Should I Watch..? 'Raiders Of The Lost Ark'
What's the big deal?
Raiders Of The Lost Ark is a historical action adventure film released in 1981 and is the first instalment of the Indiana Jones series. Featuring Harrison Ford as the adventuring archaeologist Dr Henry Jones, the film centres on a race between Dr Jones and the Nazis to recover the fabled Ark Of The Covenant in the deserts of Egypt. The character was created by George Lucas, a friend of director Steven Spielberg and creator of the massively successful Star Wars franchise, who wished to create a modern version of the old adventure serials of the 1930's and 40's like Flash Gordon and The Phantom. The film was a massive success, becoming the highest grossing movie of the year and earning nine nominations at the Academy Awards as well as spawning a number of sequels, video games and a TV series.
What's it about?
Returning empty-handed from an expedition in Peru where he was robbed by his professional rival René Belloq, archaeology professor Dr Henry "Indiana" Jones resumes teaching history at his college alongside his colleague Marcus Brody. But soon, Indiana is talking to a couple of Army Intelligence officers who inform him that the Nazis are on a quest to locate the Ark Of The Covenant with the intention of making Hitler's armies indestructible.
Indy's first port-of-call is Nepal where an old flame of his, Marion Ravenwood, is in possession of the head of the Staff of Ra which will help them recover the Ark before the Nazis. But the Third Reich are never far behind and the villainous Gestapo agent Arnold Todt has recruited an archaeologist of his own to help in the search, Belloq...
Trailer - remastered
Dr. Henry "Indiana" Jones
Dr. René Belloq
Major Arnold Todt
Dr. Marcus Brody
Lawrence Kasdan *
Release Date (UK)
30th July, 1981
Best Set Direction, Best Sound, Best Film Editing, Best Visual Effects, Special Achievement in Sound Effects Editing
Academy Award Nominations
Best Picture, Best Director, Best Cinematography, Best Original Score
What's to like?
Lots of films claim to offer adventure and excitement but few do it quite like Indy. This first film in the series served as a mission statement - these films are going to be slightly ridiculous but nothing less than brilliantly entertaining and thrilling. Raiders Of The Lost Ark is a superb blend of hokey history, old-fashioned stunt work (no CG here, remember) and a hero for the ages in Ford's stunning portrayal of Dr Jones. Alongside him, Allen does enough as the love interest but I suspect most will recall the chilling performance from Lacey as the unsettling Todt. But the film rightly belongs to Ford whose wisecracks and whip-cracking instantly make Indy stand out from any number of action heroes.
The film offers a gripping pursuit of the Ark through the deserts of North Africa and despite the lack of CG, has a surprising number of decent effects scenes such as the terrifying moment when the Ark is finally opened. Spielberg is a masterful film-maker and knows instantly how to give an audience a ride like nothing else. Even at this relatively early stage in his career, his understanding of the art of direction is plain to see and offers the perfect mix of humour, horror and heroism for the whole family.
- Filming in Tunisia, almost the entire cast and crew got sick apart from Spielberg. This may be because he only ate food he brought with him from the US - hundreds of cans of spaghetti hoops.
- Like the heroes of old, Indy never loses his hat in the movie. In the serials, this was done for continuity reasons and also because it was considered poor taste for a man to be seen without a hat.
- The film marks the debut of Alfred Molina who spent his first day being covered in tarantulas. Ironically, one of his biggest movie roles would be as the many-legged Doctor Octopus in Spider-Man 2.
What's not to like?
The climax might prove frightening to younger viewers (and maybe even older ones!) but apart from that, I'm struggling to think of anything. I suppose that Freeman's rival archaeologist Belloq is a weak villain compared to the chilling impassiveness of Todt and he doesn't really do much to last long in the memory after the film ends. And although this isn't a fault of this film, it is overshadowed by the third entry in the series Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade.
The only other thing I suppose I could take umbrage with are the opening scenes which is actually the most memorable sequence in the picture as Indy flees for his life being chased by that legendary boulder. Such a quality sequence shouldn't really be at the front of the picture but at least it makes sure you're awake and aware that this is one film that isn't going to give you a moment's peace. But really, I'm clutching at straws here - Raiders of The Lost Ark remains a picture of real class and aside from the odd clunky effect here and there, it has hardly dated at all.
Should I watch it?
Unless you're an emeritus professor of Biblical history, everyone will enjoy this riotous adventure. It's easy to forget about such an endlessly imitated picture but the original remains a rock-solid watch, fuelled by Ford's magnificent performance as Indy and filled with the sort of high-energy action pieces that would become the series' hallmark. It's not the highpoint of the series but it's a great way to cement Indy into the minds of audiences the world over.
Great For: families, audiences, Harrison Ford
Not So Great For: young children, the easily scared, historical scholars
What else should I watch?
For me, the series is a strange roller-coaster in quality with wonderful films like this and Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade, middling efforts like the second film Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom and soul-destroying garbage like the frail-looking reboot/rehash Indiana Jones And The Kingdom of The Crystal Skulls. All of them are broadly the same as Indy travels off to some forgotten corner of the world with excessive amounts of cobwebs but the last film turns its back on the traditional methods employed by the first three films and smothers everything in fairly poor CG. It is, in short, a disaster.
Few other films can offer as much of a thrill-ride as Indy does and even fewer without CG. Peter Jackson's Lord Of The Rings trilogy offers an epic story but it utilises CG in a way that you don't really notice it - the portrayal of Gollum is brilliant while the sweeping shots of vast battles and towering cities built into the side of mountains feel natural, even if CG is clearly involved. In fact, the only other film I can think of that tries to keep CG to a minimum is Pirates Of The Caribbean: The Curse Of The Black Pearl. Yes, it uses such digital trickery for the undead pirates but a lot of the action, sets and story are told in a conventional way and the film matches Indy's style of combining thrills, spills and humour wrapped around a fantastic central character.
© 2015 Benjamin Cox