3.5 Stars out of 4
It was maybe a decade or so after the Western had been revised replacing the Classic Westerns of Howard Hawks and John Ford. Two visionaries of the 1970s, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, combined their creative talents to consummate another Western genre that embraced cliché over complexity and action over drama. Lucas thought of Indiana Smith in 1973, but would soon be convinced that “Smith” did not have the right punch to it. Jones, Lucas then submitted. Jones it would be.
The year of 1981 would spawn Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark, starring the named hero (Harrison Ford) who looks like he had been to the Western and back. He has a whip, a knack for archaeology, and loves to elude rolling rocks. The greatest irony was he is a teacher who lives what is ostensibly a passive life. He is a drinker too, or at least he likes the whiskey. But he runs from booby traps and fights muscular Germans like he has never had a drop in his life. Indiana Jones is an interesting man.
The year is 1936. The war had not yet begun but was indeed in sight. Hitler, Germany’s chancellor, is hungry for a relic called the Ark of the Covenant, which could bestow him occult power. Indiana Jones is out to stop him, and reward himself. His motive is simple: he is the American hero on the hunt for a prize. It’s the Americans vs. the Germans, which in the 1930s was a nascent rivalry. The German villains are Major Toht (Ronald Lacey) and René Belloq (Paul Freeman) the archeological nemesis of Jones who sides with the Nazis. We identify with Indiana because he is American, agile, and handsome. He is a character of the Classic Western, like a Gary Cooper.
Indiana cannot complete this mission alone. He is accompanied by Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen) one of Jones’ ex-lovers who sees Indiana as much as a bastard as a beau. She is about as tough as Jones, and definitely drinks more. I would have liked to see a situation that she overcomes herself, but Lucas’s story makes her most useful when she is nestling next to Jones. She is the sidekick or, what film serials called, the saddle pal.
Of course the film was directed by action auteur Steven Spielberg whose Jaws, Schindler’s List, A.I., and Catch Me If You Can I have only really cherished. The timelessness and ineffable wonder of Raiders of the Lost Ark should not be credited to Spielberg alone. What makes Raiders of the Lost Ark special is the story, one conceived by Lucas and friend Philip Kaufman. Spielberg, however, has no problem hurdling the action forward with inventive sequences that you think he thought of by making sandcastles. They are worlds that are so crafty, labyrinthine and alive that you just want to play with them.
But the sets allude to many action scenes that do not let up but never bore. Even Indiana Jones, the man in distress, has a smirk on his face during the action. He pretends to be aggravated by the danger confronting him but Indiana’s stoic sarcasm, imbued by Fored, proves that trouble is his business. What Indiana endures would make every history student envious. I for one. He travels from the Peruvian jungle to Tanis to Cairo and does it laughing. Until the snakes crawl in.
Yes, Jones’ is biggest fear is perhaps mine too: snakes, “Why did they have to be snakes?”. In the opening, Alfred Molina (barely recognizable) had to wear a coat of tarantulas - all real - and that’s enough to give you the chills. Lucas, I’m sure, made Indiana’s greatest weakness reptiles because those are the insidious villains. They are not glassy-eyed Germans or buff German mechanics, but venomous crawling creatures. And they’re everywhere!
The moment where Indiana Jones faces his greatest tribulation involves the aforementioned reptiles, Egyptian asps, surrounding him in clumps beneath the Well of Souls. Jones teams with Marion to elude the snakes in a scene of overwhelming panic and hopelessness. There is nothing more terrifying than being buried in the company of poisonous asps.
Most will or have already found Raiders of the Lost Ark to be an absurd joy. It has a dash of romance, a scoop of cliché, and a heap of explosions. It’s exciting. And it is very funny. The script has a comfortable dose of ironic humour, and some very clever scenes. One involves an Arab sword man challenging Indiana by wielding his sword with a wry grin. Spielberg builds up for a scene of combat but interrupts the tension with Indiana pulling a gun and killing the sword man without flinching. The gun was the American way, the object of modernity, the hero’s tool, and Spielberg figured to “just shoot the sucker.”
Raiders of the Lost Ark won four accolades at the Academy Awards. Most were for visual/technical achievements. This is not a director’s éclat. Spielberg has done better works, and I think the story’s inventiveness must be commended to Lucas. John Williams, Spielberg’s usual composer, received an Oscar nomination for the film’s score but lost to Chariots of Fire. This should be reconsidered. Williams’ leitmotif, “Raider’s March”, conveys more fantasy than any of the film’s action. It inspires whimsy, victory, comedy and grandiosity. The sets itself have a resplendence that make Indiana Jones an accomplished visual wonder, but the music gives the film an aural presence. I am always reminded of that foreboding rolling rock when I hear that song dance away. That music is part of the icon.
The film is not fit specifically to my tastes. I like complexity, character development, and visual minimalism. In all fairness, Indiana Jones could not have the popularity it has now with these facets. What I can conclude is the film is not so much living cinema as merchandise. It’s an action device that will rouse those who are bored by the history books. Sight & Sound, a British film magazine, denounced Raiders of the Lost Ark as an “…expensively gift-wrapped Saturday afternoon pot-boiler.” That it is, but it’s best not to take Raiders of the Lost Ark in a cynical way. It was based off film serials of the 1930s and 1940s, which were episodic adventures of harebrained action fantasies. It’s message for audiences was to just go with it.
I admire how Spielberg never tires of his action and his love for Indiana’s nonchalance. Indiana approaches danger like a chess player learning the Rubik’s cube. He is used to arranging the pieces but is always presented with new ways to do so. “I’m making it up as I go along”, says Jones. In a way Spielberg mocks Jones’ improvisational tactics by making his actions twice as absurd. This is a hero who is never in control though he seems like he always is.
It’s not a masterpiece, and it’s not just a good action film. It’s somewhere in the middle. Why not call it “classic”?