Raiders of the Lost Arc

After the success of Spielberg’s Jaws and Lucas’ Star Wars, the two young directors, and friends, were on top of the cinematic world and looking for a new project. When George Lucas told Steven Spielberg about a new character he was sketching, an archeologist with a flair for action, Spielberg was immediately intrigued and asked if he could direct the movie. Lucas gave him the green light on the spot, and so was formed the team which would eventually bring us Raiders of the Lost Ark, a movie which upped the ante for action movies and years later has yet to be surpassed.

The story takes place in the 1930’s, when Hitler was in power in Germany but before his blitzkrieg of Poland in 1939. Professor Indiana Jones, after an initial action sequence which gives us a taste of things to come, is contacted by the US government which has some questions about an archeological project which seems to have captured Hitler’s interest. He soon finds himself involved in an “operation” to recover the lost Ark of the Covenant, which reputedly is full of great powers which the Israelites used to defeat their enemies. What follows is perhaps the greatest tour de force in Hollywood history.


With Raiders of the Lost Ark, all elements of movie making come together in perfection. The script is a thrill ride which knows how important to an action movie are the non action elements. The actors, given some delightfully fun characters, really bring their roles to life. The director knows just how important directing is to getting the most out of the potential in a script and sets about doing just that. The cinematography is quite solid, with moments of brilliance. One does not notice the editing (which generally means the editor did his job) and the score is the perfect accompaniment to what appears on the screen.

I am of the opinion that one does not need 1) a great script, 2) great acting and 3) great directing/editing/cinematography to make a good movie; one needs two of the three. But to make a masterpiece, all three elements must be strong. But how rarely does this happen? Raiders of the Lost Ark is now a quarter century old; how many films since then have been so strong in so many categories? Very few indeed.

The importance of the film, apart from its continuing ability to entertain, is as a lesson in filmmaking. Every once in a while it behooves artists to go back to the basics and remember what is really important in their art, and what is not. Special effects are too often the main vehicle which carries a movie, and so of course the movie fails. Spielberg realized that special effects can enhance the experience but never serve as the central pillar keeping it standing strong. Of course, for its day the special effects were impressive. But who would care anymore if that were all that the movie offered (it is both ironic and tragic that Lucas has spent so much time befouling his Star Wars legacy with constant tinkering with the special effects, because he too had much to teach when he created Episode IV: A New Hope. His incompetence since then is like a college professor failing an exam of his own design!)?

The world had not until then seen stunts and action like it did with Raiders. And while it has seen much since (some of which, like fighting scenes for instance, have surpassed Raiders in that particular aspect), it has almost never seen an action film which took such care with the dramatic aspects of the movie. Character and dialogue are just as important to such a film as they are to a drama. The small moments count, both for their own sake as well as for acting as foils for the larger moments ahead. It is one thing to stage a daring escape, but quite another to find a unique angle or perspective for the escape.

The lessons to be learned from this masterpiece are many. How much better would the second two installments of the Matrix have been if the Wachowski brothers had studied their Spielberg? How much better would the second Star Wars trilogy have been if Lucas had not forgotten the lessons he helped teach?

So many what ifs, which is what makes Raiders so special. It doesn’t come around every year, and maybe only a few times a decade. So when it does, enjoy the theatrical run and then buy the DVD so your kids can enjoy it. And if you get the chance, hand George Lucas a copy of this article.

The Upside:
Everything. Do I really need to say more?
The Downside:
Nothing. And I mean it.
On the Side:
Spielberg was reportedly hurt that Lucas, perhaps jealous of the success of Jaws and wanting a success all his own, had kept him out of the Star Wars series. Raiders may have been his way of mending the fences with his friend.

Final Grade: A+

Film Stats:
Release Date: June 12, 1981
Starring: Harrison Ford, Karen Allen, Paul Freeman, John Rhys-Davies
Directed by: Steven Spielberg
Writing Credits: George Lucas, Lawrence Kasdan, Philip Kaufman
Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1
Sound Mix: Dolby
Country: USA
Run Time: 115 min.
Studio: LucasFilm / Paramount (official site)
Watch the Trailer Here

Technorati Tags: Indiana Jones, George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, Action, Classic, Movie, Hollywood