Spielberg returns to form with ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’
By Tom Harrison
Steven Spielberg and George Lucas are possessed of seemingly boundless energy, and that energy is unharnessed in “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” It is, at times, a startling spectacle.
In 1975, Spielberg, riding a new wave of young filmmaking talent, terrorized a nation with the redoubtable “Jaws.” He followed that with the powerhouse “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” two years later, and last year released a “revised edition” that was even better.
Lucas, of course, is the mastermind of all that was, is and will be the “Star Wars” saga. Energetic, yes, and ambitious.
Raiders of the Lost Ark – Original movie trailer (1981)
Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark everything it should be
Thus, it comes as no surprise that “Raiders of the Lost Ark” is everything one might imagine it to be. Shrouded in secrecy from the start, “Raiders” is the drawing-board fantasy of every filmgoer who grew up watching those old ’30s serials, the so-called “cliffhangers,” B-movies and the action-adventure films of the ’40s, such as John Huston’s “Treasure of the Sierra Madre.”
Spielberg & Lucas work magic in Raiders of the Lost Ark
Spielberg and Lucas, two master craftsmen, are in love with their medium. Spielberg is especially adept at wringing tension from innocuous surroundings and circumstances, as he did often in his previous films. “Raiders” is considerably more refined than, say, “Jaws,” inasmuch as it lends a new dimension to even hoary old cliches, such as cartoon Nazis.
Working from a screenplay by Lawrence Kasdan (Lucas and Philip Kaufman wrote the original story), Spielberg establishes the tone of “Raiders” at the outset: full speed ahead.
Tension builds during the opening credits, with hero Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) deep in a South American jungle in 1936, in search of a gold artifact.
In moments, Jones has casually brushed off a blanket of shaggy black spiders, nimbly maneuvered across a trick floor that releases poison darts, and narrowly avoided being crushed by an enormous boulder. And that, as they say, is just the first 10 minutes.
Harrison Ford as the adventurer Indiana Jones
Ford’s character here is one of those gentleman-adventurers who in the ’30s and ’40s appeared regularly in films about mystical quests.
Indiana Jones is tall, lean, with piercing eyes that emit an occasional glint of ruthlessness. He wields a bullwhip with the authority of an Argentine cowboy. Ironically, he is deathly afraid of snakes, a fear that we know will be tested severely before film’s end.
Jones, a professor of archaeology, is asked by the US government to find the Lost Ark of the Covenant, which contains the broken tablets of the Ten Commandments. It seems Der Fuhrer is an occultist, and Nazi archaeologists are digging up Cairo to find the Ark, which purportedly would make the Germans invincible.
The quest leads Jones to Nepal, where he enlists the aid of his old sweetheart. Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen). We meet Marion as she is drinking one of her many scruffy patrons under the bar, after which she lands a solid right on Jones’ strong jaw: The lady means business.
Giddiness without much gore in Raiders of the Lost Ark
Indy and Marion are pursued all the while by the slimiest villain since Peter Lorre, a grinning Nazi named Toht (Ronald Lacey), and bedeviled by the Belloq (Paul Freeman), a roguish Frenchman who is helping the Nazis.
Spielberg’s achievements here start with his use of his locations (Tunisia and Hawaii, among others) for the scintillating action sequences. The director’s distinctive camera placement, which aims much of the action toward the audience, and Douglas Slocombe’s exquisite framing give one a sense of controlled chaos.
The director also displays laudable restraint, even by today’s relaxed standards of violence. Despite the hectic pace and spectacular death scenes. “Raiders” is not guilty of graphic excess. Blood is spilled and people die hideously, but Spielberg doesn’t rub our noses in it.
There are some giddy moments, however, as when Indy and Marion are sealed in the Well of the Souls with thousands of poisonous snakes (“Why did it have to be snakes,” Indy moans before entering the sacred chamber.)
And true to form, the filmmakers won’t let the characters escape this predicament without another jolt — one guaranteed to raise gooseflesh.
Indiana Jones’ dramatic scenes and whirlwind climax
Spielberg also is adept at allowing a scene to play out naturally. When Indy and Marion try to commandeer a German plane, Marion gets locked in the cockpit while Indy must battle a bare-chested German who obviously enjoys dealing a little pain.
A helpless woman is trapped at the controls of a plane that moves slowly in circles; below, two men fight and dodge the propellers; nearby, fuel gushes from containers and forms ominous, dark stains on the desert floor.
And the climactic breaching of the Ark is a dazzling whirl and explosion of special effects. “Raiders” also benefits from a superb Dolby soundtrack, on which exotic noises come at you from virtually all directions. No one does it better.
Granted, the filmmakers don’t spend much time on developing character, but there are tiny flourishes that imprint these people on our minds: Indiana’s sneer and Marion’s ferocious little grin; the near-euphoria of Sallah (John Rhys-Davies) when Marion kisses him; the glow in Belloq’s eyes when he speaks of the Ark as “a transmitter for talking to God.”
Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark fun, funny & exuberant
“Raiders” has a dandy sense of humor as well. One of the more fascinating characters here is a cute but duplicitous monkey that emits a little squeak as it hoists the Nazi salute.
During a long chase-and-fight scene through the streets of Cairo, Indy at one point opts for the expediency of cold blue steel over his bullwhip. Meanwhile, Marion takes on a knife-wielding attacker with a frying pan.
The conclusion of “Raiders,” which lampoons bureaucratic fecklessness while recalling “Citizen Kane,” points to one or more sequels, which Lucas reportedly has in the works. If the offbeat charm and brisk style of “Raiders” can be carried over, the next films will be worth it.
Spielberg and Lucas have recaptured, in one exuberant, funny movie, the spirit of adventure and fun that used to be the reason people made movies in the first place.