“Snakes. Why’d it have to be snakes?”
“All your life has been spent in pursuit of archaeological relics. Inside the Ark are treasures beyond your wildest aspirations. You want to see it opened as well as I. Indiana, we are simply passing through history. This, this *is* history.”
“The Bible speaks of the Ark leveling mountains and laying waste to entire regions. An army which carries the Ark before it… is invincible.”
If we sidestep Steven Spielberg’s previous outing “1941”, we can see within the span of 6 or so years, Spielberg had completely changed the landscape of popular culture forever. Indiana Jones is a legend. A character burned into the memory recesses of my childhood imagination. A looming figure that I still revisit. A hero who is undaunted by danger and courageous in the face of danger that include Nazi’s, booby traps, and outsized rolling boulders.
“Raiders of the Lost Ark” is so famous and well-known that it is impossible for me to know a world where the movie did not exist. I was all of one years old when the film came out. However, one day in the past, people (namely George Lucas and Philip Kaufman and an uncredited Spielberg) came up with this story inspired by old Saturday matinee serials and comic book plots. Can you think of anything like this before the 1981 release?
Put simply, this is one of the best action/adventure movies of all time if not the greatest. While the film never takes itself seriously, it does take seriously the cascading thrill ride that is presented to the audience. The action is intensely relentless save for a few moments we are spared for the plot details to be discussed.
The action starts in the jungles of Peru where Dr. Indiana Jones and his crew are hunting for the Chachapoyan Fertility Idol. They brave eerie caverns of cobwebs with tarantulas, hidden spears, fall away floors leading to deep pits, and falling concrete slab doors. Dr. Jones is betrayed by his fellow traveler and then escapes the aforementioned rolling boulder. After being chased by the Hovito people in the moments post Rene Belloq (Paul Freeman) stealing the relic from him, he swims out to a biplane to fly away into the sunset. He lets out a scream upon seeing a “pet snake” Ritchie sharing a ride with him. “I hate snakes!” Dr. Jones is fearless in the face of danger except for when those moments involve snakes.
Returning to his professor post at Marshall College, Dr. Jones is interviewed by two army intelligence officers who tell him that the Nazi’s are searching for his old mentor, Abner Ravenwood. This is one of the breaks in the action as we learn that Ravenwood is an expert in the ancient city of Tanis in Egypt and possesses an ancient headpiece of the staff of Ra. Dr. Jones deduces that the Nazi’s are searching for the legendary ark of the covenant. Comments are made about the ark being able to level mountains and lay waste to entire cities. A Hitler and his Third Reich on the ascendancy in 1936 would become indestructible with such power. “Lightning. Fire. Power of God or something,” exclaims Dr. Jones. How could Indiana Jones not get involved?
The screenplay by Lawrence Kasdan has our hero venturing to Nepal, the deserts of Egypt, a couple of forgotten tombs, a secret submarine base and a remote island. There is a gunfight in a bar that is on fire, cat and mouse foot races through Cairo, a pit of snakes, mysterious relics, an old fashioned auto chase along cliffs, and a climatic scene documenting the wrath of God (Spielberg sticks it to the Nazi’s). Like the closest of friends, John Williams top notch score accompanies us on these adventures with his heroic theme (world famous) and slower music that communicates a more mysterious aura as Dr. Jones uncovers more important secrets. One could travel the world over and not know any other languages but if they hummed the Indiana Jones theme music, how many human connections could they make on that basis alone?
There is a love interest, Marion Ravenwood (brilliantly played by Karen Allen). She is the daughter of Abner and has an unpleasant history with Dr. Jones. Yes, she becomes a damsel-in-distress in the course of the movie but she has a strong character and nature. Several scenes show her drinking big grown men under the table and grinning as she takes their money. A person of secrets, her relationship to Indiana Jones is unique to other action film characters.
Rarely do they ever make movies like this especially any more. The movie is nearly perfect and yet with the minor imperfections, we would not change a thing. Imagine the uproar if Spielberg pulled what George Lucas did with the Star Wars series and updated the special effects? There would (hopefully) be a revolt. The special effects at the end, when the ark is opened and the Nazi’s faces melt off or explode, are certainly dated but the scene adds to this film’s timeless character.
Even in Spielberg’s considerable filmography which contains multiple masterpieces and several films very close to that status, “Raiders of the Lost Ark” is simply (and perhaps easily) one of his finest films. Deservedly one of the all time greats.
Lester Lauding Level: 5 (out of 5)
Ranking of Spielberg Movie (so far):
Raiders of the Lost Ark
Jaws (Review here)
Close Encounters of the Third Kind (Review here)
Duel (Review here)
The Post (Review here)
The Sugarland Express (Review here)
1941 (Review here)