The "Raiders of the Lost Ark" script is maybe the greatest adventure movie ever written. It contains amazing set pieces, dialogue, and exposition. So there's a lot to learn. Let's read it and examine the lessons.
Screenplays are living documents that change at every level. Today we're going to look at the script for Raiders of the Lost Ark and discover how it set the blueprint for the modern studio adventure film while subverting the tropes of the genre.
An old draft for Lawrence Kasdan's Raiders of the Lost Ark script has appeared over at Cinephilia & Beyond with tons of notes in the margins from Harrison Ford himself. So check those images out if you want to learn more. But we're going over the third draft of Raiders of the Lost Ark.
It was written by Lawrence Kasdan with a story by George Lucas and contains a multitude of screenwriting lessons.
Raiders of the Lost Ark genre subversions and embraces
It's hard to believe, but when Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, and Lawrence Kasdan put their heads together to work on Indiana Jones, the adventure genre was struggling. The movies that came out in the 1970's were incredibly serious like Sorcerer or they were incredibly goofy, like Dr. Dolittle.
But it's not like they were working from scratch. All three men had been raised on the adventure serials from television in the 1930s and 1940s. They had a basis for the kinds of heroes and adventures they went on, but how did they make them their own?
The answer laid in honoring the past tropes, but also giving them a modern twist.
One of the best sequences in cinematic history is the opening of Raiders of the Lost Ark. It sets the tone, embraces the kind of movie we'll be watching, and leans into the tropes the guys wanted to hit the screen. There are traps, indigenous people, faraway lands, and action.
But the one thing we didn't see coming was the comedy.
There are subtle jokes and a wink and a nod to the audience that this movie was going to be all about cliffhangers and the ride.
Set pieces in the Raider of the Lost Ark script
Part of the endless action in this movie comes from the incredible set pieces.
No matter where Indy is, action and trouble follow. Take this scene from Marion's bar in Nepal.
As you can see, Marion is quickly in over her head with the Nazis. By the time Indy steps into the limelight, she could use a hand.
But the interesting thing about Marion and the subversion of the genre is that she can hold her own.
This scene does a good job delivering the gunfire and excitement of a typical setpiece without the damsel in distress. These two characters play off each other, as they do in most of these scenes. The comedy and interplay during the action also give us a keen sense of character.
The constant juxtaposition of comedy and action also happens later in the script when they're in the marketplace.
I know what you're thinking, "That's not what happens in the movie!" But, things change on set. The rumor is that Harrison Ford was sick that day so he just shot the sword-wielding actor. It's funny. It fits the tone, and it's delightful. but as you can see in the draft, what we really replaced was a joke. Sure, it was just a nut-kick, but it was in the spirit of the gunshot. Which means Spielberg, Lucas, and Kasdan knew they needed a comedic beat here.
It just took them a while to find the right one.
Raiders of the Lost Ark script Dialogue and Exposition
When you're writing adventure movies you tend to deal with a ton of exposition. Dialogue writing is hard enough, but when you have to get key bits of information across to the audience without boring them, that's an art form. We've talked about exposition before, so I won't belabor the point.
But what we should take away is that Raiders has a seven-minute scene full of exposition, and somehow it remains riveting.
You saw the video, now let's look at the conversation at the center of these pages.
Look how the dialogue is a give and take. It's a dance between both Indy and the CIA, trying to jockey for position. Since this is about men all trying to be the smartest person in the world, we get a ton of exposition out in the open through rivalry. Each side trying to impress the other.
This dance keeps the exposition interesting and makes us incredibly attuned to what they're saying.
Look how the entire discussion leads to the MacGuffin at the center of the movie, and it's delivered like a reveal.
Since we have this dance we get information like a gift. It's almost as if each person is reluctantly giving it away, which makes us want that exposition even more.
So much exposition it lasts seven minutes.
What's next? Read The Last Crusade!
At the time, the Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade script was the perfect end to a trilogy. Now, download the third script in the series and learn how theme and character dictate an adventure. And deal with your daddy issues.
Click to learn more!