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Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

| June 12, 1981 | 0 Comments

Steven Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark is the template on how to make a great action film. Seen by itself, it is probably the most beloved action picture in cinema history, but if you stand back and look at it in the pantheon of Spielberg’s work, it isn’t exactly intellectualized. Critics loved it at the time, but many agreed that it was shallow. It may seem that way but if you look deep into the origins of Steven Spielberg’s work you can probably find a personal agenda creeping into the sides of even his least works.

Raiders of the Lost Ark isn’t one of his lesser films, but one might be inclined to think that. I don’t believe that’s true, because beneath his bone-jangling action scenes and snappy wit there is a level of dark urgency. When this film is mentioned there are usually a lot of knowing smiles and no one doubts that it is fun, but an in-depth discussion is a rare thing. I think I understand why. Raiders can be an easy to write-off as a cheesecake action movie, a lark that Spielberg dreamed up between, Close Encounters and E.T. I think the film is just as deep, where E.T. was Spielberg’s personal observation about divorce and Close Encounters displayed his desire to not be alone, Raiders taps into a childhood love of Saturday Matinee Serials and subconsciously to his hatred of Nazis.

I think that the movie is far more intelligent than most give it credit for. This is one of the most well-paced action movies I can remember. It takes the time to build a story we care about, unlike most Hollywood product that seems to be playing Beat the Clock with the audience’s presumed case of attention deficit disorder. The first hour of the film is a build up long before we see the Ark. That time contains the search for the artifact to find the artifact, a gold medallion of which the bad guys only have a diagram. Most movies spend five minutes of discussion time before the movie’s prize is found (witness Stargate in which the hero walked in and wrote the solution on a blackboard). I rarely see a movie in which the director is willing to devote this much build-up.

I am relieved the see a hero who is intelligent and fallible. Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford), a professor who moonlights as an adventuring archaeologist digging in caves for lost artifacts (or is it the other way around?). Casting is important here because the role needed to go to a likable guy who can take it on the chin and make us believe that he isn’t the center of the action. Harrison Ford broke away from Han Solo by playing a man who is a bit more mature and worn-down. The movie introduces Indiana as a college professor and he is allowed to think rather than just act as the token for action sequences, even though he gets into more scrapes than any action hero that I can think of. He gets punched, beaten, shot, burned, dragged and clipped on the jaw. He is nearly crushed by a boulder, skewered with arrows, bitten by snakes, blown up, hacked by a propeller, crushed between two cars and nearly falls to his death while hanging by his fingernails over a bottomless pit.

For me, the movie fulfills two requirements: First, It has action scenes that mean something and don’t feel tacked on and when it is over I feel that something has been accomplished. Of course this movie is all in the journey. Consider how Spielberg allows the movie to jump from one grandiose action sequence to the next. Beginning with the scene in which Indy is down in the Well of Souls surrounded by snakes follows with a mummy attack, a fight on a Nazi Flying Wing and the famous truck chase. For at least an hour the movie doesn’t slow down.

My second requirement is that the movie have something at stake. For that, the movie has Indiana chasing The Ark of the Covenant before the Nazi’s can get their hands on it. We are told with some dread that “An army which carries the ark before it is invincible”. We know how horrible and efficient the Nazis were and we know what is at stake if they can become invincible. They have always been the favorite villains in the movies because most of us share a similar hatred toward Hitler and his thugs. We want to see them punished and the movie doesn’t let us down.

Searching for the Ark, the Nazis understand what is achieved if they obtain it, but they don’t understand its power. The Ark is portrayed in this movie as an object surrounded by death. Through the dialogue, Spielberg creates a grim tone around this object so we always know how dangerous it really is. From the moment that the movie calls the Ark into question we are told that “The bible speaks of The Ark leveling mountains” and “Death has always surrounded it”. Consider then that every time we see the ark in the movie, it is surrounded by motifs of death: rats, snakes, Nazis. There is an eerie scene in which it sits in a cargo hold in a crate embossed with the swastika and from the inside it burns the symbol on the outside. All of this more or less prepares us for what for ultimately happens when the Ark is opened and the spirits punish the Nazis for their blasphemy. There is a level of gruesome joy with which Spielberg and executive producer George Lucas dispatch their villains.

The Nazis in this film are portrayed in the best tradition of great films of the past. They are portrayed as shallow and one-dimensional. We see Colonel Dietrich (Wolfe Kauler), a boot-lackey of Hitler who at one point addresses “Only our mission for the fuehrer matters” and stays focused on his mission to get The Ark back to Berlin. And there is the black coated Nazi Gestapo officer (Ronald Lacey) who all but smacks his lips as he tortures the heroine. The major villain however has a bit more character. His name is Rene Belloq (Paul Freeman), a French archaeologist and Indy’s chief rival. He is in old adversary of Indy, an opportunist who on-ups him at every turn.

But as much depth as Raiders has, I must observe that the movie is just plain fun. There are action sequences here that have never been surpassed even a quarter of a century later. The movie ups the action by taking the scenes one step further, he creates and intelligent action movie in which we understand what is happening at all times and what is at stake.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.