Movie Review | Raiders of the Lost Ark
Movie summary: In 1936, archaeologist and adventurer Indiana Jones is hired by the U.S. government to find the Ark of the Covenant before Adolf Hitler's Nazis can obtain its awesome powers. (IMDb)
It's strange to think that this movie is barely any younger than I am, as I think I keep getting Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Last Crusade mixed up together in my head and that Indy only made his debut in 1989. I probably didn't see this movie until just before Last Crusade came out either, which really doesn't help keeping the two straight.
I want to start off by saying that I do feel the work on Indiana Jones by John Williams is also his best. I imagine most would go for Star Wars thanks to how many movies there have been, especially in the last few years, but a lot of the same themes carry across many of the movies. I think the music here being for a single character rather than a series featuring multiple leads makes things a little more personal, connecting the music to the character.
And, watching Raiders of the Lost Ark again for this review, how this movie starts is just incredible and the score is a large part of that. I know I reviewed Temple of Doom first - as it is set before this movie - but the introduction you get even before Indy's face is revealed as Harrison Ford steps out of the shadows lets you know just how fantastic a ride you're in for.
As for the rest of the opening? Iconic is a word that is used with a little more regularity than it should be when talking about movies, but this entire sequence with the idol in the image above and the giant rolling boulder as Indy escapes will be familiar to most people through pop cultural osmosis, even if they haven't seen the movie. That's iconic.
I will just insert a note here to say that this review may be structured a little strangely from here on out, as I noted down things I wanted to mention while watching it and want to talk about them in the order they occurred to me - so this isn't going to be the most flowing piece of writing you'll ever see and I'll admit that right now.
The reason I say that is the first thing that stood out was thinking about how audiences might perceive a student flirting with a teacher and said teacher (being Indy) reacting in an almost flattered manner. This wouldn't have been appropriate behaviour when the movie was released in the Eighties either, but absolutely stands out now as something that would get talked about a lot.
It also gets even worse with Marion Ravenwood after she is introduced in her Nepal bar. The backstory of what happened between them is out there for you to google and is more than a little icky. When Marion rightfully blasts Indy for his taking advantage of her when she was a child, she wasn't being metaphorical about her age - Indy isn't quite the clean cut hero you'd want to idolise.
The next point is that Indy in this movie is effectively acting as an agent for the US government, hired as he is to retrieve the Ark of the Covenant and prevent it from falling into the hands of the Nazis. There's nothing really personal to send Indy on this particular adventure, it's just a job/mission that he seems happy to do - he just happens to know people who might be involved in it.
For a character that is usually seen as a bit of a lone wolf, it was just a gentle reminder to me that - as noted above - Indy isn't a hero who always does the right thing. He's certainly not a villain and neither would I really think of him as an antihero, but he is looking to locate an artefact and, rather than return it to the people whose culture it belongs to, take it back to the US so they can keep it for their own purposes.
This does set up a globe-spanning adventure though, and it's nice to see a story not entirely set in a single location. It was also a pretty neat realisation about how little time is spent in America, with only two small sequences spent there. To be fair, the United States of America as a country is very young and without ancient history of its own, so would've had to rely on Native American mythology to stay in the same country. Which actually sounds like a pretty cool idea now that I think about it...
Most of the action takes place in Egypt after the trip to Nepal bringing Indy and Marion together, with the finale set on what looks like the island of Naxos in the Aegean (according to the in-movie map we see anyway). There's no desire to move things to a more urban setting, which is a decision I think a studio would impose on any similar movie today.
As for Marion, she feels like a contradiction in a lot of ways. She's introduced as tough, knows what she's talking about and doesn't take any bull from anyone. While she does retain these attributes at a surface level, that's all they are. More than once she tries to help out, something goes wrong and then she has to scream for Indy to save her.
I really like Karen Allen in the role, and the times Marion is treated as an equal are the highlights for her - it's just a shame her character doesn't stay as strong throughout the film as when first introduced. It would've been interesting to see Indy having to deal with a woman who is just as competent as him, and possibly even more aggressive.
Saying that, I will say that Marion at least feels like a good person throughout, even if her need for Indy to save her leads to some more dubious behaviour from him. Everyone knows about Indy just shooting the swordsman rather than fighting him, right? And that it was because Harrison Ford was ill and wouldn't have been able to handle a day shooting a full-blown action scene?
This time, that scene reminded me of the second Uncharted game, where the villain points out just how many people Nathan Drake has killed up to that point and that he's hardly a good man if he can blindly gun down so many people and feel no remorse over it. At least Drake had the excuse of being actively attacked and having to kill them to defend himself.
Indy has no such excuse. There's a fair distance between them that the swordsman would need to cross and they are surrounded by a large crowd. Indy could easily duck into the crowd with a substantial lead and lose the guy, but instead chooses to just murder him in cold blood. Again, I know the real life reason why they had to do the scene this way, but it does make Indy look even less like a hero.
It doesn't help that shortly after, he's presented with the chance to kill one of the villains and is scolded for even thinking about it, being told that it was no place for a murder. He clearly hadn't been told about what Indy did only shortly before or he might've been forced to reconsider that opinion - if Indiana Jones wants you out of the way, he'll happily shoot you!
Said villain is Belloq, played by Paul Freeman, and is presented as what even he considers to be Indy's shadowy reflection - and that it would take just a nudge for Indy to turn out just like him (a killer joke, right?). I'm not going to discuss whether I believe that to be true, but it's strange that so many superhero movies get criticised for having villains that are little more than the hero as a bad guy.
Then again, I think that the villains here are very much in line with a number of modern superhero movies - more memorable for how the hero reacts to them than being anything special in their own right. As stated above, Belloq flat out claims to be 'dark Indy', Toht (Ronald Lacey) is remembered for always dressing in black and having a fancy coat hanger, while Dietrich (Wolf Kahler) is generic Nazi #LV428.
Outside of Indiana Jones fans, would anyone even remember the names of the latter two? Much like superhero movies, it doesn't really matter in the end. You're there to watch Indy and enjoying how he deals with them, not explore them in any great depth as if they were eternal arch-nemeses. I just think it's interesting how some critics can criticise modern movies for flaws present in past 'classics'.
To be fair, it's not just critics. I think if this movie were released today, there would be a large number of people who would dislike it for what they consider to be 'Marvel humour' - because Marvel Studios obviously invented snarking heroes or action movies that contain both serious scenes that are intended to be taken seriously in addition to lighter, more comedic moments.
I should say here that this isn't me criticising Raiders of the Lost Ark for these things, just as I wouldn't criticise modern movies for them either. I just think that there are a lot of critics and more amateur film snobs who are upset that comic book characters are dominating the big screen right now and are perfectly happy being obvious hypocrites just so they can attack what they don't like.
The biggest criticism I would have is that I think the ending is lacking a certain something thanks to Indy having nothing to do with defeating the villains. I'm not going to spoil the movie - even if it is almost forty(!) years old - but they do end up taking care of themselves, leaving Indy and Marion to walk away without any effort on their part.
It's absolutely not a bad ending though, proving highly satisfying to see Nazis being horrifically destroyed by a power they should never have messed with in the first place. Indy never has the intention of returning the Ark to who it belongs, but he at least has a respect for the power of the artefact and has no desire to use it for bad (remarkably, the US government seems to feel the same way in the end).
Raiders of the Lost Ark is still an unquestionably great movie that is an absolute blast from start to finish, with one of the all-time great blockbuster performances from Harrison Ford as the title character. It does have some minor issues that prevent it from being an all-time great, but I doubt anyone will care as they'll probably be having far too much fun.