Raiders of the Lost Ark Reviews
Set in 1936, this loving homage to action/adventure serials of the 1930s and 40s follows Indiana Jones- a college professor and archaeologist who, unlike most people in his profession, is also an adventurer who has no problems getting down and dirty to get the treasures and artifacts he needs.
Called upon by military intelligence agents, he sets out on a globe trotting quest to find and recover the Ark of the Covenant (the chest containing the remains of the Ten Commandments) before the Nazis do, who feel that they will be unstoppable if the Ark is in their possession. Joining him are Marion Ravenwood- his embittered former lover and daughter of his mentor (who was an expert on the Ark), and his comrade Sallah- 'the best digger in Cairo'. Along the way, Jones and Co. have to contend with Indy's rival French archaeologist Renee Belloq (who is working for the Nazis), relentless Gestapo officer Toht, a bunch of soldiers, and a ton of snakes (Indy's biggest fear).
Spielberg and Co. intended this to be just a loving B-movie homage to stuff from the past that they loved. They weren't trying to make an amazing work of art. However, the film was so well done that that is exactly what it became, transcending the level of genre pic to masterpiece of artistic adventure cinema.
Pretty much everything about this film shines: the script is tight, with the characterization and exposition expertly laid out with perfect pacing, the technical stuff like cinematography, editing, and all the effects (yay for no CGI!) are superb, then of course, there's the music. Hands down amazing. The score by John Williams pretty much drives the film, and is probably overall, what really makes it work. While the film does have dialogue, it's actually pretty sparse, with most of the film cruising along via visual storytelling, highlighted by the thrilling music cues.
Harrison Ford is terrific as Indy, and among his most iconic roles, this one's probably the best, and that's taking into consideration that I'm a big Star Wars fan. Paul Freeman is amazing as Belloq, who is a terrific character. Yeah, he's the villain, but he's actually quite layered and complex, and not really that typical of a villain. Basically he and Indy are pretty morally gray, but Belloq is a tad bit darker. Arnold Lacey is friggin creepy as Toht, and he really makes your skin crawl. As Marion, Karen Allen is great, and the character is more than just a pure damsel in distress. John Rhys-Davies is fun as Sallah, and it's great seeing Alfred Molina in his film debut as a guide who helps Indy on a mission prior to the Ark quest.
The film is fun, funny, and very thrilling. I've seen it many times, and it never gets old. Yeah, there's a few cheesy moments, but they mostly add to the charm and enjoyment of things. I got the chance to see this on the big screen, and, let me tell you, it really added to the experience, and made me love this film even more.
If you've somehow managed to never see this, you really must. It's crackling good entertainment, and truly one of the best.
But if we attempt to wade through the reputation, and look under the brim of that famous fedora, how well does the original hold up after 32 years? In the case of Star Wars, a great deal of admiration remains for its technical proficiency, but its narrative and character shortcomings are increasingly in plain sight. The story of Raiders of the Lost Ark is every bit as fanciful in its roots and execution, but under Spielberg's guiding hand it soars, resulting in a truly great action film that barely misses a beat.
For all the things you could feasibly hold against George Lucas, one thing he does deserve credit for is rescuing Spielberg's career. After the release of 1941, Spielberg's reputation had declined from a wunderkind who couldn't fail to a reckless liability. Studios had let the production delays on Jaws and Close Encounters slide due to their phenomenal grosses, but when 1941 failed to match these returns, the blank cheque was permanently torn up. To get back in Hollywood's good books, Spielberg had to demonstrate that he could make a wide-appeal film that would come in on-time and on-budget - on low-budget, to be exact.
Looking at the two films side by side, it's hard to believe that Raiders and 1941 were made by the same man, let alone within two years of each other. Put simply, Raiders of the Lost Ark succeeds in every way that 1941 so dismally failed. Its storytelling is focussed and well-structured where 1941 was a meandering mess; its characters are memorable and well-developed inside of simply zany or kooky; the sets are properly lit and directed; and the comic timing is impeccable. It is indeed ironic that Lucas, who is neither a disciplined director nor a brilliant storyteller, should be the one to rein Spielberg in and get him back to what he always did best.
Like many great low-budget works, so much of Raiders of the Lost Ark is the product of happy accidents. The project changed several times between Lucas first developing it and the cameras rolling, with the lead originally being called Indiana Smith and Spielberg wanting the Nazi Major Toht to have a robotic arm. But in addition much of the location shooting in Tunisia was blighted by crew illness due to poor quality food and the extreme heat. The now-iconic sword vs. gun scene was initially meant to involve Indiana fighting the swordsman with a whip, but on the day of shooting Harrison Ford had dysentery and couldn't perform the stunts. He allegedly said to Spielberg, "let's just shoot the f***er", and the rest is history.
The key difference in quality between Star Wars and Indiana Jones lies in understanding the relationships between the films and the sources that inspired them. In my review of A New Hope, I remarked that Star Wars came from pulpy, pantomime stock but tried to pass itself off as something a little more serious. The mythology that Lucas constructed from a variety of difference sources may have brought depth to the characters' universe, but at the consequence of making the finished product seem more than a little po-faced.
Raiders of the Lost Ark comes from exactly the same pulpy stock - boys'-own adventure stories, Saturday morning serials, 1940s B-movies and the like. But where Star Wars tries to eschew or overlook its predecessors, Raiders actively embraces them. It operates under the same logic and conventions of its predecessors, reinventing and updating the genre within these boundaries as it goes along. Spielberg is retelling old stories in his own style with his particular emphases, and sometimes he draws attention to the riper, more ridiculous elements in order that we may revel in them. Proof of this lies in John Williams' score; the main theme is fantastically distinctive, but the music also has a big role in the storytelling, reflecting the melodramatic roots of the series.
If you stopped for any given length of time, you could begin to unpick the plot of Raiders without much difficulty. On top of the usual contrivances of characters just happening to converge in the right place and time, there are numerous practical questions which the story glosses over. If Indiana can so easily break his staff over his knee, why didn't it snap when he dropped it into the Well of Souls? Why didn't Belloq notice the digging on the hill (not to mention the singing) a lot sooner? How did the snakes get into the chamber and survive there for so long without any food? And how did the baskets get switched around so that Marian didn't get killed?
While these are all valid questions in isolation, to linger on them too long would be to miss the point. None of these potential plot holes are problematic enough to undermine the overall story, and the film moves so fast and fluidly that you either don't notice them or they don't seem to matter. This is something that very much comes with the territory: the main priority of adventure stories is to keep things moving so that the audience is entertained. If it all ties up nicely in the end, that's a nice bonus, but a few loose ends can be allowed provided the pay-off is strong enough (and it is).
One of the most distinctive features of Raiders is its pacing. Its opening sequence, from the Universal logo to the plane taking off, is perhaps the best-paced opening sequence to any 1980s film. There is not a single second that could have been cut out to make it more efficient or dramatic, and every single edit is in the right place, both to slowly reveal our main character and to crank up the tension when he's retrieving the idol. Even after its opening, the film barely misses a beat over nearly 2 hours, and when you're dealing with so many different twists and locations, that's quite an accomplishment.
The great thing about Indiana Jones as a character is that he always feels human even when he accomplishes the extraordinary. In Star Wars the characters were archetypes that only became human in the later films; they were still enjoyable and likeable up to a point, but all too often convention got in the way of distinctive characterisation. Indiana Jones may well be pure masculinity, but Harrison Ford also brings a vulnerable quality to the role, allowing us to swoon over him one minute and admire him the next.
The set-pieces in Raiders are all brilliantly constructed. Many of the more elaborate sequences, like the truck chase, were shot entirely by the second unit; they filmed as close as they could to Spielberg's storyboards, with the director shooting all of Ford's close-ups much later. But even then Spielberg deserves enormous credit for how well-developed these set-pieces are, with every one going through several movements and using the full potential of their settings and props. All the little touches are lovingly witty, whether it's the fruit on the end of an impaler's sword or the monkey doing the Hitler salute in the bar.
Being the product of pulpy adventure stories, we should not take the film's comments on religion (in this case Judaism) any more seriously than its depiction of Nazis. The Ark of the Covenant is essentially a McGuffin, built up as something of significance but with its main purpose being to drive the plot forward. If, however, you do want to read into the symbolism, the film does allow you do so and gives you a little to chew on alongside your popcorn. From this perspective the film becomes about modernity, with Man questioning the rule of God and paying the consequences. It's a film in which intentions and morals are clearly emphasised; Indy and Marion survive because they didn't covet the Ark as a source of power. The series would return to these ideas in greater detail in Last Crusade some eight years later.
The climax of the film sees these themes being brought to the foreground, in a special effects ending which has dated incredibly well. After a series of conventional jump scares, such as Marian falling through the skeletons, we get a series of great effects shots which put a series of scary faces on the wrath of God. The shift in the angel's face remains deeply terrifying, while the face-melting and head explosions (in a PG film!) are up there with anything Lucio Fulci or David Cronenberg were doing at the same time. It's an ending that meets our genre expectations while also breaking new ground, either in content or the extent of presentation.
Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark is a really great film which fully earns its reputation as one of the most iconic and influential works of the 1980s. Spielberg's direction is really first-rate, providing humour, thrills and plenty of heart to compliment the light-hearted story and the feisty performances of Harrison Ford and Karen Allen. Even after 32 years, all the sequels and a legion of imitators, it remains one of Spielberg's finest achievements, being a classic in its time and in ours.
The Swordsman v Gun, ominous coat hanger, boulder escape, that brilliant car chase recovery. Gosh, so many brilliant scenes.
Spielberg's direction lets the action flow, and I love the way he plays with light and dark in the many memorable silhouettes throughout the film.
Ford is simply dashing as the ruggedly handsome Dr. Jones. Again, that mischievous smile is so uniquely his. Oh, and Karen Allen, beautiful and sexy all at once.
When Indiana Jones is set on the hunt for the legendary Ark of the Covenant, he soon finds out that he's not the only one and that his competitors will stop at nothing to get there first.
Stephen Spielberg had already made some incredible films, Jaws being the main one with Sugarland Express and Close Encounters of the Third as well. But he'd just made his first truly bad film with 1941 and he needed to get back on track. Well, he did. In his typically restrained though rich imagery, Spielberg makes every shot count every time. His understanding of his audience is shown through the nuance of each shot, whether it's the zoom in on a slowly turning Indy as he sees the boulder bearing down on him or the wide expanse of a hillside teeming with bloodthirsty natives. The fact that he's able to sustain this inspired imagery the whole way through the film shows his immense passion and expertise in his craft. He's able to handle the big moments as well as the smaller ones like the moments between Marion and Indy. He also subtly adds humour into everything he does, something added to immensely by Harrison Ford's fantastic performance as Indy.
It's this performance that elevates the already fantastic character of Indiana Jones to something mythical. Whether it's a wry smile or a look of complete confusion, Harrison Ford creates a character who is not only someone to root for but also completely human in his limitations and the fact that, in his own words, "I'm just making this up as I go!" Karen Allen plays Marion Ravenwood, a girl with more fire than most of the action hero dames of late. She, like Ford manages to wring humour out of every situation as well being damn scary in others. Critically, and here's where all other action movies should take not, she's not just the princess to be rescued. Sure there are times when she in trouble and calling for Indy to give her a hand, but a lot of the time she's working on getting herself out of trouble, drinking her captors under the table before whipping out a knife, fighting side by side with Indy, she is in no way Indy's inferior and she's brilliant to boot. Thanfully we don't get treated to a spiel about women are just as good as men, preferring to talk with her actions. These two are a fantastic double act as well as being great on their own. Their often fiery conversations are as hilarious as they are telling about the undercurrent of sexual tension and they constantly try to outdo each other. The rest of the cast perform well too, John Rhys-Davies' Sallah is a booming delight and Paul Freemon's Belloq is fantastic as well.
Whether you've seen the film or not, it's difficult to have gone through life without hearing John Williams' amazing score. A perfect combination of upbeat and triumphant, Williams' main theme soars through the thrilling moments, making them that much more thrilling to watch. Typical of Williams he punctuates the action, drama and thrills to equal effect, each one with its own iconic sound and each one linking together in a beautiful harmony. It's an amazing achievement though, in a body of work this incredible, it's almost just another day at the office for Williams. He is the undisputed master of score and this is one of his most unforgettable masterpieces.
Lawrence Kasdan's script is another of the factors in an already fantastic movie. Each line is quotable and memorable, specifically because he never says more than he has to say. In a brilliant display of understanding his character, Kasdan offers up lines which suit Indy to a tee; funny, dry and sardonic. The delivery of the actors may makeable certifiable gold but Kasdan's words should be an inspiration to action writers from now till kingdom come.
There might only be a dozen films ever made that you can watch anytime in any mood and this is among them. Vintage Spielberg, Ford at the top of his game and, of course, that theme. What more could you want?
That first brilliant scene. Despite the increasingly fantastic action set-pieces, for a start to a film and an introduction to a character, you don't get much better than this.
Where shall I find a new adversary so close to my own level?
Try the sewer.
Throw me the idol, I'll throw you the whip!
You're not the man I knew ten years ago.
It's not the years honey, it's the mileage.
Snake. Why'd it have to be snakes?
Asps. Very dangerous. You go first.
I don't know, I'm making this up as I go!
I love the storylines and i love harrison ford as the lead.
This is just an entertaining and enjoyable movie that i cant fault and should be watched.