Indiana Jones and the Life-Changing Experience
I remember exactly where I was on the night of June 12, 1981. That was the day "Raiders of the Lost Ark" was released in theaters. It was a Friday night and I was at the Mayfair Twin theater, a few miles away from my house, in my hometown of Kingston, NY. And I was watching "Clash of the Titans."
"Clash" came out the same day as "Raiders," and both were playing at the Mayfair Twin, once a huge movie palace, now split down the middle to create two narrow theaters. (The building is now, sadly, home to a discount tire warehouse.) My friends and I wanted to see both movies. We didn't know much about "Raiders," other than George Lucas, Steven Spielberg and Han Solo. "Clash," though, that had Ray Harryhausen, master of stop-motion animation. The guy who brought to life Mighty Joe Young, the skeletons in "Jason and the Argonauts," all of Sinbad's monsters. I wanted to be Ray Harryhausen when I was growing up.
So we picked "Clash" on Friday night, feeling like we knew what we were getting. And it was okay. The parts with the stop-motion were pretty good. The rest... eh. Harry Hamlin in a toga.
So the next night, we went back to see "Raiders," and for the price of a movie ticket, I had my life changed. We sat through "Raiders," my friends and I, and felt like we'd been dragged behind a truck for four hours. I can remember being breathless, literally, for long stretches of the movie. I'd never experienced anything like it. We got right back in line and saw the next showing of "Raiders" (after talking my mom into coming back to pick us up in another two hours).
Four years earlier, I'd been enthralled by "Star Wars," transported to... well, you know where "Stars Wars" transported me. That too was a life-altering experience, but "Raiders" was even more so. Both films were rooted in the traditions of pulp storytelling, throwbacks to the kind of adventure found in Saturday morning serials. "Star Wars" owed just as much of a debt to "Flash Gordon" as it did to Kurosawa's "The Hidden Fortress." It imprinted on me like few other films.
But "Raiders" had an even bigger effect on me, especially in terms of the kind of stories I would eventually tell. Indiana Jones was a human protagonist, a hero who bleeds and even fails; in fact, most of what he does in "Raiders" is fail. But it's not the failure that's important, it's that Indy never gives up. An ordinary person in extraordinary circumstances is infinitely more interesting (and identifiable) to me than an extraordinary person in extraordinary circumstances. The example I always come back to: I find Roger Thornhill far more intriguing in Hitchcock's "North by Northwest" than I do Jack Ryan in any of Tom Clancy's thrillers. Thornhill is one of us, while Ryan is the best of us. I'm more of a Spider-Man guy than a Captain America guy. More Kyle than Hal. That doesn't mean I don't like Steve Rogers or Hal Jordan as characters. It just means that as a writer and a reader, I'm more a fan of the Everyman.