By the time I was born in 1990, Steven Spielberg, through triumphs like Jaws, Close Encounters, and E.T., had already cemented himself as one of Hollywood’s most beloved filmmakers; in addition, with smaller, off the beaten path projects like The Color Purple and Empire of the Sun, he was also announcing to the world that he could expand his range beyond sci-fi and big budget fare. So it would make sense that I would cover mid-to-late 1990s/2000’s Spielberg, right? Instead, I’m tacking the union of two of the New Hollywood Era’s brightest filmmakers: Spielberg and George Lucas, and the result of their collaboration being one of the most admired film series of the 1980’s: Indiana Jones.
So, what is there to say about the first adventure of Dr. Jones, in the form of Raiders of the Lost Ark, that hasn’t already been said and covered by countless film geeks, critics, regular moviegoers and everyone in between? Well, I’d start by saying that I won’t have the same passion for it as a Sasha Stone might have, or a Scott Weinberg does have, or most of the folks at Filmotomy do, given I was born a decade too late to get into the Indiana Jones craze. But, as a newbie coming into the series with fresh eyes, I can and will say the following: I do see why Raiders is regarded as a watermark in Spielberg’s directorial canon.
From the opening sequence of Jones (Harrison Ford) braving one death-defying booby trap after another to capture a valuable artifact, only to have it snatched away by his cunning rival archaeologist Renee Belloq (Paul Freeman) and outrunning a pissed off indigenous South American tribe, armed with poisonous-tipped darts, signals we’re in for a cross between a Saturday morning cartoon program and 1930’s/40’s pulp serial novels.
Jones is approached by Army intelligence with a mission to locate and retrieve the Ark of the Covenant, an artifact of untold and unimaginable power, before the Nazis get their hands on it first. His only clue of the artifact’s whereabouts lies with the professor’s old flame, Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen) and the medallion that her late father left in her possession before he died. The pair find themselves in Cairo, where Indy’s contact and old friend, Sallah (John Rhys-Davies) help assist in locating the whereabouts of the Ark in the sands of the Egyptian desert.
There are various reasons why Raiders works as well as it does: one reason being how it never takes itself too seriously. Despite images of rotting skeletons impaled on booby traps, gunfights (including one scene where a henchmen gets his head blown off) and the rise of fascism via Nazi Germany occupying one country after another, Spielberg and the filmmakers never take the exploits on the screen too seriously. There’s a looseness to the proceedings which keeps the audience engaged without bogging us down on the crisis of the world outside the universe they’ve brought certain elements into.
You’d think that the inclusion of the Nazis, especially when an entirely new generation was just beginning to understand the horrors of that regime would bring the movie down, but a character like Ronald Lacy’s Arnold Toht is mostly played as a caricature, a Saturday morning cartoon villain that ends up being thwarted by the main protagonist and/or by his allies. Hell, the scene where Jones and Marion are being chased by henchmen in a trader’s market plays like a vaudeville routine you’d see Bugs Bunny in as he’s trying to escape from Elmer Fudd!
Not only does the tone fit just right with the setting, the characters feel very organic to the proceedings. Harrison Ford’s plays the lovable rouge/scoundrel like a second skin, and as the titular Indiana Jones, he does it almost effortlessly. Of course it also helps that he’s give two fantastic actors to play off of in the form of both Allen and Rhyes-Davies as Marion and Sallah, respectively.
Sure, female characters in these kinds of films are mostly reduced to being the damsel in distress, but in Karen Allen’s case, she doesn’t totally fit that description, nor does her character Marion. We first see her engaged in a drinking contest with a local and drink her opponent under the table. Later, we do see that she is resourceful enough to charm and attempt to slink out of her captor’s clutches, and could hold herself in a fight if need be. Yes, she does end up getting captured several times, but she’s clever enough to find a way out. In short, she’s no FuriosaFuriosa, but she rarely needs Jones’ help to get out of tight spots. It’s a refreshing thing to see in an action film, especially for its time, and it’s also really nice to see that Marion doesn’t take Indy’s devil-may-care attitude lying down.
On the opposite side, John Rhys-Davies’ Sallah just springs organically from the story. I’d completely buy that Indy, during his travels, has made friend and foe alike, and that one of his friends just might be useful somewhere down the road in his future endeavors. Sallah is in the film as another one of Indy’s partners, and he’s given just the right amount of time to help guide the story along. Rhys-Davies is a ball of energy, soaking up every chance he gets to play this jovial digger who fears unearthing the artifact, but hates the Nazis more if they get their hands on it, but still finds time to belt out lines from Gilbert & Sullivan’s Pirates of Penzance.
Best of all is Indy’s real antagonist in the movie, Rene Belloq. He muses to his arch rival that they aren’t so different as he believes, and the movie finds time to prove his thesis correct. Both men aren’t superstitious when it comes to buying stock into old tales of God’s power being concealed into a valuable artifact, and both men are willing to brave death-defying traps in order to uncover objects long forgotten by history and time itself. Belloq is constantly one step ahead of Jones’ thought their interactions, right down to knowing he won’t use a projectile explosive in order to keep his employees, despicable as they may be in Jones’s eyes, from unleashing the full powers of the Ark of the Covenant, thus making for a fantastic foil for a hero who get through by luck and nerve.
Bottom line: Raiders of the Lost Ark is a marvel in many aspects: it moves at a brisk pace, yet it doesn’t take itself too seriously and realizes the main objective is to entertain and tell a thrilling yarn about a new kind of hero. The characters fit in snugly into this world, and are used precisely as they are needed to benefit the story, and there is not a wasted moment within the film’s 115 minutes. Watching this film is like watching a master chef make a fine meal – from preparation to presentation, every ingredient is used to it’s maximum effect and nothing is put to waste. If you want to see why Mr. Speilberg is so revered and beloved as a filmmaker, I’d point a person to this action-adventure classic.