Reel Rumbles #5: “Pulp Fiction” vs. “Raiders of the Lost Ark”
In This Corner
Indiana Jones, meet Jules Winnfield. One of them fights Nazis. The other takes out the garbage for kingpin Marsellus Wallace. One of them cracks a whip, while the other is known for his quips. Both fire pistols, and both are in some strange way the chosen ones of a higher power. Rough around the edges and not above killing a few bad guys, Indiana and Jules represent the stars of this week’s Reel Rumbles match-up: Pulp Fiction vs. Raiders of the Lost Ark.
Round One: Story
On the surface, neither of these films even seems comparable to the other. Raiders is a huge tent-pole summer blockbuster while Pulp Fiction is a film smaller in concept, but big on delivery. With Raiders, it is easy to lose sight of what Harrison Ford and Steven Spielberg accomplish in character and story, respectively. In fact, after three sequels, the last of which coasted on the accomplishments of the previous entries and delivered a horribly inept story, screenplay, and visual effects, one may make the mistake of classifying Raiders as simple, mindless popcorn fun. But the G.I. Joe of its day, this film was not! For starters, it is a textbook example of how to move a story forward, and it does this through its characters – not through refrigerators taking hundred-foot plunges in a radiation zone, only to have the hero jump out unharmed with hardly a scratch on him. Forget placing your characters in amazing action set-pieces. Instead, make your characters amazing and they will create the excitement wherever they go. If that just so happens to be underneath a speeding cargo truck, or trying to outrun a boulder only to fall into the clutches of a horde of angry natives, then so be it.
Indiana Jones (Ford) is both an amusing and thrilling character. His whip crackles. His gun blazes. His fists hammer. And his wits move as quickly as he does. We learn all of this in the first ten minutes of film. But lying underneath his somewhat rough exterior is a thoughtful, intelligent man with a deep reverence for history’s mysteries – a point made immediately clear by how honored he is to be the U.S. government’s choice for locating the famed Ark of the Covenant before Hitler does. George Lucas and Lawrence Kasdan are wise to set their story during World War II. It was a time where the world could agree on one clear enemy, and it was a time when people still placed more faith in the unknown than science. The Ark of the Covenant – legendary resting place of the original Ten Commandments and possible transmitter to God – would have been of great interest to world leaders, who were then desperate men in the desperate times of a new age, where war no longer threatened soldiers alone, but all of mankind. An uncertain future meant the closer you could get to God, the better. Today, it’s hard to imagine any military regime chasing after the Ark with a straight face, but in Raiders’ time and place, it makes perfect sense.
After accepting his mission, Indiana rushes off to Nepal to see if he can reunite with his mentor and Ark expert Abner Ravenwood. He wonders if Ravenwood’s daughter Marion (Karen Allen) will still be with him, but quickly discovers the reversal to be true. Abner’s dead, and Marion is a tough little gal running a bar and drinking the locals under the table. Suddenly, we’ve met the perfect girl for Indy. She fights well, schemes craftily, and takes care of herself the way no man could. She gets Indy more than most, and even though he does have a way of pushing her buttons, she understands that the way to Indy’s untamed heart is to be a little untamed herself.
Doing battle with Indy and Marion is Indy’s evil rival Belloq (Paul Freeman). Belloq plagues Indy from the opening scene to nearly the final frame. Everything Indy accomplishes by hard work, Belloq is there to take away through sheer cunning and manpower. In the beginning, it’s the natives who see things his way. Throughout the rest of the film, it’s the Nazis. Indy is always outnumbered and always outgunned. Belloq is a “shadowy reflection” of Indy in that his just as brilliant mind is always hiding in the shadows and working behind the scenes to harness Indy’s finds for his own gain. Less discreet in evil is Major Arnold Toht (Ronald Lacey), the menacing black-clad torturer sent by Hitler to make sure the mission of locating the Ark is successfully carried out. His wicked smile as he approaches one character, fire-poker in hand with no intention of putting out a fire, says it all.
Pulp Fiction’s parallels to Raiders are few and far between. Raiders’ storytelling is the linear style at its finest. It starts at point A and uses character development to create one thrilling moment after the next until the Ark is finally opened, and its secrets are revealed. The Pulp characters do not seem as driven, preferring instead to mingle in the nuances of their situations. They are compelling. They are earthy. They are intelligent. Above all, they are comfortable in their skins. But they’re not out to tell a story. Rather, they just want to be who they are. While that will help them in the next round, it does little to slow down the frantic pace and mesmerizing escapism of its opponent.
Advantage: Raiders, 10-8.
Round Two: Script
If you were to assign linear labels to Pulp Fiction as it is sequenced, it would go something like this: act two, act one, act three, and act two. That’s right. It ends in the middle. Rather than focusing on two core characters as Raiders does so well, there are multiples – most of which are fleshed out to the fullest. There is Pumpkin (Tim Roth) and Honeybunny (Amanda Plummer), a modern-day Romeo and Juliet who would rather be thought of as Bonnie and Clyde; Vincent Vega (John Travolta) and Jules (Samuel L. Jackson), two philosophizing hitmen with very different perspectives of the world and just the right peppering of gutter language to intellectually solidify their points; Marsellus Wallace (Ving Rhames), greatly feared and respected drug dealer with a real hang-up about guys who give his wife Mia (Uma Thurman) foot massages; Butch (Bruce Willis), a proud prizefighter who goes against the system for one final score; the Wolf (Harvey Keitel), an expert workman who is the best “making problems go away” guy in the city (can’t you just see that on a business card!); and an assorted array of miscreants and scumbags that really help define what it means to be “pulp fiction.” Tarantino’s script, based on stories by him and co-writer Roger Avary, seeks to pay homage to the lurid, seedy pulp mags of yore, and succeeds to the nines. Divided into three full stories with a wraparound, and the enviable ability to tie all neatly together into a believable package, Pulp Fiction is a script that Raiders doesn’t know how to handle. Add to the mix a 1995 Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, and the winner of this round is clear:
Pulp Fiction, 10-8.
Round Three: Performances
Pulp Fiction answers the bell firing everything it has at its opponent. Receiving three Academy Award nominations for its performances – John Travolta (Best Actor), Samuel L. Jackson (Best Supporting Actor), Uma Thurman (Best Supporting Actress) – it certainly packs a nice punch. That doesn’t even take in to consideration the colorful background characters – the Buddy Holly waiter (Steve Buscemi); Captain Koons (Christopher Walken), the honorable military man, who will put anything up his butt for a friend; and Zed (Peter Greene), who along with his deplorable slave-boy, The Gimp, takes a tad too much pleasure in the helplessness of others. There are many faces that make this film stand out, adding depth to repeat viewings, aside from the main stars’ expert handling of the Tarantino dialogue. QT’s words never sounded better than they do in this film, and that’s not to say it’s even arguably his best work. (The nod for that could go to either Reservoir Dogs or the Kill Bill films.) But in this cast, those words are given an authenticity that bests Tarantino’s overindulgent qualities in a way not seen since.
With so much working against it, you might think Raiders is out for the count. Not so fast. Raiders became what it is today on the strength of two key performances: Ford’s and Allen’s. The chemistry they share sweeps audiences up into the adventure. Quip-for-quip, punch-for-punch, kiss-for-kiss, no movie couple may have ever been more perfect for each other, so much so that Lucas’s idea for rekindling the magic of his dead series was to bring them back in the fourth film (and first atrocity) of the series. It didn’t work. But it does here.
Based on how Raiders is able to do so much with so little, it takes the round, 10-9.
Round Four: Direction
The fighters meet at the center of the ring and touch gloves. Giving it their all through the first three, this round will be the toughest to call yet. On one hand, Quentin Tarantino manages a cast of dozens, most of which he gives something memorable to do. From Julia Sweeney’s brief appearance as Raquel to Kathy Griffin’s turn as Kathy Griffin, even the smallest parts have unique qualities that make their presences known. The film really pops as a result, and there is a lot here to revisit. But just when you want to give the nod to QT for keeping it all straight, Steven Spielberg responds with an apt showing that blends all the elements of film, from script to performances, to effects and editing, into one package that continues to enthrall audiences no matter how extreme interests grow, or how familiar his scenes have become in the public conscience. It’s still hard not to get the shivers in the snake pit or feel a little claustrophobic when Indy passes under the bulk of that truck.
Both films are pure nostalgia, and in time, that quality will grow stronger. But the one thing that will remain the same: they are classics deserving of their slots on favorites lists all over the world, such as those found on Flickchart. Forever influential, forever entertaining: these two are going to the scorecards.
And the Winner Is…
Raiders of the Lost Ark is a fun story. It takes you away on an extraordinary adventure to a simpler time and place. It is the kind of film that makes you want to be an archaeologist. One might even argue the profession wouldn’t exist today without it. But Pulp Fiction knows all the right words. It will leave you hysterical one minute and (gleefully) repulsed the next, sometimes spacing the two emotions merely seconds apart. It gets you in touch with your filthiest thoughts and feelings and makes you enjoy them. Though it is an early work of Tarantino, more experienced directors would kill to have a masterpiece as capable as this. Yet, in the end, the question to answer: which film would you want to keep if you could only have one?
In this ring, it’s a tough choice, but the judges favor Raiders of the Lost Ark – SPLIT DECISION.