Friday, August 21, 2015

Raiders of the Lost Ark

Steven Spielberg and George Lucas probably don't need me to sing their praises for a movie released more than thirty years ago, but here it goes anyway. What a wonderful, exhilarating, and exciting experience is Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981). Drawing on the staples and elements of the classic Hollywood serials and coupled with first-rate production values, Lucas and Spielberg created America's answer to James Bond with a rugged, squared jawed, stubborn, and resourceful archeologist, Indiana Jones.

By now, I'm sure just about all moviegoers know the story of Raiders of the Lost by heart. In 1936, our intrepid archeologist (Harrison Ford) is recruited by the U.S. government in a race to beat the Nazis for the Lost Ark of the Covenant. In the globe-trotting adventure that ensues, Jones clashes with his French rival Belloq (Paul Freeman), reunites with old flame Marion (Karen Allen), and encounters all sorts of assassins, deathtraps, and other hazards along the way. And snakes. Lots and lots of snakes.

Raiders of the Lost Ark moves at a breakneck pace, hardly ever slowing down for more than the barest of exposition, and yet, it's not a mindless action thriller. Indiana Jones proves too be one of the most endearing of movie heroes. The comparisons to James Bond are not out of line, even though one's an American archeologist and the other's a British secret agent. Both travel all over the world to exotic locations, outfight and outwit cunning adversaries, use trademark gadgets and equipment, and of course, have encounters with beautiful women who are just as likely to punch them as kiss them.

But while Bond has that dashing calm, style and wit, Jones is scruffier, flying by the seat of his pants, and making it up as he goes long. Bond is always immaculately dressed and smooth, but Jones has no qualms about getting dirty or beat up, whether it's being dragged by a truck on a stony road or penetrating a dingy cave as tarantulas crawl over his back. Ford brings a sardonic sense of humor to the role and gives him a more human, more vulnerable touch than Ian Fleming's super spy (the recent films starring Daniel Craig notwithstanding).

Of course, Raiders has a strong supporting cast, offering both the best villain and best love interest of the series. Belloq, as he tells Jones, is our hero's dark reflection, the corruption of their profession who will sell his soul to the Nazis in exchange for fortune and glory. He frequently gets the upper hand on Indy, letting him do all the hard work and then swooping in for the prize once the danger has passed. Marion, despite often being the damsel in distress, resembles Princess Leia: feisty, tough, and not afraid to get involved in the action. We first meet her in a Nepalese bar where she outdrinks a burly patron. Even the bit parts are memorable, Alfred Molina as a traitorous guide, John Rhys-Davies as the loyal Sallah, and of course, Denholm Elliot as curator Marcus Brody (the latter two would be Flanderized a bit by the time we get to Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade).

The film is loaded to the gills with breathtaking stunts and special effects: the opening escape from the rolling boulder, the chase through the streets and alleys of Cairo, the fistfight between Indy and a bald German mechanic (Pat Roach who made a habit of getting memorably squicky deaths in George Lucas productions) near the spinning propellers of an out of control airplane, and most memorably, when Indy hijacks and then defends a truck loaded with the ark. In an age before computer-generated effects, the practical work here is amazing, and the filmmakers have a way of mixing up the action, so it never feels repetitive: a gunfight here, a car chase there, etc.

Raiders has its share of humor, but it's not distracting; it feels organic to the movie, a natural response to believable human behavior rather than cheap gags or slapstick. The action scenes tend to be funny even as the excitement builds. The biggest laugh occurs when Indy deals with a swordsman in the marketplace in the most nonchalant manner possible. There's also a priceless moment when Indy, chasing after thugs who have Marion trapped in a basket, runs into a street where all he sees are people carrying similar baskets. Also funny is a cute little monkey that's revealed to be a Nazi pet that can't resist a salute, nor can his handler resist returning the gesture.

Movie brats they are, Spielberg and Lucas also include memorable homages to other movies. When the Well of Souls, the resting place of the Ark, is unearthed, a storm brews behind Indy the way it did behind Charlton Heston's Moses in The Ten Commandments. At the end, when the Ark is opened and the terrifying light show is unleashed (complete with exploding heads and melting faces), it bears an uncanny resemblance to the climactic moments of Kiss Me Deadly, when the Great Whatsit is opened  and goes off like a nuclear bomb.

That's the strength of Raiders of the Lost Ark: it takes what's old and makes it fresh and invigorating. If you can watch this movie and not be excited by it, you're probably as dead and dry as the mummies Indy and Marion encounter.

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