“INDIANA JONES AND THE RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK” (1981) Review
I suspect that many would be astounded to read the following – I did not want to see “INDIANA JONES AND THE RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK” when it first hit the theaters back in 1981. I simply did not. And there were a few reasons why I felt this way.
Back in the late 1970s and early 1980s, I was not a particular fan of George Lucas. Aside from 1973’s “AMERICAN GRAFFITI” (which I saw on television), I was not in love with his movies. I heartily disliked “STAR WARS: A NEW HOPE”, when it first hit the movie theaters during the summer of 1977. “MORE AMERICAN GRAFFITI” did not impress me in 1979 (and it still does not). And I had felt torn about 1980’s “STAR WARS: THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK”. A part of me felt impressed by the movie. Another part of me was distressed by its darker tone and cliffhanger ending. My feelings about Steven Spielberg were equally muted. I was not a big fan of 1977’s “CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND” or any other movie he did during the 1970s. And “E.T.” was a year away. When “RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK” first arrived during the summer of 1981, I read a negative review that completely turned me off from wanting to see it. However, movie attendance was (and still is) a family affair. So, I found myself forced to watch the movie. I fell in love with it and wondered how I could have ever harbored doubts about it in the first place.
The plot for “RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK” focused on the adventures of an archaeologist/university professor named Dr. Henry “Indiana” Jones, Jr. The movie began with Dr. Jones trekking through a South American jungle in 1936, with two local guides, in search of a golden fertility idol. After securing the artifact with great difficulty, Indy lost it, thanks to a conniving competitor and fellow archaeologist named Dr. René Belloq. But he also managed to escape with his life from a group of Hovitos tribesmen set upon him by Belloq. Indy made it back to the States and resumed his job as a professor at Marshall College. Not long after his return, two U.S. Army Intelligence agents questioned him and fellow colleague Dr. Marcus Brody about a Nazi communique that mentioned the name of Indy’s former mentor, Professor Abner Ravenwood. When Indy and Brody explained that Ravenwood was an expert on the ancient Egyptian city of Tanis and possessed the headpiece of the Staff of Ra, they came to the conclusion that the Nazis were after the Ark of the Covenant. The agents tasked Indy with finding the Ark before the Nazis, on behalf of the American government. Indiana’s search for Ravenwood and the Ark took him on a globe trotting adventure to Nepal, Egypt and finally to a small island in the middle of the Aegean Sea. Along the way he reunited with his former lover and Ravenwood’s daughter, Marion Ravenwood, formed a new friendship with a professional excavator from Cairo named Sallah el-Kahir and clashed with his old rival Belloq . . . and the latter’s Nazi allies.
For the past three decades, critics and filmgoers have acknowledged “RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK” as one of the greatest adventure films of all time. They also regard it as the best film in the INDIANA JONES franchise. Not only do I agree with the first assessment, I believe the same could be said for the other three INDIANA JONES movies. As for“RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK” being the best film in the franchise . . . well, it is all subjective, is it not? I must admit that the movie holds up very well, after so long. Aside from some narrative flaws and a major historical blooper, screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan wrote a tight adventure filled with memorable characters, exciting ation sequences, snappy dialogue, a complex love story and most importantly, well constructed character development.
One cannot discuss the 1981 movie without recalling the memorable action sequences that many still talk about. Who can forget Indy’s escape from Belloq and the Hovitos in South America? Or the shoot-out inside Marion Ravenwood’s Nepal tavern? Or even Indy’s attempt to save the kidnapped Marion from thugs hired by the Nazis in Cairo? But it was Indy’s epic-like attempt to recover the Ark of the Covenant from Belloq and the Nazis that proved to be the most memorable action sequence . . . at least for me. Not only did it turned out to be the film’s longest action sequence, but also the most exciting. More importantly, Lucas, Spielberg and stunt coordinator Glenn Randall, Jr. utilized an old stunt from John Ford’s 1939 Western, “STAGECOACH” with equal success.
However, “RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK” was not all memorable action sequences, thanks to Kasdan’s tight writing. He did an excellent job in establishing the relationship between the protagonist and the main villain even before he established the main plot. Kasdan’s screenplay created the main narrative with a somewhat witty discussion about the Ark of the Covenant between Indy, Brody and the two Army Intelligence agents. There were other dramatic or comedic scenes that made this movie a joy to watch. One of my favorites include a visit by Indy and Sallah to an old friend of the latter’s named Imam, who managed to translate the Staff of Ra’s headpiece for them; Indy and Belloq’s conversation about Marion’s “death” and their rivalry; Belloq’s attempt to seduce a captive Marion; Indy and Brody’s last conversation before the former’s depature . . . and especially Indy and Marion’s rather funny romantic scene aboard the Bantu Wind.
I certainly had no problems with the movie’s production values. Lucas and Spielberg were wise to hire Douglas Slocombe as the movie’s cinematographer. Thanks to Slocombe’s work, “RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK” featured some beautiful scenes rich in color and style, as shown in the images below:
I also have to commend the special effects team for some of the most iconic moments in film history, including Indy’s escape from the rolling boulder and the sequence that featured the opening of the Ark. Norman Reynolds’ production designs, along with Michael Ford’s set decorations and Leslie Dilley’s art direction beautifully re-created the mid-1930s in the U.S. and Egypt. And I cannot mention “RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK” without bringing up John Williams’ memorable score. Unfortunately, Williams failed to win an Oscar for his exceptional work and lost to Vangelis’ score for “CHARIOTS OF FIRE’. Pity. I thought Williams truly deserved that statuette.
As much as I love “RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK”, I cannot deny that it has flaws. I was in my mid teens when I first saw the movie. And I believe that my enthusiastic reaction to the film’s virtues may have blinded me from its flaws. Despite a strong narrative, “RAIDERS” suffered from a weak ending. I could probably say the same for two other films in the franchise. The finale for “RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK” struck me as anti-climatic. In other words, Indy played no part in the villains’ defeat. The wrath of God did. I understand that Lucas and Spielberg wanted to show the consequences of the villains’ lack of respect toward the Ark’s power. But I still wish Indy had played some kind of role in their downfall. And once the power of God destroyed Belloq and the Nazis on that Aegean Sea island, how did Indy and Marion get off that island? I doubt the two of them could operate the U-boat that delivered them to the island on their own.
Another problem I had with “RAIDERS” proved to be certain costumes worn by actress Karen Allen, who portrayed Marion Ravenwood. I was not particularly impressed by two costumes designed by Deborah Nadoolman. The first was the red-and-white outfit worn by Marion in the Cairo street scene, which struck me as some bizarre take on mid-1930s fashion. If “RAIDERS” had been set during the year of the movie’s release (1981), I would have no trouble with the outfit. But for a movie set in 1936? To make matters worse, Allen wore wedge-heeled shoes with it. And the white dress that Marion received from Belloq blended well with the 1936 setting. Unfortunately, Marion was in her mid-to-late twenties in the film. And the dress seemed more appropriate for a 17 year-old debutante. Either the dress was some expression of how Belloq truly regarded Marion . . . or an example of what Deborah Nadoolman regarded as the height of fash”ion for a woman in 1936. And in both cases, I find this unfortunate.
The main problem I found in “RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK” turned out to be a case of a major historical blunder. Although the movie’s main villain is the French-born René Belloq, the latter’s allies are a Gestapo agent and more importantly, two senior German Army officers . . . with a complete regiment at their command. And entire German Army regiment roaming freely throughout Egypt in 1936? What were Lucas, Spielberg and Kasdan thinking? Egypt was a British Imperial protectorate between 1882 and 1936. In the latter year, both Egypt and Britain signed the Anglo-Egyptian Treaty of 1936, which led to the withdrawal of British troops from the country . . . with the exception of 10,000 personnel stationed around the Suez Canal. I doubt that the commander of those 10,000 British troops would sit on his heels and allow a regiment of German troops to roam nilly willy all over Egypt. I doubt that the Egyptian government would have allow this, as well.
Harrison Ford had already made a name for himself in the first two “STAR WARS” films. But he was a supporting character in the movies, not the leading man. And Lucas’ first choice as Indiana Jones was Tom Selleck. But the latter lost the role, due to obligations to CBS’s “MAGNUM P.I.”. And the rest is Hollywood history . . . for both Ford and Selleck. I suspect that Selleck would have been superb in the role. But you know what? So was Ford. He did an excellent job in portraying all aspects of Henry Jones Jr.’s personality quirks – both the good and the bad. He also created a strong screen chemistry with his leading lady, Karen Allen. Not only was she magnificent as Indy’s former flame Marion Ravenwood, she did a great job in balancing her pseudo machismo and feminine allure. I was originally surprised to learn that Paul Freeman, who portrayed Indy’s rival René Belloq, was actually English. And he did a great job in portraying a Continental European without the cliches and portraying an intelligent, suave and villainous character.
“RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK” proved to be the first time I had laid eyes upon John Rhys-Davies on screen. His portrayal of Egyptian-born excavator Sallah el-Kahir seemed a touch theatrical. Surprisingly, it worked. I believe Rhys-Davies is one of those actors who can do theatrics with perfection. And he also injected a great deal of intelligence and pragmatism into the role. Wolf Kahler gave a performance just as subtle as Freeman, in his portrayal of Colonel Herman Dietrich, commander of the German regiment. I was relieved to see that his performance avoided the old “Ve haf vays of making you tahk” crap from old Hollywood World War II films. Anthony Higgins managed to avoid the same cliche in portrayal of Dietrich’s second-in-command, Major Gobler. However, I was amused to discover a certain degree of cockiness in his performance. Ronald Lacey’s portrayal of Gestapo agent Arnold Taht seemed less subtle. In fact, his performance seemed to be a strange mixture of subtle dialogue and gestures, blended with theatrical moments. I found Lacey’s performance to be the most interesting in the movie. Denholm Elliot’s role as Indy’s mentor, Dr. Marcus Brody, struck me as charming and witty. But he was not in the movie long enough for me to really enjoy his performance. George Harris gave a commanding performance as the captain of the Bantu Wind, Captain Simon Katanga. He was especially effective in his character’s encounter with the arrogant Colonel Dietrich.
What else can I say about “RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK”? George Lucas and Steven Spielberg created an imaginative and exciting movie that kick-started a first-rate movie franchise that has withstood the test of time. The movie also featured some memorable action sequences and dramatic moments, thanks to Lawrence Kasdan’s well-written screenplay and Spielberg’s superb direction. And although “INDIANA JONES AND THE RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK” has some obvious flaws, it still remains one of my favorite adventure films of all time . . . period.
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