Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (June 13, 2021)
Back when Raiders of the Lost Ark hit screens in 1981, I felt no desire to see it. For reasons I no longer recall, my then-14-year-old self thought Spielberg movies seemed uncool, and I greatly resisted this one.. I only went because my Dad basically made me go.
Score one for the Old Man! I knew very little about Raiders before that screening but I became totally enraptured with what I saw. Whatever I did or didn’t expect, I surely couldn’t anticipate this, a rollicking adventure that seemed like the perfect movie.
40 years later, I still find it hard to dispel the notion that Raiders offers a virtually flawless flick. Set in 1936, we meet adventurer Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) during a lively sequence in which he nabs an ancient artifact from a South American cave.
Back in the States, we learn that Indy also maintains a day job as an archaeology professor. However, his adventures frequently take him from the classroom, and when representatives of the US government come a-calling, he gets a new assignment to seek one of the greatest artifacts of all: the Lost Ark of the Covenant.
Hitler thinks the Ark possesses magical powers, so he orders his forces to pull out all the stops in their hunt for it. Since the US agents don’t want that to happen, they recruit Indy as the best man to beat the Nazis to the punch.
His first stop? Nepal, where he goes to find a medallion that will help him find the alleged burial spot of the Ark. This opens some old wounds, however, as he runs into Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen), the daughter of his former partner - and also an old flame he jilted a decade earlier.
Despite their problematic past, the pair team up in the search for the Ark and head to Egypt, where Indy reunites with old friend/local helper Sallah (John Rhys-Davies). On the Nazi team against them we find Belloq (Paul Freeman), a mercenary French archaeologist we already met back in South America.
He heads a squad that includes a diabolical enforcer named Toht (Ronald Lacey) and other nasties. The movie follows the race between the two groups to discover the Ark and deal with the ramifications that ensue.
One cannot overstate the impact Raiders made on moviegoers back in 1981. It presented a genuine breath of fresh air, a lively and endearing flick that pounded on the viewer with relentless action.
However much it battered us, however, we eagerly came back for more. If ever a movie merited being called a “rollercoaster ride”, it was Raiders.
Critics will knock Raiders as unoriginal, and it’s certainly true that the film doesn’t present anything particularly innovative. Really, as the filmmakers freely admit, it gleefully offers a then-modern version of the old movie serials from the 1930s/1940s. Raiders offers nothing more than a cliffhanger without the wait between episodes.
However, originality can be severely overrated. Just because you do something different doesn’t mean the results automatically seem interesting.
As Disney movies and Bond flicks demonstrate, execution proves much more important than innovation. Maybe Raiders didn’t tread any new ground, but it explored its subjects so incredibly well that it felt fresh.
Make no mistake: in 1981, most of us had never seen a movie like Raiders. Director Steven Spielberg creates the ultimate expression of the adventure flick with an ideal hero and briskly paced action that grabs the viewer and never lets go.
The film’s opening sequence remains possibly its most famous, and it perfectly sets the stage for what will come. A series of “how can things get worse?” challenges, it gets the ball rolling – pun intended – terrifically. Few movies have opened with such an amazing sequence.
That doesn’t mean it’s all downhill from there, though, as Raiders presents a fantastic succession of action bits that all seem to top each other. Viewed objectively, none may seem quite as stellar as that opening, but the film nonetheless comes chock full of exciting and rousing moments.
Don’t take Raiders to be nothing more than a random collection of action set pieces without anything interesting to connect them. The film presents a great roster of characters, all headed by Indy himself.
Ford was already famous for Star Wars, but here he became a true movie star. The first actor to break out of the typecasting caused by the 1977’s classic’s success, Ford’s work as Indy showed that he could do more than pilot a starship. Indy makes him more of a classic action hero, so without it, I don’t know if he ever would have become a megastar.
Indy remains the perfect hero, as he’s one of those guys the women desire and the men admire. He doesn’t play better for one gender or another, as across the board, Indy seems irresistibly and unselfconsciously charming.
I don’t know if anyone but Ford could pull off my favorite moment in Raiders. After one extended battle that leaves him battered, Sallah tells Indy that the Nazis put the Ark on a departing truck.
Despite his exhaustion and soreness, Indy slaps his glove and resolutely asks, “Truck? What truck?” This is a hero who won’t give up but who seems delightfully real all the while. Determined but not superhuman, Indy represents the best in all of us.
Ford doesn’t carry the movie alone, of course, and the film’s supporting characters certainly embellish it. Allen’s Marion offers a terrific heroine. Bluntly beautiful but not prissy, she seems spunky and smart and becomes a perfect match for Indy. Has any female lead in an action flick gotten a better introduction than her drinking contest?
Add to that Rhys-Davies’ understated and charming take on the stereotypical sidekick, Lacey’s insidious performance as the leering Toht, and Freeman’s glibly slick but nicely three-dimensional interpretation of the mercenary and you have a great roster of supporting personalities. All make the movie more real despite its cartoony origins, and they become important reasons for its success.
I could go on and on about the magic that is Raiders of the Lost Ark, but I’ll stop there. Suffice it to say that it continues to present a virtually flawless piece of cinematic entertainment. It dazzled me when I first saw it 40 years ago, and it still knocks me out today.