Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

Director: Steven Spielberg

Producers: Frank Marshall; Robert Watts (Paramount)

Writers: George Lucas, Philip Kauffman (story), Lawrence Kasdan (screenplay)

Photography: Douglas Slocombe

Music: John Williams

Cast: Harrison Ford, Karen Allen, Paul Freeman, John Rhys-Davies, Denholm Elliott, Ronald Lacey, Alfred Molina, Wolf Kahler, Anthony Higgins

When the fourth installment of Indiana Jones “nuked the fridge,” many claimed that Steven Spielberg had jumped his own Jaws shark. Then again, the Raiders films always walked that line. Look no further than The Temple of Doom (1984), where Harrison Ford, Spielberg’s future wife, and that shrimp from The Goonies safely parachuted thousands of feet in an inflatable raft. Yet the real trick of these films was always the ability to push that envelope just far enough, then rein it in with a popcorn concoction of compelling characters, self-deprecating humor, and action quests of childlike wonder.

The older I get, the more I realize how ridiculous the Raiders films are, but the more I’m convinced they work. Perhaps it’s just the kid in me who never got over his whip-cracking, boyhood desires. But the real reason is Spielberg’s own ability to view the world through a child’s eyes. Along with Star Wars and Back to the Future, Raiders is the ultimate franchise to watch as children — or with your children. For every dose of implausible action to dazzle the kids, there’s an equal bit of tongue-in-cheek humor to enthrall adults. The minute Indy stops a sword-wielding goon by casually shooting him, or a Nazi enforcer folds a potential weapon into a clothes hanger, we realize Spielberg is in on the joke. Action done straight is often unbelievable, but action with a twist of humor is a damn good time.

The seeds of this phenomenon were sewn around 1980. George Lucas was hot off Star Wars (1977) and The Empire Strikes Back (1980), and Spielberg was a household name thanks to Jaws (1975) and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977). While basking in their success on a beach, Spielberg told Lucas he next wanted to direct a Bond flick, to which Lucas said, “I got that beat.” (A) He pitched the idea of an archaeologist who travels the globe seeking precious Biblical artifacts, a throwback to all those Saturday matinees of the 1930s. Spielberg loved it, and the legend of Indiana Jones was born.

Raiders of the Lost Ark opened in summer of ’81, bringing with it jungles, caves, bottomless pits, boobytraps, giant rolling boulders and angry natives shooting harpoons — all in the first 12 minutes. After this rousing introduction, the film’s hero, American archaeologist Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford), embarks on a quest to recover the Biblical Ark of the Covenant, the chest said to have carried the Ten Commandment tablets and leveled all in its path. It is well documented that Hitler sent archeological teams across the globe in search of religious artificats to assist in his global domination, so who better to play Indy’s opposition than the Third Reich? (B) 

Leading the Nazi quest for the Ark is Indy’s rival archaeologist, French Dr. Renee Belloq (Paul Freeman), and a slimy, black-coated Nazi enforcer, Major Arnold Toht (Ronald Lacey). But Indy has a few helpers on his side, too — Dr. Marcus Brody (Denholm Elliot), of the National Museum in Washington; Sallah (John Rhys-Davies), Indy’s fat Middle Eastern sidekick; and Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen), a fiery gal whose heart Indy once broke, and who now lives in Nepal with a key artificat that may lead to the Ark.

To come up with the story, Lucas teamed with Philip Kaufman, writer/director of The Right Stuff (1983). For the screenplay, Speilberg and Lucas brought in Lawrence Kasdan, whom had co-written The Empire Strikes Back (1980) for Lucas, and who would go on to write and direct hits like Body Heat (1981) and The Big Chill (1983). The combination of Lucas, Kaufman and Kasdan produced easily one of the most compelling scripts in movie history, voted #42 all time by the Writers Guilds.

Indy may say, “I’m making this up as I go,” but the writers know exactly what they’re doing. Everything in the film is set-up for a later payoff. Look for the stuff written on Indy’s chalkboard; Indy saying he had a falling-out with a Dr. Ravenwood 10 years ago; Brody’s warning that opening the Ark could be like Pandora’s Box; Indy packing a gun along with his whip; and a pilot’s pet snake Reggie introducing the fact that Indy hates snakes. Speaking of which, in such a Biblical quest involving serpents, is there not also foreshadowing in a student leaving an apple on Indy’s desk?

Still, the true strength of the script is the demension it gives to its characters. For starters, Marion isn’t your “typical” love interest. She’s spunky, able to drink men under the table, and decks the male hero the first time we see her. She gets such good treatment by the filmmakers that Raiders could almost be viewed as a study in female empowerment. And through Marion’s strength, we also get some insight into Indy’s flaws. This is a fallible hero we’re dealing with here. For all the bullets he dodges from gunmen with bad aim, he also takes his fair share of punishment, getting beat up and tossed around by the bad guys. And when looking at his intentions, the reasons he’s pursuing the Ark in the first place, we realize just how complex a character he is.

Critic Joanna Berry writes that Indy is a “complicated, less-than-perfect guy who walks the fine line between being a thief of priceless artifacts and protector of them.” (C) He’s a scholar-by-day, adventurer-by-night. He speaks multiple languages, shows off his international savy and recalls ancient facts to aid in his discoveries. He claims that “70% of all archeology is done in the library,” and when he makes his discoveries, he is adament that they belong in a museum. More than just an action hero, Indy is a student of his craft.

Further rounding his character is the fact that he does not easily buy into the legends surrounding his finds. He warns his students that folklore is one of the true dangers of archeology. He tells Brody, “I don’t believe in magic, a lot of superstitious hocus-pocus. I’m going after a find of incredible historical significance.” This facts-before-faith approach makes for a wonderful character study, as many viewers may also view life the same way. Indiana Jones may not seek holy relics for their “holy” nature, but his journey in finding them opens his eyes to the supernatural and the divine. Even better, this concept discovery of faith is not at all preachy, only fascinating. Even non-believers can find absolute entertainment here, particularly because of who Indy is up against. Nazis. We all hate those guys.

Yet for all the roundedness, the depth of character, the spiritual journey, the fact remains that Indiana Jones is one badass dude. The tagline of the first sequel summed it up: “If adventure has a name, it must be Indiana Jones.” In the entire century-plus history of cinema, no character is more synonomous with life-risking heroism than Indiana Jones. His image is burned into our consciousness — that brown fedora, dark leather jacket over a safari-like shirt, leather bag strap running across the chest, bull whip ready on his hip, and a five o’clock shadow over the handsomely rugged face of Harrison Ford. The AFI voted Indy the second greatest movie hero of all time, behind only Atticus Finch, the moral father figure of To Kill a Mockingbird (1962). Yet if Atticus is the man we all want to be in the real world, Indy is the one we would choose to be in a world of make believe.

It was the role of a liftime for Harrison Ford, and remains the character for which he is best remembered. Ironically, Ford wasn’t the first choice. The part originally belonged to Tom Selleck, who turned the role down in favor of TV’s Magnum, P.I. (1980). After also testing Tim Matheson, Peter Coyote and Nick Nolte, Lucas and Spielberg decided on Ford, whom Lucas discovered in American Graffiti (1973) and who was already internationally known as Han Solo from Star Wars and Empire Strike Back. It was the perfect fit, something increasingly apparent the more we see Ford off-screen. In a fascinating difference from his on-screen persona, Ford keeps a certain distance in interviews. He never seemed comfortable as the mainstream draw, and his measuredness seems like an attempt to maintain some sort of intellectual dignity. Yet he’s agreed to play the role four times, and every time he dons that hat, he comes alive with rare charisma. It’s almost as if Indy is the adventurer, and Ford is the professor back at the university.

If the role of Indy was the perfect fit for Ford, then Raiders was the perfect fit for Spielberg, who seems to have a blast making it, apparent the minute he fades from the Paramount mountain logo into a real mountain (a trademark he kept through the sequels). That said, Raiders of the Lost Ark is not the type of film that showcases direction in the way a Citizen Kane, Rear Window or Godfather does. It is an entertainment film, and a damn well made one. Honestly, it can be hard to break down Raiders cinematically, because we are so sucked into the story, that we forget to look for technique. As Spielberg once said, “My job is take that technique and hide it,” which is means for praise in one school of thought — that direction shouldn’t draw attention to itself. (D)

Raiders will never excite me in the way The Searchers does with its mise-en-scene, or Raging Bull does with its character study, or Blue Velvet does with its daring themes. And yet, I am constantly amazed at the genuine look of the picture, like a living, breathing comic book; the slow disclosure of the hero; the creativity of the action sequences; and the fact that the first 10 minutes are done with almost no dialogue. The film earned Spielberg his second Best Director nomination, after Close Encounters, and remains one of his proudest works, personally.

“I cant go back and look at a lot of my movies without either punching holes in them or just kind of like flinching and going, ‘Ooh, I coulda done that better,’” Spielberg says. “I have probably a hand-full of films that I’ve directed that I can watch objectively, as if I didn’t have anything to do with the movie, and Raiders is one of those films.” (E).

As he would his entire career, Spielberg has two big assists. First and foremost, John Williams. It was he who was the one tie between Jaws, Star Wars and Close Encounters, and by the time Raiders came along, Williams stepped up once again. One can certainly argue the themes for Jaws and Star Wars as superior, but the “Raiders March” is a piece any composer could hang their fedora on. It’s hands down one of the most recognizable pieces of music in history. Yet the triumphant “March” is only half the story. Check out the heartstrings of “Marion’s Theme” or the mystical horns of “Miracle of the Ark.” The music surely would have won Best Original Score had it not gone up against Vangelis’ theme for Chariots of Fire (1981), one of those rare anthems that’s long transcended the movies.

The second huge assist came from the visuals and visual effects departments. Spielberg’s entire body of work speaks to his intense fascination with such possibilities. The opening of Raiders, with Indy chased down by a rolling boulder, is not only iconic, but an amazing art department acheivement. The Well of Souls, overflowing with snakes, is one of the more skin-crawling set pieces in history, and Indy’s face-to-face encounter with a cobra still thrills. The Cairo sequence is no less impressive, same for the burning shootout in Marion’s saloon, the horseback chase of a Nazi transport truck, the high-seas seizure of a German sub, even the vast warehouse in the final shot. The flying spirits and melting faces remains a special effects landmark, and the map graphic of Indy’s plane bouncing from city to city is the perfect example of a simple effect with iconic results.

It should be no surprise that of the film’s eight Oscar nominations, the four it won were all for technical categories: Set Direction, Visual Effects, Editing, Sound, as well as special achievement award for Sound Effects Editing. The sequels would only continue this trend, as both Temple of Doom (1984) and The Last Crusade (1989) each won Oscars for Visual Effects. The visuals of Temple of Doom were spectacular, from a hand extracting a human heart in a sacrificial lair, to a mine car roller coaster ride. The Last Crusade balanced trains, speedboats, motorcycles, blimps, fighter planes and tanks, not to mention a human being transforming from life to cadaver to skeleton to dust, right before our very eyes. When it came to Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, there were no Oscars in store, not even for the effects.
So which is the best of the sequels? The Temple of Doom may be the most memorable, for better or worse, because it is so clearly unlike the others. It’s easily the darkest of the bunch, to the point that Spielberg had to beg the MPAA to create a new PG-13 rating. It remains an easy target for critics, for relying too much on black magic, gross-out banquets and bug-filled corridors. It also seems to miss the Biblical aspect, instead sending Indy on a quest to retrieve sacred stones from a Bangkok cult. At least the characters are vivid — Kate Capshaw’s high maintance singer; Bollywood legend Amrish Puri’s cult-leader Mola Rom; and Jonathan Ke Quan’s kid sidekick Short Round (“Dr. Jones! No more parachutes!”). Despite a solid 84% on rottentomatoes, Spielberg seems most embarassed talking about this one, saying the best thing that came from it was meeting Capshaw, whom he married in 1991.

The popular favorite may be The Last Crusade. By this point, the series was established enough that fans could settle in and relish in their hero’s backstory. The film casts River Phoenix as a young Indy to explain how he got many of his trademarks: the hat, whip, fear of snakes, scar on his chin, and even his name (after the dog). The film also brought back Brody and Sallah, who were missed in the second, and introduced the super sexy Alison Doody as a Nazi fatale. Most importantly, we meet Indy’s dad, played by James Bond himself Sean Connery. Their father-son dynamic carries the film, allowing for much comedy, from Connery’s insistance on calling him “Junior” to the father and son tied back to back discussing how they’ve slept with the same woman. And while this film sees Indy come face to face with Hitler himself, it’s also the film that sees Indy come face to face with his own faith, surviving three tasks, including a literal leap of faith, and culminating with a Crusader Knight’s affirmation: “You have chosen wisely.” The script also kept with the Raiders tradition of clever foreshadowing, for instance: “One step away. That’s when the floor falls out from under you.” At 89% on rottentomatoes, the film is has second highest score of the series, and is one of the few sequels to make the IMDB Top 250.

After a nearly 20 year hiatus, which saw the TV series The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles (1992), Spielberg and Lucas decided on a fourth enstallment, The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008). The film brought back Ford and Allen and added Cate Blanchett and Shia LaBeouf to the mix, but it was a flawed proposition from the start. Not only was Harrison Ford showing his age, but Spielberg and Lucas could not pull Connery out of retirement, could not agree on a script, perplexingly confused the great adventurer with an X-Files episode and nuked the fridge with a visual choice that made the entire thing look like it was done on green screen with CGI. If Spielberg was a kid in a candy shop in the original trilogy, Crystal Skull was the day the kid took over the shop, got a sugar high and burnt it to the ground. The problem with the entire film was right there in its opening shot: it tried making a mountain out of a molehill, a good film out of a bad script. The 76% on rottentomatoes was more than generous. I hated it.

Regardless of which enstallment is your favorite, there’s no denying the original Indy flick, Raiders of the Lost Ark, is the one all the others depended on, the only one nominated for Best Picture, and the one most deserving of any best list. Those who insist on one of the sequels likely weren’t around for the original’s release in 1981, where the $23 million film grossed more than $242 million in the U.S. and $384 million worldwide. (F) Today it remains the 16th highest grossing movie of all time (adjusted) and carries an astonishing 8.7 rating on IMDB, tied for 13th all time. Along with Jaws and Star Wars, Raiders completed the three-headed beast that called for the summer blockbuster.

Raiders of the Lost Ark is one of those films that is never going away, even if today’s audiences take for granted its impact. The Goonies (1984), Romancing the Stone (1984), Jewel of the Nile (1985), The Mummy (1999), Lara Croft: Tomb Raider (2001), National Treasure (2004), The Da Vinci Code (2003) and Angels and Demons (2009) owe almost 100% credit to the Raiders series. Add to that a Disney World attraction and a History Channel documentary on the real-world sources for the Indy artifacts, and you have a cultural phenomenon. No joke, the other day my girlfriend and I were watching Last Crusade, and the minute we turned it off, we saw a reference to Indiana Jones on CSI. Indiana Jones is beyond a movie character at this point. He’s what Hercules was to the Greeks, what King Arthur was to the Anglo-Saxons, what Superman was to the mid-20th century. He’s our latest cultural myth.


CITE A: Entertainment Weekly preview of Indiana Jones & The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
CITE B: “Hitler’s Search for the Holy Grail,” a one-hour documentary on PBS from Monday, November 27, 2000.
CITE C: 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die
CITE D: Current Biography Yearbook
DVD Special Features

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