Monday, February 15, 2010

1981 - Raiders of the Lost Ark

It's no secret that I'm a film buff. I've been a fan of movies for as long as I can remember. When browsing through my local video store as a teenager, I often avoided the new releases, choosing instead to scour the other shelves for classic films or those must-see pictures. For a while, I took great advantage of their 10 weeklies for $10 deal. Sometimes, I would select a director and rent as many of his films as they had in stock. My knowledge of Alfred Hitchcock's and Woody Allen's bodies of work is directly due to such proceedings. In fact, in a precursor to Matt vs. the Academy, I attempted to view every film that had been awarded the Best Picture Oscar, succeeding in watching all but six winners, a state of affairs that will obviously be remedied upon this project's conclusion.

But along with my love of movies, I'm also fascinated by the process of making movies. I am simply enamoured with all those behind-the-scenes documentaries and audio commentaries and so on. Hence, I was thoroughly enthralled by my visit today to the Museum of Moving Image here in New York. There are fine exhibits explaining all the different departments involved in putting a film together, from writing to editing and everything in between. Plus, scattered throughout the museum are piles of movie memorabilia, including a miniature from Blade Runner, Robin Williams' Mrs. Doubtfire costume, a cast of Al Pacino's face, a shooting script from Citizen Kane and the Chewbacca head that Peter Mayhew wore, amongst many other things. As you can imagine, I was like a kid in a toy store. It really reminded me of the magic of movies.

Last night, I watched one of the few action blockbusters to be nominated for Best Picture, this one from 1981...

Raiders of the Lost Ark
Steven Spielberg
Lawrence Kasdan
(story by George Lucas and Philip Kaufman)
Harrison Ford, Karen Allen, Paul Freeman, Ronald Lacey, John Rhys-Davies, Denholm Elliott
Academy Awards:
9 nominations
5 wins, including Best Visual Effects

It almost seems irrelevant to add to the millions of words that have been written about Indiana Jones. The phenomenon began with Raiders of the Lost Ark and it is this first instalment that is generally favoured by critics and fans alike. Consequently, it has achieved such renown that it is far more important than anything I could ever write. Then again, I'm not narcissistic enough to believe that any of my humble reviews ever outshine the objects of their opinions, but in this case, considering the film's blockbuster status, my review may not even shine at all.

Not that you need to be reminded of its story, but in the interests of consistency, here's a quick recap. It's 1936 and archaeologist Indiana Jones (Ford) is sent by US Army Intelligence to procure the much sought after Ark of the Covenant. His ex-lover Marion Ravenwood (Allen) is in possession of an artifact that holds the key to the Ark's location but rival French archaeologist René Belloq (Freeman) and a bunch of Nazis will stop at nothing to find the Ark first.

There is simply no doubt that Raiders of the Lost Ark is pure escapism. With a rugged leading man, a feisty love interest, a trusty sidekick and a scheming foreign villain, you know you're in action/adventure territory. No more than five or ten minutes go by in between action scenes and there is enough adventure and romance to satisfy even the most die-hard fan of the genre.

The bulk of the film's entertainment is, of course, embodied in the character of Indiana Jones - a rugged adventurer with the perfect balance of determination and sarcasm. He is just so darn lovable, mostly because he is anything but invincible. In fact, he spends a vast majority of the film in situations where he has no control. At every turn, he seems to bungle along with little clue as to what he's doing, yet somehow he heroically finds his way out of every sticky situation with a delightful sense of humour ... And the audience cheers.

The remarkable John Williams delivers another stirringly memorable score capturing the heroism of the story. I couldn't help but notice, however, the uncanny similarity to elements of his even more memorable score for Star Wars. Granted, every composer has his own distinct style, and perhaps none is more distinct than John Williams, but there were phrases in this orchestration that almost seemed like note for note reproductions.

So rare is it that an action film is recognised by the Academy in the Best Picture category that I am hesitant to discuss the film's flaws. While Raiders is entertaining and adrenalin-pumping, there is little in the way of an emotional journey for the main character. He doesn't really learn anything or grow as a human being. Nor is he positively involved in the film's conclusion which is slightly unsatisfying. His attempts to recapture the Ark from Belloq initially fail and then, when the bad guys are all supernaturally disintegrated (which includes the truly spectacular melting face effect), Indy gains the Ark by default. Even then, when he delivers it to the Army guys, he doesn't even get the satisfaction of seeing it displayed in a museum as he desired. Everything just happens around him without his input ... apart from the fight scenes, of course. He's good at that.

Harrison Ford adopts his role with great confidence, bringing out Indy's exasperated wit marvellously. Karen Allen as the spunky Marion is either annoying or brilliant, I can't decide which. Also worth noting are Paul Freeman, who supplies a dry strength to the sinister Belloq, and John Rhys-Davies, whose jolly Sallah is a nice counterpoint to his irascible Gimli in a more recent blockbuster franchise. And that's a young Alfred Molina making his film debut alongside Indy in the opening Peruvian jungle adventure.


  1. Don't sell yourself short, Matt. You write very good reviews and provide us with some great links.

    Like many, I have the Indiana Jones Box Set and since it has been a few years, I was ready for another look at Raiders... In many ways, the collaboration on this film played to the best strengths of the participants. George Lucas provided the imaginative story taken from memories of his youthful viewings of the Saturday Matinee cliffhanger serials. Yet he wisely left the screenplay to Lawrence Kasdan (Body Heat, The Big Chill), something he didn't due for Phantom Menace and The Clone Wars to their detriment. Steven Spielberg directed with a sure hand and avoided the sentimental sappiness that sometimes crept into his esteemed works. Harrison Ford had perhaps the best fit for his acting skills. He's one of those one nomination actors (his for Witness) like Steve McQueen (The Sand Pebbles), Robert Redford (The Sting), Kevin Costner (Dances with Wolves). I think If I were to give Ford a single nomination it would be for Raiders of the Lost Ark. He's really good at giving us a heroic figure who is at ease displaying self-satisfaction as well as fear. Indiana Jones is a variation of Clark Kent/Superman, and Ford is up to both characterizations. I have not found his more dramatic performances all that satisfying.

    The film's most commonly used descriptive metaphor is roller coaster. Most of the reviews mentioned it somewhere and I applaud you Matt for avoiding it. Of course, I didn't but only to make a point. Yes, Raiders is a Roller Coaster ride, however most coaster rides are over in under 3 minutes. Raiders goes on for another 112 and that's a long time to be on a coaster. It seems at times that a scene has barely ended when Spielberg cuts away to another action sequence. Everything is heightened - revolver shots sound like canons, punches like sledge hammers. It's pure exaggerated escapism that doesn't give you any time to process what you are seeing. Indy clings to the side of a Nazi submarine during an ocean escape and it cuts to the docking area. Guess he's able to hold his breath for a really really long time.

    Special make-up effects were coming into their own in 1981 (the year The Academy initiated the competitive award for Make-up, giving it to master Rick Baker for An American Werewolf in London). That face melting sequence was truly astonishing back then. It almost made me stay for an extra showing just to see it again. Thank God for YouTube.

    Like Rocky, Indiana Jones returned in sequel form - the second even more frenetic, darker and less enjoyable. The third bounced back with a better story and the welcomed addition of Sean Connery as the elder Professor Jones. With an eerie connection to an over-the-hill Rocky Balboa in the last of the Rocky series, a game but clearly too old Harrison Ford in Indian Jones IV made 27 years after Raiders.... I see that Lucas has an Indiana Jones V in development. I think its time for Ford to take on the Connery role and some long lost son be written into the story.

  2. I need to comment on my comments. First, I'm sorry for the length of some of my posts. They don't seem that long when viewed in the small composing box, but I do tend to go on and on sometimes. Secondly, even though I use a spell-check, some of my mistakes and typos are embarrassing. I can't believe I used 'due' for 'do' in the above post. These old eyes ain't what they used to be.

  3. :) No need to apologise. You're always fascinating and insightful.

    And yes, I noticed the 'due' typo and I thought to myself, "That would never happen to an Australian," because we pronounce 'due' and 'do' differently. :)

  4. Projecting that 1937 will be the next year Matt visits, I thought I'd give a heads-up on Turner Classic Movies upcoming schedule:
    Feb 18 1:30 PM - Captains Courageous
    Feb 18 3:30 PM - The Good Earth
    Feb 23 2:45 PM - The Awful Truth
    Feb 28 3:30 AM - Stage Door

    Apr 18 8:00 AM - A Star is Born (if otherwise unavailable)

    By the way, yesterday I got to see 1928's nominee The Racket on TCM. Not too bad at all. Some nifty camera-work/effects in that funeral scene. Still, Metropolis would have been a much better choice. The 1951 remake of The Racket is remarkably true to the original.

  5. This was the first proper film (not an animation) I saw at the cinema. I was terrified and enthralled. My dad explained what "special effects" were and what "actors did" to me on the way home from the city. This is such a strong memory for me - a personal favourite film for so many reasons!
    Also, the hours spent with my brother pretending to have a drinking competition like the one in Marions bar :)

  6. Could you get your dad to explain to me what "actors do"? I still don't know.

    And thanks Mike for the heads up on the TCM schedule. I don't get TCM myself, so I'll be relying once again on Netflix, which has 9 of the 10 films from the 1937 race. The last one, 100 Men and a Girl, is available at the New York Public Library, but only on VHS... so now it's time to take a step back technologically and invest in a VCR.

    For my Australian readers, I believe TCM in Australia is on a completely different schedule, so you're on your own there. And instead of Netflix, I'm sure Bigpond Movies will have these titles. I just searched their database and, ironically, they have 100 Men and a Girl on DVD. Go figure.