Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
Written by Lawrence Kasdan
Directed by Steven Spielberg
It’s interesting watching these movies and seeing them juxtaposed, realizing the gap in quality between what Disney was putting out in 1981 and Paramount in the same year. Raider of the Lost Ark came on June 12, putting it up against Mel Brooks’s History of the World Part 1 and Clash of the Titans. Both of these are delightful films but compared to Raiders, I just don’t think they can hold a candle. The script here is tightly written with some of the best set pieces in an adventure-action movie to date. However, as I have revisited films during my flashback series, sometimes I discover a beloved classic has many more flaws than I remembered, and that can reshape how I feel about the movie.
Henry “Indiana” Jones (Harrison Ford) is an archeology professor who travels the world searching for valuable artifacts. His greatest rival is French treasure hunter Rene Belloq who constantly beats Jones to the punch or swipes away the artifact at the last minute. Jones is contacted by men from Army Intelligence who have learned the Nazis are in Egypt searching for the Ark of the Covenant. This is a biblical artifact said to hold the Ten Commandments within. Hitler believes that with the Ark, he can access divine power. Jones simply doesn’t want it to be kept from public view. He agrees to help the Army, but this involves reuniting with Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen), a woman from his past and the daughter of his former mentor Abner. The two forge an uneasy alliance and travel to Egypt, where they race to discover the Ark before the Nazis catch onto them.
Raiders certainly holds up as a great adventure movie. The writing is sharp, and the characters are fully realized so that everyone has a personality without becoming an obnoxious exaggeration. Belloq could easily have moved into a farce of a French snob, but he is grounded and feels like a more realistic person. The same is said for the Nazi antagonists alongside him. They are both character types from genre films but also not grotesque cartoons. In modern cinema, we often get more exposition around villains to explain motivation and lay out a master plan. While Belloq does have his own designs on the Ark, I don’t think there was ever a scene that felt like awkward exposition. His goals are clearly stated, and then the story moves on.
Jones is a great character, especially emphasizing him making mistakes and not always being even-tempered. Harrison Ford is best when he plays characters who are a mix of human fallibility and humor. Han Solo is best not when he is a swaggering hero but when he shows his ass. Jones is excellent when he comes to the realization in the middle of a conflict that he is about to get his ass kicked or when he assumes he’s in the clear only to be double-crossed. That’s a much more relatable character than a person who just easily defeats or overcomes whatever is in their path. I think that didn’t work with Kingdom of the Crystal Skull because of Ford’s age. He’s gotten to the point where seeing a man on the cusp of 80 get into a physical altercation just isn’t that fun to watch.
I think Karen Allen has been incredibly underrated as Marion. She is hilarious and has excellent comic timing. I appreciated that Marion isn’t the typical female love interest, something the Indiana Jones movies are very good at. Marion feels like she could handle her own and does in many situations. I think if the film had been written a decade or two later, we could have possibly had a Marion that wasn’t quite as imperiled as she is here. Though for the time, her willingness to punch out or out drink an opponent is admirable. There is a disconcerting element in the movie that is casually glossed over. When Jones finds Marion at her Nepalese bar, we are given a few snippets about their past relationship. Marion mentions that she was a child, and Jones responds that she knew what she was doing. We are never given hard and fast ages, but it’s implied she was underage and Jones was not. In fact, this “relationship” is apparently what caused Abner to have his falling out with Jones. Behind the scenes, George Lucas originally wanted Marion to have been around 11 years old when she was involved with Jones…I would really like to get some context for what the hell that was about. This is truly an instance to counter the nostalgia bros who want to act like people being more aware of gender is somehow “ruining” media. Um, the script for this movie would be improved by not having this in it, by making Marion of legal age for their relationship.
The action still holds up and is an excellent example of how having actors in a physical space and interacting with real objects is still better than digital effects. I don’t doubt in the near future, technology will make the two indistinguishable. The Mandalorian is already doing some fantastic things with a digital background that fools my eyes constantly. However, when Jones faces off with a brute Nazi while clambering under and over a plane, it helps that all the elements are really there with the actors. It gives things weight and form. There are still effects that are glaringly outdated though, some green screen and the melting Nazis at the end of the picture are pretty comical as an adult. I think those add to the charm of the picture and the fact it’s a nostalgia project, attempting to recreate a type of movie from Lucas and Spielberg’s childhoods.