A film review by Craig J. Koban

 

RANK: # 2

RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK jjjj

25th Anniversary Retrospective Review

1981, PG, 115 mins.

 

Harrison Ford: Dr. Indiana Jones / Karen Allen: Marion Ravenwood / Paul Freeman: Rene Belloq / John Rhys-Davis: Sallah / Denholm Elliott: Marcus Brody / Alfred Molina: Satipo

 

Directed by Steven Spielberg / Written by Lawrence Kasdan, based on the story by George Lucas and Phillip Kauffman

Watching George Lucas and Steven Spielberg’s RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK is the cinematic equivalent of entering into a utopia.  There is not a misguided or overwrought frame throughout its 115 minutes.  It’s a thrilling adventure film that hurtles past its audience with a pitch-perfect pacing and an overwhelming display of creative energy, vitality, and boundless joy and enthusiasm.  You can sense the love that went in this film.  

Simply put, RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK is the greatest escapist adventure film of all-time.  It's the CITIZEN KANE of its genre.

The genre itself is a curious one in the sense that it doesn't quite garner the critical respectability of other ones.  Yet, RAIDERS sort of keenly demonstrates that even the best films can be ones that do no more than simply entertain.  One of my friends once told me that the great adventure films are ones that make adults audiences feel like giddy children again.  He went on the say that bad adventure films pander down to you as if you were a child.  I think that RAIDERS fits perfectly into the earlier category.  Watching it for the first time transports you emotionally to a time where you enjoyed more basic and simple pleasures.  Films, as a result, don't have to always be about something to elicit powerful feelings.  RAIDERS works on me as strongly as...say...MUNICH...but in vastly different ways. 

Spielberg has made many films in his career with divergent subject matters.  His first films were about inspiring enthusiasm and intrigue in the audience.  As he matured he gravitated towards more inspiring works that grappled with polarizing themes and stories.  There is no doubt that some of these films (like SCHINDLER'S LIST and MUNICH) are arguably among the filmmaker's most powerful films.  His 1993 film about Oskar Schindler and The Holocaust is almost universally hailed by critics to be Spielberg's finest effort.  Yet, I hold RAIDERS to be among his best works behind the camera.  I kind of despise when some fail to hold up films of a more populist variety simply by that virtue alone.  RAIDERS was seen by millions and it made millions; that alone should not discredit what a masterful and thrilling exercise it is in the filmmaking craft.

If the original STAR WARS was the supreme achievement in gee-whiz, wide-eyed escapism, then I would think that RAIDERS probably is a close second, if not a very close equal.  I've seen the film almost as many times as Lucas’ 1977 space fantasy.  Probably 100 times.  Maybe even more than that.  Amazingly, both films miraculously hold up to even modern eyes.  That, in essence, is the true benchmark to what makes a film a “classic”  (one you can watch repeatedly, over and over again, and still find it as fresh, entertaining, and invigorating as the first time you saw it).  RAIDERS is one of those rare films.  It’s pure cinema through and through and I continue to relish it after continual viewings.  This film is, for lack of a better word, just plain, goofy fun.  In our nihilistic age of anti-heroes and revenge driven vigilantes, this type of film feels almost as hard to find as the Ark of the Covenant itself.

Whether you choose to accept it or not, RAIDERS – 25 years after its release – can now also be seen as an indelible landmark work in the history of the post-modern action film.  Seemingly every other action film of the 80’s, 90’s, and the present were popular in RAIDERS’ wake.  It gave a new definition of what an action film can be and it redefined the action hero milieu and persona of contemporary cinema.  James Bond, no doubt, ruled the cinemas before Indiana Jones graced the silver screen, but Lucas and Spielberg took the standard conventions of most typical 007 adventures and sort of cheerfully revised them for new mass consumption.  Yes, the BOND films influenced the making of the INDIANA JONES films, but Jones – at least for me – is the more appealing of the two creations.  Consider: it’s easy to imagine others stepping into the shoes of that famous British agent, but can you possibly see anyone else other than Harrison Ford playing the globetrotting archaeologist?  Not too darn likely.

In actuality, it was Spielberg’s own strong desire in the late 70’s to make a Bond film that helped bring RAIDERS to creative fruition.  Actually, you can go back a bit earlier in the 70’s to see the who’s and how’s of the making of the first INDY film.  Spielberg himself launched the modern concept of the mega-blockbuster in 1975 with his milestone aquatic thriller JAWS.  His good buddy George Lucas already had a huge hit on his hand with the audience and critically loved and multiple Oscar nominated film AMERICAN GRAFFITILucas was not done there.  In 1977 he released a small, low budget space fantasy named STAR WARS that most studios in tinsel-town thought would flop miraculously.  Fearing financial and career ruin, Lucas fled on vacation to Hawaii. 

However, before his trip there he began to see what a gargantuan blockbuster smash STAR WARS was becoming in America.  When he arrived to Hawaii he found himself vacationing with Spielberg.  According to widely accepted movie lore, the two sat on a cozy and secluded beach and pondered their next cinematic move.  They both were the new wonderkids on the block.  No studio would dare refuse them now.  During their exchanges Lucas apparently asked his friend what he wanted to do next.  Spielberg replied that he wanted to do a James Bond film.  Lucas, being a master strategist and shrewd producer, had decidedly different plans.

He told Spielberg that he had a character and film idea “better” than Bond himself.  Lucas was known for his growing disillusionment with the gritty noir realism that the cinematic heroes of the 70’s were personifying.  Films like DIRTY HARRY, CHINATOWN, and DEATH WISH provided protagonists that were stark contrasts to the heroes Lucas worshipped as a child.  His heroes populated comic books and the adventure B-serials of the 30's and 40's.  STAR WARS was Lucas’ first permutation of the concepts of the noble hero and was a rip-roaring adventure serial come to life.  RAIDERS would be an even more resonant personification of his desires.   He envisioned his film headlining a new action star named “Indiana Smith” (Indiana was the named after George’s own dog, and Smith was probably a homage to a similar named character Steve McQueen played in the 1966 film NEVADA SMITH). 

This hero would be a stark contrast to the debonair, perfectly composed, and suave James Bond.  Smith (later renamed Jones on the insistence of Spielberg himself) would be the embodiment of a rugged, flawed, world-weary hero that was both tough as nails and vulnerable at the same time.  He would be a colorful conglomeration of many of the square-jawed, cocky, and death-defying heroes Lucas idolized on the silver screens in the 30’s and 40’s serials.  He would be brave and heroic like Zorro, unstable and crabby like Humphrey Bogart in THE TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE, and a determined and cocky swashbuckler in the charismatic vein of Errol Flynn in films like THE ADVENTURES OF DON JUAN and CAPTAIN BLOOD.  Even better, the two fisted character would occupy a story that Lucas conceived as a direct throwback to the aesthetic of those breezy adventure serials.  Oh, he would also be an archaeologist that would search for the sacred Ark of the Covenant while fighting vile Nazis at the same time.  Spielberg flipped and jumped on board.

Lucas and his colleague Phillip Kauffman (who would later go on to huge success making THE RIGHT STUFF in the early 80’s) had a basis for a screenplay (that would later be reworked by Lawrence Kasdan, who also co-wrote the best of the STAR WARS films in THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK).  Now, all they needed was an actor to play their two-fisted hero.  Lucas was keen on not using any of his old STAR WARS actors, at least initially.  Spielberg and Lucas finally arrived on casting the then-unknown Tom Selleck.  Unfortunately, Selleck had contractual obligations to make the new TV series MAGNUM, P.I., which made him leave RAIDERS very quickly.  Finally - and perhaps on the advice of Spielberg - the two finally settled on Harrison Ford, who rose to fame playing another daring rogue, Han Solo, for Lucas in the STAR WARS films.

Capturing Ford, by the mere circumstances of the time, was one of the best casting coups of all-time.  He was the pure embodiment of Indy.   He was the heart and soul of the film as well as its other two sequels.  His portrayal is one of the criminally undervalued action hero performances of the past two decades; it represented a new kind of protagonist.  He was not perfectly cultured like 007.  Hell, he was not even that perfect with the ladies.  Ford knew his role hearkened back to the adventure serials, so he wisely played his part with a suitably everyman swagger and appeal.  He bled when he got punched, worried when danger loomed around the corner, and got pissed when things didn’t go his way. 

Yes, he’s tough in the film like Bond was in his franchise, but he wasn't a chiseled specimen that would dominate later, witless action heroes played by the Van Damme's and Schwarzenegger’s of the world.  The key to Indy’s appeal was that he could be beaten to a pulp; he wasn't that strong.  He drank whiskey alone and could care less if he had martinis, shaken or stirred.  He had a filthy wardrobe consisting of a dirty fedora, leather jacket, and khakis, and he was clearly not the polished sophisticate that Bond was in his tuxedo.  Ford created an action hero icon that paved the way for other similar characters.  There would have never been a John McClane in DIE HARD if it were not for Ford’s performance in RAIDERS.  In this way, Indiana Jones is one of the more significant characters to emerge in 1980’s cinema, and Ford was the powerful epicenter to the film that made it work and succeed so marvelously.

With Ford attached and the two most successful filmmakers tag-teaming the production (Spielberg would direct whereas Lucas would co-write the story and produce), the film had instant built-in audience and appeal.  Lucas and Spielberg decided that the best way to preserve the original “cheap” look and feel of the adventure serials of the past was to make the film “on the cheap.”  The budget for the film, of course, dwarfed those old serials even with inflation considered, yet RAIDERS was made for the remarkably low sum of only $22 million dollars in 1981 (other blockbusters of the time cost double that).  Contrary to popular belief, Lucas did not fund the film alone.  Rather, the studio financed the film's entire $22 million budget.  In exchange, Lucas would own over 40% of the film and collect almost half of the profits after the studio grossed a certain amount.   A shrewd deal for Lucas, indeed.  Even shrewder was the fact that the film – despite being shot around the world – was made in less than four and a half weeks, far less than most conventional films.  Yet, the film’s low cost and quick, by-the-seat-of-your-pants direction don’t show up on screen.  This is one of the best-looking cheap and rushed films ever.

The film’s story is one long love-letter to the serials and paces itself expertly from one cliffhanger crisis to the next (much like the serials did).  The film sure has a breathless anticipation that inspires endless, eye-popping wonders.  Most action heroes would seem content with just battling the villains, but Jones in RAIDERS goes through a relative smorgasbord of death-defying adventures, some which tap into our deepest nightmares.  Just consider: Throughout the course of the film Indy is has to deal with tarantulas, thousands of snakes (in one infamous scene), giant boulders chasing him, savage cannibal tribes chasing him with spears, nearly falling into a bottomless pit, being nearly beaten to death by a giant Nazi, and so on and so on.  The fact that he manages to shrug off his brush with death many times with a nonchalant demeanor is one of the film’s great charms.  Well, he doesn't always have the right attitude.  When one character asks him “how” he will recover the Ark that seems desperately out of his hands, he dryly responds, “I dunno, I’m making this up as I go.”

RAIDERS very wisely takes place in the 1930’s and opens with a virtuoso action set piece.  It’s a gloriously realized, pulp-fiction-inspired dance with death as Indy explores a ruined temple to recover a sacred and long lost artifact.  Everything but the kitchen sink is thrown at him in his pursuit.  He does succeed in getting his “prize” only to lose it at an inopportune moment to his nemesis Rene Belloq (in a classic villain performance oozing with contempt by Paul Freeman).  He has to return home to his University empty handed (being a professor is his safe day job) and is disappointed.  However, he's surprised to see a group of US army officials that would like to pay him rather handsomely to retrieve the famed Ark of the Covenant before those damn, dirty Nazis do.  Of course, being an agnostic pragmatist, Indy takes the job for fortune and glory first, not for spiritual reasons.  Yet, the Ark itself could be a source of unlimited power.  It does, after all, contain the remains of the actual Ten Commandments as carried by Moses.  The Ark, as a result, is one of the cinema’s great McGuffins…even if it’s finally visualized later.

Needless to say, Jones goes all around the world in search of his new “prize.”  Along the way he reunites with an old flame Marion (the very assured Karen Allen) who has one necessary key to the puzzle for finding the Ark.  Her character as well sort of acts like a sharp foil to the women in the Bond films.  She's not so much a sexy damsel in distress that Bond easily nails as opposed to a smart, sassy, and street tough woman that knows how to fight for herself.  Later, Jones meets up with his old buddy Sallah (the jolly John Rhys-Davies) who provides some very important details about the progress of the Nazi’s search.  Before long, it’s Indy versus the Nazis in a series of breakneck action sequences where only one will emerge with the Ark in hand.  To take a page out of Dr. Jones's vernacular: Nazis...gosh do I hate those guys.

I don’t want to say much more about the story, other than to say that its pacing from one extreme and chilling sequence to another is exemplary.  RAIDERS is a cheerfully macabre work in the sense that it creates a dastardly new crisis for our hero, one right after the other.  The opening of the film is big and sprawling enough to be the ending of lesser films, and other sequences manage to even top that.  There are endless scenes of joyous intrigue, such as a big brawl in a burning tavern, a battle through a catacomb filled with thousands of poisonous snakes, a fist fight with a series of Nazis on a giant flying wing, a now infamous fight between Indy and a swordsman where Indy drolly reveals why he brings guns to sword fights (this moment still generates a huge laugh), and finally there’s a sequence involving the Ark on a moving truck and Indy chasing it on a horse that has to be seen to be believed.

This sequence – one of the cinema’s most magnificently choreographed action moments – has Indy chasing the truck on horseback.  He enters the truck, is shot, thrown out the front window, dragged underneath the truck where he then manages to climb back aboard to the main cabin and duke it out with the Nazi vermin yet again!  The stunt work here has clear echoes to another famous scene in John Ford’s STAGECOACH, but here it’s like that moment on speed and adrenaline.  This sequence alone epitomizes the whole film – it’s about us thrilling to the exploits of a hero we love to cheer on against evil villains we love to hate.  It does not get anymore complicated than that.  Again, I'll reiterate - who said great cinema has to be more intellectually stimulating? 

And…yes…the Nazis are sort of cardboard cutouts in the film, but remember, this is a B-grade serial homage, not a provoking look at the Holocaust.  Spielberg would have a better opportunity to do a more probing examination of their evil in SCHINDLER’S LIST.  People who take apart RAIDERS because it sidesteps the much larger issue of Hitler's final solution miss the point altogether.  The old serials used Nazis for easy and disposable villains.  If anything, Nazis are the most politically correct antagonists to ever use and considering the fact that RAIDERS is a period piece and how vile the Nazis are, their inclusion almost seems mandatory.  The idea of Hitler getting the Ark and achieving "unlimited power" is rather scary.

RAIDERS proved to be another successful hit film on the resumes of the already proven Spielberg and Lucas.  Audiences loved the film, as did the critics.  The film grossed a staggering $200 million at the box office and went on to be nominated for eight 1981 Academy Awards (including many technical categories and - most deservingly - for Direction for Spielberg and for John Williams’ stirring score; the Academy also demonstrated an incredibly open mind for given the film a Best Picture nod as well, something that no other modern action film has yet to achieve).  It also went on to spawn two sequels, 1984’s splendid INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM (one of the finest sequels ever made) and 1989’s well-conceived INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE (where Ford himself was teamed up – rather serendipitously – with former Bond star Sean Connery).  RAIDERS' respectability still gathers accolades.  In 1998 The American Film Institute placed the film as the 60th best film of all-time on its list of the TOP 100.  In 1999 RAIDERS was deemed “culturally significant enough” to be placed in the vaults of the National Film Registry to be preserved for future generations.  Without a doubt, RAIDERS deserves all of this praiseIt's immensely gratifying to see that someone feels the film important enough to be viewed by future generations.

Revisiting RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK reminds me of why I go to the movies.  It’s one of the cinema’s immense, blissful and triumphant “out-of-body” films.  You know, the ones that successfully transport you out of your current state in the world and allow you to effortlessly engage in the world of the film.  RAIDERS – even after 25 years and dozens upon dozens of viewings – still holds up as one of the most thoroughly enjoyable and entertaining actioneers in film history.  The film sort of taps into our most deeply rooted childhood pleasures and fantasies.  Watching it reminds me of the sensation I had reading the first comic book I ever purchased.  I opened it up, became embroiled in the larger-than-life characters, the intense and rollicking action, and the suspenseful intrigue and tension.  I still remember buying my first comic.  It cost 40 cents and I drank in every page with a wide-eyed smile across my face.  

RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK elicits the same reaction.  It still makes me feel like a kid.

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