The early movies of director Steven Spielberg are hit-or-miss. The Sugarland Express (1974) is fun, if lightweight. Jaws (1975) is a classic of the thriller genre, although it took me some time to appreciate it. Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) is a bore, and with multiple edits in existence, I never know which version I should be watching. Spielberg’s first attempt at outright comedy, 1941 (1979), is adequate, but it will never be counted among the director’s better efforts. The next movie on the list is one of the Great Movies, and certainly the best in the long-running adventure series it launched.
Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) is a classic, reminiscent of the Golden Age serials of the 1930s and 1940s. It’s a lot of fun, and never stops placing its hero, Indiana Jones, in impossible and precarious situations. It inspired three sequels (1984’s Temple of Doom, 1989’s The Last Crusade and 2008’s Kingdom of the Crystal Skull) and a television series (The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles), but Raiders is the best by a mile.
In the spring of 2008 I attended a screening of Raiders, and was amazed to witness how well the movie still resonates with audiences. Spielberg, in his best John Ford-esque style, made a movie that feels like a movie. Raiders was intended to be seen on the big screen, where characters like Indiana Jones, Sallah, Marion Ravenwood and the titular Ark itself are bigger than life. This is why movies are big, and television, generally speaking, is small.
This is a movie in which all of the elements work. The story, of course, is beside the point, but the screenplay takes time to develop its characters: the dashing archaeologist Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford); the villain, a French archaeologist named Belloq (Paul Freeman); Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen), a tough, hard-drinking woman who owns a pub and happens to be the daughter of Indy’s mentor (the never-seen character of Abner Ravenwood). John Rhys-Davies joins the cast as Indy’s sidesick, Sallah, and Denholm Elliott stars as Dr. Marcus Brody, a museam curator who essentially functions as Indy’s benefactor and aide-de-camp.
The opening boulder chase is one of the great thrill-a-minute scenes in motion pictures. What follows in the movie’s 115-minute running time is one darned thing after another. The adventures take us from Peru to the U.S.A., to Nepal, to Egypt, to the Aegean Sea, and finally to a secretive warehouse, where the mysteries of the U.S. government are locked far away. The globtrotting rivals any James Bond or Jason Bourne picture in its scope, and the airplane-superimposed-over-a-map montages are throwbacks to the 1930s serial adventure movies that formed the inspiration for Raiders of the Lost Ark.
Raiders is a homage to those serials, and the “map montages”, the swashbuckling adventures and even the dialogue are reminiscent of those films. Special recognition must also be afforded to composer John Williams, who delivers one of the great movie scores; one thinks of Max Steiner‘s score from The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) or Bernard Hermann‘s work in classics like Citizen Kane (1940).
Few movies are as fun as Raiders. It has aged well, and where movies with similar themes (think National Treasure, The Mummy and others) are largely forgotten, Raiders has remained a commercial and critical success. Indiana Jones has become a part of popular culture in a way that few other 1980s movie characters (outside of Star Wars) have captured the public’s imagination. Raiders has stood the test of time as not only a highlight on the resume of Steven Spielberg, but also the great action/thriller movies. Anyone looking for a great time at the movies would be hard-pressed to find a better way to spend two hours.