Raiders of the Lost Ark: Chasing the Divine


In the beginning, before there was a movie, everybody involved did their part in contributing bright ideas to the project that would become the best adventure movie ever made. George Lucas came up with the character, Philip Kaufman thought of making the Ark of the Covenant a central part of the plot and Steven Spielberg figured out the hero’s name. Eventually, the time was right for these men to sit down, write a script and start shooting the movie. The results wowed me when I was a kid… and I’m happy to report that nothing has changed since.

Escaping one death trap after another
The story begins in 1936, with adventurer/archeologist Henry “Indiana” Jones (Harrison Ford) escaping one death trap after another in the Peruvian jungles in his quest for a hidden golden idol. He finds it, but is robbed by a French competitor, Rene Belloq (Paul Freeman). Back in the States, Dr. Jones is approached by intelligence agents who tell him about the Nazis’ search for the Ark of the Covenant. No one quite knows what powers the Ark has, but it is believed that they can be very destructive and the Germans are hoping to use them as a weapon. Now, aided by Belloq, they have located an ancient Egyptian city where the Ark is believed to be hidden… but they need an artifact for the Ark, the headpiece to the Staff of Ra, and that belongs to a friend of Jones’s who lives in Nepal.

Jones goes there, learns that his friend is dead and that his daugther, Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen), now owns the headpiece. She’s not too happy to see Jones; they were once romantically involved and that didn’t end well, but the Nazis’ arrival soon throws her into her former lover’s arms. They escape to Cairo where they hook up with another friend of Jones’s, Sallah (John Rhys-Davis), who takes them to the place where the Nazis are digging…

Reminding audiences of the matinees of yesteryear
Much in this movie is brilliant, but the script is not its chief asset. The powers of the Ark come across as ludicrous and the story basically throws in one episodic chase sequence after the other. Obviously no one has ever really cared about that; the film was unusually fast for its time, treating us to a series of unforgettable adventures. There’s the hair-raising (and often imitated) introduction in the jungle, Indy’s chilling encounter with the snakes and the horrifying finale where we finally witness the power of Ark. I was also once again reminded of that awesome stunt sequence where Indy climbs underneath a truck; a salute to Yakima Canutt’s classic work on Stagecoach (1939), it is an exceptionally well-made (even funny) scene. 

You’re not supposed to stop and think about it. But if you do, and if you’re of a certain age, the concept will remind you of old-fashioned matinees, the kind of films shown in theaters decades ago as serials. Designed to attract your inner kid, it is impossible not to envy Indiana Jones and his adventures; you want to tag along to all those wonderfully dusty, skeleton-infested sets, created with great imagination by Norman Reynolds and Leslie Dilley. The special effects may have aged, but still do their part; John Williams contributes another stirring music theme that has become a classic.

Ford had already made two Star Wars movies, but this was his definitive leading-man breakthrough as the wise- (and whip-) cracking Indy. Allen is also terrific as a heroine who can drink any man under the table. As far as villains go, icy Nazis wearing gloves and black uniforms will always do the trick.

When I watched the film again for this review, I was surprised to get the impression that some of my favorite sequences seemed shorter. I usually criticize Michael Bay’s films for moving senselessly between action set pieces, but there’s a huge difference. When it comes to Raiders of the Lost Ark, there’s never any sense of being cheated.

Raiders of the Lost Ark 1981-U.S. 115 min. Color. Widescreen. Produced by Frank Marshall. Directed by Steven Spielberg. Screenplay: Lawrence Kasdan. Story: George Lucas, Philip Kaufman. Editing: Michael Kahn. Music: John Williams. Production Design: Norman Reynolds. Visual Effects: Richard Edlund, and others. Cast: Harrison Ford (Henry “Indiana” Jones), Karen Allen (Marion Ravenwood), Wolf Kahler (Dietrich), Paul Freeman, Ronald Lacey, John Rhys-Davies… Denholm Elliott, Alfred Molina.

Trivia: Co-executive produced by Lucas. Tom Selleck was first considered for the part of Indy; Danny De Vito was allegedly considered for another part. Followed by three sequels, starting with Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984); the character also appeared in a TV series, The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles (1992-1993).

Oscars: Best Editing, Art Direction-Set Decoration, Visual Effects, Sound. BAFTA: Best Production Design/Art Direction.

Last word: “It’s really startling. Number one, it seems like it was only five years ago, it does not seem like 30 years ago. And the other great thing is I’m still close to everybody that made the movie. We’ve all watched each other grow up and older — older [not old] – and I love how that ‘Raiders’ family has stayed together for 30 years. We’re all still the closest of friends. ‘Raiders’ was the first movie where I actually shot the movie without thinking. I like to say that the line in ‘Raiders’ that most typifies the production of that movie was when Harrison says, ‘I’m making this up as I go along.’” (Spielberg, Los Angeles Times)


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