Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (October 14, 2003)
Back when Raiders of the Lost Ark hit screens in 1981, I felt no desire to see it. For reasons I no longer recall, my then-14-year-old self thought Spielberg movies seemed uncool, and I greatly resisted the movie. I only went because my Dad touted it heavily and basically made me go.
Score one for the Old Man! I knew very little about Raiders before that screening and became totally enraptured with what I saw. Whatever I did or didnít expect, I surely couldnít anticipate this, a rollicking adventure that seemed like the perfect movie.
22 years later, I still find it hard to dispel the notion that Raiders offers a virtually flawless flick. Set in 1936, we meet adventurer Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) during a lively sequence in which he nabs an ancient artifact from a South American cave. Back in the States, we learn that Indy also maintains a day job as an archaeology professor. However, his adventures frequently take him from the classroom, and when representatives of the US government come a-calling, he gets a new assignment to seek one of the greatest artifacts of all: the Lost Ark of the Covenant.
It seems that Hitler thinks the Ark possesses magical powers, so he orders his forces to pull out all the stops in their hunt for it. The US leaders donít want that to happen, so they recruit Indy as the best man to beat the Nazis to the punch. His first stop? Nepal, where he goes to find a medallion that will help him find the alleged burial spot of the Ark. This rouses some old concerns, however, as he runs into Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen), the daughter of his former partner and also an old Ė and jilted Ė flame.
Despite their problematic past, the pair become a team in the search for the Ark and head to Egypt, where Indy reunites with an old friend and local helper named Sallah (John Rhys-Davies). On the Nazi team against them we find Belloq (Paul Freeman), a mercenary French archaeologist we previously met at the start of the film. He heads a team that includes a diabolical enforcer named Toht (Ronald Lacey) and other nasties. The movie follows the race between the two groups to discover the Ark and deal with it if this happens.
One cannot overstate the impact Raiders made on movies back in 1981. It presented a genuine breath of fresh air, a lively and endearing flick that pounded on the viewer with relentless action. However much it battered us, however, we eagerly came back for more. If ever a movie merited being called a ďrollercoaster rideĒ, it was Raiders.
Critics will knock Raiders as unoriginal, and itís certainly true that the film doesnít present anything particularly innovative. Really, as the filmmakers gladly admit, it gleefully offers a modern version of the old movie serials of the Thirties and Forties. Raiders is nothing more than a cliffhanger without the wait between episodes.
However, originality is severely overrated. As an overrated flick like Nashville establishes, just because you do something different doesnít mean the results actually seem interesting. Execution proves much more important than innovation. Maybe Raiders didnít tread any new ground, but it explored its subjects so incredibly well that it felt fresh.
Make no mistake: in 1981, most of us had never seen a movie like Raiders. Director Steven Spielberg creates the ultimate expression of the adventure flick with an ideal hero and briskly paced action that grabs the viewer and never lets go. The filmís opening sequence remains possibly its most famous, and it perfectly sets the stage for what will come. A series of ďhow can things get worse?Ē challenges, it gets the ball rolling Ė pun intended Ė terrifically. Few movies have opened with such an amazing sequence.
That doesnít mean itís all downhill from there, as Raiders presents a terrific succession of action bits that all seem to top each other. Viewed objectively, none may seem quite as stellar as that opening, but the film nonetheless comes chock full of exciting and rousing moments.
Donít take Raiders to be nothing more than a random collection of action set pieces without anything interesting to connect them. The film presents a great roster of characters, all headed by Indy himself. Ford was already famous for Star Wars, but here he becomes a true movie star. The first Ė and really only Ė actor to break out of the typecasting caused by the 1977ís classicís success, Fordís work as Indy showed that he could do more than pilot a starship. Indy makes him more of a classic action hero; without it, I donít know if he ever would have become the megastar that he now is.
Indy remains the perfect hero. Heís one of those guys the women all desire and the men admire. He doesnít play better for one circle or another, as across the board, Indy seems irresistibly and unselfconsciously charming.
I donít know if anyone but Ford could pull off my favorite moment in Raiders. After one extended battle that leaves him battered, Sallah tells Indy that the Nazis put the Ark on a departing truck. Despite his exhaustion and sores, Indy slaps his glove and resolutely asks, ďTruck? What truck?Ē This is a hero who wonít give up but who seems delightfully human all the while.
Ford doesnít carry the movie alone, of course, and the filmís supporting characters certainly embellish it. Allenís Marion offers a terrific heroine. Bluntly beautiful but not prissy, she seems spunky and smart and becomes a perfect match for Indy. Has any female lead in an action flick gotten a better introduction than her drinking contest?
Add to that Rhys-Daviesí understate and charming take on the stereotypical sidekick, Laceyís insidious performance as the leering Toht, and Freemanís glibly slick but nicely three-dimensional interpretation of the mercenary and you have a great roster of supporting personalities. All make the movie more real despite its cartoony origins, and they become important reasons for its success.
I could go on and on about the magic that is Raiders of the Lost Ark, but Iíll stop there. Suffice it to say that it continues to present a virtually flawless piece of cinematic entertainment. It dazzled me when I first saw it 22 years ago, and it still knocks me out today.