There’s basically nothing I can say about ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’ that you don’t already know. You’ve probably seen it countless times, can quote entire sections from memory, can hum the theme at a moments notice. ‘Raiders’ is just one of those films, so perfect in execution and lasting in its impression that anyone who watches it walks away with every glorious image burnt into their memory. It’s hard to believe that the film is now 35 years old, mostly because it still feels so fresh and immediate.
The first collaboration between director Steven Spielberg and producer George Lucas, ‘Raiders’ launched a new icon into the cinematic landscape, the dashing archaeologist Indiana Jones, fitted out with sable fedora, leather jacket and whip. His silhouette is instantly recognisable, his manner a beautiful mix of charming, caddish and confused. The success of ‘Raiders’ launched the sprawling Indiana Jones franchise, which not only includes three successive films but its own television series. However, even though his later adventures were certainly bigger and more ambitious, I’d argue that ‘Raiders’ is still the finest of the Indiana Jones films by a mile. Where the others opened their scope both dramatically and thematically, there’s a purity to ‘Raiders’ that still makes it one of the most captivating experiences in the history of cinema.
While producer George Lucas wasn’t in need of a major hit back in 1981 - still riding on the enormous critical and commercial success of the Star Wars franchise - Steven Spielberg certainly did. He had instantly established himself as a major cinematic force with early masterpieces ‘Jaws’ (1975) and ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’ (1977), but his most recent film ‘1941’ (1979) had been an unexpected disaster. The WWII comedy had gone widely over budget and over schedule, but while ‘Jaws’ and ‘Close Encounters’ had done the same, their success had cushioned that. ‘1941’ had been a critical and commercial flop, the first in Spielberg’s career, and the director was in desperate need of something to help him recover. In many ways, some of the seeds of ‘Raiders’ can be seen in ‘1941’. There is a similar visual and rhythmic style to the two films, though the latter benefits from the former’s mistakes and perfects them. Whatever it was that Spielberg was trying to achieve in ‘1941’, it could be argued he achieves tenfold in ‘Raiders’.
The central idea is superbly simple, and the chief reason why I think ‘Raiders’ is the finest of the four films. We are introduced to Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) in action, without backstory or context. We see him in the field, cheating booby-traps and dodging boulders. Without having to utter a word, we get the measure of this man - he’s brave, adventurous and perfectly aware of his mortality. In no time, we’re launched into the main adventure, the hunt for the narrative MacGuffin, the Ark of the Covenant, with the Nazis close behind. The genius of Lawrence Kasdan’s screenplay is in its simplicity; that’s all ‘Raiders’ is, a rollicking adventure about an international treasure hunt. We don’t need to know anything else about Jones because none of that is important to the narrative. What we discover later in ‘Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade’ (1989) certainly makes the inner landscape of Jones more complex, but the drama at times detracts from the action in a way that never hinders ‘Raiders’, and the film doesn’t suffer without the extra character detail. It’s clear, crisp and direct, a perfect framework for an action-adventure film.
The real magic of ‘Raiders’ comes from its characters. Jones is the kind of character that comes along rarely, like a Sherlock Holmes or a James Bond, one that instantly plants themselves into the public consciousness and becomes an icon. Much of what makes him work so well can be found in Kasdan’s screenplay, but the bulk of his success comes down to Harrison Ford. Han Solo might be dashing as hell and Robert Deckard might be the perfect anti-hero, but none of his many classic characters are as memorable or as intoxicating as Jones. His performance is a perfect balance of physical charisma and bumbling intelligence - in fact, one of the things I love most about Jones is his vulnerability. He might be happy to get in a fist fight with a burly man next to a spinning propellor or get dragged behind a speeding truck, but put him anywhere near a snake and he’s reduced to a childish mess. He’s not a superhero or unflappable, but wonderfully human, and that makes him all the more appealing and attractive.
Jones isn’t the only kick-ass character in ‘Raiders’ though, and without the supporting cast, the film simply wouldn’t work. Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen) is far from the damsel-in-distress, a woman just as capable and even more wily than Jones. Rather than being his vapid love interest, Marion is Indiana’s equal. “I’m your goddamn partner,” she announces after her spectacular introduction, and there’s no question of that at any step of the way. Unlike many of its contemporary franchises, the Indiana Jones films hit a home run by making its female protagonist just as heroic as its male one. The other characters are equally as sublime - Doctor René Belloq (Paul Freeman) is a scintillating villain, deliciously self-interested and double-crossing; Sallah (Jonathan Rhys-Davies) is a joyous sidekick, straight-talking and loyal to a fault; and Major Arnold Toht (Ronald Lacey) makes for a frightening mastermind, a ruthless Nazi determined to destroy anything in his path for the Ark. There’s not a single weak point in this ensemble, neither the characters nor the actors portraying them. It might be one of the finest casts ever assembled on film.
‘Raiders’ is a perfect film, impeccable in its craft and bottomless in its entertainment.
With ‘Raiders’, Spielberg challenged himself to make a film on budget and on schedule, both of which he achieved. Robbed of the ability to indulge, his approach to the film is fast and instinctual, even to the point where he left some of the action set pieces without storyboards so he could wing it on the day. This gives ‘Raiders’ a unique immediacy and energy - the filmmaking is deceptively simple, but its simplicity is what makes it a work of genius. It’s clear that the work of the camera is to capture rather than indulge, but in the hands of Spielberg and cinematographer Douglas Slocombe, it still manages to look ravishing, revelling in the aesthetic of the 1930s adventure serials that inspired it. The symphony of the film is further lifted by John Williams’ iconic score, yet another legendary theme from perhaps the greatest composer in the history of the medium. Not even clocking in at two hours, ‘Raiders’ is fast, furious and explosive, never stopping to breathe, rolling from one breathtaking action set piece to the next, always with its tongue firmly in its cheek. Of course Spielberg had proved he was one of the greatest filmmakers in the world already, but ‘Raiders’ cemented it. Even with a sublime screenplay and remarkable cast, ‘Raiders’ simply wouldn’t have succeeded without him.
‘Temple of Doom’ (1984) and ‘Last Crusade’ would open up the emotional and narrative landscape of the series, but that furious simplicity would be lost. They’re both great films (even ‘Temple of Doom’, which I’ve always had a soft spot for), and neither loses out on great characters or direction, but they became over-complicated and bloated. ‘Kingdom of the Crystal Skull’ (2008) was a well-meaning attempt to give the franchise new life, moving the 30s adventure style into 50s sci-fi Cold War pulp, but the joke seemed to have past. Perhaps what works against all of them is the familiarity and comfort with the character and the form. What makes ‘Raiders’ so pure is its ignorance - there’s no suffering by association or complacency from familiarity. It only does what is absolutely necessary, making for a surprisingly lean and intensely entertaining film. Where the others overstay their welcome, ‘Raiders’ always seems to be over in a flash.
In 1981, ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’ was nominated for Best Picture and Best Director. Most people wouldn’t be aware of this, but it only goes to show the enormous impact the film had on critics and audiences when it was released. Even though it harkened back to the past, there really had never been anything quite like it. ‘Raiders’ is a perfect film, impeccable in its craft and bottomless in its entertainment. We remember it mostly for introducing one of the great icons of cinema, but as a film on its own, it still leaves you breathless 35 years on. Spielberg would eventually top it with an even greater action-adventure film, ‘Jurassic Park’ (1993), but only just. ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’ is a spectacular film in every way, timeless and classic, and one of the great masterpieces of American cinema. Another 35 years from now, we’ll still be utterly enthralled by it.