July 2024

Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

DIRECTOR: Steven Spielberg


Harrison Ford, Karen Allen, Paul Freeman, Ronald Lacey, John Rhys-Davies, Denholm Elliott, Wolf Kähler, Anthony Higgins, Alfred Molina


As a child in the 1940s, George Lucas was enthralled by the serials depicting the hero ending every week in a cliffhanger, only to make a death-defying return the next week.  In 1977, fresh off his first Star Wars film, Lucas vacationed in Hawaii, where he met up with Steven Spielberg, who had likewise suddenly made a name for himself with 1975’s Jaws, and the two budding visionaries decided they needed to work together. Their first joint project became Raiders of the Lost Ark, which introduced theatergoers to the character of Indiana Jones, soon to become an iconic figure in American film, and transformed the genre of action movies. Before Indiana Jones, James Bond was the reigning model for action heroes and the films that showcased them to follow. Indiana Jones was a new kind of hero who at the same time hearkened back to the stars of the serials Lucas used as his inspiration. Unlike the debonair James Bond, Indy was a rugged, rough-and-tumble everyman (albeit an exceptionally skilled and daring one) who gets battered and bruised, wears “lived-in” clothes, and doesn’t always operate smoothly. He’s not invincible, and his narrow escapes are partly due to skill, partly due to luck, mostly due to brazen derring-do. Rarely does a film have us asking “how’s he going to get out of this?” more times than Raiders of the Lost Ark.

1936: Part-time archaeology professor, part-time globe-trotting adventurer Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) braves a series of death traps to get his hands on a priceless artifact, only to have it snatched from his hands by his rival Belloq (Paul Freeman). Frustratingly returning empty-handed (and narrowly escaping unfriendly natives), Indy returns to Marshall College, where he and his friend and colleague Marcus Brody (Denholm Elliott) are met by Army intelligence officials who’ve intercepted a transmission from a secret German archaeological dig in Cairo searching for the Ark of the Covenant, whose bearer is said to wield the power of God. The race begins to find the lost Ark before the Nazis, which reunites Indy with an old flame, Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen), who holds a piece of the puzzle, and takes them to Cairo, where they meet up with another ally, Sallah (John Rhys-Davies), who has been recruited to work on the Nazi dig site. Indy learns that his nemesis Belloq is helping the Nazis look for the Ark, and the contest will involve street fights, car chases, snakes, trucks, ships, planes, a submarine, and the mysterious power of the Ark.

Five life lessons learned from 35 years of 'Raiders of the Lost Ark'

The reason for Indiana Jones’ popularity is simple and obvious; its sheer sense of fun. Indiana’s adventures are fast-paced, breezy entertainment. The story features sadistic Nazis, the Ark of the Covenant, secret chambers filled with spiders, snakes, pits, poison darts, arrows, fierce natives, and a huge rolling boulder (in perhaps the best-known sequence from the entire series), and the climax deals out a gruesome fate for the bad guys, but none of this is ever taken too seriously. Raiders walks the fine line between too jokey and too serious like a tightrope. It’s not quite an action-comedy, but there’s plenty of humor spread around. There’s a sense of freshness, enthusiasm, and spontaneity that none of its sequels quite matched (considering this is the original introduction of the character, that might be inevitable). One of the movie’s biggest laughs came from one of Ford’s improvisations; when Indy encounters a fearsome sword-wielder in Cairo, he simply draws his gun and shoots him. Another gag involves Ronald Lacey’s Toht pulling out a pair of nunchuckas and seeming poised to create some fiendish torture device before turning them into a coat hanger. The line “it’s not the years honey, it’s the mileage” was ad-libbed by Ford. When Raiders came out, Harrison Ford had already been seen as Han Solo in two episodes of the Star Wars series, but while Han is undoubtedly a close runner-up, the role Ford is probably most associated with is Indiana Jones. It’s no surprise that the two are Ford’s best-known characters; while Indy is not a retread of Han, the two have a lot of similarities: roguish adventurous scoundrels with hearts of gold. Rarely has there been a more perfect match-up between an actor and character. Ford is not a great thespian, but Indiana Jones plays to all of his strengths: his rugged good looks, his everyman demeanor, his rough-and-tumble physicality, and his self-deprecating humor, creating a hero who might have shining armor somewhere under all the dust and dirt he’s accumulated. Indy might be a daring adventurer, but he’s no superman, nor a suave, dashing James Bond wannabe; his clothes look old and worn, he gets the crap beaten out of him more than once, he’s terrified of snakes, and he doesn’t always know what he’s doing (in fact, at one point he freely admits he’s making up his “plan” as he goes along). Ford has played many popular roles in many high-profile films, but he has never seemed more at home in any character’s skin than he does as Indiana Jones.

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This isn’t the kind of movie for which acting awards are handed out, but the supporting cast is equally well-chosen. Karen Allen is a damsel who’s not always in distress; she throws one of the hardest punches in the movie, and has spunk, brains, and backbone. Marion is the most formidable and the most memorable of Indy’s various female entanglements, and the one who comes closest to being an equal partner rather than simply a love interest. Paul Freeman is the closest of any of the series’ baddies to an evil counterpart of Indy (though one could argue Belloq isn’t so much “evil” as amoral and opportunistic). His confrontation with Indy in a Cairo restaurant and a later scene with Marion are two of the film’s highlights. Ronald Lacey is perfect as the deliciously creepy Gestapo agent Toht, a role that decades before could have been played by Peter Lorre, and John Rhys-Davies brings his imposing, affable presence to Indy’s Cairo ally Sallah. Rhys-Davies’ Sallah is only along for part of the ride, and Denholm Elliott’s Marcus Brody, Indy’s friend and colleague at college, only appears at the beginning and the end, but both seemingly fairly minor characters make enough impression for their absence in Temple of Doom to be felt (both returned, Elliott in a much more sizable role, in The Last Crusade). Tall, blond, blue-eyed, square-jawed, prototypically Aryan-looking Wolf Kähler is the German commander Dietrich, and there is a small opening role for a young Alfred Molina.

Raiders of the Lost Ark -- Truck Chase | Indiana jones, Indiana jones  films, Indiana

Raiders blazed the trail not only for the following Indiana Jones adventures, but for obvious Indiana Jones-inspired characters like Michael Douglas’ Jack T. Colton in Romancing the Stone and Brendan Fraser’s Rick O’Connell in The Mummy, and thirty years later, it continues to be held up as a model of a virtually flawless action movie. It’s perfectly-paced, allowing enough breathing room in between the regular series of action sequences to allow the necessary minimums of exposition and character interaction. It wisely doesn’t get long-winded on exposition about the Ark, giving us a nicely concise summary early on, and while this isn’t the kind of movie for three-dimensional characters and Oscar-worthy acting material, Indy and Marion are developed enough for us to have an active interest in seeing them make it out of their numerous scrapes. Everything is done in just the right amounts, not too little or too much. The action sequences are cracklingly tense, dynamic, and deftly-handled. Raiders is from the era before CGI, and while that’s not to say there are no special effects in the movie, stunt work, location-filming, and elaborate action set pieces had the largest role, not effects technicians behind a computer screen. Harrison Ford did most of his own stunts himself, with the cuts and bruises to show for it, and scenes like the car chase that involves Indy latching onto the bottom of a truck with his whip and being dragged behind it, remains thrilling because all of it is real. Prolific composer John Williams, who had provided the indelible theme music for Spielberg’s Jaws and Lucas’ Star Wars, added another one of the most iconic and instantly recognizable scores of his long and illustrious career.

Audiences at the time fell in love with Raiders and the character of Indiana Jones, and not only did this ensure Indy would ride again, it made Raiders the grandfather of many of today’s action films, most of which are vastly inferior, while Raiders itself remains mostly timeless due to the perfect mix of the right ingredients: a lot of action, a lot of humor, a likable hero, a dash of romance, hissable villains, and a script that handles them all without overplaying or underplaying any of its hands. Raiders of the Lost Ark might not be a great film, but it is great entertainment, either in 1981 or 2021.