'80s Movie Month: "Raiders of the Lost Ark" Review

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A 1981 action-adventure film directed by Steven Spielberg and co-written and co-produced by George Lucas, Raiders of the Lost Ark is the first installment in the Indiana Jones movie franchise. Harrison Ford makes his debut at the title character, who's pitted against a group of Nazis searching for the Ark of the Covenant which Adolf Hitler believes will make their army invincible.
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'80s Movie Month: "Raiders of the Lost Ark" Review

Rating: PG (intense sequences of action and violence, scary images)
Length: 115 minutes
Release Date: June 12, 1981
Directed by: Stephen Spielberg
Genre: Action / Adventure

In the summer of 1977, Stephen Spielberg and George Lucas were vacationing in Hawaii. Spielberg was taking time off from filming "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," while Lucas was in the middle of the release of "Star Wars," the initial flare of a supernova that would dominate the rest of his career. The two discussed collaborating on an adventure project, initially discussing spy films but moving on to an idea Lucas had been working on for four years, a homage to pulp adventure stories of the 1930s. The result needs no introduction to millions of fans, as "Raiders of the Lost Ark" is second only to the original "Star Wars" films in its pop culture impact.

The Indiana Jones franchise became such a staple of the 1980s and 1990s box office that it can be difficult to recall what it was like when that first film floored audiences in the summer of 1981. The film begins with a masterful cold open, introducing Indiana Jones and his troublesome and treacherous assistants as they make their way through the Peruvian jungle to a pitfall-laden Incan temple. The final trap, an enormous rolling boulder that chases Indy through the final stretch of the tomb, has inspired countless homages and parodies over the years.

Peruis only a prelude, however, and Indy finds himself caught up in a race against that always-reliable group of bad guys, the Nazis. It seems Adolf Hitler wants the Ark of the Covenant, the last resting place of the Ten Commandments, and only Indiana Jones and his friends have a prayer of stopping him. The resulting chase has come to define the adventure movie genre and has spawned legions of imitators.

What sets "Raiders of the Lost Ark" apart from all those other movies is the movie's heart—its great performances. Harrison Ford's portrayal of Indiana Jones as an obnoxious but principled adventurer elevates him above the stock hero archetype, and Karen Allen's Marion Ravenwood is a spirited companion on the journey, even if she does occasionally fall into the damsel-in-distress role. Once the action reaches Egypt, John Rhys-Davies appears as Sallah, the memorable sidekick who's as handy with a shovel and rope as he is a Gilbert and Sullivan standard. Of particular note is Denholm Elliott as Indy's patron Dr. Marcus Brody, a role Elliott would get to expand on considerably in the third film in the franchise.

The villains are just as memorable. Paul Freeman is Rene Belloq, Indiana's opposite number. Belloq is as slimy and unprincipled as Indy is noble and (relatively) pure hearted. The Nazis are represented primarily by Ronald Lacey as Arnold Toht, a seething presence of evil almost as effective as the imposing Darth Vader a few years before. Fans of the film will definitely recall Pat Roach as an enormous Nazi mechanic who faces off against Indy in a memorable fight scene set beneath an out-of-control flying wing.

The story is full of adventure and action, with sequences that still impress in this era of bigger and flashier set pieces, and unlike many of today's poorly written action heroes, Indy actually displays the toll this life of adventure takes on him—he doesn't just shrug off bullet wounds with a smile and a quip. The ending is spectacular and not without its twists; this film comes from an era where the twist ending wasn't nearly as tiresome a mechanic as it has become in the years since.

The film is not without its flaws. Obviously trimmed subplots stick out here and there, when characters appear for mere moments but definitely seem like they were meant for more screen time. The story gets a little repetitive in the middle act, when it becomes a game of keep-away between Indiana and the Nazis. The special effects were state of the art from the early days of Industrial Light and Magic but nonetheless seem a little dated in the era of mainframe-powered CGI.

The biggest concern about this film is that it came out in an era before PG-13, and the producers obviously performed some serious voodoo to avoid the dreaded R rating. Some of the sequences can be far too intense for younger viewers, especially in the film's climactic moments. While these sequences are intense, they serve as the punctuation for a rollicking tale that does exactly what Lucas and Spielberg set out to do—recapture the mystique of the early 20th century pulp adventure genre and make it accessible to new generations of fans. While later entries in the franchise haven't held up as well over the years, "Raiders of the Lost Ark" is still as enjoyable as it was when the distinctive brass of its theme song first blared out from theater speakers more than 30 years ago.

Rating: 4 out of 5