By John H. Foote

16. RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK (1981)

Indiana Jones. What a name.

By the end of the first screening of Steven Spielberg’s new film Raiders of the Lost Ark, produced by George Lucas, the name Indiana Jones was instantly a household name, and iconic.

Indiana Jones.

It even sounded like the name of a movie hero, an adventurer, a man’s man, a romantic hero.

Lucas was already toying with the idea of the film when the two directors hit the beach in Hawaii to await the grosses for 1941 (1979), the dreadfully misguided comedy from Spielberg that just did not work. Yes, it was intended to be a comedy, and has a lot of comedy in it, but it ended up being an expensive misfire that taught Spielberg a very good lesson. Never again would he solely produce a film he was directing; he must have a producer or two working with him because as a director he did not yet have the discipline to say no to himself. Working with his good friend George Lucas, he realized he was spending Lucas’ money and listened to his friend when he made suggestions.

Lucas asked his friend what his next project might be, and Spielberg answered he was in talks to direct the next James Bond film. The Star Wars creator told Spielberg not to sign, but that he had something better and he proceeded to tell him the story of Raiders of the Lost Ark on the beach. By the end of the conversation Spielberg was in, he would direct for his friend who would produce the film. Aware the money he would be spending would be that of George Lucas, no doubt would have an impact on Spielberg’s spending which he admitted had gone out of control on 1941; no one said no to him, and he needed that. Lucas was a very smart filmmaker in terms of saving money and creating possibilities, where he lacked skill was in the actual narrative and working with actors. He preferred to be behind the scenes in a very different way. A deal was hammered out and Spielberg would direct the film and Lucas would produce. Incredibly Lucas found a way to make the film look like a big budget epic.

The results are all up there on the screen, and audiences and critics loved the film. It was fun, filled with adventure, grand spectacle, in fact there were more thrills in the first 10 minutes of this film than in some action films in the entirety. The great beauty of this film is that, though filled with grand action sequences, not for a moment is character sacrificed. In fact, as an Oscar winning actor noted, “the performance of Harrison Ford was superb.” Correct he was.

Incredibly, Ford very nearly did not get the part. Can we even imagine another actor as Indiana Jones? I can see Chris Pratt as a younger Indiana in some prequels that are being discussed, but no one other than Ford owns the role and wears that fedora as he does. Initially TV actor Tom Selleck, riding the crest of huge popularity as Magnum P.I., had been cast as Jones, but the network would not give him the time off to make the film. Scrambling for a replacement, Lucas was not interested in Ford, concerned with the fact he was Han Solo in his Star Wars films. Spielberg, however, wanted Ford and when it became apparent that no one else would do, Lucas relented and the actor was cast in the role of his lifetime.

The Paramount logo becomes a real mountain in the opening of the film, and we move down to a group moving through a dense jungle. Behind the leader, who is reading a torn map, we see a weapon being passed between some of the helpers and hear a click. We see the leader stop, having heard the click of a gun being cocked and he draws his bull whip, turns and unleashed the whip, snapping the gun, which fires out of the man’s hand and into the stream. The betrayers run, leaving one with the leader, who walks out of the shadows and into the light where we can now see him.

Indiana Jones.

Throughout the film we keep asking, “How will he get himself out of this one” as it appears Indiana has a gift for getting himself into terrible situations throughout the film. And not sequences that will scrape him, but dangerous, life threatening situations that would see him dead if he cannot figure a way out. In that first 15-minute sequence he escapes the initial betrayal, goes into a booby-trapped cave where death lurks at every moment, brushes poison spiders off his coat casually with no fear, gets past poison darts, grabs the idol he seeks, and then all hell breaks loose as one booby trap after another is shown. Betrayed again by someone he thinks he can trust, he is forced to jump over a never-ending pit, and make his way out, though he finds this latest betrayer dead on the spikes of a trap. And then the massive boulder shows itself, rolling straight at Indiana stopping only at the exit of the cave, where we breathe a sigh of relief. He got out. But then we see the natives of the jungle standing with spears at the ready should he not be willing to part with his golden find. And still there is more, with Jones running full speed out of the jungle with the natives in hot pursuit. Jumping into a sea plane with his friend, for the first time he shows terror, but not of flying, of the snake, a python curled up in the back of the plane.

“I hate snakes” he roars.

“Oh, come one, show a bit of back bone will ya?” says his friend.

What? Backbone? After what we have just seen, this guy needs backbone?

Harrison Ford

Back home in the United States, in the thirties, we learn Jones is a doctor who teaches ancient history at a university, where his female students adore him, but more – we learn he is a world known expert of antiquities. The military approaches him to gain his help in their search for the Ark of the Covenant. The Nazis are dangerously close to finding the Ark on a dig in Tanis and if they do, they could be invincible. Indiana agrees but has no idea what he is getting into.

From snowy Nepal to the desert of Africa, Indiana embarks on his quest for the Ark with a partner in tow. Former lover Marion Ravenwood is with him, he having burned her bar down in saving her life and retrieving the necklace he needs to find the Ark. In Cairo they learn that the Nazis are dangerously close to finding the resting place of the Ark but have the wrong information about the resting place of the ancient object. Chased through Cairo’s backstreets, Marion is apparently killed in an explosion in Cairo only to turn up in a tent in the desert being held hostage by Belloq, Jones’ competitor, in bed with the Nazis. Of course what he really wants is to get his hands on the Ark, and indeed he does, stealing it from Jones after Indiana has found it.

They find the Ark in a deep well, but the place is teeming with snakes, tens of thousands of them – cobras, vipers, any kind of snake you can name that is dangerous is in that pit. Indy being terrified of snakes is obviously displeased. He and Marion are left in the pit, the lid placed back over the top and they are sealed in to die, but immediately Jones is thinking of a way out and is soon hurtling across the desert roads in hot pursuit of the Ark. A force of nature who never stops coming, always chasing that Ark because if it falls into Hitler’s hands the tide of the war will change. As they continue their chase, Indy and Marion fall back and the army of Nazis gather around the Ark. Opening the ancient Ark, laden with gold, Belloq reaches in and finds nothing but dust, causing the Nazi officers to giggle and smirk. But from within the Ark grows a noise, louder and more intense with each moment. A beautiful woman, translucent, floats out of the Ark towards one of the Nazi officers and before his eyes becomes something out of hell. In front of them all his faces melts as if wax. The other officers melt away too, and Belloq dies after his head explodes. Everyone looking at the Ark or in the Ark’s direction dies almost at once, but Indiana and Marion keep their eyes closed, knowing they cannot dare look upon God or his angels. Great winds swirl about them, but they are safe, saved by the knowledge not to dare look upon God or whatever exits the Ark.

Back in the United States, Indy has lost his precious find, but won the girl – he and Marion are back together.

The government seizes the Ark and, in a tip of the hat to Citizen Kane (1941), hides it in a facility where hundreds of thousands or other relics are stored.

Raiders of the Lost Ark was a massive hit at the box office, winning back the reputation Spielberg had forged with both Jaws (1975) and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977). Critics loved the film too, making it a double whammy for the pair. Spielberg learned from Lucas the art of being frugal, finding ways to make the film look great but not breaking the bank to do so. Lucas used old stock footage from The Hindenburg (1975) for some of the shots, rather than flying extra miles to get shots he could get for free. The use of miniatures was extensive but I defy anyone to tell, and the look of the film was exquisite. The beauty of the production design was startling to behold, stunning in their colors and bold, but accurate designs. As a producer, Lucas had done everything to allow Spielberg his freedom as a director, and it had all paid off.

Both fans of films from years gone by, Lucas and Spielberg had based the film on the old thirties serial films, or chapter films that preceded the feature film back in those days. They might be 20 minutes long, ending with a hair-raising scene, and carrying on the story next week at that exact moment. In Raiders of the Lost Ark, the film seemed to be one long chapter film, with a series of never-ending crazy adventures, fights, or moments of doom from Indi to escape from.

Harrison Ford and Karen Allen.

Harrison Ford gave a great performance as Indiana, but I am not sure he ever got the credit he so deserved for his marvelous creation. A bit of Bogart, a dash of Errol Flynn and a smidge of Burt Lancaster and we have Indiana Jones. He fights, sometimes winning and sometimes losing, kills when his life is in danger and, even though beaten up, in great pain, he is never too damaged to go after the Nazis and the Ark. It was a confident, career making performance for the actor who exploded into great fame in the eighties.

Two sequels followed. Actually the second film was a prequel, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984), while the third was more sequel – Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989). Both were both huge hits though the second earned, rightfully, criticism for the dark portrayal of child labor and the violence. Twenty-seven years after the release of this film, the three men returned to the series with Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008), after many false starts and stops. While it felt great to be back with Indiana Jones, like seeing an old friend after a long absence, the film just did not work. Far too many leaps of faith needed, far too often Spielberg asked us to suspend our disbelief for things that were ridiculous. The casting of Shia LaBeouf deeply hurt the film, while Karen Allen’s sunny presence was simply joyous.

Raiders of the Lost Ark was THE big hit of the summer of 1981 and ended up on many 10 best lists at year’s end. Nominated for eight Academy Awards in a very good year at the movies, among the nominations were Best Picture, Best Director, Best Cinematography, Best Production Design, Best Sound, Best Film Editing, and Best Musical Score for John Williams rousing score, and Best Visual Effects. On the big night, the film did very well outside of the major categories, with wins for Cinematography, Production Design, Visual Effects, and Sound.

The legacy of Raiders of the Lost Ark remains, as the picture remains one of the greatest adventure films ever made and Indiana Jones one of the greatest cinematic heroes ever created. Like most of John Williams best scores, you hear the opening four notes and you are swept into the film. The film managed to be great fun, a true popcorn movie, and a soaring film, superbly created by Steven Spielberg, who took his good friend’s idea and made it his own.

Electrifying cinema.

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