Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) / Action-Adventure
MPAA Rated: PG for violence, mild sensuality and some disturbing imagery
Running Time: 115 min.
Cast: Harrison Ford, Karen Allen, Paul Freeman, Ronald Lacey, John Rhys-Davies, Denholm Elliott
Director: Steven Spielberg
Screenplay: Lawrence Kasdan
Before I would develop an obsession with Hitchcock's masterpiece, Vertigo, Raiders of the Lost Ark was my all-time favorite movie. Perhaps as testament to the film's greatness, it still ranks as a close second. When someone looks bewildered when I tell them the somewhat less popular 1958 detective film is my #1 choice, I usually follow it up with, "Oh yeah, Raiders is also up there." Their eyes light up with acknowledgement, usually followed up with, "Yeah, that's a great one." Although I may have seen it close to 20 times in my life, practically knowing every word and every scene by heart, I never tire of seeing the most perfect action-adventure there ever was or ever will be. At first glance, it might seem to diminish the significance of the word to label such a fun and populist form of cinema as a "masterpiece," but in my humble opinion, I think Raiders qualifies. To say a film this magnificent comes once in a generation would make it a classic of its era, but no film in its genre before or since even comes close. It's the greatest action-adventure of all-time, and I'll lay down top dollar that I go to my grave never wavering in the certitude of that statement.
If not for the purist aspects of writing my review, I would completely forego writing the plotline. I mean, who hasn't at least heard of it? If you are one of the rare people who hasn't seen Raiders, you need to see it. NOW!...um, why are you still reading this?
Of course, it's the role that made Harrison Ford a superstar, as world-renowned archaeologist, Indiana Jones. The year is 1936, just before the rise of Hitler and the Nazi regime. Hitler has been seeking the long-lost Ark of the Covenant, reportedly used by God's people in the days of old to crush their enemies using its vast powers. For over 2,000 years, the Ark has been completely hidden somewhere, and the Nazis are digging in one of the sites reported to be a resting place for it. The American government seeks fame and fortune hunter, Dr. Henry Jones, to find the Ark before it ends up in the wrong hands, but it's easier said than done, as he must not only face peril at every turn, he must bring along an old flame who no longer has much tolerance for the likes of Indiana Jones.
Raiders of the Lost Ark would mark the union of two mega-giants in the entertainment business, director Steven Spielberg (Jaws, Close Encounters) and producer/story writer George Lucas (Star Wars). It is a collaboration which far exceeded even the loftiest of expectations, and would make both men legends in the filmmaking industry even to this day. Lucas conceived of the original story, later penned by Lawrence Kasdan, screenwriter for arguably the best written of the Star Wars movies, The Empire Strikes Back. Rounding out the colossal talent, John Williams writes the forever memorable score, having worked with both men in all of their more recent work before Raiders.
It's hard to imagine anyone other than Harrison Ford in the role, although others were rumored to have been considered. Tom Selleck and Nick Nolte are among the two more prominent names mentioned. Although both fine actors, the casting of Ford proves to be a godsend. Even though the character of Indiana Jones has a larger-than-life quality to it, it's in Ford's subtle, vulnerable delivery that the character becomes more than just a hat, whip and leather jacket. He's capable of getting bruised, ribs busted, and heart broken, at once being the kind of brave hero we all grew up wanting to be, while also not completely fearless in his pursuits (He hates snakes!).
Ford's subtle performance isn't the only understated quality that makes Raiders such a different kind of action flick. It's also incredibly funny throughout, often side-splittingly hilarious. There is a droll sense of humor that underlies most scenes, so small, it's almost imperceptible, but you'll find yourself laughing more often than most comedies, even the classics. The humor is never obvious, almost seeming unscripted (many of the film's biggest laughs are ad-libbed), but what makes everything so humorous is that, even though the cast is colorful and somewhat grandiose, they are very well-rounded in surprisingly complex detail. We feel like we are watching real people. We laugh at their folly, their situations, and their irrational fears, just as we would a good friend in the same situation.
There's so much more that I could praise the film for, from the flawless direction, the brilliant characterizations, and the unbelievable score, I fear I may write forever and lose you all in the process. Suffice it to say, Raiders of the Lost Ark is one of the most essential films to watch in your lifetime, regardless of your age, sex, race, or walk of life. There's something for everyone in this great classic: thrills, chills, action, adventure, romance and comedy, all of which is top-notch in every department, and all in one dense, exhilarating two hour experience. The inspiration may have been the old Republic B-movie serials, but there's not denying that in the process of paying homage, Spielberg and Lucas made A-grade entertainment to last for all time.
-- Followed by Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.
©2003 Vince Leo