REVIEW: Raiders of the The Lost Ark (1981)

In a nutshell: 1935. Archaeologist, lecturer and “obtainer of rare antiquities” Indiana Jones is tasked by the US government to locate the legendary Ark of the Covenant. Jones finds himself in a race against time as Hitler has also dispatched his Nazi troops, led by rival archaeologist, Belloq to recover the Ark by all means necessary…

“ I don’t believe in magic, a lot of superstitious hocus pocus. I’m going after a find of incredible historical significance….”

Summer of 1977, following their summer releases Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, directors and close friends, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg retreat to  Hawaii for a holiday. They discuss future projects, with Spielberg revealing he’d love to do a Bond film. Lucas responds, saying he has a better idea, something that would “beat” Bond. Lucas proceeds to tell Spielberg a story based around adventuring archaeologist, Indiana Smith….

Looking back, you could argue that Lucas was pretty much on the money. Whilst it’s tricky to “beat” Bond  (a 30 year old franchise even back in 1981), Indiana Jones has become one of the most iconic characters in cinema – beating Bond (and Han Solo) to the top of Empire Magazine’s Top 100 Greatest Film Characters list.  Raiders, the first  entry in the long running franchise (itself now over 30 years old) easily is a worthy rival to Bond. Both series offer a similar mix of daring stunts, thrilling action and exotic locations, lead by a dashing hero.

A key weakness of Bond films is that they’re a product of their time. Yet, the specific 1930’s period setting is one of Raiders strengths, making it feel almost timeless as well as a point of difference. Viewed by today’s standards, Indiana Jones, truly does feel like a character from a forgotten era. He’s not acting out of national obligation, unlike Bond, but instead to preserve key historical artifacts for all to enjoy.

It’s no wonder the film still holds up when you look at who’s involved. Essentially the production team is merger of both Spielberg’s and Lucas previous crews –  the best of the best for the time, you could say. Spielberg and the crew spent months story-boarding all the key action sequences and the hard work certainly pays off. From the opening boulder escape, the Nepal bar fight or the thrilling truck chase sequence, all are gripping set pieces which have been parodied or paid homage to over the years. D.O.P. Douglas Slocombe captures some truly iconic shots with light and shadows – whether it’s Jones discovering the golden idol, his arrival in Nepal or his famous silhouette against an Egyptian sunset.

“It’s not the years honey, it’s the mileage.”

Writer Lawrence Kasdan combines the spectacle and adventure dreamt up by Lucas and Spielberg, injecting it with humour, warmth and humanity. These are full rounded characters that hint at great backstories, yet avoid spoon-feeding you. Even main villain Belloq, who may not be a physical match to Jones, is a compelling antagonist, albeit someone who is willing to side with those no-good Nazis to help locate the Ark.

Yet it’s all about the lead character and it’s hard to imagine anyone in the role other than Harrison Ford.  He was always Spielberg’s first choice, but famously Lucas had Tom Selleck in mind, for fear of being labelled predictable for casting Ford in all his films. We have to thank the producers of Magnum PI, as they held Selleck to his contract, meaning Ford would get to brandish the whip and fedora.

Whilst Jones shares qualities with the other famous character created by Lucas and Ford – Han Solo –  he is a distinctly different character. Yes, they’re both charming leads known to improvise, but Jones feels more rounded and flawed. This is probably due to Jones being a true lead unlike Solo, who is usually part of an ensemble. As well as the trademark charisma, we get to see the boyish enthusiasm when he and Brody geek out over the Ark lore in the first act. For a such a confident character it’s great to see moments of guilt and hesitation, whether it’s drowning his sorrows following Marion’s apparent death or an inability to destroy the Ark due his passion for ancient artifacts. It’s refreshing to see the toll the action takes on Jones, we get to see him beaten, shot and dragged around. The battering also paves the way for a brief but charming scene of romance, where Marion tends to his many wounds and Jones falling asleep before any real romance can occur.

“It belongs in a museum!”

There’s few flaws to find. You could argue that, for a family film – it has moments of excess. Spielberg and Kasdan’s input make this a significantly more adult affair than Star Wars.  The films features implied sex, blood splatters, melting faces and creepy crawlies that border on bad taste, and would be pushed further in the sequels. Outside of Belloq, all the other villains are stereotypes, whether it’s the Aryan captain carrying out the Fuhrer’s will or the creepy pantomime Gestapo villain Toht. In fact, whilst Sallah and Katanga help our hero, the film’s general overview is that most foreigners are not to be trusted – again something Temple of Doom (1983) pushes even further..

However those are minor flaws in what’s otherwise, arguably a perfect film. It’s classic action adventure that the whole family can watch – well, maybe not the little ones… From spot on casting, thrilling set pieces, a triumphant score it’s still a compelling watch almost 40 years on from it’s release – like an ancient artifact, it deserves to be treasured for generations. GM

Alternative Title: Indiana Smith and the Melting Nazis

Coulda Woulda Shoulda: As well as Tom Selleck in the lead role, apparently Nick Nolte, Tim Matheson and Jack Nicholson were also considered.

Want More Raiders action? Check out our podcast review!

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