John Baumgartner

Shot4Shot Raiders of the Lost Ark

RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK (1981, Spielberg)

It was just a matter of time before I came to this, of course, and no better reason than this film’s 30th birthday this month.  And I have 2 Raiders shots I’m posting (the second next week), both oners that I have spent many a minute marveling over.  Today’s is the scene in which Brody gives Indiana Jones the go-ahead and issues his ominous warning that the ark is “like nothing you’ve gone after before.”

Instead of an uninteresting scene with much exposition to unload, in this single shot we’re given a snappy, dynamically blocked (lots of to-and-away from camera), short dialogue scene packed with info, which behaves exactly as a good oner should.  We get wide shots, CUs, singles, OTSs (over the shoulder), 2 shots, dramatic pans & push-ins, and, of course, one well-placed insert shot.  Also look how the wide angle lens stretches the room at the seams – a very useful and typical lens choice for a good oner.

Spielberg Picks up the Pace

For directors, losing control of pacing is always a fear in committing to a oner.  If the scene lags in your cut of the film, you’re potentially stuck.  But note how Spielberg & actors avoid this by making the dialogue really clip along, taking no chances by employing that old Hawksian technique of barreling through the exchange.

One common and useful “oner” trick is to have both the actors facing the same direction.  I love how Spielberg does that here with Harrison Ford packing his bag at 1:00 — a perfectly natural motivation for an otherwise unnatural blocking.  The PUSH IN to Brody when the moment turns supernatural in tone is inspired!  So simple, effective and organic.

The music really guides us beautifully through the shot, too, transitioning us from moment to moment.  Just as Indy ponders Marion, her haunting theme evokes his history with her (that theme slays me), and then no sooner segues into the ark’s ghostly motif, making us just as apprehensive as Brody (and what a performance moment from Denholm Elliot).  Man, John Williams scored that impeccably and provides some important glue to this single shot of many ideas.

Sometimes oners can seem too showy or forced, but every actor and camera move here is perfectly motivated, and this oner seems to fit effortlessly with the content of the scene.  As a director, I think such scenes pop out at you as oners from the script.  If you obey that instinct, it usually works out well, though getting some inserts here and there for pacing insurance — to allow you to trim if necessary — can be a good bet.

What’s more, the cut-away insert shot of the gun reveal, in addition to being the perfect punctuation of the beat, might have allowed Spielberg to get the pistol’s landing position in the suitcase exactly right; it’s reasonable to hypothesize that Ford tossed the weapon a half dozen times to get it to lay just right  The insert shot provides a break in the master, so Spielberg wouldn’t have to film the scene from the top with each throw of the gun.

I first saw this movie when I was 10 (story here if you haven’t read it already), the perfect age to experience it.  While it’s surely a timeless movie, nothing will compare to that first, thrilling viewing.  Would love to hear your stories of seeing this amazing movie for the first time.


  • June 3, 2011

    I never realized this was done all in one shot. Great performances, and great work from the focus-puller. With everything else going on in this movie, it’s surprising Spielberg even bothered to set up such a complicated shot for a scene that’s all exposition. I suppose it really creates a contrast to the fast editing that’s coming up, though the first Indy does not have nearly the kind of machine-gun cutting that modern action films have – they are either showing you a single moment in super slow-mo, or cutting all of the action so fast you can hardly follow what’s going on. This movie is a good one to study for classic action-film editing, among all of it’s other attributes.

    BTW, Remember how when Temple of Doom came out, Roger Ebert panned it because he said “too much happened”? He came out of the movie exhausted, and thought Spielberg had completely overdone it. How times have changed.

    • September 24, 2014

      He didn’t pan it, he gave it four stars. He said it was exhausting, but that’s not a bad thing.

  • June 4, 2011

    Once again John, you are picking movies that have changed my life in regards to film appreciation. When I saw Raiders for the first time (a couple years after it came out) I was simply stunned. At that point I don’t think that I had never seen such a perfectly crafted movie. The story, acting, directing, music, action, etc simply held me glued to my seat. I still consider Raiders to be one of the greatest movies ever made and, probably, the best adventure movie of all time. I have to go now, gonna go look for my Raiders DVD 🙂

  • June 5, 2011

    Thirty years old? How the hell old does that make me?

    Good stuff. The nods to Williams and Elliot are dead-on. I’m no musicologist, but is the sting when the gun is thrown in the suitcase the Nazi theme that introduces Major Toht? As to Elliot, what a contrast from the nuanced, heroic character of Raiders to the bumbling “comic relief” of Last Crusade. His reading of the eponymous line is great, but I love his subtext-rich reply to Jones’ question, “And the museum gets the Ark?”. Brilliant work knocking out exposition, character, and foreshadowing all in one scene.

    PS – Personal to Spielberg: if you’re reading this, how did you miss the 30th anniversary as an opportunity to release a Blu-Ray box set?

    PPS – “It’s like nothing you’ve gone after before.” made only more resonant by realizing that Temple of Doom is a prequel. The Lost Ark of the Covenant (“The Ark of the Covenant. The chest the Hebrews used to carry the Ten Commandments around in. the actual Ten Commandments. The original stone tablets that Moses brought down out of Mount Horeb and smashed, if you believe in that sort of thing. Didn’t you guys ever go to Sunday School?”) sure isn’t like The Holy Loaves of Pumpernickel.

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  • September 24, 2014

    I think Spielberg elected to show the close up of the gun to go from Indy, as we’ve seen him for awhile in the suit and in the college setting, to transition to have us remember the opening and give punctuation to the scene. But maybe it was for cover too, interesting question.


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