So in a nutshell Raiders of the Lost Ark essentially has the following – A protagonist who never seems to secure any artefact he is chasing after; Impaled corpses; Snakes slithering out of corpses rotten mouths; Skin melting off people’s faces; An exploding head; and, A Nazi monkey. And this film was aimed at kids.
I honestly do not remember the first time I watched this film. I remember the time it was coming out – Despite only being 5 years old at the time. I remember watching one of those half our making of specials that show you footage of the film and behind the scenes footage on television as the film was about to be released. Beyond that I don’t remember the first time, or even the last time I watched the film. But I can assure you that I watched this film often! Probably more often than that Star Wars film which was obviously in full trend back then as well. This film also probably solidified Harrison Ford as the man of any kid’s moment back in the 80’s with both Han Solo and Indiana Jones under his belt. As I got older I saw and appreciated his roles in the likes of Blade Runner and Witness. So Ford is probably the actor that I identify most with when it comes to my youth. Raiders as it stands ranks in my all time top 10 films (as does Blade Runner). It is a perfect film in almost every respect. It can also teach modern films a thing or two about how to make a film, how to act in one, who to script it, and how to surprise your audience.
We all know the famous shots, the famous John Williams music (Seriously this guy knows who to compose memorable franchise music), the stories behind the set. Let’s have a peek at the highlight moments for me, and I’m pretty sure for many other people out there.
The opening credit sequence is surrounded in mystery as a group of men follow an unseen leader through the jungle to William’s mysterious music. We soon find out that they are being followed by a tribe of natives who pose a certain danger. So despite part of the group getting spooked by the statues they find, or the impending doom that lurks in the trees – one member of the gang decides it would be a great idea to shoot their leader so they can all leg it to safety. But the click of him arming his pistol alerts the silhouetted leader to his actions and in a split second the man has lashed out with a bullwhip, disarming the man. Suitably put in his place, the man runs off alone, and then to a heavy bombastic end of the music cue, the silhouetted man steps into the light revealing a stubbled, fedora wearing Harrison Ford. With an entrance into a film like that – I’m sure Harrison must have been feeling pretty smug about life in general at the time he first saw that, I’m also willing to bet money his wife turned to him in the theatre at that moment and promised him sex like he’d never dreamed!
This is still only the beginning! We get Ford with (the as yet unknown) Alfred Molina enter the “booby trap temple and we get more classics moments with each trap, fetching the treasure, fetching his hat, and legging it from a giant boulder. And it is still just the beginning! We then meet the villain, have a bit of a chase and a swing before a glorified escape on a biplane to the soaring score by Williams. And it STILL is just the beginning – Ok so we get a quick gag with a Snake, but we learn something very important about our character from this gag.
Then the film finally gets going after this prolonged Bond-esque opening sequence. The sequels that follow would carry on this trend. Sometimes to great effect (Last Crusade) and sometimes to poor effect (Crystal Skull and that damn fridge bit!).
When the film finally gets going we are slowly introduced to some of the supporting characters and of course Indy is sent travelling the world in search of the Ark! Some of the stop off on the way are wonderful. Despite Jones having that great introduction – he gets another one, in shadow form this time. against the wall of the bar Marion is running. He then gets a great punch in the face seconds later. The action scene that breaks out in this bar actually gets pretty brutal for a PG. One guy gets a very bloody bullet in the face. Shows you that Spielberg really knew his way around the ratings boards even back then!
If you have seen the likes of Lawrence of Arabia and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, you can tell where this film takes most of its tonal and visual cues from. The Berg clearly is a fan of both Lean and Huston.
Raiders also has an engenius sense of humour – either really in your face type of humour (Like when Indy is confronted by the swordsman, or even when Marion bangs his face with the flip mirror) and also often quite gross black humour (The German brute getting an airplane rotor in the face).
Spielberg manages to balance every tone correctly throughout the film. The adventure is exciting (the opening jungle sequence), the action is thrilling (the truck chase), the mystery is there (the map room). But he also turns conventions on their head. Marion Ravenwood is not your average damsel in distress. Ok, She screams a lot and is in serious need of rescue; but of boy she doesn’t sit idly about waiting for it to happen. If she isn’t sneaking knives into her clothes, she is clobbering pilots over the head.
The biggest compliment is probably due to the stuntmen involved. Vic Armstrong is well known for doubling Harrison Ford, and this film is perhaps the highlight of a very impressive career as a stunt man. And to this end I have to tip my own hat to the “truck sequence” which is to this day still the best prolonged stunt/action sequence I have even seen on screen.
By the time we get to the nod to Citizen Kane at the end it’s been one heck of an adventure. And the warehouse the credits we roll over we shall see again in the fourth adventure. With a fifth on the cards – and a hell of a lot of good will to repair for how the fourth generally went down, we can only hope that Spielberg and (especially) Lucas sort their act out. Raiders will always be the reminder of how well it can be done.
We should also praise the lord that the beard now has regrets when it comes to all the tinkering he did with E.T. Lucas may have rubbed off on him in this respect, but the Berg has clearly listened to the backlash. If he hadn’t then by now we may well have had a revamped Raiders when Indy is chased down a tunnel by a slightly enlarged, yet plodding, Tortoise; The natives that chase him would have been dressed suitably enough to video a GAP commercial; Belloq would merely have clutched his chest at the end and keeled over, with his robes flying up in the air above his heels giving us a good look at his purple bloomers, and the Nazi sidekicks would have merely ran off screaming like Robert Mitchum did at the end of Night Of the Hunter (or worse yet… like Darth Vadar).
This is one feature that needs no embellishments, except maybe a nice polish for the Blu-ray!