Beginnings are crucial in stories. They don’t just convey information; they prepare us for what’s going to be important in the tale that follows. Stories are best when they focus on characters, so it follows that the best beginnings focus on them too. Some people think a story needs to start off in high gear and get right to the plot, but I disagree. A plot is nothing without well-defined and rounded characters. The best beginnings introduce us to them and get us to be their friend before anything serious can happen.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at one of my favourite opening sequences of all time…
It’s 1936 and we’re deep in the South American jungle. A small band of ragged men cut their way through the overgrowth as strange bird calls and animal noises echo all around them. Leading the way is a mysterious figure in a distinctive fedora. The others look nervous, even frightened. A poisoned dart indicates the nearby presence of hostile tribesmen; the guy in the hat is barely phased and walks on.
He stops by a river to examine the torn fragments of a map. Behind him one of his companions silently takes out a gun. Before we can even blink, the man lunges out with a bullwhip and sends the gun into the water. The would-be traitor flees into the jungle and this mysterious hero finally steps out of the shadows to reveal a face covered in stubble, lined with strength and cleverness and guile. It’s the face of a perfect action star. This is Indiana Jones.
Now there are only two of them. Jones and his remaining companion enter a cave, from which we’re told nobody has ever come out alive. Their torches barely make a dent in the darkness. The hero calmly brushes poisonous tarantulas off his friend’s back. He cleverly spots a trap of giant spikes and another of deadly projectiles. Does nothing scare him? Does nothing get past him? He’s an unstoppable badass.
And finally they reach their goal: an ancient statue of solid gold, a treasure worth millions. Indiana Jones carefully examines the pedestal it sits on. Knowing the weight triggers a dead man’s switch for another lethal trap, he’s come prepared with a sandbag. So he’s tough, good-looking, and he’s got brains. He pours out a measure of sand to get it accurate. Then the moment of truth — gently now, easy does it — there. The pedestal doesn’t move and he has what he came for. He allows himself a well-earned smile.
Which is when Raiders of The Lost Ark becomes a classic.
As the hero turns away, we learn that the sandbag was too heavy after all. The cavern starts to crumble and rocks are falling. Subtle ingenuity is tossed aside in favour of plain running. When they come to a chasm, his companion swings across first. “Throw me the idol, I throw you the whip,” he says, and this supposedly perfect action star does the most perfectly stupid thing imaginable: he trusts the guy. Sure enough, he’s forced to jump and struggles with a vine to pull himself to safety. He barely makes it through a closing stone door, though he does manage to recover the idol that his not-so-lucky companion dropped. Panic, floundering, and “uh oh” expressions all play across Jones’ face this whole time, but he’s not out of the woods yet. His last lucky escape is just managing to dodge the Famous Rolling Boulder.
Finally emerging into daylight again, he only runs into more trouble. The tribesmen are waiting, all pointing their spears at him, led by his old rival Dr. Rene Belloq. “Again we see there is nothing you can possess which I cannot take away,” he gloats and Indiana Jones is forced to hand over the precious idol. Then we find out he doesn’t speak the native language; another thing he can’t do well. Beaten down and his tough guy image thoroughly stripped away, about the only thing Jones can do is run. He barely gets on his getaway plane to safety. And then the coup de grâce: “There’s a big snake in the plane!…I hate snakes!”
The pilot adds insult to injury: “Aw, c’mon, show a little backbone willya?”
The genius of this opening sequence is not that it provides excitement, suspense, and thrills (though it does that quite well); it’s that virtually nothing in the sequence actually matters to the main plot of the movie. It exists solely to introduce us to Indiana Jones himself. This goes against every bit of perceived wisdom in film writing. Screenwriting classes and books teach you to start the plot with the opening frame. Raiders of The Lost Ark doesn’t begin its story until almost 15 minutes in.
Then there’s how it seamlessly pulls the rug out from under us. We fully expect Indiana Jones to be the sort of idealized action hero that the genre demands, who never gets anything wrong and isn’t afraid of anything. And for awhile we’re tricked into believing that’s what he is. Then the switch is pulled, everything goes south, and we discover that our ideal hero is all too human.
But, strangely, instead of being disappointed we’ve found ourselves completely sympathetic to him. Idealized heroes are all well and good, but they don’t necessarily make the most endearing characters. They’re above the audience, too perfect and too pure to ever be relatable. Indiana Jones isn’t like those other guys. As adventurous as his life gets he’s always down to earth. He’s got a great sense of humour, he’s loyal to his friends, but more importantly he sometimes falls flat on his face. After all, the entire 12-minute sequence is dedicated to showing how he fails to get what we wants. Which of course makes his later victories all the sweeter.
It just goes to show you that at the end of the day you can have a killer plot, clever dialogue, and all the adrenaline in the world…but none of it matters if you can’t get anyone to like your main characters. Get us on their side and we’ll stick with them through anything.