I interrupt my usual blog entries to bring you my entry for the Blog of Darned Summer Movie Blogathon. I chose to write about a film in the category of summer blockbusters. And the film I have chosen is (drum roll please…) Raiders of the Lost Ark! A throwback to Saturday matinee serials of the 30s, it’s simply one of the most fun films ever made. But it’s more than just a fun action picture.
One of the things that sets Raiders of the Lost Ark apart from the mindless, CGI-filled monstrosities you see in theaters these days is its craftsmanship. This was a movie made by people who loved movies. It was directed by Steven Spielberg, already a household name for directing Jaws (the original summer blockbuster) and produced by George Lucas who took us a rollicking adventure through space in Star Wars. Both men knew how to direct thrilling and smart action pictures. Their combined creative forces made for one of the most exciting films to come out of the 80s.
The story, for those who have inexplicably not seen it, follows the adventures of archaeologist Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) as he has adventures (and in some cases misadventures) pursuing archaeological artifacts. The film opens in a South American jungle in the 30s. Indiana Jones is after a golden idol hidden in a temple. To retrieve it he must outwit dangerous pursuers and deadly booby traps. It is in this opening sequence where my fascination with movies began. After Indy retrieves the idol, the temple starts to collapse on itself and even more booby traps are unleashed. One of them is a giant boulder. When I saw Raiders for the first time, that scene blew my mind. I wore out countless copies of the film on VHS (sorry mom and dad!) trying to see the trickery of how the filmmakers did it. But the scene in the idol’s temple was just a warmup for a film that was gone to have wall to wall amazing stunts, witty writing, and introduce us to one of the great movie heroes.
Indiana Jones is eventually tasked by the government to go after the Ark of the Covenant. They want Indy to get it before the Nazis do. Part of the reason he’s asked is that he studied under Professor Ravenwood at the University of Chicago. Ravenwood acquired a headpiece to the Staff of Ra. It’s a medallion that, put on a staff of the proper height, will reveal the location of the Ark of the Covenant. To get it, Indiana Jones has to go back to an old flame. That would be Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen).
The two of them parted ways on less than amicable terms. But they are brought back together to get the Ark. After Nazis try to get the medallion from Marion and her bar in Nepal is destroyed. From there, Marion accompanies Indy to Cairo. There Indiana Jones finds the location of the Ark after setting the Staff of Ra in the right place at the right time in the map room. This leads the archaeologist to the Well of the Souls. You probably remember that scene as the one where Indiana Jones famously says, “snakes. Why did it have to be snakes?” Indiana Jones finds the Ark of the Covenant. But getting it back to the United States isn’t so easy. He’s thwarted by his adversary Belloq (Paul Freeman), an archaeologist who has been hired by the Nazis. Belloq seals Indiana Jones and Marion in the Well of the Souls. Eventually they escape and go to get the Ark back from Belloq and the Nazis. Along the way Indy has to fight a Nazi pilot, get involved in an epic truck chase, ride a Nazi submarine, and then on an island the Ark is opened at…well, I don’t want to give away the great surprise in that scene.
Okay, so that’s the story. But what is it that makes Raiders of the Lost Ark such a great popcorn movie? The action and stunt work is top-notch. There’s the iconic boulder scene in the opening act. But there’s also the shootout in the bar when Indy saves Marion from the Nazis. Then Indy and Marion are chased again through an Egyptian open market. It is here where another iconic Indiana Jones scene takes place. Jones runs into a gifted swordsman. There was originally supposed to be an epic sword fight between Indy and the swordsman. But sadly, Harrison Ford became ill the day it was supposed to be filmed.
The famous scene in which Indy shoots a marauding and flamboyant swordsman was not in the original script. Harrison Ford was supposed to use his whip to get the sword out of his attacker’s hands, but the food poisoning he and the rest of the crew had gotten made him too sick to perform the stunt. After several unsuccessful tries, Ford suggested “shooting the sucker.” Steven Spielberg immediately took up the idea and the scene was successfully filmed.–IMDB
The look on Harrison Ford’s face as he takes the swordsman out is absolutely priceless.
And then there’s that great truck chase. Just when you think the movie can’t be anymore exciting, it does. The elaborate sequence took eight weeks to film. And it contained an homage to a classic western. As Internet Movie Database notes:
When Indy is dragged under and then out behind a moving truck, it’s a tribute to Yakima Canutt’s similar famous stunt in John Ford’s Stagecoach (1939). In fact, it was a stunt that stuntman Terry Leonard had tried to pull off the year before, and failed to do so, on The Legend of the Lone Ranger (1981). He was thrilled at the chance of having another shot at it, but only agreed to do it if his friend & colleague Glenn Randall Jr. was driving.–IMDB
Don’t you love it when one classic pays tribute to another?
But, as I said earlier, Raiders is great not just because of its thrilling action. It works because of the chemistry of its lead actors. Harrison Ford and Karen Allen play perfectly off one another. Ford is an absolutely believable action hero and Allen is wonderfully spunky. Marion is the one of the few women ballsy enough to go toe to toe with Indiana Jones. Not many people would go right up to Indy and punch him in the face. And the supporting cast is equally wonderful. There’s Denholm Elliott as Dr. Marcus Brody, Indy’s boss. You may remember him from A Room With A View. Also along on the quest for the Ark is digger Sallah (John Rhys-Davies). He has one of my favorite lines. At the Well of the Souls, upon seeing the snakes he says, “asps. Very dangerous. You go first.” Finally, there’s Paul Freeman’s Belloq. A hero is only as good as his villain. And as far as villain’s go, Belloq is a pretty good one. He’s what Indy would be like had he gone over to the dark side. That makes them great rivals.
In addition to the talented cast, Raiders is a blast because it has some wonderful writing. The story was written by George Lucas and Philip Kaufman and the screenplay was written by Lawrence Kasdan. Among Kasdan’s credits? The Empire Strikes Back. No wonder the dialogue in Raiders was so fun to listen to.
Raiders of the Lost Ark is well-crafted. A lot of the credit for that goes to two people: director Steven Spielberg and cinematographer Douglas Slocombe. There are some absolutely beautiful shots in this film. The closeup of Indiana Jones’ face covered in shadow as he leaves Marion’s bar, a wide shot of Indy’s silhouette against the desert landscape during sunset as Indy and his crew are digging for the Ark…the list goes on, While many action pictures get lost in special effects and technology, Raiders excels as a rollicking old-fashioned action picture in the proud tradition of The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938). The film was designed to be an homage to Saturday matinée serials. And it succeeds magnificently on that level. This is a great edge of your seat action film.
Raiders of the Lost Ark also benefited from the contribution of composer John Williams. He not only created one of the great heroes themes, he also gave us some great action music. Pay close attention to the way he uses the brass section to created 40s-style chords to signal the arrival of the Nazis. There’s also the great mystical music that’s the theme of the Ark, used to great effect in the Map Room scene and the scene where the Ark is opened at the end. Then there’s the smoldering love theme for Indy and Marion, as well as all the great action music. My favorite of the action tracks is the music during the truck chase scene.
Raiders has an energy level that you rarely see in any action film. The filmmakers had fun making it and it comes through on the screen. It’s no surprise that over 30 years since its release that it’s as popular as ever. Indiana Jones is on practically every list of great movie heroes. And while the sequels were fun in their own right, the original is still the gold standard. The ads were right. Adventure does have a name. It’s Indiana Jones.