I make no apologies for being a dyed in the wool fan of The Man with the Hat but as you will hopefully see over the course of the next week my appreciation for the films is well-founded, with some of director Steven Spielberg’s very best work finding its place amidst the series.
First off, let’s go back to 1981/1936 for the series opener, Raiders of the Lost Ark.
The year is 1936 and Indiana Jones, professor of archaeology, obtainer of rare antiquities and all-round adventurer is recruited by the US government to find the Ark of the Covenant before the Nazis do. It is feared that if the Nazis lay their hands on the Ark, they will wield its power and become an unstoppable force.
The origins of Indiana Jones are now relatively well-known. Director Steven Spielberg was a fan of the James Bond franchise and the cliff-hanger adventure series of his childhood. George Lucas had a dog named Indiana, the idea of an adventuring archaeologist and eventually it all came together. Lucas came up with the story, Lawrence Kasdan (The Empire Strikes Back, Body Heat, Silverado) wrote the script, Spielberg took up the directing reins and an icon, a legend, was born.
Spielberg starts us off with a breath-taking prologue that holds up 30 years later as a masterclass in how to build an action-packed set-piece. From the booby-traps, to the giant spiders, to the closing door, the giant boulder and a grisly end for the duplicitous Alfred Molina it is cinematic perfection and we are only a few minutes in. There is a phenomenal economy to the introduction of characters, setting the scene and establishing the tone for the adventures to follow. We are quickly whisked back to Jones’ university in the US for some important but commendably brief exposition on Ark lore before the adventure proper then kicks into high gear.
From there, it is off to Nepal, then Cairo, then a Nazi island base in the Mediterranean, by aeroplane, on horseback, in a truck and by submarine. There is scarcely a moment to catch your breath, yet it is always clear precisely what is happening and although the plot is nothing if not propulsive, there is always time for character beats. Indiana hooks up with an old flame (Marion Ravenwood) in Nepal, who comes along for the ride. Their relationship always feels genuine and there is a true sense of their history together which comes through in the eminently quotable but never cliched dialogue. Likewise the villain of the piece, Belloq, is no two-dimensional caricature. He has his motivations and his back-story and always feels fully-fleshed.
As Indiana Jones, Harrison Ford has surely (with the possible exception of Han Solo) never been better cast. He inhabits the role perfectly, making Jones feel like a real person and grounding the more fantastic elements of the film with a matter-of-fact approach and as he admits in one memorable line, a tendency to make it up as he goes along. He manages to play Jones as weary but not dreary (“it’s not the years, it’s the mileage”), brave but not reckless and industrious and inventive without feeling unrealistically so.
If Ford is the heart of Indiana Jones, then director Steven Spielberg is undoubtedly the brains, assembling set piece after memorable set piece, yet with a seamless continuity such that the film never feels disjointed. There is never that jolt you sometimes get in lesser films, where the director wants to insert another action sequence but does not know how to fit it organically into the film. Think of the scene in the Well of Souls, when Indy and Marion Ravenwood are locked in with thousands of snakes and their torches going out. As they make their escape, we move straight into Indy’s fight with the German pugilist while Marion is locked in an aeroplane that is about to explode, before moving straight onto the truck/horse chase, including Indy climbing over the bonnet of the truck, sliding underneath it as it drives along and climbing back on at the rear. It is simply breath-taking, sensational stuff.
So many of the film’s set pieces have become iconic, that it seems churlish not to give them a mention. There is the afore-mentioned booby-trap laden prologue, the fight in the Nepalese bar, the chase and fight in the Cairo market, including Indy hilariously shooting a scimitar-wielding Arab who was clearly expecting a more drawn-out battle (Harrison Ford actually suggested that abrupt conclusion to the scene since he could not face filming a long fight sequence, suffering as he was at the hands of “tummy trouble” from the local food). There is the Well of Souls imprisonment and escape, the truck chase and finally the climax, as the Ark is opened.
What is most intriguing and in retrospect so daring about the conclusion is how it departs from conventional wisdom as to the proper ending of a film. There is no drawn out fight between protagonist and foe, no battle of wits. Instead, Indy closes his eyes while God finishes off the baddies. After seeing Indy put through so much to get to the finale, it would be infuriating for him to have to take a back seat, were it not for how deftly the scene is handled and how exhilaratingly icky the come-uppance of the Nazis proves to be. Indy survives and good triumphs, but the Ark is dumped in a cavernous warehouse and the mysteries of what it contains remain secret.
The Indiana Jones series (as we will see over the next few days) went on to contain some mightily impressive films but Raiders remains the high water mark. It created an instant icon, contains the best set-pieces of the series, the best MacGuffin and although The Last Crusade pushes it pretty close, Raiders remains in my opinion the finest action adventure film yet committed to the screen. It is up there with Jaws, Schindler’s List, Jurassic Park and Minority Report amongst Spielberg’s very finest work and arguably has a higher rewatchability (my new word) factor than any of them.
I’ll be back tomorrow with my thoughts on Temple of Doom. In the meantime, feel free to share your thoughts below on Raiders of the Lost Ark.