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Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
Tonight's Feature Presentation

RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK (1981)

Starring: Harrison Ford, Karen Allen, Paul Freeman, Ronald Lacey, John Rhys-Davies, Alfred Molina

Written By: Lawrence Kasdan, George Lucas (story), Philip Kaufman (story) Directed By: Steven Spielberg

The Short Version

Even over three decades later, Raiders of the Lost Ark still defines adventure.

Duh-duh-dah-DAH!  (You knew the tune; don’t deny it.)

Indiana Jones is one of the all-time great movie characters.

Iconic music + iconic character + iconic moments = iconic movie.

Raiders of the Lost Ark will never become a relic, but will always be a “must.”


The Long Version

What Kind Of Cheese Is It?

AGED CHEDDAR.

Archaeologists once found a lump of Cheddar that was 1500 years old… and still edible.  The good stuff, like this movie, is truly timeless.


Pairs Well With...

JACK DANIEL'S.

Great whiskey for fueling an adventure.  Just try not to burn down any Nepalese taverns with it.

“Come on.  I'll buy you a drink.  You know?  A drink?”

“Oh, my friends!  I am so pleased you are not dead!”


Nearly every archaeologist on Earth will tell you that real archaeology is nothing like the adventures of Indiana Jones.

Most of those same archaeologists under fifty years old will then say that Indiana Jones is a reason that they became archaeologists in the first place anyway.

That, my friends, is the power of a truly iconic motion picture.  That is the power of Raiders of the Lost Ark.

And in case you were wondering if that power has faded…  Thirty-one years after its theatrical premiere, Raiders of the Lost Ark was re-released on the big screen for one week.  Despite having no computer generated effects and despite already having a comfortable and well-worn home on several million video cabinet shelves, on a per-screen basis, Raiders outperformed every other film in release that weekend.  All of them.

Yeah; I’d say that it ages well.

Of course, it was already a throwback the first time around.  George Lucas and Steven Spielberg conceived Raiders of the Lost Ark as an homage to the old time cliffhanger serials that used to air at the bijou before and between regular feature films.  They really weren’t going for anything more than a “B-style” flick with better production values.  Even the men who’d already brought the world Star Wars and Jaws couldn’t have predicted that the end result of their efforts would be one of the most enduring films of all time. 

So, why does it endure?

It endures precisely because Spielberg and Lucas don’t do anything to mess with it.  They keep exactly to the formula of the old school serial cliffhangers and do very little to modernize things.  (Hold that thought.)  Though Raiders of the Lost Ark is presented as a single continuous feature, the cliffhanger stops are obvious, and yet they’re handled so deftly that they don’t change the pace of the story even as they stand out enough to be recognized for what they are.  It doesn’t matter that few members of the original theatrical audience and almost none of the modern audience have ever seen an old school serial; the fact is that the adventure recipe is a solid one, and even if the audience has no firsthand experience with its origins, that essence is still easy enough to pick up on and enjoy.

It endures because within that framework, the stunts and the signature adventure moments are so much fun.  That opening sequence with the bag of sand and giant boulder and all of the other things that’s inspired at least a thousand other movies and video games since.  The wonderful bar fight where Marion pauses long enough to drink directly from the keg.  The “dragged under the truck” scene that had already appeared in several movies before this one but which has since become indelibly identified with Raiders.  The fistfight by the plane.  All of these moments and more play to perfection, enjoyable both as part of the greater movie and on their own merits as standalone pieces in what’s really a serial that’s been cut together.

It endures because Indiana Jones was born to be an icon right out the gate.  The old school adventure hero archetype is one with almost instinct-level appeal to begin with, and every aspect that goes into making Indy his own character only serves to magnify that appeal.  (Hell, the costume – the deceptively simple costume – now hangs in the Smithsonian.)  An archaeologist with a bullwhip?  Who’d have thought?  But now… who could imagine otherwise?  And whether or not he was the first choice for the role (I won’t even get into that game of ping pong), Harrison Ford (Blade Runner) is the perfect choice for the role.  Ford has an intrinsic “man’s man” quality about him, combined with a great physical screen presence and an underappreciated actor’s instinct.  (As he’d already done for Han Solo, Ford ad-libbed/improvised some of what have now become definitive Indy character moments.) 

It endures because the only place where Lucas and Spielberg decided to mess with the formula comes in the form of Karen Allen (Starman) as Marion Ravenwood.  Unlike the average serial girl whose main job was to be a damsel in distress – which, to be sure, Marion still is for much of the time – this character isn’t a swooning doormat.  She can drink any man under the table (and proves it twice) and is more than capable of standing up to the commanding personality of Indiana Jones without fainting in the shadow of his fedora.  She’s that little touch of modernity required to make this kind of adventure story speak to the 80s and beyond, and really, Indy himself is all the more interesting a character for having a love interest who slugs him.

It endures because of the Nazis.  No, really.  Time has proven that when it comes to nasty villains, nothing and no one is as reliably dastardly as the Nazis.  They’re the bad guys that nobody can question, and as a bonus, Lucas and Spielberg didn’t have to invent the Third Reich’s interest in finding religious artifacts: Nazi archaeology squads were in fact quite real.  Any story’s hero is always defined in part by the villain he or she opposes, and with villains like this… well, that just automatically brings Indiana Jones up a notch or two.  Bonus awesomeness to Spielberg for waiting out fifty takes to get the little monkey to do a Nazi salute that we in the audience all read loud and clear as a middle finger to der Fuhrer coming from behind the camera.

It endures because of John Williams.  In composing the “Raiders March,” Williams created one of the single greatest adventure themes of all time, and one that millions of people find themselves humming or otherwise singing on a regular basis.  It’s not just catchy; it’s soul stirring.  It’s Great Film Music, pure and simple.

For all of these reasons and more, Raiders of the Lost Ark endures.  As with so many classics, it’s a film that evolved into something bigger than anyone involved with making it could ever have imagined at the time.  What started as a love letter to adventure serials past has now become the adventure by which most others are judged, and usually found wanting… and it is awesome.

Bottom line, grab your fedora and let the adventure begin.  Raiders of the Lost Ark is one classic that will never be relegated to “relic” status, and that belongs in everyone’s permanent collection.

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- Reviewed by Ziggy Berkeley, September, 2012


You can email Ziggy at ziggy@cinemaontherocks.com. You can also find us on Facebook.


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