Raiders Of The Lost Ark is just as much ridiculous as it is magnificent. It has non-stop action from a hero who simply doesn’t give up, and doesn’t die. It has wit and punchy humour. It has wonderful characters who are deeper than they seem. It has a wealth of different locations, each rich in detail and atmosphere. It takes us on a journey through rain forests, caves, deserts, valleys, urban towns, the ocean. By the time the movie ends, we’re surprised that we’re not as sweaty and as sticky as Indy is.
Initially, I hadn’t thought of including this movie in my Great Films collection. I always felt that The Last Crusade eclipses it. But after watching it again recently, I am convinced that it is every bit as good as its second successor. This is pure, in-your-face adventure. It is innocent and exciting, and it’s the introduction to a character who is as memorable as Darth Vader, albeit less mechanical.
Indiana Jones is, by all accounts, an amazing hero. He’s almost a superhero, complete with an alter ego. By day, he’s a much-loved professor of archaeology at a university (its name is unknown to us), and the rest of his time he spends hunting valuable archaic artifacts, usually with the intention of immortalizing them in a museum somewhere. These two personas are so similar, yet so different, that we can’t help compare them to, and against, each other. One’s a humble teacher, clean-cut, dry, and well dressed. The other is an audacious whip-lashing son of a gun, sweaty, rugged, and adventurous. There are only two things they have in common: 1) The iconic fedora, and 2) An unyielding, ever-enthusiastic passion for archaeology.
Consider the scene in which Indy (Harrison Ford) explains the Ark of the Covenant to two airheaded American agents. They have come to him for help, yet they have no idea what to say, when to say it, or what any of Indy’s explanations mean. They are there simply to recruit his services, nothing more. They couldn’t care less about what the Ark is, or what it contains — “Didn’t you go to Sunday School?”. Despite this, Indy is exuberant. Ford plays the role as if he has been studying it his whole life. With every gesture he makes, and with every word he utters, we can feel his passion. He is excited about the littlest things, and he speaks of myth and legend as if he knows for a fact that they happened. He is so quick in his thoughts that the two agents seem to have left their brains behind.
But Ford is just one aspect of the movie that works well. Steven Spielberg, through all his ups and downs as a quality filmmaker, knows precisely how to construct good action and timely comedy. Not many of his films have this blend. His 1993 classic, Schindler’s List, also about Nazis, is entirely sombre and melancholy in tone. It’s a movie made by a mature adult, weary of the world that has formed him, and at the same time, bold to tackle a topic so close to his heart. It may have good action and timely comedy too, but its subject matter is so grim that neither is remembered. Raiders, in comparison, seems to have been made by a man who is still in his childhood. It is dark, yes — it deals with the supernatural — but it is perfectly balanced by Indy’s sense of humour and outrageous action set pieces.
Among the latter are the now famous “giant tumbling ball” scene and the chase through the desert, which sees Indy fighting for control of a German truck — containing the Ark — before using it to ram the car in front, filled with Nazi officers and Indy’s equally passionate, but warped rival, Belloq (Paul Freeman). This is an exhilarating scene. Indy, injured from a gunshot wound to his arm, battles the driver of the truck, gets thrown out the front window, grabs on for dear life to the engine grate while his feet skid across the desert sand, slides under the speeding truck by grabbing onto the under carriage, comes out the back end, climbs back up the truck through the cargo hold, comes round to the front, swings in through the side window, and kicks the driver off his seat. Name me one other character who can pull all this off and still come out the victor.
The movie’s plot revolves around a race, a race between good and bad to uncover the truths about the Biblical Ark of the Covenant, the very Ark that is said to house the actual Ten Commandments passed down to Moses from God. We have Indy and Belloq. Indy wants the security of the Ark, the chance to study it. Belloq wants it because it’s in his nature as an archaeologist to want it. He’s a Frenchman working for the Nazis, and the Ark will ultimately go to Hitler — “An army which carries the Ark before it is invincible”. It’s interesting, then, that Hitler wants to use a Jewish artifact against the Jews. Although, seeing as how Raiders takes place in the mid-to-late ’30s, the war against the Jews might not have started proper yet.
But the movie’s adrenaline-pumping pace takes precedence over Spielberg’s and Kasdan’s political agendas. The story about the Nazis is secondary. They are the cornerstone of the plot, yes, but we are not so concerned about them. To us, they exist as the enemy, and nothing more. What is more immediate to us is how Spielberg and Kasdan — Kasdan more particularly — builds crisis upon crisis, and there is hardly ever a chance for us to catch our breaths. I’ve mentioned a couple of the heart pumping scenes, but there is action even when the action seems to have halted. After leaping over chasms, dodging deadly booby trap darts, running from a giant boulder that looks like Sonic The Hedgehog’s cousin on roids, and escaping the onslaught of an angry tribe, Indy finds a snake in the seat of his escape plane. “I hate snakes, Jacques! I hate ’em!”. The action never ends.
Raiders of The Lost Ark is great because it successfully combines such adventure with science and belief. Indy is a man who believes in science. He has no faith in religious “hocus pocus”. He accepts what he sees and yearns to discover the truth behind what he accepts. The Ark, on the other hand, is all about belief. It’s a relic of religion, and it directly contradicts Indy’s approach to life. He sees it as an object, no doubt an object of immense untold power, but an object nonetheless. The movie’s climactic scene fuses science and belief together, and it’s a fusion that Spielberg explores deeper in The Last Crusade. This constant fight between truth in evidence and truth in faith gives the movie depth and weight, and along the way, there is tonnes of action.