Author’s note: This film, which I’m about to review, is one of the most influential from my childhood. From the first frame, to the end credits, I sat captivated, as I watched it time after countless time. In fact, my VHS copy got so much use, that it’s barely playable now.
“Raiders of the Lost Ark” which turned 30 on Sunday, had a profound impact on me, stimulating my imagination and inspiring a passion for movies that I still possess today as an adult. It is from this perspective, that I share my opinion with you.
The Paramount Pictures mountaintop logo dissolves into an actual peak, in what appears to be the jungle. A dark figure in a fedora crosses in front of the camera with a group of men in tow. One of them, spooked by something he sees, runs screaming into the jungle. The man in the hat stops briefly to piece together a map. That’s when an on-screen prompt tells us that the year is 1936, and the location is South America.
A remaining man, attempts to draw a gun on the leader. Acting almost reflexively, the man in the fedora draws a whip from his belt, and disarms his assailant. Panning up, the camera shows us our hero’s face for the first time, introducing us to a scruffy archaeologist portrayed by Harrison Ford (the same guy who played Han Solo!).
The archaeologist makes his way into a temple, slowly braving creepy crawlies and booby traps until he finds a golden idol. Our hero scratches his chin, and as increasingly frantic music plays, he sits for a beat pondering. In one of the tensest moments in cinematic history, he swaps the idol for a bag of sand, which unfortunately sets off a self-destruct mechanism in the temple.
He manages to make a daring escape by racing past shooting arrows, a closing door, and a giant boulder. Sadly though, a competitor sits outside with a tribe of natives under his command. In this moment we fully meet our hero, Indiana Jones, as his rival Belloq (Paul Freeman), forces him to turn over the statue. Indy then flees for his life into the jungle, while the natives give chase, however he narrowly dodges their arrows by hopping into a plane.
By waiting to reveal Indy’s identity, and creating an air of mystery, director Steven Spielberg draws your attention right away with this opening portion. As you follow Indy on this initial mission, you learn that he is an adventurer by trade, armed with the knowledge to avoid his competitors’ pitfalls. You also find out that even though Jones may be intelligent; he clearly uses a bit of luck to get himself out of scrapes. Through showing rather than telling, Spielberg crafts a much more entertaining narrative, because we learn about Indy in the present instead of having to deal with lengthy dialogue or flashbacks.
When Indy returns home from South America, to resume his work as a college professor of archeology, he is approached after class one day by U.S. government officials. The federal agents inform him that the Nazis are searching for the lost Ark of the Covenant, a religious artifact that promises its possessor God’s power.
Given Indy’s reputation for retrieving antiquities under the radar, the U.S. hires him to acquire the Ark before the Nazis can. The smug Jones departs on his mission under the assumption that he’s prepared for whatever obstacles will come his way. He has no idea though, of the challenges that he will face working with a scorned lover, doing battle with the Nazis, and surviving the supernatural powers of the Ark. In the action sequences throughout the film, Indy will endure trials which will test his determination and question his opinions as an academic.
Spielberg’s action in “Raiders of the Lost Ark” provides some rigorous tests for Indiana Jones as a hero. He pays homage to old action serials during these scenes by replicating their stunts, however Spielberg still thrills with the moments he creates where you fear for Indy’s safety. Because you are hooked on the character, you keep hoping Indy will survive even if he’s placed in a situation of danger similar to one you’ve seen before.
One unique thing Spielberg does bring to “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” is his ability to portray supernatural elements in a believable manner. His treatment of the Ark, both in the mythological back story he alludes to, and in the actual special effects surrounding it, challenges your imagination, especially when the contents of the Ark are revealed.
Watching “Raiders of the Lost Ark” today, the film still holds up as an engrossing story, filled with characters you care about, thrilling adventures, and inventive fantasy. The majority of the credit rests with the movie’s primary creative influence, director Steven Spielberg, who captures your interest in Indiana Jones, makes you worry about him through seat of your pants action sequences, and then wows you with convincing elements of fantasy.