The year was 1977. George Lucas was looking to get away from the States as he always did while a film of his debuted. That year, the release of a major film of his, Star Wars, drove him all the way off the North American continent and onto the islands of Hawaii; with him he invited friend and fellow-director Steven Spielberg. Spielberg, between hits at the time, expressed interest in directing a James Bond film someday. Lucas responded, confidently, “I’ve got something better than that.” It was then, on a beach in Hawaii, that Lucas explained his idea for Raiders of the Lost Ark to Steven Spielberg, while the two built sandcastles. (Source.)
The 1970’s and 1980’s were a time when the creative minds of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg were delivering one hit after another. Between them, they had American Graffiti, Jaws, Close Encounters of the Thrid Kind, Star Wars, E.T., and The Empire Strikes Back (but of course, Lucas didn’t direct Empire). These were two people who could not be stopped. In 1981, Lucas and Spielberg presented one of the greatest adventure films of the modern era: Raiders of the Lost Ark. Say what you will about Indiana Jones and the subsequent sequels – even Kingdom of the Crystal Skull – Raiders of the Lost Ark is an indisputable masterpiece. Among films such as Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan, or Jaws, Raiders is regarded as one of Spielberg’s best.
To a viewing populous, first scenes are crucial. If a first scene doesn’t draw an audience in, almost nothing will. First scenes/sequences are an art from in and of themselves. Often, films will send their characters on what I call “the opening mission.” A chunk of the plot in which we are introduced to our characters, and perhaps a microcosm of the plot, but not thrown into the whole story quite yet. The opening mission is just enough to show us the characters and what they’re up to, without showing us the entire film. A few films which do this well are Return of the Jedi (showing us the Rebels’ heroic rescue of Han from Jabba the Hutt) or Star Trek Into Darkness (which was probably the best scene of that entire movie). Raiders does this superbly.
Cinefix, while compiling the greatest entrances in film history, put Indy’s first scene at number ten. The video starts off by describing what is called an introduction by parts, and how this relates to Indiana Jones. The way the camera shows us parts of Indy – his hands, his silhouette, and finally his whip – before showing us his face. This first impression is a small story, resulting in its own small climax which helps introduce us to our hero.
But then he gets into the temple, and we’ve arrived at that iconic golden idol scene. In the past, I’ve talked a great deal about magical moments in movies, and this is most certainly one of them. To prove that the stakes are high, Indy stops his companion, played by a young Alfred Molina, tries to step forward, Indy presses on a footstone and reveals that poison darts will shoot at them depending on where they step.What follows is an incredibly tense walk from the entrance to the altar of the golden idol. The moment when Indy lifts the idol and replaces it with his bag of sand, much like the first shot of his face, is the climax of its own sequence. He triumphantly holds the idol with a brief look of relief on his face before everything suddenly falls apart, and Indy and his companion need to start their escape. Before we know it, there are rocks falling, darts flying, Alfred Molina’s betraying Indy, and there’s a giant boulder Indy is running away from. Add in the introduction of Belloq and Indy’s escape from the natives, and you’ve got a complete opening sequence.
If we think of the film Up, the constant praise that that films receives is that it takes a great and deeply emotional animated drama and shrinks it down to about a ten minute scene – no, shrinks it down to a ten minute masterpiece – and it still has the same emotional weight as if you had watched characters grow over several hours. Well, this does the same thing for action/adventure. the first scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark is a small masterpiece on its own right.
I would certainly argue that Indiana Jones is the greatest movie hero of all time. No, not because he rocks a fedora or he’s a badass with a whip and has a cool character design, but because of his commitment to his craft. He’s intelligent, he’s resourceful, he’s ethical. For him, these adventures are never about the money or the glory or the excitement, but it’s instead just about trying to keep artifacts in tact so that they can contribute to the study of Archaeology and History. At the end of the film, he’s just trying to make sure that the Ark stays safe, and thinks people ought to learn about it at a museum. (In my last Personal Favorites post, I talked about how Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor was inspired by 12 Angry Men to pursue a career in law. I chuckle at the amount of people who have presumably studied Anthropology or Archaeology at the collegiate level just because they watched Indiana Jones as a child. To be fair, most of them probably have developed a genuine love of the study, but at least some of them were probably disappointed that their field of study did not include as many thrilling treasure hunts as they had anticipated.)
After writing about 12 Angry Men and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, it was refreshing to watch a movie with such a great female character as Marion. She’s smart, sassy, and for the most part, isn’t a damsel in distress. I love her first scene in which she wins by a come-from-behind in a drinking contest. Then in the following action sequence when she’s holding her own alongside Indy against the Nazis? It’s awesome. She’s really just a pleasure to watch.
One of her standout scenes is when she’s captured by Belloq and he forces her to have dinner with him. In this scene, we see Marion’s full range of skills at work – she charms the pants off Belloq and tricks him into drinking more than he can handle. For plot reasons, it makes sense why she couldn’t escape, but it’s neat to see her be deceptive.
*Actual Spoiler Alert*
This movie, as well as every one of its sequels (yes, even Kingdom of the Crystal Skull) deal with a theme of villains being destroyed by the power they seek to control. A Deus-Ex-Machina ending (that is, one in which all problems are solved magically or by God) often feels like a cheat, but not here. Throughout the film, many characters speculate about the power of the ark and some suggest that it should simply be left alone. By building this motif, it is both surprising and satisfying when we reach the end of the film and we see the greedy Nazis punished for their attempt to wield the power of God.
I don’t remember what I expected when I first saw the movie, but it certainly wasn’t what I got. But in hindsight, nothing would work better. By having a fantastical and cataclysmic consequence for the Nazis when they open the Ark, the story delivers on all the promises it has made throughout.
So I’ve talked about the end of the film, and I’ve talked about the beginning. Both are amazing, and make it too easy to undersell how great everything in the middle is. The chase in the Tunisian market? Thrilling. Discovering the Well of Souls? Enchanting. Indy’s fight with the big, muscular Nazi? Awesome. And what would this movie be without John Willaims’ Score? The “Raiders March” add just the right soundtrack for adventure.
Favorite Performance: This movie doesn’t boast amazing performances, but Ford does Action-hero, and his chemistry with Karen Allen’s Marion is great. They share my award for best performance, but if I had to give it to one, I’d give it to Ford, who carries the character-driven sections of this film.
Favorite Quote: Nothing quite gets me going like one of Indy’s last lines in the film – indicating how he feels about the ultimate fate of the ark, and his commitment to the craft of archaeology – “Fools. Bureaucratic fools. They don’t know what they’ve got there.”
Favorite Scene: Given the above, I think it’s fair to say that the first scene is my favorite.
Academy Award Nominations: Raiders won the awards for Best Sound, Sound Effects Editing, Visual Effects, Film Editing, and Art Direction. It lost Best Director to Reds and Warren Beatty, and it lost Best Picture (okay, fine) and Best Original Score (how?) to Chariots of Fire.
Fun Fact: Probably the best known fun fact from this movie; the scene in which Indy encounters a bad guy wielding a sword and just shoots him was supposed to be an entire sword fight sequence, but Harrison Ford and much of the crew got a stomach bug when they were supposed to film it. Ford then just suggested that Indy just “Shoot the sucker.” and he did.
If you like this movie, also check out: Spielberg and Lucas’ other great films. Or perhaps Secret of the Incas, which had a strong influence on Raiders. For another, more realistic (or arguably less realistic) treasure hunting adventure, take a look at National Treasure.
A just hero. His kickass love interest. Danger. Intrigue. Ancient treasure. Mythical Power. Nazis. Ford. Allen. Spielberg. Lucas. Put it all together, and you’ve got the greatest adventure film of all time. Raiders of the Lost Ark presents a fun story with a noble hero, that makes for a real treasure.