The opening scene of a film is often the most important, setting the tone for the whole picture. Like the opening line of a novel, it has to be interesting and gripping enough to hold the audience’s attention, giving them a taster of things to come.
In this series I will take a look at some memorable opening scenes, and discuss what they can tell us about the characters and events to come.
Raiders of The Lost Ark – 1981 – Dir. Steven Spielberg
One of my earliest film memories is watching Raiders of The Lost Ark on TV with my dad around aged 4, and it has been a firm favourite ever since. Whilst I obviously didn’t understand a lot of what was going on, I was hooked by the exciting action and the enigmatic and funny hero. Raiders made me a Spielberg fan, a Harrison Ford fan, and most importantly, a film fan.
The story of its conception is one of film legend. Old friends George Lucas and Steven Spielberg were holidaying together when Lucas pitched the idea to Spielberg whilst building a sandcastle, (or so the story goes). I guess the old adage of ‘it’s not what you know but who you know’ is definitely true in this instance. The pair played to their strengths: Lucas developed the story with Philip Kaufman (whilst Lawrence Kasdan, who had previously worked with Lucas on Empire Strikes Back, took care of the script) with Spielberg handling directing duties. The coming together of two blockbuster masters to create one film is an incredible thing to happen, and resulted in one of the best and most entertaining adventure films of all time.
– There is a plethora of fascinating information about the ‘birth’ of Indiana Jones, including a video essay on the introduction of the character on vashivisuals.com –
The opening sequence is one of the most famous scenes in the film (and the Indiana Jones series of films). This was critical to get right. The whole film is based around a charismatic but flawed hero, who the audience needs to cheer for when he beats up bad guys. Men want to be him and woman want to be with him. That sort of guy. He needs a succinct introduction so that the action can start as soon as possible.
The opening three minutes gives us the first taster of the man we’re to follow for the next few hours. Shown only in silhouette (a moment that is oft-repeated throughout the film), Dr Jones is followed through the South American jungle by a couple of men. Through the shadows we can clearly see his prized possessions; his whip, and his trusty hat. This is a man who isn’t phased by the clear signs of danger ahead: when faced with a grotesque statue, one of his followers runs away scared out of his wits, but Indy carries on, with not so much as a glance back in the man’s direction. He then continues on to find a poison dart in a tree – a warning sign? An indicator he isn’t the first to travel this path? Regardless, the protagonists continues further, determined to get to his location.
This is the only video I can find of the scene, and unfortunately it doesn’t have sound.
The idea of ‘show, don’t tell’ is used to perfection here – there is little to no dialogue in the scene, we have no idea what the statue represents, but from the man’s reaction we presume it represents extreme danger, and yet our hero continues. In these short two minutes, we already know a lot about Indiana Jones. He is brave, and smart, with a determination to reach his goal, regardless of the consequences.
Even when under threat from one of his ‘trusted’ men, our mysterious leader disarms him with one crack of his trusty whip, without breaking a sweat. It is then he is revealed to us, at his bravest moment yet, stepping out of the shadows to reveal a handsome, but rugged man. The audience is now on his side – men, admiring his courage and strength, like to imagine themselves as this mysterious adventurer, and women, seeing his good looks and masculinity, imagine being by his side. The boxes are ticked. He is our hero.
For us to be completely onboard, we need to relate to him somehow, to see he is human after all.
Of course, this wouldn’t be a Spielberg film without a flawed hero. The next part of the opening is Indy’s journey into the temple. We see him deftly avoid booby traps in order to get his reward, what this whole trip had been for – the idol.
Again, at this point, he is still a hero to us, but it is that moment when he realises that he has been caught out by the final trap, and his satisfied smile quickly fades, that makes him accessible to us. Not even this intelligent, brave, and determined guy can get it right, he is one of us after all. Unfortunately for Indy, it all goes downhill from there…
In my opinion, this is one of the greatest introductions to a main character in a film. It makes us want to spend the rest of the journey with Indiana Jones, and cheer for every time he comes through. I also have to say, that unlike so many films, the female character also gets a proper introduction in Raiders of the Lost Ark.
From watching this we can tell that Marion isn’t the usual, ultra-feminine love-interest. She ticks the same boxes that the male protagonist does – women want to be her, men want to be with her. She is feisty, can hold her liquor, and is more than a match for Indiana Jones. My kind of woman.