Every so often, a movie comes along that is so seamless, so brilliantly put together, so remarkable in its construction that it’s almost impossible to replicate. The Godfather is one. Raging Bull is another. Perhaps the most significant example is 1981’s Raiders of the Lost Ark, the first of Indiana Jones’ four adventures, which turns 40 this year. Created by a team of fantastic people that know how to make movies, it’s one of those that has forever been replicated, but never quite equalled.
The origins of how the film began can be traced back to the summer of 1977 in Hawaii. This was where George Lucas, fresh from the stunning success of Star Wars, had chosen to go to escape the massive wave of attention that was now coming his way. With him was his good friend Steven Spielberg, himself no stranger to summer success having directed Jaws.
It was while on holiday together that Spielberg told Lucas he was hoping to direct a James Bond film. Lucas responded by saying he had an even better idea – a film about a globetrotting archaeologist who fights Nazis whilst searching for mythical mysterious artefacts. As with Star Wars, which took inspiration from The Hidden Kingdom, Lucas was hearkening back to the serial movies of the early 20th century, which both he and Spielberg had grown up watching.
Lucas had already developed a story with Philip Kaufman, whom he had hoped would direct the project, but when that fell through, he turned to Spielberg, who agreed. Hiring Lawrence Kasdan, who was also busy writing Lucas’ The Empire Strikes Back, a final screenplay was sent to various studios, who all rejected it, despite the talent involved.
Lucas would only make the film with Spielberg involved. This proved to be the right decision – it’s impossible to imagine the film without the involvement of the man behind the camera. Eventually, Paramount Pictures made a deal with Lucas and Raiders of the Lost Ark could finally take shape.
The film honours the original serials by being set in 1936, and introduces arguably cinema’s greatest hero: Indiana Jones. Played by Harrison Ford, he is introduced in possibly the finest introduction of any character in the history of movies – chasing after an idol in a South American jungle and fleeing from a runaway boulder.
With his pride damaged after arch-rival Belloq (Paul Freeman) beats him to the idol, he returns to America, where his interest is piqued by a new assignment: finding the Ark of the Covenant, currently being pursued by the Nazis and hidden in the Well of Souls outside the deserts of Cairo. Indy agrees to bring the Ark back, but first needs a headpiece owned by his old mentor Dr. Ravenwood. This leads him to Nepal, where he is reunited with his former flame, Ravenwood’s daughter Marion (Karen Allen) who has a mean right hook.
After a scuffle, Indy and Marion head to Egypt, where Indy’s digger friend Sallah (John Rhys-Davies) informs them of what the Nazis are up to. Indy soon learns Belloq is also involved, and as the story develops, he battles snakes, thugs, shootings and beatings in his quest to prevent the Fuhrer unleashing the Ark’s full power.
Raiders of the Lost Ark is one of those movies that offers breathless thrills and countless extraordinary encounters. It’s built upon cliff-hanger after cliff-hanger, with Indy forced to rely on his own wits and ingenuity to escape from several death-defying places. As the stakes gets higher, so too does the level of unpredictability – just when it seems we know how things are going to turn out, the movie turns sharply in another direction.
Spielberg’s mastery of suspense and tension comes to the fore throughout Raiders. It’s full of little ‘Spielberg’ moments. Toht turning an apparent weapon into a coat hanger, Indy being chased by the Hovitos, the skirmish at Marion’s bar, the scaling of the Well of Souls, the final encounter on the island, and of course, the iconic sword scene. He brings his experiences from Jaws to this film, understanding that building expectation is a stronger impulse than a sudden surprise.
Spielberg offers a level of spontaneity that fleshes out the story (Indy’s line about mileage was an ad lib from Harrison Ford and the sword sequence played out because Ford was too ill to shoot the original fight) and his control of the various elements helps to make Raiders induce goosebumps and leave the audience exhausted. Spielberg and Lucas’ influence on cinema throughout the 70s and 80s caused seismic changes to the industry and their work on Raiders continues that – before this film, it was Bond that was providing cutting edge set pieces and worldly adventures. After this, even 007 himself took inspiration from Indiana Jones.
One aspect of Raiders that is rarely addressed is how well paced it is. The exposition, which could be seen as boring in a lesser movie, is incredibly well integrated here, advancing both plot and character. This isn’t one of those Michael Bay productions where characters are stick figures and the camera is frenetic – we see what’s happening and we care about the people on screen.
The relationship between Indy and other characters are well established through dialogue and chemistry that we feel his pain as much as he does. Consider the scene in which Indy gets told about the main plot – there’s a lot of talking, but it never feels rushed, choppy or out of place. In fact, it reveals as much about Indy as the moments where he’s chasing after the bad guys. Not one moment of screen-time is wasted in Raiders – how many films today can make that same claim?
Speaking of characters, Raiders offers a plethora of great ones, starting with the man himself. Indiana Jones is not a superman, able to take hits without breaking a sweat. He gets beaten up badly, wears clothing that are dusty and worn, doesn’t always have the right answers, can’t provide the correct response when women confront him and yet he never gives up. In fact, his greatest asset is his inconsequentiality – Indy succeeds BECAUSE he fails. It’s a reminder to us all that it’s not always the things we do well that define us, but the determination we show when trying to do them. It’s been argued that the movie makes Indy’s sacrifices redundant, but it’s the enduring legacy of the film, something its successors failed to realise.
There’s a real sense of collaboration in Raiders. Aside from Spielberg, there are many incredibly talented individuals working together to make cinema magic. There’s Kasdan, whose script sparkles with superb dialogue – ‘snakes, why’d it have to be snakes’, ‘asps, very dangerous, you go first’, and Indy’s description of himself – ‘You know what a cautious fellow I am!’ There’s cinematographer Douglas Slocombe, providing some breath-taking imagery, including the stunning shot of Indy framed against the setting sun.
Finally, there’s John Williams, adding another memorable score to his vast collection. The highlight is ‘Desert Chase’, which plays over the film’s signature scene. This astonishing truck sequence is a flawless melding of stunt work, music, pacing, staging, geography, and character. It is quite possibly the most flawless action sequence ever committed to film and that’s not hyperbole. It’s that amazing.
Synergy. That’s the perfect word to describe the casting of Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones. Lucas was reluctant to use Ford after he had played Han Solo, but when Tom Selleck couldn’t play the part, Spielberg persuaded him that Ford was the one; and how right he was. From the moment he appears on-screen, Ford owns the role of Indy.
A rogue, a scoundrel, a man with a heart of gold, Ford takes all the traits of Han, siphons off the rough edges and brings to life a fully dimensional hero, warts and all. He has flaws, but Ford doesn’t shy away from them. With Indy V finally on the way, talk has turned to as to who may replace Ford. Frankly, no one should bother. This is Harrison Ford’s gig, and nobody should fill his shoes.
Ford’s leading lady has to be someone spunky and tenacious, as ably demonstrated by Carrie Fisher. Just as Marion is Indy’s equal, so is Karen Allen Ford’s. Their chemistry is electric, and Allen plays Marion as every bit as capably as Indy. She’s smart, independent and gutsy but also fragile, vulnerable and gentle. She’s without doubt Indy’s best love interest, with neither Willie Scott nor Elsa Schneider able to dominate the way Marion does. At least Kingdom of the Crystal Skull did the right thing bringing her back, even if it messed her up.
There’s also a fine selection of actors supporting Ford and Allen. John Rhys-Davies, now best known as Gimli in The Lord of the Rings trilogy, is a joy to watch as the jovial and energetic Sallah, whose absence is felt in the two films he doesn’t appear in.
Paul Freeman’s Belloq is cultured and urbane, a darker extension of Indiana, although he prefers words over actions, as demonstrated in his verbal duel with Jones just after the basket chase.
Alfred Molina is Indy’s ill-fated jungle guide Satipo and Ronald Lacey is truly sinister as the nasty Peter Lorre sounding Major Toht, responsible for some of the more chilling moments of the movie. Denholm Elliott plays Indy’s mentor Marcus Brody, who would go on to become a fully fledged companion in The Last Crusade.
Raiders of the Lost Ark is pure poetry in motion. The ultimate combination of writing, directing, editing, score composition, acting, camerawork and narrative construction. It leaves such an indelible impact that its power is not diluted by the presence of three inferior sequels. No movie can ever be described as perfect, but Raiders is as close as it’s possible to get. Its very existence is proof of just how thrilling cinema can be and of the talent Spielberg and Lucas can bring to a project they are fully invested in. It’s gold-dust.
Raiders of the Lost Ark celebrates its 40th anniversary on 30th July 1981.
A 4K re-release of all four films will be released sometime in 2021.