One of the greatest movie going experiences I ever had occurred one fine summer day in June of 1981 when my sister Leslie and I drove to the Washington Square cinema in our orange Volkswagen Super Beetle to see a movie called RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK (1981). Time Magazine had raved about it and provided tantalizing photos from the film. But a TV commercial I had seen for RAIDERS was less informative. We knew the movie had adventure, Nazis, and a globetrotting archaeologist but little did we know what we were in for. As Leslie and I sat in the dark theater, I think we screamed and laughed and shrieked as if we were on a rollercoaster ride which is literally what RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK is like the first time you watch it. We came out of the movie theater into the bright hot sun with big grins on our faces.
Mad Max has always been my favorite movie character but recently Indiana Jones has moved into a tie with the futuristic leather clad ex-policeman. I credit the great performance of Harrison Ford as the intrepid professor/archaeologist and my new passion for history as keys for my fondness for Indiana Jones. In recent years, I've become a fanatic about historical discoveries around the world: a purported Alexander the Great's tomb, Richard the III's body, medieval coins in an English field, or a new Mayan pyramid in Central America. RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK and its subsequent sequels have generated a cottage industry of television programming with male and female Indiana Jones type hosts (often wearing leather jackets and fedoras) looking for the next Holy Grail or Hope diamond. And the Indiana Jones series has spawned cable channels like the History Channel, the Smithsonian Channel, and the National Geographic Channel. All thanks to Harrison Ford's performance as the intrepid Dr. Indiana Jones and his quest for real life if not legendary antiquities like the Ark of the Covenant in RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK.
RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK is also significant for resurrecting director Steven Spielberg's career. Spielberg had made two successful blockbusters with JAWS (1975) and CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND (1978) but had gone over budget in both. His next film, the bloated WWII comedy 1941 about a supposed Japanese invasion off the coast of northern California was critically and financially a disaster. Other distinguished filmmakers like Francis Coppola with ONE FROM THE HEART (1981) and Michael Cimino with HEAVEN'S GATE (1980) had also made expensive, over budget flops. Studios were now wary of these wunderkind directors. Rescuing Spielberg was fellow wunderkind George Lucas, fresh off his success with STAR WARS (1977) and THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK (1980). Under Lucas's guidance, Spielberg would direct one of the greatest adventure films of all time while learning how to stay within budget yet still showcase his masterful cinematic vision.
RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK is a throwback to the short Republic film serials of the 1930's and 40's like SPY SMASHER or FLYING DISC MAN FROM MARS that proceeded the main feature (way before CrazyFilmGuy's time). With a screenplay by Lawrence Kasdan (BODY HEAT, THE BIG CHILL) based on a story by George Lucas and fellow filmmaker Philip Kaufman (THE RIGHT STUFF), director Spielberg begins the fun from the moment the Paramount mountain logo dissolves into a real mountain. RAIDERS opens in the jungles of South America in 1936 as Professor Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) is on a quest for a small golden statue. Led by local guide Satipo (played by a young Alfred Molina), Jones enters a booby trapped temple where the statue resides. Chased by a giant boulder and dodging poison darts, Indy just barely escapes with his life and the idol only to have it snatched from him by his French archaeological adversary Rene Belloq (Paul Freeman). Indiana loses the relic but escapes Belloq and his spear throwing Novitos Indians.
Indy returns to the States where he's a college professor of archaeology. Waiting for him are two government agents. They want Indy to find the Ark of the Covenant, a chest that supposedly contains the original Ten Commandments, before the Nazis find it. The Ark is rumored to have the Power of God, the ability to level whole civilizations (hence occult fanatic Hitler's interest). An intercepted dispatch mentions Indy's old teacher Abner Ravenwood. With his friend and museum curator Dr. Marcus Brody (Denholm Elliott) blessing, Indy flies to Nepal to search for Ravenwood's daughter and former flame of Indy's Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen) and locate the headpiece to the Staff of Ra that will help pinpoint the ancient city of Tanis and the location of the Ark. Marion owns a bar in the Himalayas. She tells Indy that her father is dead but she might know where the headpiece resides. Sadistic Nazi S.S. Major Arnold Toht (Ronald Lacey) shows up at the bar to make a similar offer for the headpiece. A gunfight erupts between Indy and the Nazis. Marion's mountain tavern burns down but she had the headpiece on her. She and Indy reluctantly become partners.
Indy and Marion journey to Cairo next to meet up with Indy's friend Sallah (John Rhys-Davies), the best digger in Egypt. Sallah's been keeping tabs on the dig for the Ark led by none other than Indy's adversary Belloq. Belloq has located the Map Room. Belloq tries to have Indy killed again in an open Cairo market square by sword wielding assassins and Nazis in business suits with machine guns. Indy narrowly escapes yet again. He and Sallah learn that Belloq has part of the headpiece's information but he's digging in the wrong place. Indy secretly descends into the Map Room and using the real headpiece locates the coordinates to the Well of Souls where the Ark rests. Indy, Sallah, and a team of diggers begin digging in the correct location and find the entrance. Indy and Sallah repel down and secure the Ark. But Belloq along with Toht and Colonel Dietrich (Wolf Kahler) stumble upon their plot. Toht throws Marion into the Well of Souls to join Indy as the tomb is sealed up.
And so begins the epic second half of RAIDERS as Indy and Marion manage to escape the Well of Souls (and deal with Indy's fear of snakes), blow up a German cargo plane fueling up to fly the Ark to Berlin, and chase down on horseback and hijack a truck convoy carrying the Ark. "I'm making this up as I go," Indy confides to Sallah. RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK has more action in this 20 minute sequence than most full length films. When Indy gets to Cairo, Sallah has a freighter helmed by Captain Katanga (George Harris) waiting to take Indy, Marion, and the Ark. But Belloq and Dietrich catch them again on the high seas with a U-boat and take them to a secret Mediterranean submarine base on a Greek island. Belloq wants to open the Ark and examine it before sending it to Hitler. Belloq opens the Ark, releasing phantasms and wraiths that obliterate Belloq, Toht, Dietrich, and the remaining German soldiers. Indy and Marion, tied up, close their eyes and escape the Ark's supernatural fury.
The fun of RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK is it's loving reverence for the cheap Republic Serials and B movie westerns that it pays homage to. Only RAIDERS is made with a talented A list director and a budget 100 times larger. In the tradition of the old time serials, RAIDERS sends Indiana Jones from one cliffhanger to another but all within one movie instead of a 10 minute episode to be continued next week. With the leather jacket and fedora and bullwhip, Indiana Jones embodies the classic B-movie hero. Spielberg and Lucas show their love for these 1930's and 40's serials from the start, superimposing the Pan Am sea plane flying across a map of the Pacific Ocean, a line detailing its route and final destination -- Nepal. The dashing hero and dastardly villains, the plucky heroine, the sidekicks - they're all stock characters from a Republic cliffhanger serial but with greater depth and characterization for modern audiences.
Like my previous film blog on THE ROAD WARRIOR (1981), RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK is another of my all time favorite film that satisfies with the big action sequences as well as the little moments or visuals. One of my favorite big scenes is the opening jungle temple set piece. We see Indy's resourcefulness as he evades traps, traitorous guides, and a giant boulder. I love the little squatting golden idol he risks life and limb for ((based on a real life Chachapoyan Fertility idol that turned out to be fake). . My other two favorite set pieces are the bar fight in the Himalayas and Indy and Marion's escape from the Wells of Souls. But great films have small, detailed pleasures too. I love Indy's silhouette (with fedora) against the wall as he enters the Himalayan tavern. The mummified corpses that surround Marion in the Well of Souls. A lone snake that slithers through a hole in Marion's dislodged shoe. The capuchin monkey giving the "Heil Hitler" salute to other Nazis in Cairo. The dust coming off Indy's jacket as he runs away from the Hovitos tribe. Small details that spice up the bigger story and action pieces.
RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK is Spielberg at his most playful, a young filmmaker growing with confidence. I never realized how many gags Spielberg put in RAIDERS. The gags are poke fun and reinvent the clichés from the cheap serials RAIDERS is based on. Toht pulling out a torture weapon only to turn it into a hangar for his coat or Indy settling for just shooting a sword wielding assassin rather than dueling with him stand out. Spielberg shows off his film history knowledge borrowing from two of my favorite directors in a couple of RAIDERS scenes. He borrows a device from Alfred Hitchcock's NORTH BY NORTHWEST (1959) when Indy searches for a large basket containing a kidnapped Marion and enters a bazaar full of men carrying similarly large baskets. In NORTHWEST, Cary Grant disguised himself as a train porter to avoid bad guys and steps onto a train platform teeming with similarly dressed train porters. For the finale of RAIDERS, Spielberg borrows from the great Orson Welles. The giant warehouse where the Ark of the Covenant is finally stored resembles the infinite warehouse that contains the contents of Charles Foster Kane's life in CITIZEN KANE (1939).
The filmmakers also tip their cap to the James Bond films. The opening scenes of RAIDERS and the other Indiana Jones films are almost a separate little movie unto themselves, much like the opening scene for a Bond movie like GOLDFINGER or DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER. And the secret Nazi submarine base hidden on a rocky island in the Mediterranean is something Bond's enemy organization SPECTRE would build. In RAIDERS and later INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE (1989), Spielberg portrays the Nazis as cartoonish bad guys. But as Spielberg grew as a filmmaker and an adult, he would grow more serious with the true evil nature of the Nazis regime, displayed in his powerful WWII films SCHINDLER'S LIST (1993) and SAVING PRIVATE RYAN (1998).
Sometimes lost in all the praise for Spielberg, Lucas, Kasdan, and Ford are a couple of key contributors to RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK'S success. The sound design and effects by Ben Burtt for RAIDERS are amazing. It's not often that you notice sound in a film but I remember the punches and bullets sounds used in RAIDERS as unique and unlike any I had heard in previous films. Every punch is bone jarring. The bullet sounds whizzing past Indy were not the stock sound effects from TV westerns. They sounded powerful and dangerous. Burtt's sound effects are exaggerated like the punches but it fits perfectly with the look and feel of this modern version of an old fashioned cheapie serial. And I think the score for RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK by composer John Williams is one of his best (yes better than STAR WARS or the HARRY POTTER films). Williams captures the mood of the cliffhanger serials with appropriate villain music when the bad guys show up and a rousing RAIDERS theme song when Indy escapes yet another harrowing predicament.
Many film fans will point to the roguish intergalactic mercenary Han Solo from the STAR WARS series as Harrison Ford's best role but for CrazyFilmGuy, Ford's Indiana Jones is his greatest performance. In fact, I think Indiana Jones is one of the best action characters in film history (along with my other fave Mad Max). Ford is fantastic as Dr. Indiana Jones juggling humor (both physical and non-physical), action, romance, and serious moments where he has to reveal historical and plot exposition with ease. Ford was 39 when RAIDERS came out. He had been a journeyman actor, appearing in small roles in George Lucas's AMERICAN GRAFFITI (1973) and Francis Coppola's THE CONVERSATION (1974). But Ford hung in there and became a star with STAR WARS (1977) followed by RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK. And to imagine that the role of Indiana Jones was first offered to Tom Selleck. The producers of Selleck's hit TV series MAGNUM P.I. wouldn't release Selleck from his duties to make RAIDERS and so Ford was offered the part. The rest is film history.
Spielberg and Lucas round out the RAIDERS cast with familiar but unfamous actors who play their parts to perfection. Karen Allen is tomboy pretty as Indy's old flame Marion Ravenwood, a heroine who reminds us of the drinking, carousing women from a Howard Hawks like ONLY ANGELS HAVE WINGS (1939). Allen looks like a 1940's heroine and her combination of tough sexiness and strength make her the best heroine of the first three Indiana Jones films. Allen would make a triumphant return as an older but still feisty Marion in the 4th installment of the series INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL (2008). She would also appear in John Landis's ANIMAL HOUSE (1978) and John Carpenter's STARMAN (1984).
John Rhys-Davies who plays Indy's friend Sallah may have the most interesting film career arc of all time. His first big breakout film was RAIDERS and Rhys-Davies also appeared in INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE. His Sallah brings an exotic quality to series. He's acted in countless films and television series as well as provide his voice for many animated shows but nothing as big as RAIDERS until the deep baritone Welshman was cast as the dwarf warrior Gimli in Peter Jackson's THE LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy. A nice way to book end his career with two classic movie franchises. Rhys-Davies is still going strong today in films and television.
Watching RAIDERS again makes me think that the casting of English actor Paul Freeman as Indy's nemesis French archaeologist Rene Belloq (with his bad French accent) is on purpose. It would go along with the filmmakers poking fun at the B movie cliffhanger serials and the stock villains in them. Freeman makes Belloq likable and despicable at the same time. Apparently, Freeman is very good at accents but I think he plays Belloq's accent to be funny. Freeman popped up recently in Edgar Wright's HOT FUZZ (2007) and has worked steadily since RAIDERS. He is a key contributor to the film's success. Ronald Lacey who plays SS Major Toht passed away far too early (in 1991). His sniveling, sweaty toad of a Nazi was another good foil for the do-gooder Indiana Jones to battle. Lacey had a small part in LAST CRUSADE as, what else, another Gestapo officer.
With any successful film concept, imitators will follow and there have been many. Robert Zemeckis's ROMANCING THE STONE (1984) with Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner was a more modern fortune hunter tale set in Mexico that was a hit and spawned a sequel JEWEL OF THE NILE (1985). More recently, we've seen Ron Howard's THE DA VINCI CODE (2006) with Tom Hanks as a cryptographer chasing down a religious mystery and Jon Turtletaub's NATIONAL TREASURE (2004) with Nicholas Cage as a historian involved with a Templar Knights treasure. All inspired by one Professor Indiana Jones. Rumor has it that today's version of Harrison Ford, actor Chris Pratt (GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY) will take over the fedora and bullwhip in a reboot of the Indiana Jones character. And let's not forget one of the best rides at the Disney Parks -- INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF THE FORBIDDEN EYE. All inspired by Professor Indiana Jones and his adventures.
But if you think CrazyFilmGuy has gone loco about his love for RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, you haven't seen anything yet. Take for example, three 12 year olds from Mississippi who made a shot by shot video version of RAIDERS called RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK: THE ADAPTATION also in 1981. It took 7 years to complete (and they didn't even film the flying wing fight scene). A few years ago, the three grown up men toured the country showing their fan version at film festivals and local theaters to great enthusiasm (Spielberg even met them and saw the film). RAIDERS: ADAPTATION filmmakers Chris Strompolos and Eric Zala finally finished their RAIDERS fan film and a documentary about finishing their film is coming soon. Filmmaker Steven Soderbergh recently presented RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK on his website in black and white (and no sound) to show how beautifully RAIDERS cinematographer Douglas Slocombe shot the film in high contrast lighting (it's just as good to watch in black and white as color) and to make viewers explore why Spielberg and editor Michael Kahn chose the edits and cut they did. Seeing RAIDERS in black and white is a nice way to take yourself back to the 1940's and imagine what if RAIDERS came out in that era.
Back in 1987, I was backpacking through Europe after college. As I walked around the streets of Florence, Italy I came upon an archaeological dig next to the Uffizi Gallery. It was the remains of a house from the 13th or 14th century perhaps belonging to the Houses of Nobility of the Ghibelline Party. Standing in the middle of the excavation stood a man in a leather jacket smoking a pipe. All I could think of as I snapped a photo was "that's Indiana Jones." RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK is a timeless film that entertains, delights, and surprises with each viewing. But RAIDERS also got the world excited about history and archaeology again. For CrazyFilmGuy, RAIDERS made me appreciate the history and art history classes I took in high school and college. It gives me inspiration when I travel to Europe and view castles and ruins and artifacts that previous archaeologists have discovered from our past. I can run around ramparts and through Roman arches or Greek temples and for a brief moment, pretend I'm Indiana Jones discovering these artifacts for the first time. Thankfully, in most cases, the real archaeologists of today don't need to fend off Nazis or headhunters to do their jobs. Their efforts are important and thanks to RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, we're paying a little more attention to what they're doing and finding from our past than we used to.