The Desert Chase in ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’ is Action at its Finest

This video essay breaks down one of Steven Spielberg’s most iconic action sequences shot-by-shot.
Truck Chase
By  · Published on January 9th, 2018

Steven Spielberg makes movies with an almost inexplicable proficiency that I’ve admittedly never thought too much into. Overall, Spielberg has an ability to make films that elicit heightened emotional responses from audiences while demonstrating technical prowess without being ostentatious about it. Maybe it’s just me, but I find it easy to get lost in the worlds Spielberg builds in his movies. So, that makes video essays like one by Antonios Papantoniou extremely helpful in dissecting the nitty gritty of Spielberg’s films.

Papantoniou’s latest Spielberg essay unpacks a sequence in Raiders of the Lost Ark —¬†specifically, the iconic desert chase scene — and is separated into sections detailing each aspect of the sequence, including types of shots, camera angles and camera movements. Papantoniou conscientiously breaks down the chase cut by cut (counting a total of 224 by the end of it). Different technical methods were used by Spielberg, composer John Williams, and editor Michael Kahn in order to generate both tension and excitement in the 9-minute action scene.

The desert chase scene is characterized by the fluid, dynamic and constantly present action in every frame that’s enhanced by camera angles and movements that remind the audience of time, place and situation. It’s great to actually see Spielberg’s various directorial choices come to life in separate pieces. What’s fascinating is that movement is always present even before the actual truck chase takes place. The camera captures every perspective necessary to create multiple points-of-view. Extras and unnamed minor characters either dressing in clearly-identifiable clothing or performing specific actions that inform¬†Indy’s decisions as a hero.

Lengthy fight scenes or chase scenes could run the risk of feeling bogged down and boring too, but Spielberg managed to counteract potential boredom in Raiders of the Lost Ark. As Papantoniou points out, Williams’ musical cues heighten and sustain suspense, and subtly indicate shifts in the narrative beats of the sequence as a whole. As Indy declares at the start of the scene, he’s making it up as he goes along, and the way the music evolves to indicate change is implicit but effective. Kahn’s choices as an editor add to this, alternating between POVs to create a holistic view of the entire chase scene.

Ultimately, the many techniques utilized in the desert chase scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark creates the impression of active audience participation in the decision-making in the sequence. I couldn’t tell you how many times in recent years I’d seen action scenes that just got increasingly dull as they went on because they had little to no narrative impact. But Spielberg lets the story of Raiders of the Lost Ark unfold alongside the high-impact stunt work and tense action, rather than let one take precedence over another. Watch precisely how it’s done in Papantoniou’s essay below.

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Sheryl Oh often finds herself fascinated (and let's be real, a little obsessed) with actors and their onscreen accomplishments, developing Film School Rejects' Filmographies column as a passion project. She's not very good at Twitter but find her at @sherhorowitz anyway. (She/Her)