Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) prepares for South American Idol. "Raiders of the Lost Ark."

Directed by Steven Spielberg. Screenplay by Lawrence Kasdan. Story by George Lucas and Philip Kaufman. Produced by Frank Marshall. Music by John Williams. Photographed by Douglas Slocombe. Edited by Michael Kahn. Production designed by Norman Reynolds. Starring Harrison Ford, Karen Allen, Paul Freeman, Ronald Lacey, John Rhys-Davies, Denholm Elliott, Alfred Molina, Wolf Kahler, Anthony Higgins.

If a Saturday matinee serial ever died and went to heaven, it would look just like Steven Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark. Raiders isn’t just a rehashing of worn action/adventure cliches – it is a film that lives them, breathes them, cherishes them, redeems them. It is the kind of movie where its very style becomes part of the same giddy effect, because it displays such a passionate, unbreakable love. Although Spielberg can be specific when he lists his inspirations for Raiders, his direction goes beyond them, and taps into something elemental within the audience that breaks the shackles of a particular shared experience. How else can you explain the fact that Raiders of the Lost Ark continues to delight audiences of all ages, even ones who care not a whit about serials, or pulpy adventure comics? Raiders turns 30 today, and yet it has not really aged at all.

It has been much noted that Raiders of the Lost Ark (and its sequels) are less adventure stories and more a collection of beloved tropes shaped into a line. Indeed, the film plays like an encyclopedia of a particular house style. It contains, in order of appearance: lush jungles, giant caverns, booby-trapped temples, spiders, bottomless pits, golden idols, huge boulders, evil natives, dapper thieves, daring escapes, snakes, Nazis, brutish sherpas, gunfights, monkeys, sword-wielding mercenaries, explosions, assassins, forgotten tombs, more snakes, falls from dizzying heights, mummies, fistfights, car chases, submarines, secret bases, and a surprise cameo appearance by the Hand of God. The film’s very structure bounces from one thing to another to another, and does it oh so very well. The story is standard stuff: a heroic archaeologist travels from America to Tibet to Egypt and beyond to capture an important artifact before the villains can use it as a weapon, with a handy damsel in distress in tow that will get into and out of trouble. And yet what truly elevates Raiders above a simple evocation of a genre is how it deploys its secret weapon: wit. This is a very funny movie.

Sometimes the humor is obvious, like when Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) is confronted by a villain with a scimitar and instead of engaging him in a protracted sword fight, simply shoots the guy dead. Boom. Or when he pursues a gang of kidnappers toting a basket into a mob of people with identical baskets—all full of laundry. Or when he steals an enemy’s uniform and discovers it is much too small, and then his slovenly appearance makes him a target for a discipline-minded German officer. Or even its final shot, which plays like an affectionate parody of the final moments of nothing less than Citizen Kane. Spielberg had fun making this film, and wanted his audience to have fun watching it.

Other times, the movie is more clever and sneaky. It opens right at the climax of a sensational adventure for Jones, as if the audience has walked in at the end of one movie and will now stay for the next one. There is a dastardly villain who is more Peter Lorre than even Peter Lorre himself; the performance flirts with wicked caricature. The screenplay pokes fun at outdated women’s roles by having heroine Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen) arm herself with a frying pan against a killer with a knife, and notes the tactical disadvantage. Egypt’s status in 1936 as a British colony is cheekily referenced by the character of Sallah (John Rhys Davies), who will take any occasion to sing a little Gilbert and Sullivan. The villainous French archeologist Belloq (Paul Freeman) is hired by the Nazis and is rewarded with illusions of power, just like the Vichy French government. And in the movie’s quietest in-joke, Marion is found alive after being caught in an explosion, with only an offhand explanation for how this could be so. Movie serials would constantly rewrite their own facts, so that a character could be hit by a car in a cliffhanger and then in the very next installment would jump out of the way–whew–just in the nick of time.

I list these jokes not to explain them, but to explain the spirit with which Spielberg made them. It is clear that Spielberg treasures Raiders’ precursors: countless comic books and matinee fare like Spy Smasher and Commando Cody (the classic shot of Indy leaping from horse to truck is lifted directly from an old Zorro lobby card). But he is also grown enough to play with these traditions. In many ways, Raiders is a reconstruction of the things Spielberg loved in his youth. What’s a reconstruction? In so many words, it is applying reality to nonsense, in order to turn it into slightly more realistic nonsense.  Spielberg’s approach in Raiders is to add some ironic, knowing nudges to the material, but also to never condescend to it. When Jones ventures down into an Egyptian chamber to use an amulet that will focus sunlight onto a chintzy floor model of an Egyptian ruin and tell him where to dig, the concept is silly, but the execution bestows a gravity to it even while acknowledging that, yes, it is silly. Although Spielberg concocted the story in tandem with George Lucas (with Lawrence Kasdan providing the script), Spielberg ultimately directed it, and that choice is crucial. Lucas would have played this material straight, while Spielberg teases it with a light touch.

And he teases the Nazis, too, in ways that dig deeper than the limits of a serial adventure. Nazis and Nazi spies appear often in serials and comics, because they are handy stock villains who require little preparation for being cast as sadistic monsters or mindless thugs. But in Raiders, Spielberg lays their evil bare and humiliates them, thoroughly mocking their uniforms, commands, physiques, twisting them into cartoonish buffoons. He even singles out their lack of honor: note the inherent hypocrisy with which Adolf Hitler (offstage but very present) hates the Jews but plans to repurpose one of their lost artifacts, the Ark of the Covenant. Notice how Belloq turns the screws to his superiors in the end, forcing the Nazis to take part in a “Jewish ritual,” which is seen as distasteful. And there is a world of mockery in the sublime moment when a Nazi spy returns a sieg heil, unconsciously, after being prompted by a monkey.

There’s more. Note how the Nazis are so incompetent that it takes them hours (and the help of Belloq) before they notice an unauthorized dig occurring a few yards away from their desert camp.  Or how Toht (Ronald Lacey), as if he knows he’s a villain, wears his black costume even into the desert, and then dabs the perspiration off his head with fatigue. Notice how during the ceremony to open the Ark, a camera crew is set up, since it isn’t enough for the Master Race to touch God, they must capture Him on film (Leni Riefenstahl is no doubt busy somewhere else at the time of this story). Spielberg makes his case well that these are stupid, vain, evil men, and he anticipates their destruction with relish.

By the time that the film’s second half takes hold we are well prepared for what Spielberg delivers: a huge frontal assault on the Nazis as they are blown up, diced, electrocuted, shot, thrown off cliffs, pushed off motorcycles and trucks, etc. It’s wonderful. Some special cases are even held for the big finish, where the power of God melts their faces and smashes their skulls. Even the Nazi symbols are violated, as when a swastika on a crate burns away or when a Nazi flag is given to Indiana as a makeshift rope. Some action movies run the risk of dehumanizing its villains, but that’s alright here, because the Nazis dehumanized themselves in real life, leaving Spielberg open to exact sweet revenge on film. The same hunger fed Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, which is just as great a film, in its own way.

Spielberg’s sophistication in Raiders, however, isn’t just with the Nazis or the serial aspects, but with the production values and expertise. It is a marvelously-made film, with superior technical credits that make it exhilarating. Few stunt sequences in any film can compare to the gloriously choreographed sequence where Indy is thrown out of a moving truck and then makes his way back to the drivers seat by going under the truck, getting dragged along behind it, and then inching his way back to the cabin. The Tunisia and Hawaiian locations (doubling for Egypt and South America) give the film a vitality that upgrades the pulp material into something convincing and elegant. Douglas Slocombe’s photography is a feature-length masterstroke, especially in the way it highlights reds, oranges, and earth tones in a way that a black-and-white Saturday matinee never could. And of course, everyone knows the theme from John Williams, although Williams’ strongest moment in the film is actually not the versatile “Raiders March” but instead the scary glory of score that accompanies the “Map Room” sequence—perhaps the finest moment of his career.

What distinguishes Raiders from its many imitators is that it takes its theology seriously, and that is a credit to Kasdan’s screenplay (with Spielberg’s approval, undoubtedly). Indy, of course, does not hold much faith for the ark, and is reproached for being too disrespectful of its power, which gives him a fascinating arc (heh) of his own. Indy is a man of action, and yet so much in the final moments depend upon his inability to act: Belloq calls his bluff when Indy threatens to destroy the Ark, in a well-written scene that would never be accepted in an action film today, the way it makes its hero so notably powerless. And then in the explosive climax, all depends upon Indy’s final reverence for…well, God. It’s tricky writing, especially since the climax can play as a literal dues ex machina, but Kasdan makes it work. By contrast, Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull (the third sequel in the series) also features an ending where Indiana Jones does nothing, but here his inaction is the very point, whereas in that film it is simply the function of a sloppy script.

And this film’s screenplay is delightful and playful, especially in the way it more or less organically links together superior set piece after superior set piece: the burning bar in Tibet, the Cairo street fight, the battle atop the flying wing, the tour de force truck chase. And with the way it sneaks in unsavory aspects into this innocent-looking material (listen carefully to Marion and Indy’s first dialogue together to get the full implications of their backstory). And also in the way it treats Marion, upgrading her from the boring love interest that serials usually had to one with spunk, sexiness, and, at times, more wherewithal than even Jones (okay, sometimes she whines a little too much). Allen is such the perfect foil for Jones that the other sequels, as good as they are, lose something by importing different women into Jones’ life. Crystal Skull even commented on this fact, thinking it was being graceful by stating something we already knew and didn’t need to be told.

Harrison Ford is Indiana Jones. I say that not to belittle his other iconic role, Han Solo, but to simply state that Indiana Jones is the pitch-perfect extension of Ford’s screen persona: charming, rough, gruff, likeable. It is his signature role. He is likened to Bogart in the part, although Ford has a different spin on Bogart’s trademark cynicism; when he sinks into despair, he wears it with intentional discomfort. Here he feels glee, greed, joy and anger, but it’s all done a little antiseptically, because Ford knows this is shallow material, and needs a nimble strategy. He doesn’t do any unnecessary acting here, which is appropriate, because this material needs a dependable rock of strength at its center. And I adore the fact that he is most thrown in the movie when a girl writes “Luv You” on her eyelids and blinks at him, because what rough-and-tumble, Nazi-hating, globetrotting archeaologist is ever prepared for that? Really, isn’t this paragraph pointless, anyway? Do you really have to be sold on Harrison Ford’s performance as Indiana Jones? Really.

What I like most about any Indiana Jones story, even the bad ones, is that they are such a sincere exhaltation of form. Like a James Bond or Sherlock Holmes story, every Indiana Jones adventure is the same: a huge quest, cliffhangers, mysticism, exotic locations, pretty girls, high adventure. Some are good, some are less so, but the structure is sound. It’s about what you do with it. It’s less a story and more a window into another, heightened plane of reality, one that is both manically unrealistic and meticuluously crafted. Spielberg and Lucas concocted this improbable character 30 years ago, but he is still around, in sequels, books, TV programs, comics, games, everything, anything. Because he’s durable, heroic, romantic. Dependable.

And because he was introduced so well in this opening installment, which is, for my money, the very best action/adventure film ever made. That it was generated from such minor inspirations, the cheesy and cheap serials of the ’30s, only speaks more highly for the accomplishment. And it reminds one of a scene in this very film, when Belloq extols his love of archaeology. Take something cheap, and give it time, and what does it become? “Priceless,” he says. “Like the ark.” Yes. And like Raiders of the Lost Ark, too.


Some points in this review are borrowed from Roger Ebert’s “Great Movies” review–some of them are far too perceptive to do without, and I cannot take credit for first noticing them. Spielberg and Lucas acknowledge their influences, and so do I.

NEXT TIME PERIOD: 2007 – Ratatouille


3 thoughts on “Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

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