Saturday, November 10, 2012

Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
Directed by: Steven Spielberg
Starring: Harrison Ford, Karen Allen, Paul Freeman, Denholm Elliot, John Rhys-Davies, Ronald Lacey
(115 minutes, Color)

Indiana Jones hates snakes.
Seeing Raiders of the Lost Ark was one of the most joyous experiences I've had while viewing a movie. I was around ten or eleven years old the first time I saw it with my dad and brothers in the basement of our house. Though the Indiana Jones series has always been a staple in the movie-going of young boys, for me, viewing Raiders of the Lost Ark was a more enthralling experience than for most kids. As a highly sheltered kid, even kept from many PG rated movies, I had never seen any true "adventure" movies, unless one counts the brief and mildly suspenseful interludes in Disney movies. Everything about Raiders of the Lost Ark seemed raw and invigorating. I admired Indiana Jones's confident swagger and cleverness. I felt almost personally threatened by Toht, the bespectacled, bizarre and sadistic Nazi torture specialist. The scene in which Toht ominously withdraws a torture device from his briefcase, only to make it into a coat hanger, nearly had me falling off of my chair in suspense. The movie's stunts and miraculously extravagant chase scenes were not only thrilling to me, but also smartly funny. Despite the many real emotions I felt while watching Indy battle his way across South America, Nepal, and Egypt, I sensed even at age ten that Raiders was a movie created for one of the cinema's highest callings, one that today is too often cheapened: pure, illustrious entertainment.

Raiders of the Lost Ark plays like a greatest hits compilation of wild stunts and extreme misadventures. The movie never feels rushed, but at the same time never slows to allow the audiences to breathe. Massive boulders, darts and arrows, angry Indians, living skeletons, machine-gun wielding Nazis, and thousands of poisonous snakes all get more than ample screen time in the film's now-famous action sequences. Steven Spielberg and George Lucas created the movie from the inspiration of 30s serials and Sunday matinees. These mini-adventure stories were universally appealing to all ages and genders and unabashedly unrealistic. They weren't concerned with earning credibility from the audience, they were concerned with showing the audience a good time. Raiders follows this example, but in a manner much different from that of present films. Though the primary goal, and effect, of Raiders is entertainment and suspense, Spielberg and Lucas also succeeded in making a fulfilling and masterful film. They achieved the maximum level of thrills without cheapening the plot or characters or sacrificing artistic standards. Not only is Raiders one of the most popular movies ever made, it is also commonly held to be one of the best, with good reason.

The well-known plot begins as archaeologist Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) is at the tail end of an expedition in South America. The exploit doesn't end well, with Jones being forced to flee from incensed natives and his treasure being stolen by his rival, French archeologist Rene Belloq (Paul Freeman). At home, Jones is approached by the US government about another quest: find the legendary Ark of the Covenant before Hitler does. The Nazis (with Belloq as their guide) have discovered the Ark's location, and it's up to Jones to steal the artifact away before the Freuhr can get his hands on it. Along the way, Jones must pick up his old flame Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen), who possesses an artifact required to exactly locate the Ark. Ravenwood is a damsel, no doubt, but a kick-ass one at that. Upon viewing Raiders again, and also one of its sequels Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (in which Marion returns to aid in the adventure), I was struck by how little Indy slows down for Marion. Sure, she needs to be saved now and again like any serial heroine, but for the most part, Jones just assumes she can keep up. Allen molds Marion into a feisty woman who can more than take care of herself. She's just as resourceful and good with a gun as Indy is.

It's the characters that make the plot of the movie so memorable. Originally, Indiana was slated to be a James Bond-esque playboy, but it was Spielberg's idea to make him a more run-down hero, akin to Bogart's Rick Blaine or Fred C. Dobbs in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Indiana is not Superman. He's repeatedly battered and bruised throughout the course of the movie. At one point, as Marion pulls off his shirt to bandage him, he deadpans, "It's not the years, honey, it's the mileage." His casual confidence coupled with his reckless cleverness appealed to audiences.

Belloq also makes for an exceptional villain. In a genre where "bad guys" are almost always reduced to caricatures to be destroyed in the end, Belloq is a shining example of the perfect "nemesis." He's charming and witty, at times a downright gentleman. His motivations are the same as Indiana's; he doesn't want to control the Ark, and he's certainly no Nazi. He desires truth and preservation. "Our methods are not as different as you pretend," Belloq says to Indy at one point. "I am but a shadowy reflection of you." The two are truly two sides of the same coin, and that makes their confrontations fresh and engaging to watch. Of course, Spielberg creates other villains to fulfill the nasty quota: the sniveling Nazi Colonel Dietrich, and the aforementioned sadist Toht. There are also plenty of heroes: Indy's jovial Egyptian ally Sallah (John Rhys-Davies), and Jones's cautious intellectual co-worker, Marcus Brody (the late Denholm Elliot). The supporting characters flesh out the movie's background and heighten the pace of the action.

I would be remiss if I didn't mention anything about John Williams's score, which is one of the greatest in American film. His work in this film is a throwback to the theatrical scores of old, and is anything but subdued. His compositions don't just complement the action, they create action of their own. The grand, romantic "Marion's Theme" is my favorite piece from the movie, but the entire score is just as effective. In the movie's jungle beginnings, Williams uses a splendid concoction of percussion to lure the viewer into the exotic atmosphere and build suspense, only to then break loose with blaring trumpets to accompany the dizzying action. This is one of the few scores I listen to and am able to watch the movie in my head. Every chord and progression gives body and soul to what happens on screen, and without the score, the movie would be reduced to a lesser shell of itself.

After watching Raiders for the first time, I wanted to be Indiana Jones, or at least be friends with him. Car chases and bullwhips filled my imagination, and the obsession I found with remarkably (even morbidly) creative, deadly adventure is evident now when I go back and read the Indy-inspired short stories I wrote around that time. Upon each subsequent viewing, the movie has only endeared itself to me more. Of course it's far-fetched, but I'd be hard-pressed to find a single flaw in it. Movies are frequently famous for a long time, but it's rare when a film is handed down like a treasure or family heirloom from generation to generation. Raiders of the Lost Ark is one of those films, and for that reason, it's a national treasure. I can't wait to break out the Indy hat in the future and watch it with my kids.

Raiders was rated PG in 1981 for unspecified reasons, most likely due to its violence and brief profanity.  The action is fantastic and the violence is usually limited, but there is occasional blood with a gunshot wound or stabbing.  Many men are turned to skeletons/electrocuted by a supernatural force.  One man's head explodes (not graphic), and another's face melts off (we see his skull).  Mild language like "hell" and "damn" pops up infrequently.

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