THE RETURN OF THE GREAT ADVENTURE.
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 this is still irresistible stuff.
The movie 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. It turns out that they’re in the wrong place; Jones and Marion get a head start and find the actual place where the Ark is hidden. However, the Nazis soon realize their mistake.
Reminding audiences of the matinees of yesteryear
The script is not the best part of this movie. The powers of the Ark are pretty ludicrous and the story basically consists of one chase sequence after the other. Funny how none of that matters while you’re watching the movie; it was unusually fast for its time and is still very well-paced. One memorable sequence follows the other; there’s the hair-raising (and often imitated) introduction in the jungle, the chilling encounter with the snakes and the horrifying finale where the powers are unleashed.
I was also once again reminded of that wonderful 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. As a concept, the film will remind older viewers of the matinees of yesteryear. Designed to attract the kid inside of you, it is impossible not to feel envious of Indiana Jones and his adventures. John Williams contributes another stirring music theme that has become a classic; Norman Reynolds created all those wonderfully dusty, skeleton-infested sets together with Leslie Dilley, and the now somewhat aged special effects still do their part.
Ford got his ultimate 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 are of course ideal.
When I watched the film again for this review, I was surprised to learn that some of my favorite sequences seemed shorter. I usually criticize Michael Bay’s films for moving senselessly between action set pieces, but this one is indeed fast as well. Still, there’s no sense of being cheated; this is as good as it gets.
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)