Raiders of the Lost Ark

Raiders of the Lost Ark

Harrison Ford is having a ball.

(1981) Adventure (Paramount) Harrison Ford, Karen Allen, John Rhys-Davies, Denholm Elliott, Paul Freeman, Ronald Lacey, Wolf Kahler, Alfred Molina, Vic Tablian, Don Fellows, William Hootkins, Fred Sorenson, Anthony Chinn. Directed by Steven Spielberg

When news came that Spielberg and George Lucas were joining forces back in 1980, movie fans couldn’t help but rub their hands together in anticipation. After all, these guys were two of the brightest flames in Hollywood; Lucas with two Star Wars movies (to that point), Spielberg with Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

What nobody anticipated was that these two men, along with star Harrison Ford, would rewrite the book on adventure movies. An homage to the great serial movies of the ’30s and ’40s, Indiana Jones, trusty whip on the hip and battered fedora on his head, took the world by storm. The first Indiana Jones movie was the box office champ of 1981 and spawned numerous imitators, clones and wanna-bes which persist to this day (Tomb Raider for instance).

But nobody has even come close to the entertainment delivered by the Indiana Jones series. The first movie of the series, set in the 1930s, introduces Indiana Jones, professor of archaeology and “how should I put it? — obtainer of rare antiquities.” An expedition to South America to retrieve a golden idol puts the tattered archaeologist through fiendish traps and less-than-loyal associates (Molina, in one of his first movie roles, meets a particularly gruesome end) to emerge from the cursed temple, idol in hand – only to have it snatched away by his nemesis, Rene Belloq (Freeman), a French archaeologist with fewer scruples than Indy.

Jones returns home to find Army intelligence waiting for him; they’ve intercepted a Nazi communiqué that is puzzling to them, but makes sense to Jones and his sponsor, museum curator Marcus Brody (Elliot); they realize that Hitler’s minions may be close to finding the resting place of the Lost Ark of the Covenant, which held the actual Ten Commandments Moses brought down from Mount Sinai. Realizing that this was something they had to prevent Hitler from obtaining, the Army sends Jones to go retrieve it.

In order to find the actual location of the Ark itself, Jones needs a staff headpiece that former flame Marion Ravenswood (Allen) has. After going to her bar in Tibet to try to retrieve it, he foils a Nazi attempt to take it by force.

The two head down to Egypt, where they are aided by Indy’s close friend Sallah (Rhys-Davies), who helps Indy divine the correct location. However, Belloq (who is working with the Nazis), manages to steal the Ark that Indy found and takes it and the girl to a remote island, with Indy close behind. There he will learn the secret of the Lost Ark, one that is beautiful and terrifying at once.

Raiders sets the tone as a virtual roller-coaster ride, putting Indy in one perilous situation after another, with little let-up. Spielberg proves himself to be an absolute master of pacing — editors Michael Kahn and George Lucas deserve a lot of credit here as well — knowing when to ratchet up the thrills and knowing when to give the audience a chance to catch its breath. Using devices common to serials and adventure movies from the ’30s and ’40s, Spielberg creates a wonderful sense of the era without forgetting the modern sensibilities of his audience.

The result is a movie that can legitimately be called a classic, one that has lost none of its luster in the 30 years since its release. While Star Wars made a star out of Ford, Raiders cemented him as one of Hollywood’s biggest stars. His screen charisma is never put to as good use as it is here; Jones is both a traditional adventure hero but also a fallible one – he hates snakes and he has a penchant for getting beaten up. Unlike the heroes of past serials, Indy rarely fights fair – the scene of him shooting an expert swordsman who tries to intimidate him with a series of elaborate moves was both improvised and classic. The ability of the film and its actors to poke fun at traditional adventure movie clichés is part of what makes the movie great.

Personally, I was never a big fan of Karen Allen’s performance although I understand why people adore her. She was supposed to be a strong, bold woman of her era, able to drink big ol’ Nepalese under the table and a woman willing to stand up to the Nazis but at the end of the day she was just a heroine in jeopardy, waiting to be rescued by the hero while whining “Indyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyy” as she does. The part was a little too schizophrenic for my liking, although it did set the tone for heroines for the rest of the series, for good or for ill.

Freeman made Belloq smooth, suave and pretty much forgettable. He was the more “reasonable” of the heroes, the dark side of Indiana Jones who allowed his own greed to become his driving force. It was the money that motivated Belloq, not the actual artifacts that he was after. Jones wanted the items that he found to be displayed in museums for everyone to enjoy; Belloq only wanted the payday. He makes an interesting contrast to Jones, but Freeman doesn’t have the charisma to really compete against Ford.

It is Lacey who is the villain most everyone remembers. As the eager Gestapo agent, he is both dangerous and disarming. He can torture a young woman with a red-hot poker, or lead a group of thugs to beat up a single aging archaeologist.

This remains to this day one of my favorite movies and I’m not alone in that regard – Raiders has everything that makes going to the movies fun. Even 30 years after the fact, it remains as fresh and fun as it did the day it came out. It is currently only available as part of a four-disc DVD set of the original trilogy which is kind of a shame because this deserves to be part of everyone’s home video collection and the prohibitive price of the multi-movie set may be out of reach for some. I don’t think Indiana Jones would approve of that kind of thinking, although Belloq might.

WHY RENT THIS: The perfect adventure movie. Harrison Ford shows why he’s one of the world’s biggest stars. A roller coaster ride from beginning to end, brilliantly paced.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Karen Allen’s Marion Ravenswood is a bit whiney.

FAMILY MATTERS: There are some fairly scary images and a bit of violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The name of the lead character was originally Indiana Smith, which was an homage to the Steve McQueen character Nevada Smith. The surname was changed to Jones on the first day of production.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: All of the special features on the DVD are on the fourth disc of the four-disc collection and include a massive Making of the Trilogy featurette that is more than two hours long and includes much behind the scenes footage. There are also featurettes on the stunt work, the music, the special effects and Ben Burtt’s amazing sound work. There is also a promo for the new (at the time) Indiana Jones video game.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $384M on an $18M production budget; the movie was a massive global blockbuster.

FINAL RATING: 10/10

NEXT: Footnote

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2 thoughts on “Raiders of the Lost Ark

  1. One of the best movies of all time! I don’t know anyone who doesn’t enjoy Indy’s adventures. This film and Back to the Future were my childhood. Great post.

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