johnlink ranks RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK (1981)

Over 380 rankings into this blog, and I haven’t hit up the INDIANA JONES series yet. As I close in on the big 400, there are some films I want to knock off the list, mostly for the fact that it would mean I have not seen them in the last four years (since I started this project at the beginning of 2009, I have ranked every film I have seen). Digging back into this series, my recollection is that I strongly dislike TEMPLE, really enjoy LAST CRUSADE, and was not a fan of CRYSTAL SKULL. But, RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK? Certainly one of the great blockbusters in cinema history. There will be SOME SPOILERS below.

I watched RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK (1981) on 6.2.12. It was, roughly, my seventh or eighth viewing of the film, and first in about a decade.

With the grand amount of joy an audience can derive from this experience, it is easy to forget just how much style there is in the film. The shots of shadows on cave walls are in the double digits and they, along with the multiple rear-lit shots of Indy throughout the film, create this sense of Indiana Jones the icon. You don’t need to see his face, you don’t need to hear him speak. You see his silhouette with the signature hat, and you know all you need to know.

In fact, he doesn’t speak for the first few minutes of the film as he works his way through a jungle and into a cave. The aura builds here, even if the performance in this first bit (the last sequence shot for the film) is slightly disjointed from the character of Indy in the rest of the film. He is a talker, a smart-ass, a guy who wink-and-nods at danger. If that opening sequence had come in half way through the movie, we would feel put off. But Spielberg is not interested in continuity here, he’s trying to create an icon in the first five minutes of his story. And he absolutely succeeds in doing so.

The level of violence in this movie is astounding. A PG rated film from before the days of PG-13, we get exploding heads, multiple bloody kills, and melting faces. When Indy gets shot in the arm and we see blood fly (a squib, no CGI blood here), it is truly shocking. It’s not overly violent, but it surprises. Especially to a modern audience who has an expectation of what a PG, or a PG-13 movie will and won’t do, there are refreshingly high stakes in RAIDERS. The sense of danger is tangible, even if we know Indy will ultimately survive.

The flawed hero is something Harrison Ford has always done well. He makes mistakes, he isn’t the biggest or strongest, he doesn’t always rescue the girl like he should, and he’s got a bit of an ego. But, when the moment for bravery is needed, you can always count on his effort. Part of the charm of this film is that we don’t get a sense of an infallible super-hero. Instead, Indiana Jones is vulnerable and human. A college professor who just happens to have more exciting spring breaks than other college professors.

The script for RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK should be a textbook script for young screenwriters. We establish Marion can hold her liquor, and then throw her in a situation to use that, only it doesn’t go as planned. A Nazi villain burns his hand on an amulet, allowing the Nazis to decipher the code (only they don’t have the other side to read). We learn that Indy constantly leaves Marion behind, until he can’t. He says he is making it up as he goes, and the script helps us to believe that. Much of this feels improvised, even if it is meticulously planned and choreographed.

Spielberg’s attention to detail and his pursuit of timeless themes regularly result in his films feeling less dated than their contemporary counterparts. But setting INDY in the 1930s makes this even less dated than most. Other than one of Marion’s costumes (the ones with the flaring bell-bottoms) nothing about this movie feels like we’re in the early 80s. Creating a film about fledgling Nazi Germans and an adventurous archaeologist fighting over the lost ark is hard to pull off well. Doing it in a way that feels both period and continuously contemporary is a miracle.

I have very few issues with this movie. However, the fact that the climax is dictated by deus-ex-machina (in this case, literally), takes away from all the work Indy has put in. His contribution to the climax is to close his eyes as not to be blinded by the light of God. And while I agree with those who think that the ending of CRYSTAL SKULL was dumb because it involved aliens… well you are all right it is dumb. But when LOST ARK (the throne at which those same Indy geeks worship) uses the light of God as a climactic flourish, you really shouldn’t be calling the use of aliens unacceptable. CRYSTAL SKULL had plenty of issues, but its movement towards absurdity certainly was not unprecedented within the universe that George Lucas and Steven Spielberg had previously created.

Despite some problems with the ending, I can’t even describe how much fun a roller-coaster this is. There are so many memorable moments. There are movies I’ve seen twice as much as RAIDERS, but which I remember less. RAIDERS has the rolling ball, the swordsman who Indy shoots (one of the great moments in action-movie history), the snake sequence, the airplane fight, the car chase, the bazooka… it all just keeps coming and coming.

I try to be up front about the movies I carry a torch for. And while I love RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, it isn’t a movie which I had on rotation as a kid, or which I think is unappreciated. The fact of the matter is that RAIDERS, like so much of Spielberg’s library, is just damn good. A better script than its peers. Firmer attention to film history than its peers (the noir shadowing, the CITIZEN KANE reference at the end, and the casting of someone who looks just like Peter Lorre to play the torturous Nazi are just a few examples). More magic than its peers. Better casting that its peers.

RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, quite simply, is one of the best and most entertaining movies ever made.



You didn’t think you were going to get out of here without me mentioning John Williams amazing score did you? The Raider’s March is iconic. Plus it is probably one of the top five most recognizable themes of all time.



~ by johnlink00 on June 3, 2012.

3 Responses to “johnlink ranks RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK (1981)”

  1. […] promise I’m not being pretentious here. I really do love RAIDERS (and here is the ranking to prove it). How TEMPLE OF DOOM maintains a high score on IMDB is beyond me. In pretty much every conceivable […]

  2. […] IJ1 Link here […]

  3. […] joyous AVENGERS, a wonderfully rebooted BATMAN BEGINS, the well spoken RESERVOIR DOGS, the classic RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARC, an old favorite CITY SLICKERS, vintage Cruise in A FEW GOOD MEN, a great cat-and-mouse story CATCH […]

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