In the 27 years that have passed since the original release of Raiders of the Lost Ark there have been countless homages and rip-offs, endless lists of films inspired by Spielberg’s action masterpiece and even a shot-for-shot copy made by a bunch of kids that brought them to fame. With the impending release of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull it seems right to reflect on the original’s greatness.
Professor Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) is an archaeologist, introduced to the audience during a race to obtain a golden figurine from a crypt in South America in 1936. He is accompanied by a couple of hired helpers, neither of whom seem particularly trustworthy as Jones will soon discover. Jones manages to avoid the traps laid by the guardians of the idol and grab the stone for himself, but in doing so sets off a chain of booby-traps that must surely lead to his death like so many others before him.
The introductory sequence is a near-perfect piece of action staging and, given it also defines the character and skillset of the hero, a remarkable achievement in its own right. Jones is shown to be brave, athletic, intelligent, determined, highly skilled and loyal, but also somewhat naïve and possessing an unnatural fear of snakes. One imagines the reaction of cinema-goers during this first segment as being utterly enthralled. More is to come in the following sequence, however, as Jones is seen teaching a college class filled with women, one of whom has drawn LOVE YOU in reverse on her eyelids and insists on closing her eyes to send him the message. Not only does Jones possess all of the above characteristics, but in case the female members of the audience weren’t already enraptured, Spielberg gives them the hint it’s ok to see him as a sex symbol!
What follows is one brilliantly executed action set piece after another, with fights, chase scenes, machine gun fire and crazed Nazis to contend with. The pacing is just about right, although there is occasionally a lack of exposition to explain the action that may jar if paying close attention. Otherwise it is one long and bumpy ride in which the audience barely has time to catch its breath before setting off on the next impossible triumph.
Watching the dvd in 2008 may provoke the occasional smirk at the animation or visual effects in some sequences, but for the most part Raiders has withstood the advance of technology to remain a spectacle. It is actually rather astonishing that so few scenes have dated visually, suggesting Spielberg and Lucas were way in advance of their time.
The late 70s and early 80s were the peak of Harrison Ford’s career, with roles in Star Wars Episodes IV and V just prior to Raiders, and Blade Runner and Star Wars Episode VI immediately after it, with his Oscar-nominated performance in Witness to follow Temple of Doom. Ford gives an iconic performance as Jones, with his now trademark wry grin and quick wit also familiar from his playing Han Solo in Lucas’ Star Wars trilogy. It is a mark of the performance (and also the stature of the film itself) that it is impossible to imagine another actor in the leather jacket and fedora.
Alongside Ford, Karen Allen is feisty although Marion is a litttle underdone as a love interest, serving mainly as a foil to Jones rather than in her own right. Freeman is suitably nasty as Belloq, while John Rhys-Davies, Denholm Elliott and Alfred Molina all appear in supporting roles. Rhys-Davies perhaps fares best given the screen time his Sallah is afforded, but Molina provides the more memorable of the three performances as Satipo.
While some consider Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade the best of the three in the series to date, many more think back most fondly to their first experience of Indy in Raiders of the Lost Ark. Its release was also the sign of much bigger things to come from director Steven Spielberg, who after the success of Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind experienced his first major flop with 1941. Raiders would welcome in a decade or more of nearly unparallelled screen output from a man now regarded as visionary.Rating:
Stuart talked about Raiders of the Lost Ark on Chatflixpodcast.