Combustible Celluloid
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With: Harrison Ford, Karen Allen, Paul Freeman, Ronald Lacey, John Rhys-Davies, Denholm Elliott, Alfred Molina, Wolf Kahler, Anthony Higgins, Vic Tablian, Don Fellows, William Hootkins, Bill Reimbold, Fred Sorenson, Patrick Durkin
Written by: Lawrence Kasdan, based on a story by George Lucas, Philip Kaufman
Directed by: Steven Spielberg
MPAA Rating: PG
Running Time: 115
Date: 06/12/1981

Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

4 Stars (out of 4)


By Jeffrey M. Anderson

This is going to sound odd, but my favorite moment in Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) comes when Indy (Harrison Ford) and Marcus Brody (Denholm Elliot) are called into a musty library to answer questions about the Ark of the Covenant. The two men get more and more excited as they tell stories, pour through old books, and uncover clues. Safe in this little room the adventure is about to begin, and that's the sweetest feeling of all.

When I was 12 and first saw Raiders of the Lost Ark, I believe I would have given anything to be Indiana Jones, and sometimes I still feel like that. I've heard Harrison Ford in interviews saying that he would play Indy again in a heartbeat, while Han Solo from the Star Wars films holds no further interest for him. The Star Wars films are excellent in their own way, but Indy's adventures are so much more inviting. They truly awaken a sense of excitement, discovery, and curiosity. They take you back to childhood. Almost all summer movies today try to do that, but it's easy to resist them. They try to accomplish their task by being childish rather than childlike. Raiders of the Lost Ark is the real thing.

There's no question that the first film, directed by Steven Spielberg and written by George Lucas, Philip Kaufman, and Lawrence Kasdan, is the best. It allows for a certain worldliness, cautiousness, and darkness in Indy's character. He's far from reckless or noble. He's after treasure, and not always in the name of archeology. (The later movies tone this down.) In his original review, Roger Ebert compared Indy to Humphrey Bogart in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), greedy, but hungry and crafty. The story has its dark moments as well. How many movies show the hero getting drunk, then sitting down for a conversation with the bad guy, Belloq (Paul Freeman)? How many movies have the nerve to (possibly) kill off the heroine?

The movie is also carefully built to have a new thrill every ten or so minutes. It's based in part on old movie serials like Manhunt in the African Jungle (1943) that left audiences with a cliffhanger every Saturday afternoon that wouldn't be resolved for a whole week. Lucas and Spielberg managed to condense that feeling into a single movie. They virtually invented the rollercoaster-ride film.

Ford stars, of course, as Indiana Jones, an architect by trade, but an adventurer in practice, clad in a leather jacket and brown fedora and packing a gun and a bullwhip. He can get out of any scrape, but he's afraid of snakes (his Kryptonite). After a wonderful prologue that introduces us to him, he goes on his greatest quest: to find the Lost Ark of the Covenant, and to find it before the Nazis find it. (The time is 1938.) Before he can begin on his quest, he must look up an old girlfriend, Marion (Karen Allen), a spitfire who provides some sexual tension. Aided by some other friends and by some cheerfully ridiculous traps and escapes, Indy saves the day.

The Indiana Jones movies are Spielberg's best work, because they truthfully embody his obsession of re-capturing childhood on film. He attempted the same kind of theme in the cloying E.T. (1982), the horrible Hook (1991), and the empty Jurassic Park (1993), and his so-called "grown-up" films, from The Color Purple (1985) to Saving Private Ryan (1998) are attempts to disguise this obsession, as if he were ashamed of it. As a result, the Indiana Jones films show him embracing his psyche and come off as truthful and personal. (It helps that co-creator Lucas shares the same obsession.)

For all their flaws, I love these movies unconditionally. They would have to be with me on a desert island if I were to survive there. I usually can't go a year without watching at least one of them. They're not available on DVD yet, and the VHS tapes are still annoyingly panned-and-scanned, so your best bet is to find the old letterboxed laserdiscs. These movies are truly alive.

In 2012, Paramount released a Blu-ray box set of the Indiana Jones series, including the much-hated but still worthwhile Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.

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