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Steven Spielberg is undoubtedly one of the giants of American cinema history of the last half-century. His career has now spanned an incredible 44 years and encompassed some of the biggest and most game-changing films of the era, from Jaws to E.T., Indiana Jones to Jurassic Park. I’ve wanted to do an extended piece on Spielberg and his cinema for quite a while now, and this is the first part of what will be a four-part series, focusing on four specific films in Spielberg’s lengthy body of work. Far from just being profiles of great or even bad films (he’s made some–remember Hook or Always?), this series will, I hope, chronicle one of the amazing things I see when I look at Spielberg’s career: a director, both gifted and flawed, finding himself and his moral center as a human being, an American and a Jew. Spielberg stands almost alone in his incredible ability to get his audiences to empathize with others, but this talent, raw and nascent in him in his early days of directing in the 1970s and 1980s, has only recently come out to its full potential. I want to trace this journey of empathy by analyzing four specific Spielberg films: Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), Schindler’s List (1993), Amistad (1997) and Lincoln (2012).

This is going to be a four-part series, and as the holidays and end-of-the-year wrap-ups are rapidly approaching, probably it will break over the holidays, with the last two installments running in the first week of January.

I’ve chosen to start with one of Spielberg’s most beloved films, Raiders of the Lost Ark (sometimes retroactively titled Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark), not merely because it’s a wonderfully fun picture that shows the director at his early career best, but because every journey has a beginning point and this is a good one for him. Originally envisioned as an homage to the 1930s-1940s movie serials with which Spielberg and story co-creator George Lucas grew up, Raiders emerged in 1981 as one of the most exciting cinema experiences audiences had ever seen: an incredible rollicking adventure spanning the globe, involving countless thrills and cliffhangers, and introducing the world to one of its great heroes, swashbuckling archaeologist Indiana Jones. Few movies are as breathtaking and few quite so much fun on a date.

Raiders, of course, involves Jones (Harrison Ford), an archaeologist in the 1930s, who is sent on a mission to recover the ancient Biblical artifact known as the Ark of the Covenant–which in the Old Testament was the repository of the original Ten Commandments and a symbol of Jewish identity–before the Nazis get their hands on it. (In real life Nazi occultism is largely a myth, but hey, this is an adventure movie). On his search Indy dodges rolling boulders, flying darts, poisoned dates, oodles of deadly cobras and his Euro trash nemesis (Paul Freeman) to recover the artifact, featuring a long chain of chases and cliffhangers. Marion (Karen Allen, in a highly underappreciated performance) provides the love interest. Raiders is put together like a Swiss watch and Spielberg’s direction is always light-hearted, kinetic and cheerful. You can tell everyone had a blast making this movie and that’s part of why it still enchants new generations of audiences 35 years later.

But let’s look closer at Raiders’s themes and implications. This is Spielberg, who was only 34 at the time he made it, getting to play in a huge toy box that harks back to his postwar (he was born in 1946) suburban (Cincinnati) upbringing, filled with movie serials, toy guns, comic books, pulp novels and simple moralistic good-vs.-evil themes. Aside from the Euro trash villain, who is largely forgettable, most of the bad guys are Nazis, and all are vaguely ridiculous. Toht (Ronald Lacey, actually a British actor) is your quintessential slime with the wire-rimmed glasses, who is dumb enough to get an ancient Egyptian medallion burned permanently into his flesh. Dietrich (Wolf Kahler, a character actor who played a lot of Nazis in his career) is a spit-and-polish bureaucrat, fanatically loyal to the Fuhrer, the kind of guy who would probably have shot himself when the Russians took Berlin in 1945. Both have their heads gruesomely melted in the film’s stunning special-effects climax. There’s not much depth to these characters, and aside from a hint of sadism in the scene where Toht nearly brands Marion with a fireplace poker–rescued in the nick of time by Indy, of course–the Nazis aren’t even really that menacing beyond their simple identity as Nazis. They’re comic book villains. Considering this is largely a comic book adventure, that’s perfectly appropriate.

The classic “idol snatch” scene at the opening of Raiders of the Lost Ark is one of the most thrilling sequences in movie history, and will probably remain so for all time.

Spielberg does show his sense of empathy in Raiders of the Lost Ark, but it is mostly for his audience, and it stems from himself and his own childhood. Spielberg had so much fun with the serials, comic books and toys when he was growing up in the 1950s that he wants us, the audience, to experience that same kind of fun through his movie. You can see on the screen, in nearly every scene, how Spielberg felt empowered as a child by all of this zany fantasy. There’s an innocence about the picture in that its only real aim is to make us feel empowered too. (Incidentally this is exactly the same place, emotionally, that Star Wars comes from). That he succeeds so perfectly is the first glimmer of Spielberg’s talent and genius as a director. You simply can’t watch some of the action sequences, like the beautifully shot, edited and scored opening involving the theft of the golden idol, and not feel an incredible rush of exhilaration. Raiders of the Lost Ark is a machine that generates audience excitement. Spielberg built this beautiful machine with the precision of an engineer, but with the heart of a child.

The “growing up” of this inner child is the story of the rest of Spielberg’s career. The sense of empathy, and his skill at realizing it, remains and even builds over the decades, but the focus of who he wants the audience to feel empathy for, and why, will change dramatically between the 1980s and the 2010s. Schindler’s List, the next stop on the journey, will demonstrate that vividly, and it, far more than Raiders, deeply involves Spielberg’s identity as a Jew and his sense of humanity. But for now, at whatever age you see it or whatever mood you’re in, Raiders of the Lost Ark remains what it was in 1981: an incredible, adrenaline-soaked dose of innocent fun.

One of the great chase scenes ever put on film! Indiana Jones goes after the title artifact in Raiders of the Lost Ark.

In the next installment: Schindler’s List and why it was only one of the early stops on Spielberg’s journey.

The header image incorporates a photo of Steven Spielberg by Romain DuBois and is used under Creative Commons 3.0 (Attribution) license. The other element of the header image is a photograph by me; the artwork for Raiders of the Lost Ark is copyright (C) 1981 by Paramount Pictures and fair use is claimed.