Editor’s Note: This month marks the 35th Anniversary of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Feel free to share your memories of this film in the comments section below.
Sometimes assessing films from our childhood can be a daunting thing. I still have never written a review of a Star Wars film because I can’t get past my wide-eyed love of the franchise enough to feel I can critique it. Raiders of the Lost Ark may also be one of those films. I missed it when it was in theaters, being only 4 months old when it was released, but I watched it and its sequels throughout my youth and loved pretending to be Indiana Jones, with a makeshift whip, a cap gun and a satchel for storing my ‘artifacts’. Now that I look at it with older eyes, and passing my love of the film on to my now 12-year-old son (who also adores the franchise), I wonder what made me love it all those years ago and what makes me still love it today.
The story, as if no one knows it by now, is of world-renowned archeologist Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford)’s quest, at the behest of the U.S. Government, to find the Ark of the Covenant before the Nazis do. The film is set in 1936, three years before the Nazi invasion of Poland and the start of World War II. Hitler is collecting religious and occult artifacts (which is something he really did, in an attempt to harness their power and rule the world according to his warped ideal) and may have found the location of the lost Ark of the Covenant, the gilded box that is said to contain the remnants of the Ten Commandments. His ultimate stop is Egypt, but he has to make a stop in Tibet to obtain an artifact that will lead directly to the Ark from Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen), an old flame and daughter to his mentor. She joins up with him after losing her bar to a fire caused by a fight with Nazis who are also attempting to get the piece. They travel to Cairo and meet up with Sallah (John Rhys-Davies), an old friend of Indy’s who is on the team hired by the Nazis to unearth the lost city of Tanis, where the Ark is fabled to be held.
So how is it that this Saturday matinee-emulating actioner one of the best films ever made? How does this seemingly throw-away movie become the top box-office earner for 1981 and continue to delight audiences of all ages 35 years after its release?
The answer is, of course, multi-fold. First and foremost is Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones. His approach to the character is kind of like a literate Han Solo, knowing more or less what he’s jumping into but having to come up with everything else as he goes along (a line from Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens, also written by Lawrence Kasdan, could easily be put into an Indy film, where Rey asks “Is that even possible?” and Han replies “I never ask that question until after I’ve already done it”), even admitting as much to Sallah. He’s so practiced at being reckless that solutions to deadly predicaments come easy to him. He also made sure to let everyone know that he’s just as valuable in a classroom as he is in a fight (probably more so, since he often gets pretty injured during fights). Ford’s natural, nonchalant humor is also a high-point of his characterization. Able to turn a deadly situation into a joke as quickly as he wonders if he’s going to make it out alive. He often wonders how he’s going to make it through the next five minutes and just crosses his fingers and throws himself in headfirst.
Adding to Ford’s flawless characterization is Steven Spielberg’s breakneck direction. His framing and execution of action sequences is unmatched as he hurls us into the action with Indy, most of the time in close quarters so we can feel the danger he’s in for ourselves. He has a way of putting the camera where you least expect it but couldn’t imagine another place for it. His trademark shot of people looking at something going on is utilized to great effect here, often in a low angle so we get the awe of what is being beheld without really needing to see what is so awe-inspiring. To add to that, he and his longtime editor Michael Kahn never gives the audience a chance to catch their breath, launching from one exciting scene to another, setting the bar for modern action films (for better or for worse). It works here because of the investment you have with the characters and does not, contrary to legendary film critic Pauline Kael, leave you exhausted at the end. It does quite the opposite, in fact, it leaves the audience invigorated and ready to see what else Indy can get himself into and out of. Spielberg uses this attachment to the characters to build them during these action sequences, rarely slowing down for a tender conversation but still letting the characters grow and evolve over the course of the film.
Spielberg had help in doing that, though. The script, penned by Lawrence Kasdan (who had, just a year before, written the screenplay for Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back), crafted real characters based on a story idea by Star Wars creator and executive producer George Lucas and Phillip Kaufman (who would go on to write and direct The Right Stuff and The Unbearable Lightness of Being). Kasdan found a way to immediately endear Indy to the audience in the opening sequence, making him look tough and smart while also comical and a little bit of a bungler. Each character in the film is essentially based on a Saturday matinee serial architype but then each one blossoms into something more. It would be easy to reduce these characters to their architypes if you’re looking to take the film down, but that would be missing the quality of work Kasdan achieves with his script. He weaves in adventure, love, loss, passion, intelligence and humor effortlessly throughout the film crafting what may well be the greatest action screenplay ever written (sorry, Shane Black).
Over all of this plays one of the most recognizable scores ever written for a film. Composer John Williams is no stranger to rousing themes, and his “Raiders March” stands with his greatest compositions (which are of course the themes to Star Wars and Jaws). Williams doesn’t do subtle and neither does Raiders. Each piece on the soundtrack is exciting and fraught with danger and perfectly underscores each scene it plays under (and sometimes over).
Still, with as much love as the film has garnered over the years, there are still detractors, although they are in the minority. Pauline Kael, as mentioned above, as well as Chicago Tribune critic Michael Phillips (who made his dislike for the film very well-known during a ‘Sacred Cow’ review on the Filmspotting podcast a few years ago, holding on to his relatively unchanged opinion of the film from his first viewing in 1981) and Jeffery Westhoff of the Northwest Herold who stated that without Indy, the film would be the same: The Nazis would find the ark and would still get their faces melted (spoiler alert, I guess?). Westhoff is wrong, of course, because without Indy, the Nazis might never have located the Ark, as they were digging in the wrong place and if they did find it, it would just be sitting out in the open on whatever island they were on for someone else to find.
Raiders of the Lost Ark is one of the greatest films ever made and is still great after all these years because when all of those points above are combined, a film that is just plain fun emerges. There are some leaps in logic and believability, but who cares? The film is finely crafted, expertly acted, excellently written and scored and leaves you feeling great by the end. It’s not high art, but that doesn’t matter, not every great film is. Film exists to transport us to a time and place we would never get to go otherwise and Raiders of the Lost Ark does that in spades. Quibble and bemoan all you want about what the film spawned in its wake, the fact is that the original is a masterpiece that will continue to delight audiences for another 35 years and beyond because as Indy says “It’s not the years, it’s the mileage” and even though the odometer is high, Raiders of the Lost Ark still performs perfectly and has a lot more miles in it.