Summer Movie Showdown: "Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark" Review


Summer Movie Showdown: "Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark" Review

-- Rating: PG
Length: 115 minutes
Release Date: June 12, 1981
Directed by: Steven Spielberg
Genre: Action/Adventure

"Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark" is a swashbuckling classic from LucasFilm that was part of a conscious effort to revive the high spirits of the old Hollywood serials of the 1930s. The movie was never intended to have a sequel, and so it was billed originally as simply "Raiders of the Lost Ark," and it was made at the cost of a mere $18 million. The film was an enormous success and runaway cultural phenomenon that spawned three successive films, a short-lived television series, and at least fifteen video games. The initial investment would go on to earn nearly $400 million for LucasFilm, and the movie itself elevated the already very successful actor Harrison Ford to the biggest box office draw of the decade.

It didn't have to be that way, of course. So much of the movie's success hinged on such contingent factors that, in many ways, it's a wonder the production ever got off the ground at all. For starters, George Lucas was fresh from his unexpected triumph with "Star Wars," and so one might be forgiven for believing that the rough ways were made smooth for him in organizing this project, which would involve shooting for several months on three continents. This was not the case, however, as George Lucas also had the reputation as the guy who made "THX 1138," and if there's one sin Hollywood will never forgive, it's losing money on a picture. As with "American Graffiti" and "Star Wars," Lucas found himself fighting an uphill battle once again-this time, to overcome entrenched skepticism that a '30s-style adventure film could really be made for the audiences of the 1980s.

Ford is another major element of the film's wild success. Again, it could easily have been another. Spielberg reportedly recommended Ford for the lead, having been impressed with his work in other Lucas films. It was precisely this involvement, however, that made Lucas reluctant to cast Ford as Indiana Jones. Judging by his public statements on the matter, Lucas seems to have been worried about being tied at the hip with Ford, just as fellow director Martin Scorsese was joined in the public imagination with Robert De Niro. For months, with shooting edging ever closer, Lucas tried out one auteur after another, even briefly trying to engage with Tom Selleck. Selleck was busy with television projects, however, and was unable to pursue the role. What this means, of course, is that somewhere in space-time, there's an alternate reality in which Indiana Jones was played by "Magnum, P.I." Pity the lost souls who live there. In this reality, Ford was finally brought on with only three weeks left to go before shooting commenced, and it all turned out for the best.

The plot of "Raiders of the Lost Ark" barely matters. This is actually a huge plus for this type of movie. "Raiders of the Lost Ark" isn't about suburban ennui in the premillenial heartland, after all, and an elaborate plot would get in the way. For an Errol Flynn-esque adventure such as this, almost any semblance of a plot will do the job nicely. As it happens, somebody along the chain of custody for this film actually did care enough to write in a decent plot for it.

Professor Indiana Jones, who is an academic archeologist at heart, keeps getting tangled up in foreign adventures. In "Raiders of the Lost Ark," he's called upon to locate the lost Ark of the Covenant, mostly to prevent the Nazis from getting their hands on it. This, that, and the other thing conspire to keep Dr. Jones busy, with many turnovers, small victories, and wild fistfights along the way. In one especially nice bit of foreshadowing in the first act, the audience is given to understand that Indiana has a morbid fear of snakes, and the poor man descends into a pit of them later in the movie.

With Nazis as the villains, a strong biblical influence for a plot device, and Harrison Ford in the lead, it's difficult to imagine anything but runaway success for "Raiders of the Lost Ark." Indeed, it proved to be one of LucasFilm's most successful films ever, at least in the ratio of cost to box office receipts. With merchandising-now an essential element of the business that was practically pioneered by George Lucas-and home video sales, "Raiders of the Lost Ark" stands tall as one of the most successful films ever made by an American movie studio.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5