“I don’t believe in magic, a lot of superstitious hocus pocus. I’m going after a find of incredible historical significance and you’re talking about the Boogieman! Besides, you know what a cautious fellow I am.”
Anybody who has watched any amount of the History Channel knows that Hitler was obsessed with the occult. What this movie presupposes is that he probably lost the war because he diverted too many of his resources towards the doomed goal of acquiring the Ark of the Covenant, which in case you didn’t know, is the chest that contains the original stone tablets on which the ten commandments were written.
According to religious hocus-pocus, any army that marches while carrying the Ark would be unstoppable on the battlefield, as they would have the endorsement of the good Lord Himself. So what does the U.S. government do when faced with the task of racing the Third Reich to unstoppable power and endless influence? They hire an archeology professor from Marshall College, one of the most rough and tumble adventurers in the world, to go out and find it first. They get Indiana Jones. The only problem with the plan is that the key to finding the Ark is in the possession of one of his ex-girlfriends, and she’s kind of a crazy drunk.
Why We Love It
Raiders of the Lost Ark is the world that existed in all of our imaginations when we were five years old. Back when things like quick sand, man-eating piranhas, mummified bodies, and petrified wood were the most important and interesting topics of conversation. Not that they aren’t still. Raiders is the distilled moonshine of all the great things that showed up in the B-Movie serials of the 30s and 40s, boiled down to their most powerful and condensed form, and then injected into the part of the brain that holds childhood sacred. Nobody wants to grow up to be accountants or contractors, nobody dreams of opening a laundry mat.
We want to have adventures. We want to travel the world, see crazy things, get in life threatening situations, and woo members of the opposite sex. When Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) takes off his professorial reading glasses and tweed suit and dons his dusty leather jacket, whip, and fedora he’s living the secret life that all of us long for. Over the course of this film he gets covered in spiders, covered in snakes, covered in skeletons, and is able to confidently face it all with his trusty side arm and bullwhip. Raiders is the perfect mix of everything that is awesome and dangerous when you’re a kid, and it’s got the perfect hero at the center of things to take it all on – a wise-ass rebel who follows none of the rules. He’s exactly who your dad tells you that you shouldn’t be, and still he gets to be the good guy.
But Indy isn’t the only great character that this movie has to offer. The supporting roles all become so enriched, loveable, and quotable with multiple viewings that Raiders starts to feel less like a movie you’ve seen and more like memories from your youth. The introduction to Marion (Karen Allen) is unparalleled in the history of cinema when it comes to introducing a love interest. That first scene of her drinking a burly, bloated, drunk under the table in a Nepal bar instantly positions her as the best girlfriend to an action hero I’ve ever seen. Marion is the perfect girl to fall in love with. Her devil may care grin is unforgettable; she looks pretty in a dress and she talks with her mouth full. And there are few things sweeter than the smile on her face when Indy tells the Nazis, “All I want is the girl.” Too bad he was lying. Indy is such a cad. But his buddy Sallah (John Rhys-Davies) is so jolly and accommodating that you spend most of the movie thinking that he must be pulling a double cross. Then it turns out that he’s really just the most jolly and accommodating guy in the world. Every time he breaks out into song I can’t help but find myself charmed and grinning. If only we all had a friend as cool as this guy.
On the opposite end of the spectrum is Indy’s snooty French nemesis Belloq (Paul Freeman). Belloq rules as a villain because he’s not just more unscrupulous than Indy, he’s also smarter. Belloq manipulates the natives in the beginning of the film because he knows their language. Indy, the ugly American, can’t do much other than punch, shoot at, and run from the locals wherever he goes. He’s just lucky that in the Indiana Jones universe punching a problem is usually the best way of solving it. It’s a world where that can-do Americana attitude is all you need in order to beat the Nazis and win the day for the good guys.
On a movie making level, Raiders soars. The photography is just gorgeous. Every moment is chock full of iconic images that have been burned into the collective consciousness of our culture. If you freeze on any frame in the film it could be a frame from an old comic book. And if you blew up any one of those images it could hang on your wall as art. The gorgeous photography isn’t all that this movie has to offer technically, however. The sharp editing tag teams with the beautiful imagery to make this one of the most easy and fun to watch films of all time. The action editing is absolutely unparalleled in clarity of movement, consistent spatial relations, and building a sense of excitement. The construction of the set pieces are so thoroughly thought out and well executed that they’re probably the best in cinema since Buster Keaton’s heyday. If you look at that fistfight Indy has with the burly German, it goes from simple fisticuffs, to a firefight, to a series of giant explosions, all naturally and organically as the characters traverse an obstacle course of moving airplanes, leaking gasoline, and incoming trucks full of machine gunners. And that’s just the appetizer.
The main course is the big chase sequence. It starts off with Indy chasing a caravan of trucks on a horse, then he gets off the horse and onto one of the trucks, climbs all over the truck getting into fist fights, takes control of the wheel of the vehicle, has a demolition derby showdown with a series of other vehicles, tears through encampments, sends the bad guys veering off cliffs, gets in a another fistfight while driving, loses control of the truck, climbs under the truck while it’s traveling at high speeds, climbs all the way back over the top, gets in another fistfight with the new driver, takes back control of the truck, and then gets the Ark away from the bad guys, all in one crazy sequence that develops logically and is always easy to follow. The whole scene is a miracle of movie-making.
Moment We Fell In Love
What could it be other than the very opening scene of the film? A team of explorers hacks their way through the jungle. They uncover a giant, stone face that sends one of the men screaming in fear. Their leader only appears slightly off screen, or in silhouette. He finds a poison dart in a tree. They are being pursued, but by who?
One of the locals brings the tattered pieces of a map to the man in shadows. In his pocket he holds the other half that completes the map, and undoubtedly leads to some great, lost treasure. Treason plays across one of the men’s eyes. He reaches for his pistol, ready to take the map and the riches for himself. But before he can act the man in shadows cracks a whip, knocks the gun out of the would be traitors hand, and then steps into the light to reveal himself as Han Solo wearing a leather jacket. That about sells things right there. And if it doesn’t, by the time Indy has braved giant spiders, booby traps, skeletons, bottomless pits, poison darts, and being chased by a gigantic boulder, everyone watching is gaga over Raiders of the Lost Ark. Or at least everyone with an operational soul is. And that’s just the first sequence. From this point on we go from South America, to Nepal, to Egypt, to a freaking Nazi submarine. Sounds like the greatest trip of all time to me.