Retro Movie Nerd: RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK (1981)

156 reviews. That is the current tally over at my own blog, Retro Movie Nerd. This one may be the biggest and most important one of them all. There are good movies, and then there are GREAT movies. This is one that I first saw when I was nine years old and it is one that has stuck with me throughout the course of life. It’s as comfortable as that pair of sneakers you refuse to throw out, long after the insert has worn out. I give to you Raiders of the Lost Ark in a piece that is less a review and more of a document on the greatness of this timeless classic.

Rated PG
Running time: 115 min.
Release date: June 12, 1981

Raiders of the Lost Ark. The very title stirs up many things inside the hearts and minds of movie lovers. Adventure, history, romance, jungles, caves, deserts, trucks, motorcycles, horses, fights, chases, shootouts. It recalls movie serials and Humphrey Bogart. It has villains that are easy to hate and heroes that easy to idolize. What more do you want? Raiders of the Lost Ark. It is one of the greatest films of all time.

The setting early in the film is in South America circa 1936. Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) traverses his way through the jungle accompanies by a pair of not-so-trusty guides, in search of a golden idol. The idol is hidden in plain sight within an ancient temple that is full of clever booby traps. The suspense and thrills are tremendous form the outset, especially after Indy retrieves the idol and is forced to rush through the traps in order to escape with his life. A scene where Indy is being chased by a giant rolling stone boulder is iconic and has been parodied many times. As he barely escapes, Indy is greeted by his rival, René Belloq (Paul Freeman), who gloats that “what was briefly yours is now mine”, a recurring theme between the two. We find out that Indy has a fear of snakes, as his escape plane pilot advises “Show a little backbone, will ya?”.

One of many memorable scenes. And this is just in the first 10 minutes!

Back stateside, Indy is a history professor at a college in New England, where he is approached by army intelligence (one of whom is played by William Hootkins; “Porkins” from Star Wars) concerning an intercepted Nazi communication. The Nazis are seeking the Ark of the Covenant( yes, THAT Ark of the Covenant) and the U.S. government would like to find it before they do, because as Indy’s colleague Marcus Brody puts it: “An army which carries the Ark before it….is invincible”. The story then carries us to Nepal, as Indy seeks out a former mentor and friend who may have an artifact that could aid in his quest for the Ark. Instead, Indy is reunited with his former love interest, Marion (Karen Allen), who hasn’t quite forgiven him for deserting her. A Nazi agent has followed Indy to Nepal, and we get more action with a shootout inside a burning saloon. From Nepal, the story moves to Cairo, where Indy meets up with longtime friend Sallah (John Rhys-Davies), an affable fellow who will proceed to assist Indy in his search. We are then treated to explosions, a snake pit, one daring escape after another, a fistfight with a big Nazi under a moving fighter plane, a high speed desert chase that includes one of the most memorable and daring stunts ever seen on-screen, and then the climax where the Nazis decide to open the Ark to see what plans God has for them. Each scene in the plot is a technical masterpiece as well as a thrilling one. There is never a dull moment and only a few of respite for the characters before they’re on to the next thrilling ride. Characterization beyond Indiana Jones is a slight issue, as the villains are really cardboard cutouts without much depth and Marion spends most of her screen time either yelling for or at Indy. However, this movie exists to entertain and it does that in spades.

Live from Nepal, it’s an intergender drinking contest between Marion Ravenwood and former NWA World Heavyweight Champion, Harley Race.

Director Steven Spielberg had established himself prior with Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind so it’s no surprise that Spielberg understands how to create great entertainment. We all know how Spielberg feels about Nazis (see Schindler’s List) and he has devised a way to stick it to them while entertaining his audience. Screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan just piles set piece on top of set piece while peppering everything with witty banter.  George Lucas came up with the story and hoped to achieve the feel of a serial from the 1930s. He saddled himself with the right troops because that is the aesthetic achieved. On top of everything is John Williams with the musical score that rivals the ones he composed for Star Wars and Superman. With so many visionaries behind the camera, the end result is one of many technical achievements, as it won five Academy Awards.

Harrison Ford truly embodies the character of Indiana Jones. With his dry wit, fearless attitude (except when it comes to snakes) and his resiliency, Indiana Jones probably should have died four or five times in this film, and Ford provides him with that third dimension where he actually looks like he just climbed out from under a moving truck. Karen Allen as Marion is spunky, tough, rough around the edges. She’s more like that tomboy you grew up with. There are more than a few times, however, where the screenplay has her crying out for help one time too many. Paul Freeman as Belloq is a little trickier. He works for the Nazis, but does not condone the way they handle business. We see a tender side to him in his feelings for Marion, but then turns around and is more than happy to bury Indy inside an ancient tomb. John Rhys-Davies provides the lighter moments as Sallah, and handles the role quite capably (“Asps! Very dangerous…… go first”.).

Indiana Jones will brave booby traps, Nazis, and other assorted nasties but can’t handle a little snake. That’s part of what makes the character so great.

There probably isn’t an adult alive that has not heard of or seen Raiders of the Lost Ark. Those who grew up with it, remain nostalgic for it. Globe-trotting adventures are not quite made like this anymore. This film spawned three more films in the series, with varying results. You don’t really need a recommendation from me to see this movie. Chances are good that you have already seen it many times and already have your mind made up about it. This is just one more voice piled on top of the others that declare Raiders of the Lost Ark a masterpiece in technical achievement and a masterstroke of superior and entertaining storytelling.

RATING: ***** – All-timer.