I’ll admit, taking a critical eye to the Indiana Jones movies is an intimidating thought, because so much has already been written in praise of the trilogy that what could I possibly add except more praise? Well, hopefully it’ll be reasonable, thoughtful, and insightful praise in what turned out to be a super-long update. And it provides an excuse to watch 1981’s Raiders of the Lost Ark again.
Its really rather simple. Dr. Henry “Indiana” Jones is an archeologist in 1936 who does extensive field work and gets recruited by the US Government to track down the Old Testament Ark of the Covenant before the Nazis do because the Germans might find a way to weaponize it. What follows is a globe-trotting, two-fisted race against time ADVENTURE!
No, really, that’s it. That’s the plot right there. Two sentences and we’re good to go. Beautiful, isn’t it?
Raiders is beautifully gritty. What do I mean by that? It means director Steven Spielberg and director of photography Douglas Slocombe take us from dank South America to frozen Nepal to Egypt (well, locations meant to be those places at least) and give us all kinds of incredibly well-shot and lit harrowing situations. There’s death traps, golden idols, a giant boulder, tarantulas, a creepy Gestapo agent, and a bar brawl that ends with a tavern burning to the ground. And that’s just the first half hour. Then there’s chase scenes, Nazis getting punched in the face, ancient tombs and riddles, more chase scenes, a Nazi monkey, the finding of the Ark, Indy having a semi-belligerent relationship with an ex-girlfriend, an aristocratic French archeologist working with the Nazis, a fistfight against the backdrop of a flying wing on an airstrip, Nazis getting punched in the face, a U-Boat, and the constant struggle between Indy and the Nazis over who will claim the Ark. The movie is loaded to the gills with awesome stuff that happens. It clocks in at about two hours, and the pacing and content is just so damn good that there’s really not a single bit of fat that could’ve been trimmed from the finished product. It is, in essence, a perfect example of an ADVENTURE! movie with perfect pacing. And Nazis getting punched in the face.
Some highlights: The South American intro to Indiana going through incredible effort and avoiding all kinds of death traps (and the iconic giant boulder) only to have the idol taken from him at spear point is a fantastic character introduction. The digging in the desert that leads to the discovery of the Well of Souls and the discovery of the Ark of the Covenant is suitably majestic and epic. Even the expository scene at the University between Indy and the Feds who recruit him is incredibly well done. Its straight up exposition, but all of the things mentioned come back around and happen by the end. Its fantastic.
Then there’s the action sequences, and what action sequences they are! The fight with the German mechanic and the flying wing stands out as a great miniboss fight filled with great escalation, tension, and choreography. What makes it awesome is that they essentially made it up as they went. The truck chase through the desert that follows it is also incredible. And these action scenes are done in the traditional “stunt men & pyrotechnics” method. All of its as real as it can be.
The special effects are also damn good. The Ark is mystical/magical, and in addition to the famous melting/exploding Nazis, there’s all kinds of mystical stuff throughout the film. The Ark burns the Nazi logo on its crate. Even more subtly, as the movie progresses, whenever characters even so much as mention the Ark, it causes strange localized atmospheric changes, like a gust of wind or a thunderstorm during a dig. The subtle touches are just as important as the blatant ones, and this does both well. Okay, sure, some of the blue screen effects are certainly showing their age, but honestly, it detracts nothing from the viewing experience because the rest of the movie is so visually amazing. Besides, there’s stuff that was made in the last ten years which has aged much worse in the effects department.
I think part of the reason why it works is because it’s a movie set in 1936 made in 1981 using filmmaking techniques that were not impossible for the 1930s (as in computers and stuff). Lots of locations, soundstages, props, stuntmen, pyro, models, camera tricks, stop-motion. All of it was really done in front of cameras and recorded on celluloid. It adds a…plausibility to it. It’s a direct line to that old Hollywood craft tradition and wears that heritage proudly.
Dr. Henry “Indiana” Jones: Harrison Ford completely nails the two-fisted pulpy charm of the character. And Indy’s not even a character so much as an archetype to hang the ADVENTURE! on. What’s Indy’s character? He’s a brilliant, handsome, tough-as-nails archeologist who’s students all love him, hates villains, loves beautiful women, and is terrified of snakes. He wears a fedora and is great with a bullwhip. And that’s Indy in a nutshell. He gets introduced as a take-no-shit guy who doesn’t hesitate to bullwhip a guy who tries to shoot him in the back, so he’s clearly a man of action. But despite this, Indy’s not a Mary Sue character because he has incredibly spotty luck. He always manages to get the ever-loving crap kicked out of him, he gets captured all the time, and the bad guys are frequently able to trick or outwit him. About the only thing that consistently goes right for him is that he’s doggedly persistent and really good at surviving things that should kill him. In short, he is an everyman hero. The only actual character development he gets in the movie is: “Learns to respect the power of the supernatural as it pertains to legendary artifacts.” Aside from that, he’s just an awesome professor who punches Nazis and hates snakes.
Dr. Marcus Brody: Denholm Elliott plays Indy’s boss at the museum. He’s highly intelligent, well-connected, and rather paternal, but he’s past his adventuring prime and has to deal with negotiations and red tape at home. A staunch and charming ally, but not someone who can back Indy up in the field. He, like most everybody else in the archeology business in this movie, has respect for the Ark, and warns Indy to be cautious and respectful of it should he find it, because who knows what kind of forces are at work within it?
Satipo: Alfred Molina in his first movie role! He’s a cowardly and ultimately treacherous sidekick in South America and really only noteworthy for having a long and successful career after appearing in Raiders.
Sallah: John Rhys-Davies is great as Indy’s Cairo contact. He’s a jolly man with a big family and prone to singing merrily who runs a digging crew that gets hired by the Nazis to dig for the Ark (along with every other digger in Cairo). Another staunch ally, he gets a lot of choice dialogue bits. He too gets very respectful when discussing the Ark.
Marion Ravenwood: Karen Allen from Animal House is Indy’s love interest in this movie. She’s the daughter of Abner Ravenwood, an old mentor of Indy’s that was tracking the Ark. He died before the movie, but Marion has a medallion that’s the key to finding the Ark. She runs a bar in Nepal and wants to get back to the states. They have a rocky history together, and she slugs Indy one on their first reunion. Marion’s a great female character. Smart, tough, independent, feisty, handy in a fight, brunette, and capable of drinking most men under the table. God, she’s like my ideal woman. She does tend to get captured a lot, but so does Indy and that’s one more thing they have in common.
Major Arnold Toht: Ronald Lacey plays the creepy Gestapo agent with oily perfection. Sinister, weasely, and sadistic, he conveys enough menace that he doesn’t even really have to do anything physically evil on screen to get across the threat of it. It culminates in a great gag where he enters a tent with a captured Marion and brings out a chain with sticks attached that looks like a torture device but turns out to be a coat hanger. It’s a great gag.
Colonel Dietrich: Wolf Kahler plays the German officer in charge of the expedition. He’s more of the “I’m doing my job but I’m still a jerk” brand of secondary villain. And provides someone who can logistically provide all the Nazi goons that get killed during the movie.
Dr. Rene Belloq: Paul Freeman plays an incredibly sophisticated villain. He is an incredibly intelligent, cultured, and resourceful French archeologist who is a rival of Dr. Jones. He’s the one in the beginning who snatches the idol out of Jones’ hands. I think he’s possibly the best villain of the series and likely a standout one for movies in general. He’s a smug, traitorous bastard, but he’s never uncivilized about it, he’s perfectly willing to be reasonable and possibly even compromise at times. He certainly compromises by helping the Nazis (whom he doesn’t personally like, but they have the logistics and manpower to find the Ark and is ready to disagree with them on various issues). He, like Jones, is superhumanly motivated in his quest for antiquities. Similarly, he’s also got a thing for the ladies, but he’s a bit more lecherous about it (he pervs on Marion when she changes into a nice dress by looking in a mirror at her). And like Jones he also wants to find artifacts for the betterment of mankind. The difference is his hubris. He not only wants to find the relic of the century, but also to attach his name to the finding of it. Glory is his goal, and perhaps he’s also intrigued by that mysterious association with “Power” that the Ark has. He certainly wants to know what it is. He’s an absolutely fascinating character and frequently likable.
Story by George Lucas & Phillip Kaufman, Screenplay by Lawrence Kasdan. Being a plot-driven ADVENTURE! I’ve already discussed a lot about what makes the movie work, but there’s still room to discuss things. Dialogue is outstanding in this movie, with some excellent one-liners and exchanges (Sallah gets a lot of them). Pacing again should be praised, because everything in the movie furthers the plot and characters and nothing is extraneous. There’s nothing that doesn’t relate to either the next scene or a bit of information that was or will be revealed. It all fits together into a watertight package. Sure some of the characters might be drawn in broad strokes, but they’re all memorable and incredibly well executed.
Original Music by John Williams and it is, naturally, exceptional. Of course there’s The Raiders March main theme (or as closed captioning liked to call it “Rousing Adventure Music plays”), but the other major themes are excellent as well. The Love Theme is sweeping and tender and the Ark Theme is magical, mysterious and carries a hint of danger. Like everything else in this movie, the sounds (including the sound editing by Ben Burtt) are exceptional. Oh, and throughout the trilogy, keep an ear out for the Wilhelm scream.
Raiders of the Lost Ark is an amazing movie. This is common knowledge. It stands up to thorough analysis. That’s like proving its good with Science! Hopefully my pretentious little insights give you an excuse to revisit the movie again and look for stuff you might’ve missed. Hell, this viewing made me look at Belloq with newfound appreciation.
And if you haven’t seen Raiders yet, what is wrong with you?? Go and correct this right now! Its only two hours long, and those are hours well-spent on every viewing.