Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Raiders of the Lost Ark - 40 Years Ago

Recently I had the chance to watch Raiders of the Lost Ark on the big screen for the first time. Conceived by George Lucas and Steven Spielberg as a sort of American James Bond "without the hardware", Raiders ruled the box office in 1981.  Around the time he wrote Star Wars, Lucas imagined tales about a heroic archaeologist on the trail of religious artifacts in the tradition of the old Saturday afternoon cliffhangers.  Film critics often see Raiders as a sign of the changing zeitgeist as Reagan's conservative ethos swept the country, but there's also an undercurrent of cynicism.

There's a narrative drive to Raiders we rarely see in 21st century cinema.  Each sequence moves seamlessly into the other with an almost mystical pacing. Staying within the James Bond tradition, the movie opens with a spellbinding action sequence. In the Amazon jungle our hero contends with untrustworthy natives, booby traps, eerie music, giant spiders, and a monstrous boulder. Despite all the obstacles, Indy manages to escape with the idol only to be foiled by the smug French archaeologist Belloq (Paul Freeman). Although our hero fails in his quest, we admire his quiet determination.  

The exposition scenes generate a creepy foreboding of mystery and danger.  A Professor of Archaeology , Indy appears bored and distracted in the classroom.  Federal agents inform Indy the Nazis may have found the lost Ark of the Covenant in Egypt, an object believed to have supernatural power.  The scene's dialogue heavy, but has the right amount of suspense and foreshadowing to prepare us for the adventure ahead.

Before heading to Egypt Indy lands at a dive in the Himalayas to track down Marion Ravenwood; an old girlfriend and daughter of his former mentor to retrieve a "medallion" with important clues about the ark's resting place. Marion's (Karen Allen) a strong heroine who can hold her own in a fight. 

Indy and Marion arrive in Cairo and enlists his friend Sallah (John Rhys Davies) to help him find the ark.  Soon enough, Indy and Marion find trouble awaiting them.  At one point Indy coldly guns down an Arab swordsman.  Although the script called for an extended sword duel, Ford, down with the flu, suggested he just shoot the guy. The moment always gets a laugh.  Funny when you're 10, but  . . .

So we have an American in a foreign country trying to steal a religious artifact?  Granted he's there to stop the Nazis,but he has no qualms about killing those who help the Nazis. After a decade in which America has waged conflicts in two Muslim countries, the scene displays an alarming disdain for another culture.  But it's also further proof Indy was a much darker character in his original incarnation.

Spielberg's greatest strength lies in creating a sense of awe. John Williams composed another brilliant score to accompany the CGI free action sequences.  The special effects laden conclusion ends the movie on a soaring note - walking the line between absurdity and terror. As the evil phantoms melt faces and pour fire on the Nazis we get a sense of the Old Testament justice Hitler and followers deserved (pre Inglorious Bastards).

In the epilogue, Indy and Brody are debriefed by the Federal agents, as the fate of the ark remains uncertain.  It will not go in a museum and Indy will not get the glory.  In the end, it appears Indy put his life on the line for nothing, except making sure the Nazis never got it.  In the last scene, we see the ark being stored into a large warehouse with all its secrets intact.  Our hero gets the girl, but fails to beat the system.  I like the ending's uneasy beat.

While I enjoy the two sequels Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (excluding the awful Crystal Skull), Raiders captures Lucas and Spielberg at the peak of their creative powers.  As I watched the credits roll down the screen, I thought this is how it's done!

“This post is part of the SPIELBERG BLOGATHON hosted by Outspoken & Freckled, It Rains… You Get Wet, and Once Upon A Screen taking place August 23-24. Please visit these host blogs for a full list of participating blogs.”

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