Raiders of the Lost Ark
- June 12, 1981
- Steven Spielberg
- Frank Marshall
- George Lucas, Executive
- Harrison Ford
- Karen Allen
- Paul Freeman
- Ronald Lacey
- John Rhys-Davies
- Denholm Elliot
This film set the standard for adventure films back in 1981. And that standard has yet to be met, much less exceeded by any other film to date.
How does one review a film like ‘Raiders’. It can’t honestly be done. If for some reason the reviewer didn’t like this film, no reasonable arguments could be presented that any human being with a pulse would comprehend. And if you like this film, you don’t just kinda like it, you wholeheartedly fall in love with it. The kind of love for a film that endures.
So I’m not gonna spend a lot of time talking about the plot. Basically Indiana Jones in 1936 is sent by the US Government to find the lost Ark of the Covenant, the receptacle for the original Ten Commandments, and bring it back before the Nazis find it. And through an adventure that involves an old love, a fellow treasure hunter, a nemesis, lots of Nazis, Ancient Egyptian ruins, and finally a supernatural conclusion of Biblical proportions he succeeds. Oops, major spoiler.
Screw it, this whole review is a major spoiler. You’ve been warned;)
‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’ was crafted out of the mind of George Lucas and presented to the world through the vision of Steven Spielberg. Their first “official” collaboration together. Their affinity for the matinée serials of the 40s and 50s is ever present. But it’s Indy’s heart, humor, and relentless pursuit that gives this film it’s uniqueness. Almost from frame #1 you like Indiana Jones. A man who with our very first encounter, loses his quest to a competitor and ends up barely escaping with his life. A flawed human being whose accomplishments involve as much luck as skill and daring. Just like most the rest of the human race.
Harrison Ford is Indiana Jones. And no he is not playing Han Solo with a fedora. Where Han Solo would put self-preservation above nearly all else, Indiana Jones seeks action and takes risks that Han Solo would only do if no other safer option came up. Don’t get me wrong I enjoy Han Solo very much, but he’s no Indiana Jones. And Harrison Ford recognizes that and portrays him with a swagger and bravado befitting a man of Indy’s experience, education, and rock solid set of balls. Jump first and look for water or a soft landing on the way down. A career defining film and role.
Paul Freeman is amazing as Belloq, Indy’s strongest adversary across the entire series of films. You loathe him because he’s nearly Jones’ equal and just a hair less scrupulous. Afterall, when we first encounter him he steals the idol from Jones and uses the rightful tribal owners the ancient relic to chase Jones away. But Jones was there to steal that relic as well, and Indy’s only mistake was not contacting those tribesman before Belloq did.
Freeman exudes the smarminess that all great “bad” guys have in cinema through the ages. He’s smart, ruthless, selfish, humorous, and charming. The only thing Belloq enjoys more than getting his prize, is stealing it out from under someone else like Jones. Freeman unfortunately would never have a better role after this.
Karen Allen is often criticized as a weaker leading lady for this film. I disagree. She may not have quite the acting chops of some of her contemporaries. But youthful energy and toughness mixed with vulnerability is clearly present and needed for her character on screen. She plays Marion Ravenwood, a jilted lover of Indy’s, whose father mentored Indy in his early years. You are given the impression that Indy somehow took advantage of her youth and she holds him in some contempt for it. But, I think it’s played fairly innocently and is shown ultimately to be a mutual affection and respect. Allen and Ford have an excellent chemistry together.
Denholm Elliot shows up in a very brief but memorable role as Marcus Brody, a Museum curator/University Dean. He’s much less the bumbling fool he played in ‘The Last Crusade’. Here he’s the voice of reason, a kind of surrogate uncle to Indy. A smart, world-weary man who tries to get Indiana Jones to take these adventures more seriously.
And one can not forget John Rhys-Davies. He plays Sallah, an Egyptian “digger” who is Indy’s friend and fellow adventure seeker. Now the story of how the two met is one I would really like to see someday. Sallah is a larger-than-life character, who acts as both comic foil and loyal partner to Indy. He’s very funny in his earnestness and yet portrays a darkly protective man who would do anything for those he holds dear.
‘Raiders’ gives us exceptional music, with one of the most recognizable themes in the history of cinema–John Williams, of course. Strong design, costumes, and locations. And action cinematography second to none. We see the action in its entirety. Shot old school with dollies and cranes. Not a shaky cam in sight, thank god!
‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’ has the best collection of action sequences ever put to film. From the opening South American idol hunt, to the Cairo sword fight and basket chase, to the snake pit, the cargo plane fight and destruction, the truck chase and then the ship/u-boat escape. All memorable and worthy of respect and admiration in their boldness and freshness. It all holds together beautifully, until the last act.
I’m not alone in criticizing that last act. Indy is a man of action, whose chased this Ark across the world. And ultimately he is forced to simply witness the conclusion like an audience member. And don’t get me wrong the concluding Old Testament “wrath of God” scene is very well done, the effects hold up over 30 years later. There’s just not much for Indiana Jones to do. The finale to this cliffhanger has our hero tied to a light post:( This is my only complaint, and ultimately a minor one. Maybe Indy just needed to rest, he’s been very busy.
Spielberg has never been more youthful in his approach to this character, or perhaps any character. Here Indy’s reckless, ruthless, passionate, and driven like he never would be again. Future Indiana Jones films would leverage his recklessness with children and fathers. But in ‘Raiders’ he can act truly for his own goals, even leaving Marion in the hands of the Nazis for just one more night. That is something he would never do again in any of the sequels. A revelation; a force of nature.
Indiana Jones isn’t just a character in this film, he became a cultural icon. The ideal representative for generation of explorers that has long since passed. Contemporary archaeologists spend more time in research than in the field. And they never go on action filled high adventures chasing and getting chased by a wide range of evil doers out to rid the world of its goodness. Perhaps this fictionalized vision of the 1930s overly romanticizes the early twentieth century. But not necessarily too much. This is, after all, a world filled with people like Howard Carter (King Tut’s tomb) and a long list of treasure hunters who scoured the world looking for priceless artifacts to plunder before the other guys would get them.
I could go over individual scenes or the inspirations for some of the best movie dialog ever. But I won’t. If you don’t already own a Blu-ray player you need to buy one just so you can see ‘Raiders’ as intended. No director’s cut here. The original film is Perfect as is, has never been better, and will probably never be topped.
Aspect Ratio: 2.35 : 1
MPAA Rating: PG
Length: 115 minutes