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A 1981 adventure film starring Harrison Ford and directed by Steven Spielberg.

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Review #100: Good Guys Always Wear Brown Hats

  • Mar 18, 2003
Pros: Indy's hat and whip are freakin' COOL!

Cons: TWO great trilogies, and John Rhys-Davies is STILL ignored

The Bottom Line: If you only see one action movie in your whole life... MAKE IT RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK!!!

Well. Here I am. Review number 100. Maybe I should take everyone’s advice and start seeking out a place to do this professionally.

That being said, I wonder what it is about Raiders of the Lost Ark that keeps drawing me back to it time and time again. I know the movie is constantly referred to as some sort of breakthrough for the action genre but, in all honesty, if you were to ask me to back up that statement, I don’t think I could. I could, however, tell you why I think Indiana Jones is the greatest movie hero to ever grace the silver screen. I could tell you why I liked the ending so much. In short, I could tell you why I like Raiders so much. But if you want to know why it was some kind of breakthrough, go ask some other critic.

Perhaps one reason for the absolute perfection of Raiders as an action movie has to do with the power trio behind and in front of the cameras. Producer George Lucas, director Steven Spielberg and star Harrison Ford had all made names for themselves as Hollywood hotshots by the time they got around to making Raiders. All of them were box office champions and had a certain degree of acclaim. While Spielberg made it long to fully flesh out the story, Lucas performed double duty in the editing room to keep it at a reasonable length while including the most important story and action sequences. Meanwhile, on the other end of the camera, Harrison Ford worked to make his character seem both invincible and vulnerable.

To give off my main reason for liking Raiders, it’s FUN, and it’s fun without being insulting. This is something I have yet to see in any other action movie. Starting off in a tropical rain forest and ending on a remote island somewhere in the Mediterranean sea, the movie is a plain, good old-fashioned race to the finish between the white (brown in Indy’s case) hat-wearing good guys and black hat-wearing, fancy flat-ironed suited bad guys. No silly character betrayals that insult the audience, no fancy silver-lined special effects to try to wow the audience to keep their minds off a cockeyed plot, no fancy aerobics. Just good old fists, bullets, explosions and clever one-liners.

Our simplified-but-not-insulting plot begins in a rain forest where our hero, Indiana Jones, searches an ancient temple for some kind of weird-looking gold idol. When he reaches it and picks it up, the temple begins to collapse on him. Out he runs with his assistant, who betrays him and tries to run off with the thing (I’m well aware of what I said in the last paragraph. I don’t put this in my definition of “silly, audience-insulting betrayals”. After all, we just met the guy, we don’t know who he is. And Indy doesn’t stupidly contemplate the whole situation when he finds out, instead of blowing him up when he has a chance. Besides, the guy meets his demise just seconds after the betrayal, so it doesn’t matter.). Indy makes it out of the temple just seconds before a giant boulder clogs up the entrance-and has his prize ripped from him by his rival Belloq, whose fluency in the native tongue allowed him to make friends with a local tribe. Indy escapes his imminent death and safely makes it back to his day job as an archeological nerd at a local school, where he is soon summoned to go out and look for the biblical ark of the covenant. But this won’t be just another journey for some useless old bones; Adolf Hitler is aware of the ark’s power and wants to use it as a Nazi super weapon. So his boys are out there racing Indy for the thing. And to aid his troops, Hitler hired the services of none other than Belloq.

But Indy’s no fool. He knows better than to take on the Nazis all by himself, so he recruits the help of Marion, a tomboy ex-girlfriend. When he lands in Cairo, he recieves help from a friendly Arab named Salah. I suppose it’s easy to figure out that Indy and Marion do more than just reunite.

Although Raiders gets serious at times, there’s a definite comedic aura hanging over pretty much the whole movie. Never is this more apparent then when a bad guy with a big sword jumps out and does all kinds of nifty tricks, only to have Indy just shoot him and move on. So the violence in Raiders is more campy than anything, and sometimes the bad guys don’t even really die. They just get knocked out or thrown away, although one particularly unfortunate refridgerator-shaped gentleman meets his untimely fate in the propellor of a grounded airplane. But even this scene has a bit of humorous irony in it-if the guy had only taken the subtle hint from Indy, he’d have been alive and well for a sequel. In another scene, Marion gets kidnapped in another ironic twist. Hiding in a basket to escpe some Nazis who are looking for her, they figure out her hiding place, tie a rope around it and carry it off. As Indy rounds a corner chasing after her, he sees just how popular that particular kind of basket is. Half the people in the city are all carrying the same thing.

When the movie isn’t trying to be funny, it’s trying to be just plain fun, with a certain degree of suspence. One of the more famous scenes from Raiders is the descention into the snake pit to actually retrieve the Ark. No one told Indy that the pit is filled with poisonous snakes, the bane of Indy’s existance. This scene is where having someone to hold onto comes in handy, because Belloq chooses this moment to steal the Ark, adding a kind of exclamation point by trapping Indy and Marion in the pit. His escape method makes you realize just how far ahead of James Bond that Indy is. So he lives on to escape the jaws of certain death a few more times, once while hanging off the front end of a truck.

Just when you think he’s becoming just another Arnold Schwarzenegger cookie cutter action movie character, Indy throws a psychological curveball at you. On the remote island, just before the finale, Indy grabs a bazooka, points it at the Ark and makes a ransom demand-hand over Marion (who’s been captured yet again) or “Your fuhrer has no prize.”. But Indy is an archeologist with a lot of archeological curiosities, and Belloq knows this. So he turns the tables by arousing one of those curiosites, by telling Indy, in a nutshell, that Indy wants to know what’s inside the Ark just as badly as he does. So Indy’s rocket-point negotiation fails, and he winds up tied to a pole.

I still remember the first time I saw the grand finale. I’ve seen it many, many times since (as have most people), but I still can’t figure out why it works so well. Perhaps because it was so unexpected the first time. Here’s Indy and Marion, tied to a pole. You figure Indy’s plotting some kind of fancy escape, as usual. But there’s really no logical way to get out of that situation. The good guys are tied, the bad guys win. That’s it. And so they open the Ark, and all these spirits fly out and around, eventually merging into one giant, angelic face. Suddenly, the face turns into a grotesque skull, shoots a beam through the Nazis and melts and blows up the faces of the three guys standing around the Ark in a particularly gruesome manner. So it isn’t Indy who defeats the Nazis after all, but the Head Honcho Himself.

Indiana Jones is a slightly different kind of movie hero. While he almost wipes out the Nazis before his country even enters the war, he still gets shot. How often does that happen? And while many movie heros are stoic figures that stay the same, Indy doesn’t. When he first gets called to chase down the Ark, he says he doesn’t believe in that kind of stuff. Yet in the end when the Ark is opened, he tells Marion not to look at the Ark, no matter what happens. Obviously Indy is familiar with the Bible, because the Bible says the Ark wiped out the Hebrews’ enemies when the enemies looked at it. And although Indy is all man through the duration of the movie, he accurately shows how a lot of men would react to certain situations. When he thinks Marion is ded, for example, he gets visibly depressed but never sheds a single tear. During the finale, he changes his beliefs according to what he sees. Harrison Ford has just the right balance of male machismo and vulnerability to play the role effectively. Indy complements Marion perfectly. She’s kind of the same combination, only with less emphasis on the male emotion. Salah is the typical nice guy upporting character. He’s played by voice-boomer John Rhys-Davies, the same guy who plays Gimli in what is shaping up to be the next great trilogy-Lord of the Rings. And the only thing to say about Belloq is that he’s the typical bad guy in a black hat.

Despite how much special effects had advanced by 1981, Raiders deserves a lot of credit for not using a ton of them to try to wow the audience. In fact, there’s probably nothing in Raiders that you wouldn’t be able to pull off with a regular, everyday camecorder these days. Even the end scene can be vaguely imitated if you’re willing to make the spirits slightly more opaque. Special effects in Raiders of the Lost Ark are regulated mostly to a few gunshots and explosions.

Spielberg, Lucas and Ford. I have not yet mentioned the fifth Beatle (well, perhaps the fourth in this case) who helped make Raiders the movie exprience that it is-composer John Williams. While many films these days promote their composers in attempt to get you to see them, the only composer synonymous with the images he helps bring to life is Williams. Williams’ priceless contribution to Raiders would be his ever-famous “The Raiders’ March”. “The Raiders’ March” is as rare as they come-it’s an exciting and epic piece that remains simple and completely detatched from any emotion. It’s always hanging right there, over almost every scene. It’s the first thing most people thinkof when they hear the name Indiana Jones. And that is probably the highest compliment that can be given to any film score.

When you think of Hollywood action blockbusters these days, most of you probably want to hold your middle fingers right up for all those cigar-chomping moguls to see. They try and they try to make free money with expensive special effects or silly martial arts tricks (and most of the time both. They haven’t yet figured out that Kung-Fu movies are enjoyable precisely BECAUSE the actors aren’t faking it). But none of that can make people forget the joys of a simple, front-and-center action movie. Raiders of the Lost Ark is still the defining action movie of all time. It’s what movies were made for.


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November 14, 2010
Love that headline and excellent write up!
November 14, 2010
Thanks. Could probably do without the note that it's review #100, though, because on this site it isn't.
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DVD Cover
In 1981 Steven Spielberg and George Lucas were at the top of their game. Spielberg had directed Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, while George Lucas had directed American Graffiti and Star Wars. The two had formed a friendship earlier and decided to collaborate on their next project.      Lucas had wanted to make a film about an adventurer/archaeologist who hunts down supernatural relics while being pursued by dastardly villains. The concept was inspired …
review by . June 15, 2008
Pros: Ford, Allen, writing, direction and the music     Cons: nuttin honey     The Bottom Line: "Every morning the black sun rise   Every morning the black sun rise   It shines out of the Ark of the Covenant"   ~ The Congos     A recent influx of Indiana on television prompted me to once again view this fun movie. It is one of those great movies that when the opening music starts you almost wiggle in your seat, …
review by . November 10, 2003
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Based on the 1940's serials, this movie has it all. Non-stop action, mystery, suspense, and a love story to boot. This is the role that I will always remember Harrison Ford by. The opening 5 minutes is also probably the most famous sequence in movie history. Forget the 3 DVD set! Just get this first film.
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Hi! I'm here in part to plug my writing and let everyone know that I'm trying to take my work commercial.      Now, what about me? Well, obviously I like to write. I'm … more
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Raiders of the Lost Ark (also known as Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark) is a 1981 American action-adventure film directed by Steven Spielberg, produced by George Lucas, and starring Harrison Ford. It is the first film in the Indiana Jones franchise, and pits Indiana Jones (Ford) against the Nazis, who search for the Ark of the Covenant, in an attempt to make their army invincible. The film co-starred Karen Allen as Indiana's former lover, Marion Ravenwood; Paul Freeman as Indiana's nemesis, French archaeologist René Belloq; John Rhys-Davies as Indiana's sidekick, Sallah; and Denholm Elliott as Indiana's colleague, Marcus Brody.

The film originated with Lucas' desire to create a modern version of the serials of the 1930s and 1940s. Production was based at Elstree Studios, England, and filming also took place in La Rochelle, Tunisia, Hawaii, and California from June to September 1980.

Released on June 12, 1981, Raiders of the Lost Ark became the top-grossing film of 1981; it remains one of the highest-grossing films ever made. It was nominated for eight Academy Awards in 1982, including Best Picture, and won four (Art Direction, Film Editing, Sound, Visual Effects) as well as winning a fifth Special Achievement Academy Award in Sound Effects Editing. The film's critical and popular success led to three additional films, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984), Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989), and Indiana Jones and ...

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Director: Steven Spielberg
Genre: Action, Adventure, Classics
Release Date: June 1, 1981
MPAA Rating: PG
Screen Writer: Lawrence Kasdan
DVD Release Date: 2004; 2008
Runtime: 115 minutes
Studio: Paramount Pictures
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