When Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige set out to find a filmmaker to take on the World War II-era escapades of Captain America, his mind quickly turned to “Raiders of the Lost Ark” as a shining example of period-piece adventure. So it’s no surprise that the directing job for “Captain America: The First Avenger” eventually went to Joe Johnston, who was visual effects art director on “Raiders” and later the director of Disney’s underrated retro-adventure “The Rocketeer.”
I asked Johnston if that “Raiders” heritage carried through as expected on the set of “Captain America” or if he found that the super-hero mythology pulled the project down a different vintage-action path.
“We used ‘Raiders’ as a template when we were developing the story, but we sort of moved away from it as time went on,” Johnston said. “This is futurism in the 1940s; if you went to 1942 and thought of what the future would be, that’s what the approach was. The villain has a much more futuristic style and his science and his apparatus — he has a whole design motif that is beyond 1942 but it’s what you might have perceived as futuristic from a 1942 vantage point.”
He added: “So we went away from the ‘Raiders’ template in that sense but where we sort of stuck with it was in the structure and the action and the way the main characters are thrown into these situations and then have to get themselves out of them.”
Johnston said the way the films are linked — in their rhythm — may be easier to see from the viewpoint of a moviemaker rather than a moviegoer. “When you sit down to watch it, it’s certainly not ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark,’ which is a very different kind of film in the final analysis. But sometimes when we had questions and we were stuck we would say, ‘What would Indiana Jones do? What would be the answer to this in “Raiders of the Lost Ark”?’ I’ve always loved ‘Raiders’ and the great achievement of it was the tone and the fresh feeling of the movie. It was period but didn’t feel like it was made in the period. It felt like a contemporary film about this period in the past, and that is the goal we have with ‘Captain America.’ And I can say this — it definitely has an Indiana Jones pace.”
A reminder of the cinematic crackle of Steven Spielberg’s “Raiders,” which hit theaters 30 years ago this summer…
– Geoff Boucher
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