Jock (pilot): “oh, that’s just my pet snake, Reggie.”
Indy: “I hate snakes, Jock, I hate them!”
Indy: “I hate snakes, Jock, I hate them!”
The first red object we see in Raiders is the red furnishing of the waterplane in which Indy escapes his pursuers. As we identify with Indy whose goal is to reach the plane in time, we focus on the red cockpit that is clearly noticeable against the gray and green background. Once inside the plane, Indy discovers something rather unpleasant: Jock’s snake Reggie. This way, we learn about Indy’s irrational fear of snakes that sets him apart from a lot of movie heroes (and works as a running gag in all four films). I think, it is no coincidence that the snake is found inside a red environment. In our culture, red is often associated with warnings, alerts, or more directly danger and threats. Keep that in mind when reading on, because many of the red props we are about to see can be interpreted that way. Besides, it is characteristic of this movie that means of transport (that connect set pieces and action sequences) are containing new threats (Germans on the plane, explosives on truck).
As I have mentioned in the last post, the overall production design is based on naturally desaturated colors (sandy desert, stony caves, dull university halls where even the most colourful student wears only muted pastels, lots of washed-out browns and grays) with occasional spots of muted greens and strong reds as accents. Although a lot of the movie plays out in plain sunlight, low-key lighting (generating high contrast) is used a lot.
When Indy travels to Nepal to meet Marion, he is secretly being observed by a man who hides behind a copy of LIFE magazine. Not only does this attract the audience’s attention right away (the rest of the plane is almost confined to the gray-scale) but it also establishes a visual connection between the observer and a red and white emblem. Remember, we haven't seen any Nazis at this point in the story; they have only been mentioned during the discussion about the ark. Even later, when we hear the bad guys speak German (or with a German accent), we never see a swastika on red ground. This image is thoughtfully saved for a later surprise moment:
Almost exactly halfway into the film, after Indy has found the exact spot to dig for the ark and calls for Sallah, someone is lowering a cord made of flags. The first flag Indy sees is the familiar red one. For a brief moment he – and we, the audience, who have seen Sallah being distracted by Germans – thinks he might have been already discovered.
What I especially like about this scene is that Spielberg doesn’t explain anything, he just cuts to the next scene showing Indy with Sallah on the way to the digging site. This kind of elliptical editing at a major turning point of the main storyline is something, I think, you would never see in an contemporary animated feature, even though it keeps the picture moving.
We see the emblem again right after the Nazis have taken over the ark, when Indy and Marion are crawling out of the pyramid. It gives the planes in the “Flying Wing” scene the necessary sinister touch.
It isn’t seen fully saturated until the big guy’s blood is spilt theatrically.
Now that the Nazis have the ark, red swastika flags are constantly seen around it.
Next to the flamboyant red flags, the subtlety of the scene’s color scheme really pays off here. While the muted green uniforms are emphasizing the complementary red of the flags, they help us tell who is who even in long shots (at least in a theatre or on a reasonably sized TV): Toht is always dressed in black, Marion wears a white dress, while Belloq’s beige/grey suit is still lighter than the rest. Indy of course is again darker than the background and is kept apart by staging.
Belloq, the great opportunist who is collaborating with the Germans only to get a hold of the ark himself, has bothered to learn various Indian and Arab languages, thus approaching the people along his way as a “friend” adapting to their needs. Indy on the other hand is simply focused on the treasures and has to rely on benevolent people around him (Sallah, Marion, the children in the market place), just because he's the good guy in their book. In a way, he is more like a rebel working underground, whereas Belloq sides with the powerful. This way, Indy is forced into superficially disguising himself more than once, first as an Arab, ultimately as a Nazi.
Cairo (ext. day)
Nearly all of Act II is set in Cairo. The first sequence (roughly 8 minutes) almost plays like an independent action movie that ends with Marion’s apparent death. I will come back to this “production number structure” when discussing Temple of Doom. But back to Raiders:
Cairo is established by our new “tour guide” Sallah as the “city of kings”.
After the dark bar in cold Nepal, Cairo is seen in bright sunlight that washes out almost all the colors except for some red and green accents provided by props and plants. Most of the people are dressed in white with the occasional red fez or belt.
Then suddenly a monkey wearing a red waistcoat spills red liquid and takes an interest in Marion. By the end of this sequence, the monkey will have played a critical role in the kidnapping of Marion. However, it isn’t perceived as a threat yet (despite its color, I'm tempted to add).
Then we cut immediately to the teeming streets of Cairo. Among all the white robed people Marion’s glaring red trousers are easy to locate at all times.
Look at the many colors these facades come in. They are so desaturated, though, that we tend to ignore them.
During the chase, points of focus are marked by red props in order to make them stand out - or even read if they are on screen only for a short time.
Indy’s sword bearing opponent in the notorious shooting scene actually looks like a “boss” of a jump-and-run game (black/red and big among average white extras). But as we – unlike Indy – can see, the biggest threat (purely red explosives, heightened effectively by dull green boxes) is still to come. At the end of this sequence it seems as if Indy had lost this game, though.
Until his interest in the ark prevails over his grief, he is completely passive, letting outer forces do the decisions for him (first he is following one of Belloq’s men, then a group of children saves him).
By the way, Sallah wears an outfit similar to Belloq’s, except for his red flower in the button hole.
Cairo (int. night)
The first suspense moment (where the audience knew more than Indy) led to Marion’s apparent death. So we don’t expect too good, when witnessing somebody poisoning the dates. The red threat here comes in three guises within the same scene: the poison vial, the drink and the monkey’s vest. Only this time, the monkey traitor has to die to save Indy. This scene plays like a dark version of the monkey's first scene (seen above).
Meanwhile, a wise old man is deciphering Marion’s amulet. While he – but not Indy – is lighted slightly blue, the red and blue lamp hanging above his head matches the “heaven’s light” pattern mentioned earlier. At the words “Hebrew god” a sudden wind gust makes the lamps and curtains jingle.
Out in the desert, while Belloq frees Marion to give her the white dress, Indy and Sallah are about to discover the ark, hence the blue lighting outside the tent. Belloq "would very much like to see" her in the white dress he hands over to her (this kind of turns her into the plain white surface onto which he projects his desires).
Marion hides the fruit knife under her red trousers before she indulges in Belloq’s drinking game.
Marion as a threat?
Red, of course, is also linked to love and passion in most cultures. So it's no surprise, that Marion is enveloped in red before she kisses Indy. Interestingly, the lighting is not too different from her scene with Belloq (she's also wearing a white dress given to her by the captain), only the stripes on the wall are horizontal instead of vertical now.
But, to come back to my adventurous interpretation of red designating threats: Is it possible that Indy sees Marion as a threat? If we look at his behaviour towards her (he cannot forget her and doesn't want to fall for her again), it could be (I don't want to get into the snake/woman analogies, because this, as Bart Simpson would put it, "is gonna be biblical!"). She is also threatening to undercut his mission, because he starts worrying about her more than about the treasures. In the end he's better off with her, of course.
Except for some red lipstick her whole appearance is in keeping with the desaturated university. They both look rather domesticated.
Interpretations aside - as they may not represent the filmmakers' intentions at all - it is obvious that this movie's color scheme has been planned very carefully. Although it may not look this way in these posts, red is only used sparingly for accents within the big picture.