Let’s Talk About… ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’ (1981)

Film #21 in FilmExodus’ AFI 100 Movies

Every week FilmExodus does a review/analysis of a different cinematic masterpiece from AFI’s 100 Movies 2007 updated list. For a complete overview and how you can participate, click here.

Indiana Jones. Say that name to anyone and they’ll immediately know who you’re talking about. It’s an instantly recognizable name, and it’s not even in the title of the film. Sure, it’s been retroactively added to later home media releases, just like Star Wars is now technically Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope. Personally, Raiders of the Lost Ark works brilliantly. It’s a nice homage to the style of film George Lucas and Steven Spielberg were hoping to create, i.e., their own James Bond.

What Indy Means to Me

Confession time. While I’ve seen all four Indiana Jones films countless times until a few days ago I had never seen Raiders of the Lost Ark in one full sitting. I had only seen pieces on TV over the years, and from there pieced them together. The only Indy film I had seen in whole was Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, in theaters, when I was a young lad. It’s probably one of my better film memories. I don’t remember any of the movie-going experience, but I think we were going to go, and then I did something stupid (code for made my parents mad) and they called it off. The next day I was mowing the yard, and I stayed out there and mowed until it was all done, skipping supper. My parents were so impressed they said I could get whatever I wanted. A new LEGO set was one of the options, as well as seeing Indy 4. Now, I’m a huge LEGO fan, but Indy 4 seemed like the movie of the summer. It’s been almost ten years since that day, yet I still remember it. It doesn’t matter what age you are, Indiana Jones is timeless.

Background on Raiders

The idea for what would later become Raiders of the Lost Ark started in 1973 when Lucas wrote The Adventures of Indiana Smith. However, it wasn’t until years later, after Star Wars opened, that Indiana Jones started to come together. Here’s an excerpt from a 2008 Vanity Fair interview with Steven Spielberg:

He had called me up and he said, “Do you want to come to Hawaii? I need to get away for the opening of Star Wars. Do you want to join me?” So I got on a plane, and joined him and his wife, and we were in Hawaii, and we were just waiting for the grosses. Waiting for the morning shows to be reported, because I think the movie opened at 10 o’clock in certain theaters. We got word about three in the afternoon or so, or four in the afternoon. The sun was still up. I remember George got word that all the 10-o’clock-in-the-morning shows had sold out all across the country. And at that point George was the most giddy I had ever seen him in all the years prior to that that I had ever seen him. He was just beside himself, with relief more than anything else. He had been inward for a long time, waiting for those numbers, and then he turned to me, he said, “So what are you going to do next?” And I told him that I wanted to, for the second time, approach [film producer] Cubby Broccoli, who had turned me down the first time, to see if he would change his mind and hire me to do a James Bond movie. And George said, “I’ve got something better than that. It’s called Raiders of the Lost Ark.” He pitched me the story, and I committed on the beach. We started a tradition of building lucky sandcastles. So we used to build sandcastles in Hawaii, and if the sandcastle withstood the first high tide, the film was a hit. If the high tide overran the sandcastle, we were going to have to struggle to make our money back. That was our superstition and that was our tradition.

The Set Pieces

Raiders of the Lost Ark does not play like a regular blockbuster. When I watched it, it felt like I was watching something I’ve never seen before (despite the fact I had seen it before in this very film in previous watches). Raiders fills you with a sense of excitement and wonder with every watch, and I’d like to think that the key to that may be in its set pieces. This film doesn’t shy away from delivering some awesome and beautiful action. In fact, there’s so much that it’s really hard to pick a favorite. There’s the final airport battle with the brut mechanic, or Indy running from the boulder at the beginning, to even smaller stuff like Indy shooting the man with the huge sword. Everyone has their favorite scene, and these are just some of mine. (I’m also quite fond of Marion being able to drink everyone under the table.) But in my opinion, what really sets these scenes apart from modern action is their reliance on practical effects. More on that next.

Shooting on Location/Practical Effects

There’s a constant debate over practical effects and green screen/CGI and which one looks more realistic. Raiders almost thrives on the fact that I can watch this and know that they were actually there (or somewhere made up to look like it). Digging around in the sand, or a chase through the maze like streets of a busy downtown Cairo, the sets in Raiders are lifelike adding into this sense of wonder we feel when watching. I’m sure green screen could have achieved the same feel, but I think the audience feels a bit more when they know that what they’re watching on screen is real. Plus, that face melting scene is so damn authentic and bad ass, the fact this was achievable in 1981 blows my mind! It’s so great that I will accept the horrible fire lightning that accompanies the scene.

The Series’ Mainstays

You sit down to watch an Indiana Jones film knowing two things will come across your screen at one point: 1) The use of shadows, either casting the silhouette of Jones against a background, or something similar; and, 2) the “airplane map,” also known as the sweet map that shows where Indy is traveling to next. In the case of the map, it tells the audience where the next part of the film takes place without Indiana having to say, “Off to so-and-so we go!”

It’s with the shadows, however, that truly do some amazing work. Seriously, I had a hard time deciding which images to choose since there were so many. The image above of Marion seeing the silhouette of Jones does its work for it. Instantly, Marion knows who’s walking through her door before she turns around. The use of shadows not only can move the story forward, but just be damn nice to look at. Sallah and Indy lifting and moving the Ark and the light casting their shadow on the wall is a perfect example of this, as is the header image for this post. Simply gorgeous.

Final Thoughts

I didn’t bother going to much into the storyline of the film, because let’s face it, everyone knows Raiders. Instead, I thought I’d share with you some knowledge I unearthed doing some light research into the film, as well as why I think Raiders continues to hold up. There truly is no better action hero than Indiana Jones in my opinion. He is almost the everyman, and by that I mean that we could all see ourselves take his place. Underneath that facade he really is just a history professor with a knack for hunting down priceless artifacts. If we got trained in firearms and whips, and decked ourselves out in a fedora and jacket, heck, we’d be half way there.

Fun Facts/Trivia

  • The film was nominated for 9 Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Director, winning 5 for Best Art Direction, Best Film Editing, Best Sound, Best Sound Effects Editing, and Best Visual Effects. All well-deserved.
  • This is actor Alfred Molina’s film debut.
  • Indiana Jones doesn’t speak on screen until four minutes in.
  • George Lucas initially opposed Spielberg’s suggestion of Harrison Ford as Jones, as he didn’t want Ford to become his “Bobby De Niro” or “that guy I put in all my movies,” a reference to Martin Scorsese’s frequent collaboration with Robert De Niro.
  • The film ranked #2 in Empire’s 2008 list of the 500 Greatest Movies, as opposed to AFI 100’s 2007 list ranking it at #66.
  • The scene where Indy threatens to blow up the Ark with a bazooka was filmed in the same canyon in Tunisia that Star Wars used when R2-D2 was kidnapped by Jawas.
  • The line “It’s not the years, honey, it’s the mileage” was ad-libbed by Ford.
  • Roger Ebert gave the film four stars in his review.