Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
As legend has it George Lucas began to explain the germ of what would become Raiders of the Lost Ark shortly after Star Wars became an unexpected success. Where Star Wars was his take on the old science fiction serials, Lucas also wanted to make a film based on adventure serials that he remembered as a boy. Despite the success of Star Wars, Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, it still took a long time to convince a studio to let them do their movie. Finally Paramount did so.
Next was who was to play Indiana Jones. Lucas didn't want Harrison Ford, as he was afraid that Ford and himself would become associated the way Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro have. The truth was, though, that he was the best fit, and audiences were eager to see more of him. Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back had left Han Solo's fate dangling, and at the time that was the role that Ford was known for. Rather than forever associate him with Lucas the role of Indiana Jones directly got him a starring role in Blade Runner and opened up many new opportunities for him that his Star Wars costars never received.
It turned out that this was just what Spielberg needed as well. Despite his recent success, 1941 was a major flop. It ran into production troubles, went over time and over budget, and failed to reach audiences like his previous horror and science fiction films did. Lawrence Kasdan, a frequent collaborator with Lucas, developed the screenplay from Lucas's original story and off everyone went to Tunisia - to get overheated, get sick and make one of the most fondly remembered films of all time.
We begin in South America where Indiana Jones is trying to retrieve a fertility idol from an ancient temple. The temple is filled with booby traps, something the last guy hunting the idol didn't take into account, but Indy manages to get through them and get the idol - only to have it stolen by a rival French archaeologist named Belloq (Paul Freeman), who instead of making sure the items he retrieves ends up in his possession go to a museum instead sells on the open market. Indy escapes back to the U.S., and is recruited by the military to go to Egypt to retrieve another item - the Ark of the Covenant, thought to have been buried in the city of Tanis. The Nazis, with the help of Belloq, are looking for it, and the Army wants Indy to get it for the U.S. first.
Unfortunately, one of the things he needs to find the Ark is in the possession of Marion (Karen Allen), an old flame and the daughter of Jones's mentor. The Nazis are already onto this plan, sending their man Toht (Ronald Lacey) to retrieve the item from Marion's bar in Nepal. After foiling Toht's plan Marion and Indy partner up and continue to Egypt where, with the help of Sallah (John Rhys-Davies), they make some headway. Unfortunately, Belloq and his Nazi employers seem one step ahead of them the whole way.
As a child this movie was amazing. It is definitely an old-school PG, with a number of scenes that wouldn't even make it into PG-13 these days, but back then it was assumed that kids could handle some of the content. That children my age were even willing to grasp something like the Ark of the Covenant, something that definitely wasn't mentioned in Presbyterian Sunday school, for the sake of the story, says quite a lot. It relies heavily on a suspension of disbelief, especially since there is no doubt at all that the main character is going to survive. It all comes down to what sort of outrageous way he will get out of his latest jam, and in the golden age of cinema these would typically end on a cliffhanger where it seems the hero has no means of escape. For adults at the time it was definitely a throwback to their childhood, and for kids it was something brand new, and the guy who we all knew played Han Solo was amazing in it.
With such childhood nostalgia attached to it I was surprised to find out how well it held up, especially since it is far from being the perfect film. Despite Marion being introduced as a strong independent character she spends most of her time being a damsel in distress. The scene were Indy goes underneath the truck was a little too obviously sped up. In addition, I really can't say which is sillier: to see him lash himself to the periscope of a U-Boat or the fact that the finished film doesn't exactly explain how Indy managed to survive a submarine journey without being in the actual submarine. It is elements like this in the earlier films that still have me confused about why people were so concerned about him surviving a nuclear blast inside of a lead-lined refrigerator when, by all accounts, he probably should have been in little pieces in a jungle somewhere before even getting to this point in his life. It's as if an audience that was willing to believe an implausible fantasy story years before, and bought into it completely, had decided to be offended when asked to again for a fourth time.
The truth is that Raiders, and its prequel and sequels, are fantasy from the start. They are grounded in the real world, and the best ones tend to take their flights of fancy from The Bible, but it is fantasy, and that is why this one works so well. George Lucas may not be the greatest writer of dialogue, but he understands what entertains a mass audience, be it around a campfire thousands of years ago or in a movie theater today. Steven Spielberg knows as well, and knows better than Lucas on how to deliver it. I remember this being advertised as the two coming together, which still surprises me that so many studios didn't want to make the film. While it is true that Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull may be inferior, but there was no way this pairing wouldn't work at least once.
I would be remiss if I didn't mention how good the villains are. Paul Freedman makes an excellent rival to Indy, while Toht, though not playing a big part in the film, was still given a presence by Ronald Lacey that made him one of the more memorable movie bad guys of the time. The stunts are generally well done, and the practical effects at the end are still amazing to this day.
While definitely not the perfect film one might think it is as a child, Raiders of the Lost Ark is still one of the best films of its time and of its type. It brought adventure films back to the screen at a time when nothing else like this was playing, and it made Harrison Ford a bigger star than he had been even as Han Solo. Truth is, Indiana Jones was the better role, and Ford knew it, and gave it his all, and cinema was better for it.
Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
Time: 115 minutes
Starring: Harrison Ford, Karen Allen, Paul Freedman, John Rhys-Davies
Director: Steven Spielberg