Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) is a personal favorite – easily one of my top ten favorite films of all time. It’s something that I like watching every now and then to get that “feel good” vibe after a bad week or a sick day. It’s wish fulfillment at its best, not to mention that it’s a film that’s had a significant cultural impact on society and a significant aesthetic impact on the action-adventure genre as a whole.
The film was written by Star Wars director George Lucas and was directed by Jaws director Steven Spielberg – two friends who have constantly helped each other through their rise in Hollywood and beyond. It stars Harrison Ford (Star Wars, Blade Runner) in the iconic role of Indiana Jones, Karen Allen (Animal House, Scrooged) in the role of Indy’s love interest, Marion Ravenwood, and Paul Freeman (Yesterday’s Dreams, Hot Fuzz) as Dr. Rene Belloq, Indy’s rival.
In 1936, an adventurous archaeology professor is tasked by the U.S. Army Intelligence to seek out his estranged mentor and a mysterious Egyptian amulet that could very well lead to the long-lost Ark of the Covenant, an artifact that the Nazis also seek to use as a weapon. Unbeknownst to Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford), however, his mentor is already long dead and the amulet that he needs is in Tibet with Marion Ravenwood (Karen Ravenwood), his mentor’s daughter and Indy’s spiteful ex-flame. Together they jump head first into an adventure that takes them to Cairo to seek out the biblical artifact that holds the power of God.
No one and I mean no one could have made a better Dr. Jones than Harrison Ford himself. Fresh off his role as Han Solo in Empire Strikes Back (1980), Ford wasn’t supposed to take on the role of the iconic archaeologist because George Lucas didn’t want Ford to be his “Bobby de Niro”, so to speak – that guy who’s in all his films. But Spielberg convinced him otherwise and thank God for that.
For Indy, Ford channels the same charm and swagger that he brought to his stint as Han Solo. It’s a characterization that the actor clearly does flawlessly and is undoubtedly comfortable with. It’s something that’s shown most definitively during the iconic opening sequence of the film, where we see an Indiana Jones who’s cool and calculating. He barely says anything but his expert maneuvering through the traps shows just what kind of person he is.
But then, in a later scene, we see Ford pull off a different kind of Indiana Jones – a soft-spoken, stuttering professor who struggles to keep his thoughts together in front of his class. It’s a performance that neither Ford nor the character is known for, but it’s still neat to see a clear difference between the adventurer and the academic.
Karen Allen brings a fierce, alluring presence to her role as the strong-willed spitfire that is Marion Ravenwood. She convincingly portrays a tough, no-nonsense woman who could drink men under the table and throw a mean right hook. And it’s that impressive portrayal that makes me feel like it was a shame to have her character end up as a damsel-in-distress for most of the movie. Marion definitely tries to find a way out of situations on her own, but in spite of her resilience and fearlessness, she ain’t got much against gun-toting Nazis.
Raiders of the Lost Ark, from start to finish, is an action-adventure classic that knows what it wants to be and doesn’t try to be anything else or anything more than it is. From a resourceful hero struggling against impossible odds to frantic chases and daring stunts, from exotic locations and lost treasures to a damsel-in-distress, the film takes all the tropes from that cross-genre and just goes with it. It doesn’t try to be smart or overly dramatic because it doesn’t need to be. But that’s what makes this film so damn good.
This is a film that prefers to show rather than tell. Little details that make you go “ohh” with realization take a backseat to the action. It plays off shadows and quick glances to keep the pacing consistent and your attention on the screen. Backstory that’s not completely necessary for the plot merely gets implied rather than told in exposition.
Unlike most pure adventure films, world-building isn’t as necessary when it comes to action-adventure. Saying that “this thing is important”a and showing that “this guy is bad” is more than enough when the film is less about “why this is happening” and more about “what is happening”.
The reason why Raiders of the Lost Ark uses easily-explainable MacGuffins and generic, one-dimensional villains (you can’t get more one-dimensional than film Nazis) is because it doesn’t want you to focus on either one of those things. The film wants you to focus on one thing and one thing only – its hero, Indiana Jones. The film wants you to root for him. It wants you to fear for him. It wants you to want to be Indy, which is the reason why a lot of people love these movies, in my opinion. It’s wish fulfillment. It makes you go “I wanna be that guy!”
The film even goes as far as make the character of Indy flawed in many ways. He fails, he gets bruised, and he makes mistakes – all to the add to the realism of the character, convincing you that you could be an Indiana Jones yourself.
Its masterful use of action-adventure tropes coupled with brilliant directing, excellent pacing, and charismatic acting is what makes Raiders of the Lost Ark an ageless classic. This is the film that introduced us to one of the greatest heroes in cinema and easily one of the most iconic and recognizable.
It’s almost impossible not to be thrilled by the films whip-cracking action and relentless humor. This is a film that may have more style than substance and it may be a little campy at times, but that definitely doesn’t take away from the sheer excitement of getting thrown into one thrill ride to the next with Indiana Jones by your side.