Geography is an important but rarely used device that is the key to making any action sequence work. No action sequence will have any real tension to it unless we know exactly where everything is at all times: where the hero is in relation to his objective, how close or far away he is from his goal, what obstacles are at play and where they are in relation to the hero in the scene.
Most film makers don't bother to figure this out, because it's difficult and time-consuming, and requires a lot of forethought, so usually action sequences are just a frenetic and confusing pyrotechnical fest that ends when the loud music stops. In a well-done sequence, we know what the hero is trying to do, and we always know how far along he is in his goal of obtaining his goal, and the sequence is over when we see him clearly get what he wanted or when he is definitively denied what he wanted.
When film makers try to add something to their action scenes that is fresh or new, they usually only aim for adding elements that we haven't seen before, like more interesting explosions or more violent weapons.
When a really masterful film maker creates a great action sequence, he or she usually treats the sequence like it's own little three act story within the larger story of the movie: with a clear beginning (act one), progressive complications that make the scene build (act two), and then a satisfying climax that wraps up all of the loose threads and brings the scene to a conclusive end (act three). Also, after a good action sequence, we know exactly how the scene has advanced the story and how the world of the story has been altered by the sequence: is the hero now clearer to his ultimate goal, or further away? In a poorly constructed movie, nothing is altered by the action sequence, and it was just there to add some noise and flash, to wake up the audience between the boring and/or confusing talky parts.
Nobody is better than Spielberg at geography. If you just look at any sequence from Raiders, you will see how well they are all plotted out, how you always know where everything is, what elements are in play and how close or far away Indy is from getting his goal.
Think about the sequence where Indy and Marion are trying to commandeer the Nazi plane. There are so many elements in the sequence that affect how it turns out, and they are all added very clearly and always one at a time (which is very important, but again, very rare) to build a nice progression and keep raising the tension at a constant rate, and always we are oriented to where we are, what the dangers are to our heroes and and where they are coming from.
The sequence has a good example of one of a really cool film trick that can only be pulled off if the audience has a clear understanding of where everything is located. I don't know what to call it other than the unseen threat.
As Indy first approaches the plane, we see clearly how everything is laid out (Indy's goal here is to subdue the pilot and commander the plane). The plane has two spinning propellers at the rear and Indy starts to climb up between the propellers to sneak up on the pilot but he's spotted and confronted by a mechanic with a wrench. As Indy climbs down off the plane and begins to fight this mechanic, the propellers are always visible. Indy and the mechanic are always seen fighting in the area that's between the two massive spinning propellers.
Indy is able to destroy the wrench that the guy is holding by forcing it into the propeller. This is a great setup of the destructiveness of the propeller (call this Act One of the propeller's story).
So after Indy is able to overcome the first mechanic guy, he is approached and confronted by a second guy (this is the big muscle-bound guy). The propeller is offscreen for just a moment as Indy as the guy have their verbal exchange, and then we see it again as they begin their fight (again, we see clearly that they are sparring on the ground in the area between the two propellers).
So now as the big guy punches Indy, Indy falls to the ground, and we cut closer, then out one more time as the pilot gets into the fray, pulling out a gun.
Okay, so here's where all the setup of the propeller will come to fruition: as we cut closer to see the guy pick up Indy, and then to a different close shot as Indy bites the guy, we are still very aware of the propeller that's offscreen to the left. So after Indy bites the guy, the guy hurls Indy away from him and to the left.
This is where all the payoff of the constantly spinning propellers comes to a great payoff: as the big guy throws Indy off to the left, your heart skips a beat because, as a viewer, you know that propeller is there, and you know how dangerous it is (we saw it chop up a big steel wrench already) and yet we can't see it in this shot. It's offscreen, spinning dangerously, we know, and yet we can't see it, which makes us very anxious on a subconscious level as Indy hurtles in that direction. So the combined knowledge we have that it's there and the fact that we know Indy's heading right toward it makes us jump because we can't tell if he's about to collide with the propeller and get chewed into bits.
As the pan continues, it is revealed that in fact he was behind the blades of the propeller and he's okay. This is the Act Two of the propeller story, and again, a great setup that heightens the tension of the spinning propeller, builds the threat of it and adds to the emotion we feel when the big guy is eventually taken out by the propeller himself (this is Act Three and the end of the propeller story).
I know many of you will think I'm over-analyzing this sequence and think that this is an accidental occurrence that isn't intended to accomplish what I'm saying it does. All I can tell you is that a good film maker never leaves things up to chance and that in a well-made film every shot is staged and presented in a certain way to achieve a definite goal. Every time I've watched this sequence my heart skips a beat at this point and the reason why, I'm certain, is exactly because of what I've described above. I've seen George Lucas use this trick too, and I'm sure Spielberg has used it in other films as well, so I can tell you it's not accidental, it's intentional.
And this is why I disagree with those that responded to my post below by saying that they felt all three Indy films are comparable, because the first one is an amazingly meticulous piece of visual narrative. The visual story telling in "Raiders" is so inventive, so daring and so carefully planned that any student of film should watch it and analyze the way it's constructed. There's just no way you can say that about the other two films. They may have their strengths, but they are not nearly as perfectly crafted on a visual level.
The action set pieces in "Raiders" may seem outlandish but they always seem comparatively "natural"; they seem believable within the world of the film and they always seem to flow organically out of the narrative and build in a way that seems plausible...this, in itself, in film, is no small feat. When you think of some of the action set pieces in "Temple of Doom", you have to admit that sequences like the fight on top of the rock-crushing conveyer belt, the Mine Chase and the showdown on the suspension bridge at the end seem like contrived show pieces set on a Hollywood Soundstage and not like they could really happen in the real world. That's fine, there's nothing inherently wrong with that, but I'm never going to be on the edge of my seat when the action doesn't feel natural or "real" on some level, and I just know how much harder it is to write and present things that seem "real" and tangible that I'm always going to prefer that kind of film making. I suppose it comes down to a personal taste issue in the end.
And for those who say "ah, 'Raiders' is no great piece of art, it's exactly like those old Hollywood serials, they're just mindless fun", again, I have to say I disagree, because "Raiders" is a very sophisticated piece of finely crafted visual storytelling, and those old serials can't hold a candle to the film making in "Raiders"...very few movies ever made can.
Personally, I think "Raiders" marked about the time in Spielberg's career where he abandoned the careful way he presented his storytelling and started to get a little sloppy. I just can't think of anything in the other Indiana Jones movies that can hold a candle to the way things were done in the first film, which is why I hold it in much higher regard than the others, and why I am nervous about the prospect of a fourth one.
I was disheartened to see how few people actually responded to the real issue I was trying to address in my last post - the way a character must see and relate to the world around him - and how many people just argued with me about whether the next one will be any good. The only reason I used "Indy 4" as a starting point was because I had just seen the trailer in the theater and it sparked the discussion in my head. Surely there are better examples of that particular topic, but I wasn't overly concerned with the perfect example, the topic is more important than the illustration to me. Obviously, I don't know if "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull" will be good - I sure hope so - but that's not really the point I was trying to make, and talking about whether a film is "good" or "bad" is always an exercise in futility because taste is always personal and subjective.
I don't suppose this post will fare much better than the last one did, but hopefully what I've said about geography will spark something with some readers and it will help them to see film in a different way. As a storyboard artist it's really an essential part of making any action sequence have any kind of tension to it, and definitely an interesting aspect of film to study and see how it's been handled by great film directors through the years.