Taken For Granted – Raiders of the Lost Ark
So I know this is the movie’s section, but I’ll be honest. It’s hard for me to think about much beyond Undertaker’s retirement. I’m sort of past the point of really caring about WWE, but my love for the Deadman transcends that. I remember being a little kid and being enthralled with his entrance, how he walked the ropes and the devastating Tombstone finisher. And while growing older and smarter means that I’ve enjoyed wrestling for a lot of other reasons… man, that character always made me feel like a kid again. I feel like “real life superheros” are a thing of the past in WWE, and Taker is the last bit of that. In a strange way, it’s one of those things that makes me confront my mortality a little.
So, trying to get that out of my head and focus on movies for a bit? It’s a little difficult. But what better way to recover from the departure of one of my wrestling heroes than to talk about one of my
Welcome to Taken For Granted; a column where I analyze films that are almost universally considered classics. Why? Because great movies don’t just happen by accident. They connect with initial audiences and they endure for a reason. This column is designed to keep meaningful conversation about these films alive.
Raiders of the Lost Ark
Wide Release Date: June 12, 1989
Directed By: Steven Spielberg
Written By: Lawrence Kasdan
Produced By: Frank Marshall
Cinematography By: Douglas Slocombe
Edited By: Michael Kahn
Music By: John Williams
Production Company: Lucasfilm Ltd.
Distributed By: Paramount Pictures
Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones
Karen Allen as Marion Ravenwood
Paul Freeman as Dr. René Belloq
John Rhys-Davies as Sallah
Ronald Lacey as Major Arnold Toht
Denholm Elliott as Dr. Marcus Brody
What Do We All Know?
Created by George Lucas, directed by Steven Spielberg and starring Harrison Ford, the Indiana Jones franchise is one of the biggest pop culture institutions in film history. Indiana Jones is iconic, from Ford’s charismatic performance, his job as adventuring archeologist, to his hat, jacket and bullwhip, people know Indiana Jones even if they haven’t seen his movies. It isn’t quite Star Wars in terms of pop culture ubiquity, but it’s damn close.
As for my opinion? It varies film to film, although Indiana Jones is always cool and Harrison Ford is one of the coolest movie stars of all time. Temple of Doom is creative and ambitious but not a great film. The Last Crusade is great, especially the dynamic between Indy and his father. Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is… not totally bad, but not anywhere near good. But Raiders of the Lost Ark is probably in my ten personal favorite films of all time. I consider it the greatest action movie ever made, and I watch it at least once a year, and often twice. Can I possibly review it with some semblance of objectivism? Probably not, but we’ll give it a college try.
What Went Right?
George Lucas receives a lot of criticism from people these days, much of it deserved in my opinion. But the man had three really good ideas, and Indiana Jones is one of them. Inspired by the adventure serials that Lucas and Spielberg loved, Indy is iconic by design. He’s everything men want to be; he’s tough, he’s smart, he has a cool job that pays well, he’s sexy, he can get away with punching and shooting people. He’s James Bond, but rugged and scruffy and just vulnerable enough to get his ass kicked before he makes a heroic comeback. Much of that is Harrison Ford’s natural charisma and mannerisms, but like Mark Calloway and the Undertaker, the man and the character were made for each other.
What makes Raiders of the Lost Ark stand tall as the best action film? A lot of it is pacing; there is almost always something exciting going on. There’s a lot of action and it’s all good. Spielberg knows how to direct action scenes, and in era where practical effects were a necessity, there’s no CGI cheating. Harrison Ford does many of his own stunts, but the rest of the stunt team is also great. The opening with the South American Temple is one of the greatest scenes ever, with its traps and the giant boulder. The car chase scene in Egypt where Indy slides under a car (a tribute to John Ford’s Stagecoach) is one of the most suspenseful and thrilling action scenes ever. And it’s all helped by one of John Williams’ best scores.
I also want to give credit to the supporting cast. Karen Allen as Marion Ravenwood is a fun character, and the banter and romance between her and Indy feels natural and doesn’t interrupt the flow. I don’t know if she’s better than Elsa, but she’s worlds better than Willie. John Rhys-Davies is also great as Sallah, providing a lot of warmth and humor to his relationship with Indy. Belloq and Toht are my favorite Indy villains, being memorable without going into Mola Ram’s cartoon villain territory.
The film also benefits from having a well chosen McGuffin. The Ark of the Covenant is a major part of Judeo-Christian beliefs, but not something that everyone is going to be super familiar with. The finale is a great payoff of the Ark’s reputation. It also sets the template of the cynical, scientific Indy encountering supernatural artifacts that challenge his beliefs and force him to take a leap of faith. It isn’t as explicit as The Last Crusade, but it’s there. Whether you’re a history buff or someone who loves a bit of theology in your films, Raiders delivers the goods.
What Went Wrong?
As long as you know what you’re getting into, there isn’t a lot wrong with Raiders. Some of the effects don’t hold up, but they are memorable. Some of the lines aren’t great, but this is a film that speaks with actions, not words. While parts of Marion and Indy’s romance might come across as skeevy if you’re paying attention, I don’t think it derails it, especially since Marion clearly calls her own shots. And while some of the sequels don’t hold up, they don’t detract from Raiders.
What Went Really Right?
In a vacuum, Raiders of the Lost Ark is a thrill ride, moving faster and executed more expertly than most action movies. It has all the ingredients for a great blockbuster, and is practically the benchmark for the genre. But the real impact? Spielberg and Lucas took the action adventure movie genre to unprecedented heights. While Westerns, Star Wars, revenge thrillers and James Bond films would have action climaxes, Raiders had a climax worthy action scene every fifteen minutes.
Spielberg (and Lucas, to be fair) elevated the “low art” genres of action and sci-fi with massive budgets, amazing stunt work, and masterful editing and cinematography. It helped turn low art into high art, and has paved the way for everything from Mad Max and T2: Judgement Day to the Lord of the Rings movies. When it comes to action films, there is everything before Raiders, and everything after Raiders.
Like This Column?
Check out previous editions!
Back to the Future
King Kong (1933)
Beauty and the Beast (1991)
The Dark Crystal
The Manchurian Candidate (1962)
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I log reviews for every film I see, when I see them. You can see my main page here. Recent reviews include the original Ghost in the Shell, An American Tail, and Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind.