RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK (1981)

  • Director: Steven Spielberg
  • Writer: Lawrence Kasdan
  • Starring: Harrison Ford, Karen Allen, Paul Freeman, Ronald Lacey, Jonathan Rhys-Davies, and Denholm Elliott
  • Accolades: AFI 2007 Top 100 list (#66), 5 Oscars (Best Film Editing, Best Production Design, Best Sound, Best Sound Editing, and Best Visual Effects), 4 additional Oscar nominations (Best Picture, Best Director – Steven Spielberg), Best Original Score, Best Cinematography)
  • Where to Watch: Stream with subscription to Netflix, Buy or rent with Amazon Video, YouTube, and AppleTV

In 1977, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas went on vacation together to Hawaii as Lucas’ Star Wars had its opening weekend. Lucas was nervous about whether his movie was a failure and wanted to avoid everything as much as he could. While there, Lucas and Spielberg discussed an idea Lucas had for an archaeologist who goes on exciting adventures, like the B-movie serials of his childhood. Spielberg added a wide variety of elements and dropped some Lucas had wanted. The end product, Raiders of the Lost Ark, became an immediate classic upon its release in the summer of 1981. In creating a synthesis of a wide variety of media from the childhood of the “New Hollywood” directors, the movie created an entirely new melange, one that has been extremely influential on many, many things since.

Raiders of the Lost Ark is the first of, to date, four movies about the character of the heroic archaeologist Indiana Jones (named for one of Lucas’ dogs), all of which so far have been directed by Spielberg and starred Harrison Ford. In one of those alternate history twists of fate, Tom Selleck had been fully cast in the role and had even done costume tests, before CBS denied him permission for time off from Magnum P.I. at the last minute. Ford, who had of course been working with Lucas on Star Wars, agreed to take over and the movie started shooting two weeks later.

The thing to remember about Indiana Jones is that he’s only so good at things. Despite the images of him standing heroically with his whip on the posters, he’s very much a relatable everyman. He’s always getting captured, biting off more than he can chew. He’s afraid of snakes, and yet keeps seeming to get himself into situations with lots and lots of snakes. One of the scenes everyone remembers from Raiders is in an Egyptian marketplace, where Jones is threatened by a swordsman who does all kinds of crazy moves in his general direction. Jones just pulls out a gun and shoots him. It has even been suggested by more than one person (including me), that he is entirely extraneous to the plot of Raiders: if he hadn’t been there, the Nazis would have gotten the Ark of the Covenant and opened it anyway and then died.

Like those old serials, Indiana Jones stories are meant as a tale of good vs evil. It is no coincidence that the bad guys tend to be Nazis. It is meant as 100% pure escapism. Even the musical score, by John Williams, is all bombast. Moreso than even a lot of action movies, Indiana Jones movies tend to be him and his friends just getting into one scrape after another, with very little down time. Fortunately, more than almost any other character in the movies, he’s fun to hang out with while getting into and out of these scrapes.

One of the big advantages Raiders has over some of the Jones movies is in its choice of companions for Indiana. It gives him a love interest in Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen). We first meet her drinking an enormous Himalayan under the table, a trick she later tries to use to escape from the Nazis. If you looked up “plucky” in a dictionary, it would have her picture next to it. She is hardly the traditional heroine for one of these movies, even less so at the time. Allen was still unhappy, however, with how her character existed only in relation to Indiana, and didn’t return until the fourth movie in the series, decades later. He also has an Egyptian builder sidekick played by John Rhys-Davies. I suppose if he can play a dwarf and a tree in the same movie, he can play an Egyptian guy.

I like Indiana Jones but have always lacked the deep love that many have for it. I love pure escapism as much as the next guy, but sometimes it can only take me so far. I think it doesn’t help that I didn’t actually see any of the movies until well into adulthood, it was just a blind spot in my cultural education, so to speak. As time has gone on, I think I’ve enjoyed all of them more, because the more time has gone on the more I’ve let go of some of my own nonsense. I’m more willing now than even five ten years ago to put up with bits like where Marion ends up in a room with a bunch of skeletons and the soundtrack plays screaming sound effects, as if the skeletons are screaming at her. You can’t think too hard about Indiana Jones movies.

One of the highlights of the Indiana Jones movies for me is that you can always tell Spielberg is having a ball. There are so many beautiful shots in these movies, stylized in the best way. He’s quoting his favorite classic serials and film noirs left and right. And he gets his climax of God himself turning on the Nazis on behalf of the Jews, with the famous, extremely gory melting faces. Spielberg and Lucas were never concerned about the levels of gore in some of these things, seemingly mostly concerned about that being what teenage boys would want. In fact, the PG-13 rating was basically invented because the movie board couldn’t bring themselves to give this movie’s sequel, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, either a PG or an R rating, so they came up with one in between.

Raiders of the Lost Ark, and its sequels, defined the “Adventure” genre, which had been moribund for a few decades at least at this point, for more than one generation of moviegoers. There are numerous other movies, TV shows, video games, and whatever else that would not exist today without it, many of which I saw years before I ever saw this movie. There was a period of my childhood, for example, in which Legends of the Hidden Temple was appointment viewing. That show was basically one Indiana Jones rip-off after another. So you’d think that Raiders of the Lost Ark would be as much of a touchstone for me as it is for many of my peers. And I think, over time, it’s getting there.

3 thoughts on “RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK (1981)

  1. “It has even been suggested by more than one person (including me), that he is entirely extraneous to the plot of Raiders: if he hadn’t been there, the Nazis would have gotten the Ark of the Covenant and opened it anyway and then died.”

    Yes, but it could be argued that since the Ark was in the possession of the USA, that we were destined to win WWII. Therefore, Indiana single-handedly won the war for the US.

    Like

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