The Comparative Structure of Indiana Jones
by Robin Bailes
If you want to see a perfectly structured film then watch Raiders of the Lost Ark. And if you want to know the difference that structure can make between a good film and a great one then watch Raiders of the Lost Ark and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.
The rule of thumb for length of first act on screen is that for every thirty minutes of film you have five minutes of first act. So a half hour sitcom has a 5 minute first act while a 90 minute film has a 15 minute one. The first Indiana Jones film is 115 minutes and, sure enough, the whole plot is established just under 19 minutes in when Marcus says ‘An army which carries the Ark before it is invincible’, the line that tells us what is at stake. And this isn’t the only way in which this opening act shines, it has one of the best introductions to a character in film history. For the first 7 minutes Indy can do no wrong, he disarms his treacherous guide and spots every booby trap, he’s perfect. Then, from the moment he misjudges the weight of the gold statue he’s stealing, everything he touches goes wrong; Indiana Jones may be a hero, but he’s a uniquely human one, he’s not Superman, we can identify with him. Act I also introduces the bad guys, Belloc in person and the Nazi’s by name, and the major themes of the film.
The opening of Temple of Doom is fun and action-packed, it gives us Indy, his love interest Willie, and a surrogate son in Short Round. But it lasts 25 minutes, up until Indy translates the line ‘they stole their children’; too long for a 118 minute film. It’s a small difference and the film might get away with it were it not for the fact that, while Raiders’ first Act builds foundations for the rest of the film, Temple of Doom’s does not even introduce the bad guys, and barely touches on the plot till the very end. It’s a fun opening, but a monumentally self-indulgent one and it should have been replaced. But the hardest thing for a writer (or director) to do is cut the scenes they love for the good of the rest of the picture.
Back in Raiders, Act II progresses with plot points arriving at neat ten minute intervals backed by action sequences; Marion joins Indy, giving the film it’s emotional spine and the preceding sequence also introduces the film’s most threatening villain, Major Toht. Ten minutes later Marion appears to be dead, the climax to another action sequence. Amazingly, none of this seems rushed. A more talkie section follows but, sure enough, at the ten minute mark Indy pinpoints the location of the Ark. Act II is usually bisected by a turning point, approximately halfway through the film (depending on the length of Act III), and so it is here of course that Indy locates the Ark, but loses it almost instantly to the Nazis, taking the film in a new direction. The first half was about getting to the Ark before the Nazis, the second is about getting it back from them.
With Temple of Doom’s quest established, Indy sets out, but this is far from the rigorous plot-based action of Raiders, the next ten minutes is mostly comedy. Still, they reach the palace dead on the ten minute mark, and finally meet a bad guy just over 35 minutes into the film. By now in Raiders Marion was missing presumed dead, raising the stakes and the emotional engagement, Temple of Doom opts for a comedy dinner, there’s no action and little plot movement. An attempt on Indy’s life, the discovery of a secret passage and another near-death moment get things moving, leading into the mid-film turning point. This is a turning point in more ways than one; from a story perspective it focusses the plot away from ‘what’s going on here?’ and onto human sacrifice. But it is also a turning point in the film’s quality, the second half of Temple of Doom is far better structured than the first.
In Raiders we left Indy and Marion trapped, but ten minutes later they are out. The second half of Act II lays the path to the conclusion as Indy chases down his quarry via some stunning set pieces. He gets the Ark back but then loses both it and Marion. The beats of the plot come faster in this half, building to the climax, but there is still time for a brief romantic scene midway through, it’s not possible to sustain tension without taking a break somewhere. Act II ends, as Act II always should, with it looking like the hero has lost and cannot possibly win. Indy and Marion are captives and the Ark is in the hands of the Nazis.
The stakes are raised immediately in the second half of Temple of Doom; Shortie and Willie are captured while Indy finds the stolen children employed as slave labour, then is captured himself. This half of the film will be about escape. Ten minutes later our hero is forcibly turned by black magic. As in Raiders the pace builds with rescues all around, but there’s still time for an emotional resting beat. The children are saved in a fast and euphoric sequence, then Indy et al have to get out via the brilliant mine car set piece. It’s not the emphasis on action that makes this half better than the first, it’s the focus; we know what the characters are trying to do and what they have to do to achieve it. It also features a sense of genuine peril that is all but missing earlier, climaxing in the bridge sequence, a seemingly unwinnable situation that takes us into Act III.
Act III is appropriately brief in both films and is one place where Indiana Jones films arguably differ from normal storytelling principal; Indy does not defeat the bad guys in either film, it’s the wrath of God in one, and of Shiva in the other. But that is rather in the nature of the character, as we established at the start, he is human. The brief coda in both is well judged; it ties things up, but does not overstay its welcome.
Make no mistake, Temple of Doom is a good film, it features arguably the best set pieces (though a far weaker heroine) but its early structural error unbalances the whole movie, by the time we reach the superior second half the damage is done. That is the power of structure, it can make or break a film, and while the content is different in a drama or a comedy, the basic rules apply equally.
Robin Bailes is a freelance writer with various credits on stage, page, screen and radio. He has 4 published stage shows, has written for 6 BBC radio shows, was a winner in the BBC’s Last Laugh sitcom writing competition and has a feature film in development with Andris Films. He is writer and presenter of the web-series ‘Dark Corners (of this sick world)’ and has written short stories for various publications both print and online. Robin is a passionate devotee of silent cinema has written a book on the subject called ‘Just As Good But Quieter’, for which he is currently seeking a publisher. Robin is currently available for paid writing work.
Follow Robin on Twitter @robinbailes
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