Of all the film makers that have influenced me as a lover of cinema, five directors have had the biggest impact. The first is Akira Kurosawa, whose samurai epics gave me my love for foreign film and showed me for the first time that film is a universal art form that anyone can understand. The second is George Lucas. Now, say what you want about him being a hack director, but his Star Wars is an inspiration. Star Was is the wellspring of love that I convey over to the rest of film. John Woo’s double fisted handguns are the next reason I love film. The director’s mix of operatic violence and macho brotherhood keep me coming back to see what he can think of next. If only he could break free of the Hollywood system and make a movie like that of Hard Boiled and The Killer. The next director is Michael Mann who’s crime dramas have been a staple of my cinematic diet since I saw Pacino and Deniro square off in one the best crime films I’ve ever seen, Heat. The last director has a special place in my heart. He has made films of such wonderful varieties in subjects and scopes that he has taken my breath away cinematically. He is perhaps America’s best film maker ever. He is Steven Spielberg.
The late 1970’s and early 1980’s was a boom time for huge blockbuster entertainment. Beginning with Spielberg’s 1975 masterpiece Jaws, Blockbusters kept rolling out of the gate with George Lucas’ Star Wars, Richard Donner’s Superman and Spielberg’s own Close Encounters of the Third Kind. At this time, Spielberg planned to keep the ball rolling by bringing another huge spectacle to theatres by adding to an already popular franchise, The James Bond Series. Spielberg’s good friend George Lucas had other ideas though.
Lucas, hot off the worldwide success of Star Wars came up with another film that would follow the same formula of emulating 1930’s serials. But where Star Wars was indelibly linked to Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers, this new hero would be quite earth bound. His character would be made up of the tough guy heroes of the 30’s that fought the Nazi’s, escaped cannibals, and found lost treasure. He would be cut from the same mold as Alan Quartermain and John Carter. His name was Indiana Jones, archeologist and adventurer.
The idea was brought to Spielberg who loved it and dropped his Bond idea immediately. Several leads were considered for the duo’s new hero. Spielberg’s first choice for the role, Harrison Ford, was shot down by Lucas who had just used the actor in American Graffiti and Star Wars. Eventually the film makers decided on Tom Selleck for the role, but he was forced to turn it down due to his obligation to shoot Magnum, P.I. Next Nick Nolte turned the role down. Finally three weeks before shooting started, the team came back to where they had started and went with Harrison Ford. The choice ended up being the best one possible, and the rest in cinematic history.
Raiders of the Lost Ark Starring Harrison Ford and Karen Allen. Directed by Steven Spielberg
The beginning of the film is one of the most famous opening sequences in film history. The adventure begins with Dr. Jones looking for a golden treasure in South American temple. Indy escape trap after traps of poison darts, deep crevices and deadly spikes to find the treasure until ultimately when he finds his golden statue. Upon grabbing his new artifact, the building begins crumbling after him. Jones must face every danger again while running from his life. Then when he has seemingly defeated every trap, a massive boulder comes lumbering toward him. Racing towards the temple entrance to beat the ball from both crushing him and sealing the opening, Indiana dives to safety. Only then does he realize he has been trapped by a native tribe, lead by his chief archeological rival, Dr. Rene Belloq, played Paul Freeman. Escaping this ambush, Indiana races toward a waiting plane while dodging poison darts, arrows, and spears. Then the movie really begins.
Once Stateside, Indy is approached for information by U.S. Army Intelligence. They have intercepted a Nazi communique that mentions the city of Tanis in Egypt. The Nazi’s have begun a huge excavation there. Dr. Jones immediately recognizes the city as one of the last resting places for the Ark of the Covenant. The government officials send Indy immediately to try and find out what is going on and recover the artifact if possible.
Indy knows the man who can help him most is an old friend named Abner Ravenwood who is an expert on the Ark and is in possession of an amulet that could possibly even give Jones the location of the Ark inside Tanis. Indy is a bit hesitant to call on Abner due to his former relationship with Abner’s daughter Marion. Upon calling on the Ravenwoods, Indiana learns of Abner’s death, but that Marion may consider selling the Amulet to Indy. Negotiations between the two go south after an altercation with men lead by the sinister Major Toht of the German Army. This leads to the destruction of Marion’s possession except for the amulet.
This is the entire setup for the film. About the time that Indy goes to Cairo, the movie hits high gear. The remainder of the film is a roller coaster of excitement involving a kidnapping, elaborate traps, double crosses, Nazi monkeys, Nazi goons, Nazi submarines, a faked death, an exploding plane, a death by propeller and one of the greatest chases in the history of cinema. Oh yeah, and Indy also ends up finding the Lost Ark of the Covenant and ends up fighting with the German’s to keep it for the remainder of the film.
Stephen Spielberg is able to make popular and critical successes to a higher degree than any other director in history. Not only do many of his films reach audiences with their top notch action and funny dialogue, Spielberg is able to take such a serious tone in his films that his films reach a higher level than just entertainment. Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, E.T., and Minority Report are all fantastic fun, but what makes them great is the gravity that Spielberg gives them. This ability is on display in just as great a fashion in Raiders of the Lost Ark.
Crafted after the serials of Republic Pictures, Raiders has been considered time after time the greatest action movie ever made. Its influence over the genre has been felt over and over as other studios have tried time after time to reproduce the films success. For better or worse (unfortunately mostly worse), Raiders’ legacy consists of King Solomon’s Mines(1985), The Rocketeer(1991), The Shadow(1994), The Phantom(1996), The Mummy(1999), The Mummy Returns(2001), and Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (2004). Each film was trying to recreate the sense of adventure and nostalgia for the 1930’s that Raiders has, but none were able to be more than just popcorn entertainment. Spielberg was able to take his film to suck heights that it was nominated for Best Picture and Best Director. But the credit for this film cannot solely go to Spielberg.
Much credit goes to Lawrence Kasdan, George Lucas, and Philip Kaufman for writing such a wonderful story for Spielberg to play with. Packing on one sequence after another could get tiresome in another film, but this film handles it with such brevity that the audience never feels tied down. Kasdan’s dialogue is especially wonderful as the banter between Indy and everyone else on screen, especially Marion, is wondrous.
If the wrong actor had played Indiana Jones, the entire picture could have flat-lined. Even though he was not the first choice, its hard to see anyone else playing Indiana Jones other that Harrison Ford. Another actor with the fedora and bullwhip just seems wrong. Though Ford has been the star of other franchises, it was his role as Dr. Jones that cemented his career in Hollywood. Ford could have just played Jones as the dashing rogue he was as Han Solo in Star Wars, but instead Jones is a stalwart, rock-steady hero that is still quick witted and has more luck than any man on the planet. Indy is also the “everyman” hero, to Han’s “pirate”. One of the best looks he gives in the film is his “here we go again” expression that appears before a huge fistfight with a gargantuan German mechanic. Indy knows he can’t go toe to toe with this man, but he knows he has to. Jones is continually pounded by the German and wins the fight with simple luck…and a propeller. Ford gladly takes the film on his shoulders and runs with it. The role is a perfect fit, much like Connery and Moore for their Bonds, Christopher Reeve as Superman, and Mark Hamill as Luke Skywalker.
Karen Allen is delightfully spunky as Marion Ravenwood. Marion is Indy’s equal in tenacity and is a wonderful foil for the hero. Unlike the other women of this series, Marion is able to hold her own in action scenes and seem to actually be worth risking your life over. Instead of just being the damsel in distress, Marion is cut from the same mold as Princess Leia from Star Wars
and Tracey from On Her Majesty’s Secret Service
. In fact just like those women, Marion has a tough outer shell that can only be cracked by the right hero, but only for a moment. Many times the female lead in a movie is just a throwaway character to cheaply get drama from the main hero; Marion is not one of those.
Villains do not get much nobler than Paul Freeman’s Belloq. Not just a lunatic with an army, Belloq is a scientist, but has no scruples about how to achieve his goal. The difference between Belloq and other villains can be seen in his general affection for Marion. Rene is a very human character and not the unfeeling villain that would stereotypically be found in a piece like this. That stereotype is left for Ronald Lacey as Major Toht.
Toht is a wonderfully crafted villain. Really on screen Toht does not seem to be the vilest of villains, but his completely black outfit and hat along with posture make him positively frightening. Helping Lacey’s performance the most is his accent in the film. Lacey’s way of saying “We are…not thirsty,” and “Yes…I know you will,” are some of the best line readings in the film and really are what have kept the character so fresh in the minds of fans. His timing is also perfect in a scene where Toht seemingly has brought out a torture device to make Marion spill her guts about Indy, but then the device turns out to be a coat hanger. Also he gets one of the best death scenes in movie history.
The movie is just a special case where everything goes right, even if it seemingly goes wrong. Basically every fan of this movie already knows this story, but for one of the film’s most enduring scenes, an extended fight sequence was planned matching up Jones’ whip and sword of an assassin. On the day of the shooting Harrison Ford was deathly ill and was unable to film the scene as planned. As a last minute filler, the scene was just shot as a comedy beat where the assassin pulls out his sword tempting him, but Indiana merely pulls out his gun and shoots the man. The scene is now a fan favorite.
For spirited entertainment of the highest quality, one has to look no further than Raiders of the Lost Ark
. The Indiana Jones series has a special place with film fans that ranks on a short list with The Star Wars Saga
, The Lord of the Rings
, and The Bond
series. Its place was reserved in such quality company due to the fact that each of its films are spectacular amusements, and Raiders
is the best of the lot. This film only cemented Spielberg’s status in the eyes of fans for bringing such a terrific action film to the screen. Spielberg would go on to do even bigger and more respected works for the critics, but fans have few times having more fun in the theatre than with this film.