The fourth episode of the seventh season of the CBS sitcom The Big Bang Theory—titled “The Raiders Minimization”—has apparently become a classic. I say “apparently” because, though I am not a habitual watcher, I have become keenly aware of this half hour of television by dint of being dragged into the same discussion about it several times, in several writers rooms, over the course of the last few years.
I suppose that—in a workplace where narrative construction is the life and limb, where so many of us revere Lucas and Spielberg, and where Raiders of the Lost Ark is considered holy scripture—it is inevitable that some contrarian will bring up the following scene as proof that they understand a storytelling sleight-of-hand that continues to elude both the general public and the rank-and-file of dramatic storytellers:
AMY: It was very entertaining despite the glaring story problem.
SHELDON: Story problem? You, oh, Amy, what a dewy-eyed moon-calf you are. Raiders of the Lost Ark is the love child of Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, two of the most gifted filmmakers of our generation. I’ve watched it 36 times, except for the snake scene and the face-melting scene, which I can only watch when it’s still light out, but, I defy you to find a story problem. Here’s my jaw, drop it.
AMY: All right. Indiana Jones plays no role in the outcome of the story. If he weren’t in the film, it would turn out exactly the same.
SHELDON: Oh, I see your confusion. You don’t understand. Indiana Jones was the one in the hat with the whip.
AMY: No, I do, and if he weren’t in the movie, the Nazis would have still found the Ark, taken it to the island, opened it up and all died, just like they did… (Off his dropped jaw) Let me close that for you.
Debunking the premise that the sum of Indiana Jones’s actions in Raiders of the Lost Ark somehow amounts to a null narrative outcome and therefore makes up a “story problem” is easy—and, frankly, academic—so let’s get that out of the way first.
Raiders—and its prequel Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, and sequels Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull—all teach roughly the same moral virtue: letting go of material desire is necessary for spiritual enlightenment…
- In Temple of Doom, a younger, and significantly cockier, Indiana Jones trades his stated desire for “fortune and glory” for faith in the lost Sankara stone.
- In Last Crusade, Indy and his father see their fractious relationship conclusively healed as Henry Jones Senior absolves Junior from the belief that he must acquire the Holy Grail in order to finally make him proud.
- Finally, in Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, Indiana Jones sees all his opponents vanquished because they do not realize that the true treasure of the trans-dimensional aliens who built the titular citadel was the knowledge they gained by visiting our world, not the riches they hoarded in their stronghold.
Though somewhat chastened from his lust for “fortune and glory” by the events of its prequel, Indiana Jones enters Raiders of the Lost Ark as a driven and ruthless treasure hunter for whom acquisition of academically significant relics before any of his many competitors—and all of the associated discoveries—is the only goal. Jones casually blasphemes God and the Ark more frequently than the Nazis he opposes, and his arch-nemesis—the oily French mercenary René Belloq—clearly respects the divine power of the Ark with far greater piety than he does.
After suffering an enormous amount of peril and loss—forsaking everything to protect the Ark, even if it means letting the Nazis have it—Indiana Jones finally gets the chance to stare at the face of God… and what does he do?
He realizes that he is unworthy.
Then—with a humility more powerful than the many feats of strength and endurance he has performed through the story—Indiana Jones saves himself and his girlfriend by turning away from the very treasure he has sought the entire film. For those of you who have not seen Raiders, God then shows up and smites Belloq and the Nazis with a display of light and magic that can only be called “industrial.”
After all the smoke and carnage clears, only Indiana Jones and Marion Ravenwood remain, having borne (not) witness to the wrath of the Divine.
The argument that Indiana Jones’s failure to prevent the Nazis from getting the Ark is a deep narrative flaw only makes sense if you ignore what Raiders of the Lost Ark is actually about: a knight errant who earns the ultimate “gimme” from a wrathful God. Indiana Jones’s character arc is that, of all the eponymous “Raiders,” he alone is the one who comes to an understanding that the film’s titular action is morally wrong.
From jump street, it is made clear that preventing the greatest villains in history from getting the greatest weapon in eternity is among the lesser of Indiana Jones’s motivations. Jones doesn’t even seem afraid that he is about to tamper with powers beyond the scope of human imagination, as he responds to his best friend and mentor’s warnings of the Ark and its secrets:
“Marcus, what are you trying to do, scare me? You sound like my mother. I’m going after a find of incredible historical significance and you’re talking about the boogie-man.”
By the end of the film, Jones’s facile faithlessness in the face of academic achievement is wiped away clean—along with any other corollary motivations—by the revelation that good and evil are equally powerless before the face of an omnipotent God… and that God spares those who sacrifice their self-interest in service of what is right.
In this way, Raiders of the Lost Ark is an anomaly in tent-pole filmmaking and a direct subversion of the myth of the American matinee idol. American matinee idols all have one thing in common: they NEVER quit… and yet the natural endpoint of Indiana Jones’s quest is that he learns when to quit. In doing so, Indiana Jones finally achieves grace, earns love, and—yes —defeats the Nazis.
Imagine that. An American matinee hero saving the day by doing nothing.
It is a testament to the nascent stage of the American blockbuster film in 1979 to 1981—when Raiders was conceived, filmed, and released—and the combined clout of its director, producer, and writers, that they were able to get away with this ending. I certainly cannot imagine it happening today, when movies are cogs in franchise machines concocted by “story groups” and in which a film of similar scale has to satisfy and monetize audiences both foreign and domestic in order to achieve its sales projections.
It makes sense that Big Bang would take the low-hanging fruit of a treasured film featuring a literal Deus Ex Machina for a take-off point for a story about geeks “ruining” beloved properties for one another.
That much said, Raiders of the Lost Ark is far from an incompetent work of seat-of-the-pants improv, but rather a considered, calculated work by four master filmmakers at the prime of their craft. In 1979, you would have been hard-pressed to name a better “dream team” for popcorn entertainment than Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Lawrence Kasdan, and Philip Kaufman. Though not infallible, these men were not careless, which is why Raiders remains a classic of the mainstream Hollywood cinema to this day.
All of this begs the question: does Raiders of the Lost Ark truly NEED so full-throated a defense against the perceived depredations of The Big Bang Theory?
The answer is, of course “no,”even though many professional writers—and even just fanboys—have taken the show’s pop-comedic analysis of Raiders to heart as if it were meaningful. There is, however, a vital weapon in every writer’s armamentarium that does need a full-throated defense and reevaluation.
I am, of course, talking about the Deus Ex Machina.
Long the Bête Noir of high school and college creative writing teachers across the land, every writer has a story of having it drilled into her or his skull that a Deus Ex is nothing less than admission of narrative failure. Everyone who ever sat through a regional production of one of Moliere’s farces for a literature class has a memory of the speech that followed from the teacher: that the Deus Ex at the end of said farce was a common narrative device back in the “olden times”, but that we—who benefit from hindsight and modernity—are above such trickery, and that no honest writer working today would even DARE try such a thing.
Because the Deus Ex Machina has fallen so far out of narrative fashion as to become a modern shibboleth for “lazy writing”—which is the reason I suspect so many of my peers have embraced “The Raiders Minimization” as a sort of “gotcha!” —I find it especially curious that several of the most formative films of my childhood all rely on the device for their narrative resolution (and that all of them were released in 1981) and that all of them were financially successful in their time and remain respected works of the popular arts to this day.
The first is, of course, Raiders of the Lost Ark, the top grossing film of 1981. Then there’s the third highest-grossing film of 1981, Superman II (in which Superman is given back his powers by his god-like father after losing them for favoring the love of Lois Lane over his duties as protector of humanity).
Rounding up the list are the tenth highest-grossing film of 1981, Terry Gilliam’s Time Bandits, and the eighteenth highest-grossing film of 1981, John Boorman’s Wagnerian retelling of Arthurian legend, Excalibur (in which both King and Land are restored to greatness after being served a drink from the Holy Grail by one of his long-suffering quest knights).
One could even argue that 1981 was some sort of golden age/last gasp of the Deus Ex Machina in popular film, especially since 1982 is considered by many genre fans and film scholars as the year the tentpole blockbuster came into its modern form with the summer releases of E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial, Poltergeist, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Conan The Barbarian, 48 Hours, The Road Warrior, The Thing, Blade Runner, and Rocky III. All of these were commercially successful mass entertainments, all are generally considered to be quality films, and they are understood to have set the pattern for high-earning summer films to this day.
Also, most of these films were either written, directed, or acted in by talent that continues to do similar work to commercial success today (Steven Spielberg, Ridley Scott, George Miller, Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Harrison Ford, Eddie Murphy, Kurt Russell) or represent franchises that still hover near the top of the mass entertainment heap (Star Trek, Mad Max, Rocky, Blade Runner).
Was 1981 the final year in which Deus Ex was acceptable as a narrative trope in pop culture? Was 1982 the year in which mainstream entertainment was taken over by an anti-Deus Ex generation that would banish it for decades to come?
Did a cabal of Hollywood’s new and elite vanguard of commercial mainstream filmmakers meet in a dark and smoke-filled room in the back of some old-timey Hollywood haunt after 1981 and decide that—for the sake of modernity, profit, and the appeasement of creative writing teachers across the land—the Deus Ex was to be staked through the heart for the betterment of commercial entertainment?
The truth is, as with all things, far less glamorous.
It’s not as if the directors of the Deus Exes of 1981 went into creative exile: John Boorman continued his artistically successful career well after 1981. Terry Gilliam’s greatest Hollywood successes were still a decade away. Richard Donner—who, while not the director of record, originated Superman II, directed more than half of the final product, and oversaw the development of the script with Tom Mankiewicz—would soon unleash the Lethal Weapon series, which became a hardy perennial of the summer multiplex, and also direct that most beloved of Gen-Y pop-cultural artifacts, The Goonies.
Of course, none of these films would feature the Deus Ex—Martin Riggs’s capacity to survive beatings that would macerate ordinary men notwithstanding.
To fully understand why Deus Ex Machina—both in the farcical and completely-out-of-left-field sort so loathed by writing teachers, and in the wholly-earned and artistically-warranted form seen in Raiders of the Lost Ark—just plain feels so wrong; one need only look at 1981’s most egregious deployer of the tactic: Terry Gilliam in Time Bandits.
Time Bandits is possibly the darkest, most subversive, anti-establishment movie to appear in a top 10 highest-grossing film list in the last 40 years: a sin for which it is now mostly-forgotten, and—most tellingly—thoroughly un-remade and un-rebooted. It may also be my favorite film of my childhood, with Raiders of the Lost Ark very close in the mix.
In telling the story of a curious boy who finds a time portal in his bedroom and embarks on an adventure with six thoroughly amoral dwarves who have stolen a map of time portals from God himself, and plan to use it to steal every ancient treasure imaginable, Time Bandits claims a spiritual kinship to the gruesome, brutal original stories of the Brothers Grimm by way of Monty Python’s Flying Circus (of which Gilliam is a member).
The single overwhelming message of Time Bandits is that the lives of adults consist of a worthless struggle to mitigate the absurdity of existence—and the loss of imagination and wonder concomitant with adulthood—through wanton violence, the toxic and arbitrary exercise of authority, and predatory consumerism.
In every one of the Bandits’ adventures—whether meeting historical figures like Napoleon, or mythical ones like Robin Hood—adults are venal, stupid, infantile, and consumed with ego to the diminishment of all involved. The only creature of reason in Time Bandits is the boy at its center: Kevin. But even his plaints that the Bandits should go after knowledge instead of money fall on deaf ears as he and the Bandits traverse one historical vignette after another in search of filthy lucre.
Only one grown-up in the story survives Gilliam’s scorn, and that is King Agamemnon (played by Sean Connery). Of course, after emerging as a heroic, caring, and idealized adoptive father figure for Kevin, the Time Bandits emerge through a time portal to steal the boy back before he is able to settle into a worthy life of purpose with a loving parent.
Ripped from the one place where he might have been happy, Kevin and the Bandits ultimately find themselves in pitched battle against God’s arch-nemesis: the Evil Genius. Consumed with the desire to use God’s map to remake creation as a sort of consumerist technocracy, Evil Genius lures the Bandits to his Fortress of Ultimate Darkness with the temptation of riches beyond compare.
In the film’s climax, the Bandits appear to abandon Kevin to be killed by Evil Genius, only to reappear with reinforcements culled from history: an army of Greek archers, a posse of gunslingers, a cavalry of medieval jousters, a World War II tank, and a laser-cannon equipped starship. It is a stirring moment of redemption for the otherwise horrible dwarves, who—having finally learned a lesson or two about the value of friendship—show up to defend their comrade and save creation.
Being a technocrat, Evil Genius easily wrests control of the weapons from our heroes and proceeds to spectacularly hand them their asses… but just as he is about to slaughter them all, God himself manifests on the scene (in the doddering form of a superannuated, three-piece suit-wearing Sir Ralph Richardson) and rewards the plucky dwarves for their character pivot by smiting Evil Genius into a pillar of carbon.
Unconvincingly declaring that the theft of the map by the Bandits (and all the attendant mayhem they have caused) were part of his plan all along, God gathers up his property, along with most of the remains of Evil Genius, and the Bandits, and returns with them all to “Creation.” Kevin is left behind to awaken in his bedroom to a fate that may be the single most depressing confirmation of the essential loneliness of humanity in the history of the mainstream cinema.
It is hard to imagine a film with the plot and theme I just described being made as popular entertainment, much less it cracking the year-end top 10 box office list. Time Bandits is not only profoundly weird, it is also profoundly angry, and willing to end on an extreme note of such existential discomfort that it is difficult to imagine it being marketed to children.
Though their dramatic resolutions are similar—unsavory protagonists finally stick up for what is right in the face of insurmountable odds and receive a blessing from an inscrutable deity—Raiders did such a good job of convincing everyone that its intimate story of a single man’s spiritual redemption was, in fact, the beginning of a billion-dollar franchise of movie serial-inspired derring-do, that the “discovery” of its Deus Ex Machina has become fodder for sitcoms and writing professional one-upmanship.
Similarly, audiences that love Superman II are comfortable accepting a Kryptonian patriarch’s power mulligan because Superman is a) neither the newest nor the least subtle Christ metaphor out there, and b) an homage to immigrants who come to our country to use their foreign ways to fight for Truth, Justice, and the American Way, and he needed to get out of his predicament to kick Zod, Ursa, and Non out of the White House. Most people may make the argument that Superman II is “cheesy,” but they seldom use it as an example of the dreaded Deus Ex.
Finally, Arthurian myth has had the Grail baked into its DNA over centuries. The inclusion of a last-minute healing of King Arthur by the Cup of Christ was not exactly a surprise in a film like Excalibur, which sought to synthesize the totality of Arthurian lore into one convenient mythopoetic package.
Time Bandits, however, offers no such comfort. As a shadowy reflection of Raiders in Great Fraternal Hall of the Wholly-Earned and Dramatically-Valid Deus Ex, Gilliam’s film lays bare the subversive nature of Spielberg and company’s work by clarifying beyond the shadow of a doubt that the wholly-earned and dramatically-valid Deus Ex Machina is nevertheless a profoundly depressing prospect.
After all, by the time the Nazis have the power to move thousands of men into Egypt like an invading army and excavate the city of Tanis, there is little a single man could possibly do to stop them, even when that single man is both a formidable intellectual and bullwhip brawler with an inexhaustible hunger for academic accomplishment.
The human cost of defeating the Third Reich is known to anyone with a rudimentary education… and no one goes into Raiders of the Lost Ark thinking that the film will suddenly become an alternate history by either letting the Bad Guys get a hold of the most powerful weapon ever discovered, or letting the Good Guys get it in time to stop the coming war. The sad truth is that, in the end, Indiana Jones was destined to fail in every respect other than self-improvement.
Similarly, as Kevin is left behind in the denouement of Time Bandits, God answers the Bandits’ question of whether their new friend can come along with them to the hereafter with a line that would have made Albert Camus proud: “Oh, don’t go on about it—he’s got to stay here to carry on the fight.”
Of course Indiana Jones stayed in the popular culture to carry on the fight: learning the same lesson over and over again like some amnesiac archaeological Sisyphus… and Kevin ends Time Bandits standing over the smoldering ruins of what was once his home—with his parents literally blown to smithereens by a fragment of the Evil Genius that God somehow forgot to gather up in his haste—alone, and destined to “carry on the fight” forever in the faceless suburban sprawl from whence he came.
So the reason for the disappearance of the Deus Ex in popular culture makes complete sense not just as the triumph of a thousand educators, but as a triumph of commerce. Who wants to go to a summer movie to learn that the Nazis can’t be beaten by a single matinee idol? Who wants to be told in a movie about a boy and his time traveling dwarves that existence is absurd and meaningless, adult pursuits are based on bad faith and delusion, and God is a doddering incompetent?
And yet, out of the Indiana Jones oeuvre, Raiders is universally understood as the best, most artistically successful, and dramatically rich of the quartet.
And yet, when I saw Time Bandits at age eleven—a time when I was beginning to realize just how misfit I felt in the world—I took from it not just a mind-bending, reality-warping sense of existential discomfort… but also the seemingly contradictory validation that other people saw the world through the same lens of fear, depression, and bewilderment that I did.
Time Bandits made me feel like my tribe was out there. Time Bandits left me depressed as a story, but hopeful as a human being.
Similarly, the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark was a revelation to me—and a statement of mature artistic thinking far greater than any of Spielberg and company’s later attempts at “serious” cinema—precisely because it coexists with the same tropes it undermines. The end of Raiders is an admission that the world is so varied and strange—and so resistant to the monoliths we believe so unconquerable—that the contradictory archetypes of the heroic matinee idol and the Deus Ex can simultaneously occupy the same space if your mind if wide enough open.
Sure, Spielberg went on to win all the Oscars for high-minded, “adult” films like Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan, and Munich, but none of those later, and to my mind leaden, efforts at enlightening his audience to such grown-up concepts as “man’s inhumanity to man” compare in my book to the crazy wisdom on display at the conclusion of Indiana Jones’s first cinematic adventure.
Now that I see Raiders through the lens of Indiana Jones’s character arc (as opposed to merely basking in it as an example of impeccably choreographed action and the exultation of filmmaking and pulp fiction so clearly on display) I know that even my idols—the great filmic wizards whose fantasies inspired me as a child—were, at one point, able to see the absurd comedy of all our pursuits, and snicker at them even as they presented them for our enjoyment.
The conclusion of Raiders is a glitch in The Matrix: a glorious and transcendent moment that communicates there is far more to the world that is random, and confusing, and infuriating, and beautiful in its inscrutable absurdity, than in all the fantasies of aggression and conquest possible in the noetic brain of the mainstream culture.
And those feelings are the sole defense I can give for the Deus Ex Machina.
Perhaps that itching sensation in the back of our collective necks that the problems of a complex and complicated society can’t actually be solved by one man and two fists alone is a much needed corrective to the soul-corroding, engagement-killing, anti-intellectual effect of centuries of national myths of rugged individualism.
Perhaps the notion that human failings as difficult as fascism, anti-semitism, militarism, toxic masculinity, and rampant technocratic consumerism will only be solved by God if they are not solved by all of us together is a necessary moral lesson that does not get the air time it deserves—even though Spielberg, Lucas, Kaufman, and Kasdan have provided a dramatically perfect model of how to monetize it for entertainment.
Perhaps the myth of the Great Man as savior of the entire world —though a beguiling and entertaining way to while away an afternoon—is as bad a trap as the evils that overwhelm us in our daily life because it specifically invites the rest of us to sit back, stay out of the fray, and wait for a bullwhip-wielding academic or a group of repentant time-traveling dwarves to show up with armies to save us.
Perhaps showing us that heroes, even when they conquer their own demons, cannot defeat the Ultimate Darkness alone but for the help of God is a way that art can command us all to become that hero for ourselves; and then to find more like us, help them become heroes, and come together to prevent horrors that would otherwise make us pray for the coming of a savior.
Perhaps, after all the gods and heroes have left the stage, all that’s left behind is us, alone in truth, but together in ideal to “carry on the fight.”
© 2017 by Javier Grillo-Marxuach