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Learning From The Best: Breaking Down The Opening of Raiders of the Lost Ark

By Ben Woodiwiss · November 3, 2015

Here’s the idea: take a scene, rip it apart, and look at what it’s doing and how it works, like taking apart a watch. Even if you’re writing something that is the polar opposite, it’s good to know what you’re not doing just as much as what you are. And beginnings are a great place to start, because you’ve got so much information packed into a short space. So here are 10 lessons from the opening scenes of Raiders of the Lost Ark (Steven Spielberg, 1981):

Where and when we are

Remember the last time you watched something and thought ‘when/where the hell is this set?’ I had that for years with Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (Mel Stuart, 1971), like… I think it’s now, but those buildings are crazy. Is this the past? (Turned out it was just Germany) Anyway, not always necessary, but that title card at the top gets rid of all that ambiguity and lets people settle in comfortable, if that’s what you’re looking for.

Consider protagonist reveals

Whipcrack. Gunshot. Shadow in profile: that hat. Steps into the light. Remember Christopher Walken entering The Prophecy (Gregory Widen, 1995) by kicking in a door? That was pretty darn dynamic. And Matt Groening swears by having characters you can identify from a silhouette (Orson Welles also often keeps his characters in silhouette/shadow, but keeps them identifiable). This protagonist reveal is something between those two points: dynamism and iconography combined, and with no words at all.

Clarifying hierarchy

There’s a lot of people here, so who’s in charge? Rewatch 12 Angry Men (Sidney Lumet, 1957) or The Thing (John Carpenter, 1982) sometime to see how those alpha and beta males are assembled into some kind of order, and then into groups. When you’ve got a lot of people onscreen at once it can be useful to know who answers to who, and also how you explain that.

A world of contrasts

So, let me get this straight… he’s a Doctor, but he’s dressed as a Lion tamer? And a Teacher? This man is comfortable and efficient in two completely different worlds. What’s more, his ‘partner’ for the opening scene is the complete opposite: cowardly, foolhardy, terrified, untrustworthy. Having someone who is the opposite of a character in the same scene works really well at juxtaposition and identifying precisely who our lead is. It’s also interesting how Belloq is charming, ‘friendly’, and well-dressed, not only a nice contrast to Indy, but a refreshing contrast for a villain. Everyone loves contrast.

This guy’s got history

He talks about an old colleague, he hints at a history with Belloq, which has had its ups and downs (mainly downs). Indy’s been in this business a long time. Not only that, but he really knows his stuff: spots all the traps, knows how to react when everything’s going wrong. Although we haven’t seen it, we’re pretty sure that he’s spent a good decade or so at least doing what he’s doing here, and all while keeping us in the now, without too much reliance on lengthy dialogue exposition.

Cool under pressure

He brushes the spiders off Satipo’s back without batting an eyelid, doesn’t jump when the sunbeam trap goes off, nary a flinch when the arrow flies into the torch. How characters react to what’s going on around them tells us volumes about who they are. Go through an opening scene you’ve written and see how (or even ‘if’) your characters are reacting to what’s going on around them, and what that might say about them.

Indy has both good and bad luck

He picks bad partners, and also loyal goofy partners. He miscalculates the weight of the idol, but doesn’t get hit by any arrows as he runs. The root he grabs on to gives way, but then holds at the very last minute. Basically, we’re in a world where this good/bad luck star that Indy was born under can change at a moment’s notice, for both comedy and dramatic effect. It’s easy for this kind of thing to be seen as a ‘cheat’ by the audience, but works here thanks to the sheer amount of switches from good to bad and back again.

Anything can happen

Along the lines of Indy’s luck: the world we’re in features superstition, crafty traps, your arch nemesis waiting outside a cave for you, and more. Basically, we’re ready for anything. And sure, this is Saturday afternoon matinee stuff that we’re looking at, but consider dropping ‘anything can happen’ into a quiet drama. It makes everything feel more on edge. Sure, Game of Thrones is doing this like it’s going out of fashion, but think about subtle ways you can introduce that timbre.

Belloq speaks Hovitos?

Who the hell speaks Hovitos? Or, for that matter, lies to a tribe in the rainforest in order to betray an old sparring partner? It’s almost as though he’s some kind of maniacal genius who will get into bed with anyone who can… oh, I see what they did there. A great example of how your audience can infer huge amounts from one piece of information that’ll pay off in the long run.

Indy hates snakes

Chekhov’s gun in action. Foreshadowing makes audiences feel smart when they reach the payoff, and stops them from feeling cheated, or as though something was ‘convenient’. Sure, sometimes foreshadowing can be heavy handed and obvious, but because there’s been so much action and noise in these opening minutes the “I hate snakes, Jock! I hate them!” line feels like a comic relief cherry on top, rather than a piece of information that will be useful further down the line. Bury that foreshadowing nicely.

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I’m certain you could find 10 more, easily – just for Raiders alone. Give it a shot sometime. Pick a sequence you love (preferably an opening sequence), and try breaking it down. It’s incredible just how much a screenwriter worth their salt can pack into the first few minutes of a film.

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