Contemporary Action Sequence

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Steven Spielberg and George Lucas directed and produced Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) together. The film exemplifies many remarkable action sequences. The focus here is on the sequence in which Indiana Jones chases and captures the trunk containing the Lost Ark of Canaan.

The film tells the story of adventurous archeologist Indiana Jones and his pursuit of the Ark. He is competing with a French archeologist and his financiers, the pre-war Nazis, who believe that the Ark has supernatural power. Only Indiana Jones and his associates can prevent the Ark from falling into unfriendly hands. The chase occurs in the latter third of the film after the Ark has been excavated from an ancient Egyptian city. The Nazis have the Ark, and Indiana Jones wants to retake it. As the scene opens, he is on foot, and the Ark is on a truck. When asked what he will do to retake it, he responds that he doesn't know and he's making it up as he goes along. This devil-may-care flippancy is key because it alerts the audience that, in keeping with the rest of the film, Jones will find himself in danger but will be inventive in eluding destruction. The fun comes in watching him do so. This is the spirit of the chase sequence (Figure 17.4).

The 71/2-minute sequence can be broken down as follows:

1. Mounted on a horse, Indiana 1 minute, 15 seconds 21 shots chases the truck.

Raiders The Last Ark Horse
Figure 17.4 Raiders of the Lost Ark, 1981. Courtesy Lucasfilm Ltd.™ and © Lucasfilm Ltd. (LFL) 1981. All rights reserved.

2. He captures the truck.

3. He duels with men on a half-truck and a motorbike.

4. The soldiers in the back of the truck attempt to recapture the truck.

5. The Nazi commander in the back of the truck attempts to recapture it.

6. Indiana escapes from the Nazi command car.

0.45 seconds 31 shots

1 minute, 20 seconds 48 shots

1 minute, 5 seconds 38 shots

2 minutes 57 shots 1 minute, 5 seconds 15 shots

Spielberg used long shots to make sure that we understand what is happening in the sequence. For example, in one shot we see Jones catch up to the truck. When Spielberg wanted these shots to provide information, he used both the foreground and background. He positioned the camera in these shots to film both in focus. When he wanted to use a long shot more dynamically, however, he adjusted the depth of field to lose the foreground and the background. An example of such a shot occurs in the opening scene of the chase when Jones is mounted on a horse. The loss of foreground combined with the jump-cutting makes his pursuit on horseback seem faster and more dynamic. For the most part, however, individual scenes are constructed from midshots and close-ups, including cutaways that make a point in the narrative, for example, the German commander giving the truck more gas to go faster in the hopes of crushing Jones between the truck and the command car. Close shots are very important in the creation of this sequence. They are used to enhance narrative clarity but also to intensify the narrative.

Besides the close-ups, the camera position often puts us in the position of Indiana Jones. Not only do we see his reactions to events, but we also see the events unfolding as he sees them. This subjectivity of camera placement gives us no choice but to identify with the character.

Another important element in the sequence is the pace. Shots often last no longer than a few seconds. In general, the pace quickens as we move through the sequence. In the first scene, the average shot is just under 4 seconds. In the last scene, the average shot is just under 5 seconds. In between, however, the pace varies between just under 2 seconds to just over 1 second. In the second scene, when Jones has reached the truck and is struggling to capture it, the scene has 31 shots in 45 seconds. In the next scene, his struggle with the half-truck and the motorbike, the pace is maintained with 48 shots in 80 seconds. This pace eases only slightly as the soldiers who have been guarding the Ark try to take the truck from Jones. Here, there are 38 shots in 65 seconds. The greatest personal threat to Jones occurs when he is literally thrown out of the truck by the German commander. This more personal combat takes longer and is more complex. The scene has 57 shots in 2 minutes, and it is the climax of the sequence. Once Jones's personal safety is no longer at risk, the pace shifts into a more relaxed final scene. Pace plays a very critical role in the effectiveness of this action sequence.

In the entire sequence, Spielberg used 210 shots in 71/2 minutes. He included all of the elements necessary to get us to identify with Indiana Jones, to understand his conflict, and to struggle with him for the resolution of that conflict. Spielberg succeeded with this sequence in terms of entertainment and identification. It represents the exciting possibilities of the action sequence.

What can be learned from comparing the Keaton sequence and the Spielberg sequence? At every point of both action sequences, the filmmaker's goal is narrative clarity. The audience must know where they are in the story. Confusion does not complement excitement. Good directors know how the action sequence helps the story and positions the audience. Is the sequence intended for entertainment, as both of these sequences are, or is it meant solely for identification, like Frankenheimer's action sequences in Black Sunday and the assassination sequence that ends The Manchurian Candidate? The filmmaker's goal is critical.

Another element that seems similar in both sequences is the role of moving vehicles. Both filmmakers were fascinated with these symbols of technology and how they act as both barriers and facilitators for humans. Both filmmakers demonstrated a positive attitude about technology—unlike

Stanley Kubrick in Dr. Strangelove (1964) and 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)—and their approach to the trains and trucks is rather joyful. This attitude infuses both sequences.

Perhaps the greatest differences between the two approaches are in how manipulative the filmmaker wanted to be in making the action sequence more exciting and the identification more important. Spielberg clearly valued pace, the close-up, and the importance of subjective camera placement to a far greater degree than did Keaton. This is the recent pattern for action sequences: to use all of the elements of film to make them as exciting as possible. The interesting question is not so much why Spielberg needed to resort to these manipulative techniques, but rather why Keaton didn't feel the same way.

Both sequences are very exciting despite the 50 or so years between the two productions, but their approaches differ considerably. It is here that the artistic personality of the director comes into play. It also suggests that the modern conventions of the action sequence, albeit strongly skewed in the direction of Spielberg's approach, may be wider than we thought.

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Responses

  • venera
    How to film an action sequence?
    9 years ago
  • aisha
    How long should shots be in an action sequence?
    9 years ago

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