WFTB Score: 18/20
The plot: Hearing that the Nazis are searching for the biblical and reputedly all-powerful Ark of the Covenant, the Americans send archaeologist/adventurer Indiana Jones in search of the artifact. The quest sends Indy across the continents and into the path of old flame Marion Ravenwood, as well as more enemies than he can shake his whip at.
Dr Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford), or just plain Indy, leads something of a double life: in term time, he’s a mild-mannered archaeology professor; but in his spare time, he’s a fully-fledged treasure hunter, though one occasionally thwarted by rivals such as arrogant Frenchman Renée Belloq (Paul Freeman), who deprives Indy of his bounty in a trap-infested South American crypt. Indy returns to the day job but doesn’t get to stay there for long, since the US Government have heard that Hitler’s Nazis are close to finding the sacred Ark of the Covenant, an object with potentially unlimited power. Indy’s packed off to find the Ark, for which job he needs the headpiece of the Staff of Ra, which in turn means finding his old colleague Abner Ravenwood in Nepal. Unfortunately, Abner’s dead, and his daughter Marion (Karen Allen) is in no mood to let Indy have the headpiece, given that he left her lovelorn many years before. However, the Nazis, in the ghoulish shape of Gestapo Officer Toht (Ronald Lacey) are also after the headpiece, and after a tussle Indy escapes to Cairo, with Marion and her ‘medallion’ in tow. Indy and Marion meet up with Egyptian digger and friend Sallah (John Rhys-Davies), and further punchy adventures ensue, including Indy losing (then finding) Marion, Indy finding (then losing) the Ark, and an action-filled chase across land and sea, before the prized container shows off its extraordinary power during an ill-advised test on a Greek island.
Taking its inspiration from Saturday morning serials and other old-fashioned Hollywood fare (specifically, I read, Chuck Heston’s Secret of the Incas), Raiders of the Lost Ark really is the ultimate in Boys’ Own adventures, featuring the double whammy of the biggest baddies in (recent) history and an all-consuming, God-given weapon. Pitching wise-cracking Indy and spunky Marion against these overwhelming forces makes for a thrilling roller-coaster of a ride, and as you might expect from Spielberg, its production values are of the highest order, with stunts and action sequences that are both superbly choreographed and intelligently spaced out – whatever else you might think of him, Spielberg certainly knows how to assemble an action movie. And not only are the Nazis generically easy to root against: the gloating face of Toht and the rigid Aryan jaw of callous Colonel Dietrich (Wolf Kahler) make for eminently hissable villains (Freeman also puts in a wonderfully oily performance as Belloq). In addition to the thrills and spills, few of which (unlike the sequels) seem to exist for their own sake, Raiders piles on the yuk factor with spiders, snakes and plenty of skeleton-based scares; and even if some of the horror elements are naïve-looking compared to what can be done these days, I still recoil at the melting faces of the bad guys at the end (it’s a gruesome effect, but I think wax was a good choice since you know how it’s done).
Crucially, Ford is superb in the lead role, his grudging cool under pressure largely matched by Allen’s hard-drinking Marion, even if she’s a touch inconsistent (at times she’s a tough cookie, at others a screaming damsel). The charisma of, and chemistry between, these two make for a thoroughly, thoroughly enjoyable film, bolstered by some truly memorable moments and enhanced, as usual, by a great John Williams score (the revelation of the Ark’s whereabouts in the map room is a glorious example of music and picture coming together to great effect). It is fair to say, though, that while surprisingly strong, George Lucas and Philip Kaufman’s story does get sloppier as it proceeds: Jones marches along with the Nazi soldiers before the demonstration of the Ark’s powers without so much as a ‘Wer bist du?’ The climax, too, is strangely truncated; although it’s effectively creepy, and great that everyone gets what’s coming to them, there’s a slight disappointment that having been so active up to this point, Indy and Marion are passive…well, not even spectators, since they don’t get to see a thing. Still, in this case it really is all about the journey, and there’s enough emanating from the ark to enthrall kids and adults alike (name another PG film featuring exploding heads!). Of course, depending on how deeply you’re prepared to think about it, the action either asks or overwhelms difficult racial questions about the ease, frequency and comedy with which Indy dispatches hordes of towel-headed Egyptians, shaggy Nepalese, and low-ranking Nazi soldiers. As for what the film says about Nazis, Jews, and specifically Spielberg’s take on the issue circa 1981 – that’s a long article for another day.
Finally, it’s interesting to consider at this distance of time – and with three so-so to oh-no sequels in between – that Raiders must have been a gamble for Spielberg, Lucas and co. Although we now think of it as brash and confident, note how this film ushers itself in quietly, without the sexy lettering now synonymous with the series. Raiders is a throwback movie which succeeds spectacularly at its admittedly simple brief. You can, if you like, have a massive argument about whether films should have more about them than mindless, noisy excitement and actors running away from big papier-maché balls; and there are those for whom the mere involvement of both Spielberg and George Lucas betoken an unforgivable childishness and lack of sophistication. You could make these arguments, but they’d make you a small- and narrow-minded snob. Raiders of the Lost Ark isn’t art by a long chalk: but for what it is, they don’t come any better.