Film Review - Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
In 1977 director Steven Spielberg was on holiday in Hawaii with his friend and fellow director George Lucas, fresh from the latter's recent completion of 'Star Wars'. Spielberg happened to mention that he had a strong inclination to make an action adventure for his next movie; it would be something fun, that involved travel to exotic locations. And it would be an affectionately nostalgic tribute to the escapist matinee features of his own childhood. It was George Lucas who then suggested the idea of basing the film around the character of a globe-trotting archaeologist. So was created one of the best loved characters in all of Hollywood movie history.
And the film in which this unlikely hero was to star? It was to be called 'Raiders of the Lost Ark', a movie destined to become the first episode in one of the most successful of all blockbuster series.
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WHAT'S THE STORY?
Indian Jones - intrepid archaeologist extraordinaire - is an adventurer on a quest to discover the world’s most unique artifacts. We see him first risking his neck and everything else in an attempt to retrieve a sacred icon from a remote cavern in a South American jungle. In the course of this quest he braves poisonous arrows and great stone balls - yes, great stone balls. But this is just a taster.
His next mission is to recover the legendary Ark of the Covenant of Biblical fame, an object with hidden supernatural powers which is to be found in a lost tomb in Egypt - a task which brings even more dangers in its wake, and not only the weird mystical dangers apparently put in Indiana’s way thousands of years beforehand by the ancients trying to protect their treasures for ever. This being the 1930’s there’s also a group of very unsavoury Nazis after the Ark for their own nefarious purposes. They are headed by black coated, black hatted Arnold Toht. There’s also a German colonel, who is the worst kind of Nazi soldier, and there’s an unscrupulous rival archaeologist, the Frenchman Rene Belloq.
What follows is a heady mix of deviously unpleasant characters, some impressively choreographed fight sequences, novel ways of dispatching villains, supernatural goings-on and chase sequences, taking in along the way the mountains of Nepal, the Egyptian desert, and an unnamed island in the middle of the Mediterranean. Oh, and there's also snakes; (to paraphrase Indiana Jones: 'Why do there have to be snakes?!')
This is rollercoaster fun, action and adventure, and it culminates in some of the most gruesome special effects anyone at that time had ever conjured up, as Indy struggles to save the Ark from tyranny and retrieve it for --- well for what exactly?
MAIN CAST & CHARACTERS
Dr Rene Belloq
THE FACTS OF THE FILM
DIRECTOR - Steven Spielberg
WRITERS - Lawrence Kasden (screenplay) / George Lucas, Philip Kaufman (story)
YEAR OF RELEASE - 1981
RUNNING TIME - 115 mins
GENRE - Action adventure
GUIDENCE - Some gory comic book violence
ACADEMY AWARDS - Norman Reynolds, Leslie Dilley, Michael Ford (Best Art/Set Direction) / Richard Edlund, Kit West, Bruce Nicholson, Joe Johnston (Best Visual Effects) / Michael Kahn (Best Film Editing) / Bill Varney, Steve Maslow, Gregg Landaker, Roy Charman (Best Sound)
ACADEMY NOMINATIONS - Nominated in 4 other categories; Best Film. Best Director. Best Music. Best Cinematography.
BEST CHARACTERS / PERFORMANCES
Ronald Lacey’s Arnold Toht is one of the greatest Nazis (if that is not a contradiction in terms) in Hollywood history - slimy, creepy, vile - just great! He first puts in an appearance in a remote Nepalese village where his attempts to torture Marion Ravenwood show him at his ghoulish best. Sadly his role seems diminished later in the film, but of course he’s there for the finish and the opening of the Ark, surely to face a suitably grisly end.
The other key members of the cast - Karen Black, Paul Freeman, Denholm Elliot, Wolf Kahler and John Rhys-Davies, all create attractive complimentary characters as foils or as partners for Indiana.
But it’s Harrison Ford and his unique creation Indiana Jones who makes ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark‘, the film that it is, and he will be the subject of a special feature (see below).
SPECIAL FEATURE - INDIANA JONES
A guy in a fedora hat and armed rather unusually with a whip, is having trouble with his so-called aids, some of whom are too scared out of their wits to continue, and some of whom can’t be trusted to turn one’s back upon. The guy would have looked distinctive in 1935 when the film was set, he looks distinctive in 1981 when this film was made, and he remains to this day one of the most distinctive and instantly identifiable characters in film history.
Indiana Jones is a university professor, who lectures in archaeology. So of course this makes him bespectacled, besuited, boring…. Not a bit of it! This is one professor who is anything but dull and bound up in his own erudite theorising. Jones is an archaeologist who’s not afraid of getting his hands dirty in his quest for ancient artifacts; and he’s not afraid to risk his neck taking on the bad guys who are also hell bent on securing these same artifacts. Actually, that’s not quite true - unlike your conventional average hero, Indiana Jones seems to be frequently frightened, running away from the bad guys, hiding - but he takes them on anyway.
Let’s face it, he isn’t the greatest archaeologist in history; in fact, he’s probably the worst. Initially in Latin America and then in a tomb in an Egyptian desert, it seems he actually destroys more ancient sites and priceless artifacts (such as a giant God statue) in a matter of minutes than any other archaeologist discovers in a lifetime. He repeats the same feat in subsequent adventures. (Incidentally, it was a revelation to me that the ancient Egyptians were the first civilisation to build their statues out of polystyrene.)
But we forgive him these minor failings, because it's really hard to hold Indiana Jones accountable for anything in what is a fantasy adventure. He is the character who bestrides this film like a colossus. The film is about him, not the Ark, not the Nazi raiders, and he’s present in almost every scene that matters. Spielberg obviously recognised all of this, and in future sequels, Indiana would not only get top billing - he would also be afforded a credit in the film title. Harrison Ford is ideally cast in the role of the adventurous archaeologist - charismatic, heroic, yet also very human (prone to fear and very occasional stupidity), all laced with a nice line in ironic humour. Indiana Jones is one of Hollywood’s greatest ever creations.
Even with Spielberg and Lucas behind the production, almost every major studio in Hollywood initially turned down the script.
One actor plays two rules in the movie. Barranca is one of the two guides in the South American jungle (the one who doesn't come to a sticky end in the cave). He is played by Vic Tablian, who also plays the monkey owner in Egypt.
In the famous confrontation with the Arab swordsman, (see 'Favourite Scenes') Indy was originally supposed to tear the sword out of his hands with a crack of his bullwhip. Unfortunately (or fortunately) Harrison Ford was sick with a dose of food poisoning, and didn't have the energy to exert himself too much. So an alternative method of winning the fight was employed, and a classic film moment was born.
In the snake scene, the snakes include cobras, pythons, many harmless types, legless lizards and pieces of hose pipe! (But no asps - see 'Favourite Quotes'.)
The pilot of the German plane (the 'flying wing') is played by none other than the film's producer, Frank Marshall, because all the stunt men were sick that day.
During the truck chase and fight, all three of Harrison's stunt doubles play German soldiers whom he throws off one by one.
The escapade right at the very start sets the scene for the entire Indiana Jones series. In the retrieving of the sacred icon (and subsequent losing of it) there are absurd booby traps, gory deaths, malevolent villains, chases with Jones pursued by a hail of arrows (not forgetting that stone ball), and liberal dollops of humour.
The aeroplane fight with a very tough German soldier is well choreographed, and the truck chase and battle with yet another German soldier which involves Indy briefly disappearing under the belly of the truck, is even better.
Without giving too much away, the sequence near the end when the Ark of the Covenant is finally opened in front of Indiana and Marian and all the villains is a perfect excuse for the special effects boys to get to work, which they clearly do with gruesome relish.
Even the very final moments of the film are well handled, as Spielberg gets almost serious for the only time and has a dig at the world of bureaucracy and officialdom; the Ark is locked away in a wooden crate in an anonymous warehouse amidst thousands of other crates by people who haven’t got a clue about its potential.
In this film there's so many visual gags, which are almost throwaway moments, but which add to the fun of the movie.Two such examples are these:
- Early on, Dr Jones is delivering a lecture to a class full of students. All the girl students are oblivious to his words - they are just swooning over him. One even has 'love you' inked on her eyelids. But that's not the gag. At the end they all file out and one student leaves an apple on teacher's desk; but of course it's not a girl - that would be too obvious - instead it's a young man.
- Marion is attempting to escape from a tent in the desert, where she is being held captive, but her attempt is thwarted by the arrival of Toht, the evil Nazi. Toht pulls from his leather bag a contraption consisting of three metal bars linked by chains - clearly some fiendish torture device. But it's not - it turns out to be nothing more threatening than a collapsible coathanger. Brilliant!
But now to the very best scene of all; the moment when Indiana encounters the scimitar wielding Arab. This man is dressed in black flowing robes, and he looks impressively malevolent and powerful, as he stands out from the crowd. Surely this is going to be a dangerous adversary for our hero? But we have forgotten one thing; this menacing man is armed with a sword, and Indiana Jones is armed with a gun. Indiana does what heroes just aren’t supposed to do, but which is eminently sensible in the circumstances - he draws his superior weaponry and just shoots him at a distance. Simple, audacious, brilliant inspiration on the part of the writers, Totally incorrect behaviour on the part of Indiana Jones, but shockingly funny.
I don't feel there's any real stand-out dialogue in this film - just lots of quick witted banter in keeping with the tone of the adventure.
Perhaps the best line is that aforementioned snake quote, which happens when Indy and his good friend Sallah are peering down into the great room where the Ark lies. The light is dim, but something catches Sallah's eye:
'Indy, why does the floor move?'
Jones uses a flaming torch to reveal the answer: 'Snakes! Why did it have to be snakes!'
Sallah helpfully informs him: 'Asps! Very dangerous.' Then a moment's thought, before a little more helpful advice, 'you go first.'
This was apparently also Spielberg's favourite line.
Pretty much nothing - as long as you are prepared to take the Indiana Jones adventures in the comic book manner in which they are intended to be taken. Everything is filmed tongue in cheek, and negatives - such as they are - should also be viewed tongue in cheek.
There's nonsense galore, if only you want to probe it - like the truck chase where it suddenly transpires that a seemingly flat, palm lined, quite well populated district turns out (briefly) to be at the top of a cliff about a mile high! And what on Earth are all those snakes feeding on when they don't have archaeologists to eat?
The only other query I'd raise is this; why don't we see more of Toht? This character is just wonderfully repulsive, but for some reason he’s reduced too often to a background role in this film.
WHAT'S SO GOOD ABOUT IT?
One thing I can guarantee is no one will get bored watching this film. There's no room for boredom; there's just too much action to fit in, for the characters to sit around contemplating the meaning of life - they just have to get on with living it and avoiding dying.
In this section of the page I should of course list the many other strengths of this movie, but what the heck - this is Indiana Jones and I don't think he could ever be too bothered with over analysing anything he comes across. Too much analysis would just get in the way of dealing with the next crisis, or enjoying the next adventure.
So let's ask the question again; what's so good about it?
Pretty much everything. Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones, Steven Spielberg directing - enough said.
CONCLUSIONS AND RECOMMENDATIONS
It’s difficult to criticise Raiders of the Lost Ark in any way, shape or form. You can’t seriously criticise the action sequences, the characterisations, the credibility of the set pieces without sounding like you’re suffering from a total sense of humour bypass. To analyse the story for inconsistencies is to miss the point of ‘Raiders’. This is boy’s comic book action at its best. This is light-hearted adventure at its best. This is Steven Spielberg at his best.
IF YOU LIKE THIS FILM ...
MY OTHER ACTION AND ADVENTURE REVIEWS INCLUDE.....
- Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom
The second outing for Spielberg's intrepid adventurer takes him to India, and encounters with crazed mystics, holy stones, and swarms of insects, and features a high octane concoction of thrills, spills, magic, gruesome comedy and an evil villain
Predator is a film in which a bunch of America's finest soldiers are pitted against an unseen enemy in a Central American jungle; just seven tough soldiers and one monstrous alien adversary which stalks them with an intention to kill them, one by one
- Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World
Russell Crowe is Captain Jack Aubrey in a tale of two dueling ships during the Napoleonic era. The Acheron is a tough, fast, state of the art French warship and more than a match for Aubrey's H.M.S Surprise. But Aubrey must find a way to defeat it
The film 'Zulu' relates the events of Rorke's Drift. It is a historical epic, the story of a heroic defence against seemingly impossible odds - a British 'Alamo' This is a review of the film
- Eye of the Needle
Henry Faber is a heartless German agent who will stop at nothing to complete his mission .... until, that is, he meets Lucy - someone who finds his heart; someone he cannot despatch with his usual ruthless efficiency