lucas are both in their thirties. Despite the recent example of the experimental cinema of the 1960s, with which they are undoubtedly familiar, Lucas and Spielberg have forsaken risk to stick to the safe commercial formulae of the 1940s.
Of course, one can argue--as the filmmakers themselves do--that Raiders, like their other work, is "only a movie" only entertainment, and not meant to be taken seriously. That "Raiders of the Lost Ark" is an entertaining picture, there is no doubt, but we're being more than entertained when we cheer the hero on the white charger. Lest we forget, Nixon watched "Patton" several times just before he decided to invade Cambodia, and a star of Grade B oatburners has taken his place in the White House, itchy trigger finger and all. Praise the Raisinettes and pass the ammunition.