Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) starring Harrison Ford
What’s it about?
It’s 1936, and archaeologist Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) is exploring the South American jungle in search of a golden idol. He finds the temple where it is hidden, and braves tricks, traps and treacherous hired hands to retrieve it. Unfortunately, once he has taken it outside he bumps into a native tribe who are in the employ of his rival, Dr. Belloq (Paul Freeman). Belloq cheerfully snatches it away from him but Indy escapes with his life in a seaplane.
Back at Washington D.C. University, Indy is approached after teaching a class by his friend Dr. Marcus Brody (Denholm Elliot) who has a new opportunity for him courtesy of U.S. Army Intelligence. It turns out that the Nazis have started an archaeological dig at the ancient city of Tanis in Egypt - a location which is rumoured to be the resting place of The Ark Of The Covenant. Legend has it that the Ark bestows those who possess it with incredible powers - and so it could make the Nazi army unstoppable in its conquests.
Needless to say, the matter is pressing for Indy to pursue. However, there are a number of complications. Firstly, an artefact that could help pinpoint the whereabouts of the Ark is in the hands of Marian (Karen Allen), an old flame who is the daughter of one of his erstwhile friends. Secondly, Belloq has thrown his lot in with the Nazis and is working with them at the dig.
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Why is it significant?
After the misfire of 1941, Steven Spielberg got back on track with this homage to 1930s serials based on a script by George Lucas which was originally titled The Adventures of Indiana Smith. Lucas, who had himself recently become hot property after the runaway success of Star Wars, also executive-produced.
It returned Spielberg to the phenomenal box office success of Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, raking in almost $390 million worldwide. It was nominated for 9 Oscars and won 5 (for Best Art Direction, Best Film Editing, Best Sound, Best Sound Effects Editing and Best Visual Effects). Most critical reviews were positive. It is also the film with which turned the then-up-and-coming Harrison Ford into a major star.
It has spawned three big-screen sequels to date, all of which have retained the involvement of Spielberg, Lucas and Ford: Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984), Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989) and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008). However, while all have proven to be major box office successes, both Temple of Doom and Kingdom of the Crystal Skull have come to be regarded as inferior sequels blighted by ridiculous moments and weak storylines. The Last Crusade has a somewhat better reputation than the other two sequels. There was also a spin-off TV series which ran from 1992-1993 called The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles.
The franchise also inspired various other filmmakers - good and bad - to conceive a legion of similar high adventure films, amongst the best of which include Romancing the Stone (1984) directed by Robert Zemeckis (who had previously co-written 1941) and Big Trouble in Little China (1986) directed by John Carpenter. There have also been many homages and parodies throughout the years; older British viewers may remember an early-1980s Terry’s Chocolate Orange advert which spoofed the classic boulder escape sequence.
How does it hold up?
Raiders Of The Lost Ark is a film that barely even needs reviewing. How many people haven’t seen (and loved) this film already - and most likely more than once? It’s perhaps the finest action-adventure movie ever made, at once an exhilarating pastiche of 1930s cliffhanger serials and a semi-parodic revision of hoary Boy’s Own cliches. Moreover, bar a few dated effects at the film’s finale it doesn’t feel like it has aged in the 34 years since its release.
The main reason why it has aged so well is the direction by Steven Spielberg. The film is basically built around show-stopping setpieces, but each one is so full of inventive twists and turns that it feels less like an obligatory action sequence and more like its own self-contained mini-movie.
The opening temple sequence is the stuff of legend. It initially feels like a horror movie, with scary close encounters involving tarantulas and punctured corpses. It all climaxes with a frantic escape from a huge boulder. In between, Indy’s assistant betrays him, and seconds later meets an unpleasant comeuppance as a result of his rash decision. Some later setpieces are even better - one example being a frantic search for Marian in the streets of Cairo, where every corner turned results in yet another perfectly timed slapstick gag or violent encounter. The absolute finest sequence though involves Indy attempting to hijack a truck - an endeavour that results in countless incredibly dangerous-looking stunts.
Spielberg in his element
There’s a wonderfully satisfying rhythm and tempo to each sequence as the action slips smoothly between stunts, scares, suspense and laughs. Contrast this to the clodhopping chaos of its predecessor 1941 - whereas in that film it felt like Spielberg was wrestling with a larger beast than he could handle, here he just breezes through every scene with an effortless aplomb.
There’s plenty more to recommend about Raiders though than just the big moments. Douglas Slocombe’s cinematography is superb, rendering each artefact-filled tomb as a magically atmospheric space and engendering a sense of epic widescreen grandeur to the larger outdoor scenes. Then there’s that wonderfully dynamic John Williams score that aligns perfectly with the varying tone of the onscreen goings-on throughout.
The script and performances also hold up very well. The great thing here is the way in which the characters manage to subvert their own stereotypes; Indy is a cocky hero who can get out of many scrapes but still has his humanity and vulnerabilities; Marian is the supposed “damsel in distress” but has a tomboyish quality that allows her to hold her own; Belloq is a villain with a suave charm that would make him easy to like if we didn’t witness how ruthless his actions during the course of the film are. All are played superbly (by Harrison Ford, Karen Allen and Paul Freeman respectively). Ronald Lacey as the sadistic Nazi Toht is, on the other hand, playing fully up to the stereotype, but he’s so much wicked fun in the part that it doesn’t matter.
As I’ve mentioned, the climax is the one slightly weak element. It is over-reliant on some special effects that are very much of its 80s production timeframe and now look rather cheesy. There are also some gory FX here that don’t fit in with the film’s general family-friendly tone; when Indy says to Marian “don’t look” during this scene, you are left with the suspicion that it’s a hint to the younger or more squeamish audience members. So, deduct one point from a perfect ☆☆☆☆☆ for that, albeit reluctantly.
Runtime: 115 mins
Dir: Steven Spielberg
Script: Lawrence Kasdan, George Lucas, Philip Kaufman
Starring: Harrison Ford, Karen Allen, Paul Freeman, Ronald Lacey, John Rhys-Davies, Denholm Elliot, Alfred Molina