Movies To See Before You Die: “Raiders of the Lost Ark”

13 Jan
2011

Harrison Ford, as Indiana Jones, is an archaeologist who goes on a search for the mystical Ark of the Covenant, while outwitting Nazis who compete to obtain the Ark for its fabled supernatural powerRaiders of the Lost Ark is a movie that you need to see before you die.

Raiders of the Lost Ark is one of those movies that is as close to a perfect film as you can get.  The upbeat rhythms of John Williams’ amazing score superbly complements the action scenes. While the “rolling boulder” and bar scenes are admittedly over-the-top, they feel practical in Indiana’s world and are well-served to get the audience’s heart pumping. Harrison Ford oozes a charisma that few actors today have come to match. When Indiana is running toward the camera – confident in his ability to fend off whatever lies beyond – suddenly he sees an army, and we see the emotion on his face change from sheer confidence to worried panic. Tiny moments like these add up to create an incredibly enjoyable cinematic ride.

Raiders of the Lost Ark vs. Star Wars: A New Hope

When looking at these two films, Raiders has more of a contained narrative – which means we get to spend a lot of time with the protagonist, Indiana Jones.  Star Wars, in contrast, is such an epic story that it requires the viewer to remember planet names, alien races, and a multitude of characters in order to get the narrative’s full effect.

Since the film takes place here on Earth, in a very familiar time, Raiders gives the audience the ability to relate strongly to the story being told. Viewers can easily recognize people and places such as Egypt, or the Nazis. In Star Wars, audiences have to work to relate to the actions and behaviors of the characters. Everything in the film requires a suspension of belief in order to delve into the vast world of the Star Wars universe.

When looking at the main characters of each film, we can see that Indiana Jones is a tough, stubborn and charismatic character. He’s out for fortune and glory, and can match fists and wits with the best of the best. In contrast, Luke Skywalker is a simple farm boy with dreams of leaving Tatooine and becoming a pilot. He is inadvertently thrust into the role of hero and stumbles into his new task of defeating the Empire. Perhaps a fairer comparison would be Han Solo vs. Indiana Jones – both the rogues of their respective pictures.

Raiders of the Lost Ark vs. Sahara

Sahara really wanted to be an Indiana Jones film. Directed by Breck Eisner, Sahara stars Matthew McConaughey as the wise cracking but tough main character, Dirk Pitt. Steve Zahn as the silly sidekick whose only real purpose is to be funny and lose his cool. And then you have the love interest, Penelope Cruz, who is tough but vulnerable. Sound familiar?

While Sahara has all of these elements, of course none of them are executed even remotely as well as Raiders. It also doesn’t help that the film was considered one of Hollywood’s biggest financial flops ever when it opened with a miniscule $18 million while costing over $200 million to make.

What else came out in 1981?

The Road Warrior was a great revenge film and one of Mel Gibson’s best, but has not aged particularly well and retains an oddly linear script. Raiders has neither of these issues, and has proven itself to stand the test of time.

Time Bandits is one of Terry Gilliam’s best films, and is arguably more imaginative than Raiders with its amazing set design and unique camera angles, but it falls into the same trap as Star Wars. It’s an epic adventure, filled with numerous characters, but Raiders benefits more from its strong protagonist and a small, but strong supporting cast.

Superman II. The original great super-hero movie. Christopher Reeve is still Superman to most people. However, the special effects pale in comparison to today’s CG and the Kryptonian costumes are borderline ridiculous. Raiders aesthetics and judicious use of effects have helped it to persevere against the modern movie magic seen in today’s films.

Why must you see this movie before you die?

  • John Williams’ score
  • Harrison Ford - perfectly cast as Indiana Jones. (Who would’ve thought an archaeologist could ever be synonymous with the word, “cool”?)
  • The story – an original adventure tale that really embraces the old serials that it was inspired by
  • Steven Spielberg – who knew exactly how to make audiences feel like they were on the path of discovery along with our heroes

Raiders of the Lost Ark is currently ranked as the 9th best movie of all time on Flickchart.

  • KingofPain

    I really hate how they changed the name of the movie to Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark. The movie isn’t just about Jones and the Ark. It’s about Belloq, Jones and the Nazis raiding the Ark, all for their different reasons. But none of them really grasp what they’re involved with. Raiders is the only Indiana Jones movie that I acknowledge, but I don’t really consider Raiders to be an Indiana Jones movie, anyway. Indiana Jones is in it, but it’s not his movie, exactly.

    I think making Temple of Doom, Last Crusade and Crystal Skull ignored the point of what the original was about. Raiders is definitely the best Indiana Jones movie, and it’s the only one that needs to exist.

  • http://www.cinema-men.com John Murphy

    You have a good point. The other movies definitely stray from the original, adding in more humor and unbelievable action set pieces to the mix.

    Do you really wish the others didn’t exist? Was there nothing at all redeemable from Temple of Doom or Last Crusade? I think they are still very good movies, albeit a great departure from what Raiders was trying to be.

  • KingofPain

    I wrote out a long comment for Raiders vs. Temple of Doom recently regarding why I don’t think it was necessary as a prequel to Raiders. My problem with it is that Jones in Raiders didn’t believe in the supernatural, yet he encounters all sorts of supernatural things in Temple of Doom. Also, Jones comes across as a rogue in Raiders who goes after artifacts for less than noble reasons. In Temple of Doom, he is shown to be an actual hero before the events in Raiders, which takes away his edge. He’s not exactly a hero in Raiders, it’s just that his motives are more heroic than Belloq’s or the Nazis by comparison. I think Temple of Doom serves the same function as showing Greedo shoot before Han in the altered version of Star Wars, if you know what I mean.

    The Last Crusade wasn’t bad, just unnecessary. The Holy Grail is really nothing compared to God’s Wrath in Raiders. The end of Raiders says it all, really. Jones spent his whole career going after artifacts, but the Ark was his ultimate quest and he had no idea what he was dealing with. It was a hell of a lot more significant tha an idol he stole from a cave, or any of the other stuff he acquired for a museum. At the end of Raiders, everybody involved finds out that they were deling with powers far beyond anything they anticipated. It ended with the biggest bang possible. Jones realized that some things down belong in a museum, or in the hands of man at all. Nobody really wins in Raiders, and that was the point the way I see it.

  • http://www.cinema-men.com John Murphy

    Well said, sir. Well said.

    I think maybe Temple of Doom was a prequel because a sequel would have meant another battle against Hitler and the Nazis. What is more epic than finding treasure while Nazis are hunting you down? By making it a prequel, they could focus on a different tale that dealt with a different enemy.

    But, you said it, it doesn’t make sense being a prequel in the sense that Indiana has this different mentality about him.

  • johnmason

    I’ve had such an off week, I’ve totally missed most of the newest articles on the blog. This is great stuff, John.

    KingofPain: I gotta admit, you raise some great points. And you articulate them well. But I can’t help it: Last Crusade is my favorite (with Raiders right behind).

  • Travis McClain

    I could go on all day about The Temple of Doom and why it’s really the best of the series but I won’t. Regarding Raiders of the Lost Ark I love 95% of it. The problem for me has always been the very end, when (SPOILER ALERT) the Ark itself saves the day. The only thing that spares Indiana Jones is the presence of mind to think to…close his eyes? It never worked for me. I re-watched the movie a few weeks ago when USA did an Indy weekend and again found myself deflated by the climax.

    Everything else, though, makes for one of the most charming adventure stories of my generation. How often did you daydream in a social studies class, wondering what remnants of a civilization might make good fodder for Dr. Jones? The movie is sheer fun, and that’s not easy for a movie that actually kills a monkey!

  • KingofPain

    I always thought the torch to the belly was a lamely convenient way to cure the Blood of Kali living death thing. Was that ever explained? I haven’t seen Temple of Doom in years. I’ve never been a fan, primarily because the humor and action are so cartoonish.

    I don’t know about the eye closing issue… seems like pettifogging details. Since he couldn’t run away, closing his eyes and hoping not to die was the best option. And there is Biblical reason not to look at the power of God, which is exactly what the Ark contained. And Jones was aware of that.

    The Ark doesn’t save the day, exactly. More like it says “You idiots have been fighting over something you don’t undestand and can’t control, and now it’s time to send a wake up call!”

  • Nigel Druitt

    In all Indy movies, there is something like that that just cannot be explained. Pouring water from the Holy Grail magically heals Daddy’s wounds? It’s part of the Indy mythology. I’m in agreement with KingofPain’s explanation.

  • Travis McClain

    Indy being tied and helpless, though, was merely a contrivance to get him out of the way so that the Ark could save the day. They really only had one choice to make, storytelling-wise, and that was whether to show the power of their MacGuffin or not. If they don’t show it, then the question audiences has is just what the point of spending two hours in the movie looking for Ark really was. If they do show it, then they’re in danger of actually showing us the audience what the characters are admonished from seeing: the power of God.

    You’re right that it’s a recurring plot element in the Indy movies, but it’s also the one element I’ve always actively disliked. They’ve always done a great job setting up the conflicts, the objectives and given us lively characters. The unleashing of the supernatural just always felt contrived and even lazy to me. It’s the end of all the Indy movies where I always feel like someone just gave up and said, “Fine! The thing we’ve been after this whole time solves everything. Cue Williams!”

  • KingofPain

    What you’re missing with Raiders is that the Wrath of God scene is a funny culmination of Jones and Belloq’s rivalry. In the beginning, Belloq takes away the idol from Jones and sends the natives after him. Belloq tells Jones there’s nothing he can possess that Belloq can’t take away. Later, Belloq does the same thing to Jones with the Ark and the Nazis, except this time by winning Belloq actually loses.

    I don’t think you’re taking that into consideration. The other films lack that irony, or whatever you want to call it.

  • Travis McClain

    Oh, I got the whole point of Belloq being defeated by his own prize. The problem I have is that, if the Ark has been “unleashed,” then just what is it that Indiana Jones takes back with him? A shell? A fully functional Ark capable of repeating what it had just done? I shouldn’t have to wonder, and the only reason I do is that I’m not so engrossed in just going with the artistry of the story that I overlook the logistics of the story.

  • KingofPain

    Wait… shouldn’t it be obvious what he took back with him? I would assume that the Ark would always be capable of unleashing its power, wouldn’t you? I don’t see how you could look at it any other way. The power of the Ark is discussed at the beginning and unleashed at the end, so there is no doubt that the tales of its power are true. That’s what makes the very end when they pack it away so amusing. Jones learned how powerful it was. Bellog learned. The Nazis learned. But, still, the bureaucracy is warehousing it like it’s just another artifact.

  • Travis McClain

    All that’s obvious is that the box was put in a warehouse. Did the Ark use up all its energy by wiping out the Nazis? Does it regenerate ad infinitum? Is it an extension of God, or a self-contained creation cut loose once built?

    The Ark wipes out the Nazis, though true believers–or at least, professors who remember their footnotes–can survive by closing their eyes long enough for the Ark to destroy the bad guys and then go back to being a simple little crate? That’s really all the Ark has to offer after centuries of being lost to mankind? God is ultimately reduced to little more than a defunct manufacturer.

    In the grand scheme of Raiders of the Lost Ark these are trivial questions, secondary to whether or not we had fun. But I think that if you’re going to try to depict an actual religious artifact, that depiction automatically invites these kinds of questions. This is why I’m generally averse to religious and/or supernatural stories. Writers almost always resort to using those devices as a convenient way out of a situation, without expanding upon what the actual rules are for the device.

  • KingofPain

    Whoa, you’re a little off about the Nazis being “true believers”. If you watch Raiders in the beginning where they discuss the Ark, they say that it was a possession of the Hebrews. As you know, Nazis were not friendly to Hebrews. Also, they explain that an Egyptian Pharoh may have taken the Ark when he invaed Jerusalem and took it to Tanis, which vanished in sandstorm because it was “wiped clean by the wrath of God.” They also show a picture of the Ark unleashing the Wrath of God on an army ans also talk about how it “levels mountains and lays waste to entire regions”. The Nazis want the Ark for that reason.

    Like I said, though, the Nazis were no friends of the Hebrews. Also, there’s the scene on the boat where the Ark is shown burning away the Nazi symbol. Obviously, the Nazis were not regarded as “true believers”. Rather, they wanted to use the power of the Ark for evil. If the Wrath of God buried Tanis because the Pharoh stole it, then why wouldn’t the Ark destroy the Nazis for misusing it?

    If the Ark contains the power of God, then its power would be eternal, right? The Hebrews were the owners. Everyone else who tried to claim it got wiped out.

  • KingofPain

    Oh, and God wasn’t pissed at Jones because his intentions were not evil, and he was not an enemy of the Jews.

  • Travis McClain

    Just to clarify, I never construed the Nazis as “true believers.” I made the distinction that the Ark wiped them out, but that true believers were spared by closing their eyes. I understand the nature of the Ark, as described in Scripture, and the significance to the Hebrews, etc.

    But ask yourself this: Why did the Ark wait until that moment to stop the Nazis? Why would it allow itself to be retrieved at all, or taken by Indy at the end of the movie? And if the Ark were really retrieved, could you imagine it being sequestered off in a warehouse? At a time when the entire world was fighting the war to end all wars–over anti-Semitism, no less–surely making a big deal out of finding proof of God’s covenant with the Hebrews would have been a major boon to the war effort, no?

    All these questions are raised by the mere existence of the Ark being depicted in the film, and become even more troublesome to reconcile once it’s shown as an active force, capable of melting people. This is what never sat right with me about the end of the movie. It treats the Ark as an all-powerful MacGuffin for most of the movie, and then it’s all of a sudden a perfectly docile box again, waiting to be carted off to storage. It just doesn’t work for me.

  • http://www.flickchart.com Nathan Chase

    Nice discussion here, folks!

  • KingofPain

    Ahhh, at first your wording looks like you meant the Nazis. I never thought of Jones as a “true believer”, because he doesn’t believe in the supernatural (until the end). Belloq and the Nazis did believe in the Ark, but their motives were villainous.

    Actually, Raiders takes place in 1936, before the world was involved in any war (the US didn’t even get involved for 5 more years). The anti-Semitism issue wasn’t widely known to most of the world.

    Maybe after wiping out the Nazis (who were seriously asking for it by performing the ritual), God wasn’t interested in any more vulgar displays of power. If you leave the Ark alone, it won’t kill you.

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