Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)


Funny, I always thought the title of this movie was Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark, but there’s no Indiana Jones in the title.  “Indiana Jones” is in the title of three (as of right now) subsequent sequels, however.

The movie follows Archeologist/Professor/occasional stunt man Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) as he’s tasked with finding the lost ark of the covenant before the Nazis do.  The story takes place in the 1930s.

The ark is really another macguffin, the thing that drives the story forward because everyone is trying to pursue it.  It’s kind of what a lot of Marvel movies are based around.  Indy knows that the ark is a very powerful item, but he doesn’t completely know what it can do.  Because of that element of danger and mystery, it would be potentially disastrous if the Nazis were to get their hands on it.  Well, really it’s dangerous if the Nazis get their hands on anything, they’re Nazis after all.

Making the enemy a group of Nazis is an easy way to make them the bad guys and tell the audience that they are the bad guys.  The whole movie is pretty simple, but that’s not a bad thing.  Instead it offers a stable framework within which you can have some nice action set pieces and character moments.  The movie is supposed to be fun, after all, and again Spielberg seems to enjoy making fun movies.  There’s a good amount of humor in here like there is in his other films.

Even though Indiana Jones is kind of a superhero, we see him grimace in pain and say “I’m making this up as I go.”  The fun part is that while he’s certainly capable of a lot, he’s still in over his head.  That kind of character allows the film to wink at itself and help provide an audience surrogate.  We’re not Indiana Jones by any means, but we can relate to him when we see the nasty pit of snakes and then Indy says “oh no, not snakes.”

Returning to the story, Indy needs an item from his old mentor who has since passed away.  Fortunately he knows the mentor’s daughter, Marion (Karen Allen) because he used to be married to her.  They join forces with some light opposition between them, but it’s always playful.  On multiple occasions Indy saves her, and of course in the end they get back together or appear to.  That’s the most important thing of the story because…

…The Nazis get the ark, despite all of Indiana Jones’ best efforts and escapes from death.  He kills a bunch of people, sometimes indirectly, and he and Marion get involved in a bunch of wild moments, whether it’s foot chases through markets in Cairo or commandeering a Nazi military plane and spinning it in circles on the ground before it explodes.

The biggest moments are often centered around Indy trying to save Marion or Indy and Marion trying to survive.  Of course, they locate the ark, but the large Nazi force is too much for them, so in the end the bad guys get the ark and Indy and Marion are taken prisoner.

When the Nazis open the ark, ghosts and beams of light shoot out, slaughtering them (literally melting their faces).  Indy and Marion only survive because Indy knows that they should keep their eyes shut, like the biblical story of Sodom and Gomorrah.

I read that Spielberg wanted to make a James Bond type of film, and George Lucas had the initial idea for Indiana Jones.  He was, upon the first iteration, going to be a womanizer like James Bond, but instead they made him more of an intellectual with a passion for archeology.  There’s an odd scene early in the movie in which Jones is teaching, and a student closes her eyes, revealing the words “love you” written on her eyelids.  It seems to fluster Jones, and this helps distance him from the James Bond type of character we might expect in this situation.

But taking him the other direction makes him seem distant and isolated.  He spends so much time on these crazy adventures, risking death, that it also feels like there is nothing keeping him attached to society.  I think the James Bond womanizing type of character arose because there is some logic in a guy with such a rigorous-death-facing job wanting to sleep around.  The women, though the relationship is often shallow, is a means by which he can connect to people, even if it is brief.  It’s like a drug he takes to help him focus on his missions when he’s doing the whole 9 to 5 thing.

But Indy isn’t like that.  I also read that they considered going a darker route, making Jones an alcoholic like Elliot Gould’s character in The Long Goodbye or probably just like a lot of film noir detectives.  But they didn’t do that either.  Instead he’s in the middle, a well-balanced guy who’s really got his head on his shoulders considering all he has to face in his line of work.

Harrison Ford, though, does have a grumbling, quiet nature that lends itself to an isolated character like Jones.  It just makes me feel like he’s not doing as great as he really is.  Basically, what I’m trying to say is he doesn’t seem happy, but this is supposed to be a fun action film, so if we see Jones brooding or drinking too much, that might ruin that fun.

The action set pieces were pretty engaging and ridiculous, but in a good way.  They seemed like they’d be fun to choreograph.  Each scene isn’t just about fighting, like a lot of action movies are, but they show real ingenuity.  Jones said he was making it all up as he went along, and it seems that way.  Each moment that he risks death is like a puzzle that both he and the audience have to figure out.  In particular, I’m thinking of the scene in which he is holding onto the front of the speeding truck for dear life before it’s about to ram into the car in front of them, presumably crushing Jones.  He folds himself somehow under the car and moves along towards the back of the truck even while his body scrapes against the ground below.  Sure it’s unbelievable, but that’s part of the charm.  It’s a Spielberg film, after all, so there’s got to be a spectacle.

Speaking of spectacle, how about that ending, huh?  I can see why it’s so explosive and crazy and ghostly, but the technology wasn’t quite there in 1981, so the melting faces, the fire, the exploding head, it all feels a morbid fifth grade science project.  The rest of the film (outside of the nighttime shots in general) felt authentic.  They were probably more often on location in the daylight (outside of interior scenes), and many of the nighttime shots, including the midnight dig for the ark, looked a bit cheap (by modern standards) because you could clearly see the matte paintings in the background.

Actually, though, the matte paintings were very impressive, but after seeing movies like Avatar, or I guess almost any movie made for over $50 million, you get used to impressive green screen/CGI imagery, making those matte paintings look more archaic.

Someday there will be another Indiana Jones movie (someday soon) in which Indy, after time-traveling to modern day America, must dig for the old, forgotten matte paintings after the Neo Nazis have stolen all the green screens from Hollywood.

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Indiana Jones 5, it’s happening.

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