I think I may be approaching the 1001 Movies List (and the other lists I’m going through) from something of a skewed perspective, in that I may be crossing off a few too many of the “better” movies before I get to the ones I’m not looking forward to as much. Bearing in mind yesterday I reviewed Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and today sees me tackling Raiders of the Lost Ark, I need to make sure I don’t eat all of my dessert before getting to the vegetables, as I also recently crossed off Back to the Future, Taxi Driver, RoboCop, To Kill A Mockingbird, Fargo and Boogie Nights as well. That being said, Bueller and Raiders made for a most enjoyable weekend of movie watching, with a little Jurassic Park: The Lost World thrown in for good measure (I’ll be writing something about that for French Toast Sunday this weekend, where we’re celebrating July with a month dedicated to Steven Spielberg, hence the Raiders viewing). Spielberg is one of my favourite directors, which shouldn’t be too much of a surprise considering he’s the guy behind Jurassic Park, the greatest movie ever made, but now I get the chance to talk about another one of the masterpieces he brought into cinemas.It’s difficult to separate the movie that I remember in my mind with that on the screen in front of me. I’ve seen it so many times I cannot possibly imagine coming to it for the first time and experiencing everything fresh and new. So much of this film has permeated popular culture that I thought it would be impossible for someone to watch it without immediately recognising almost every element. However, it turns out I was incorrect, as my girlfriend had never seen it before. There’s one very major reason for this – like Indy, she’s terrified of snakes, and they feature somewhat heavily here – but I kind of forced her to watch it anyway. Alas, due to other commitments she only saw the second half of the film, but even so she had no knowledge of anything to do with the movie, from the involvement of the maguffin; the sacred Ark of the Covenant, which supposedly was used to store the broken pieces of the 10 Commandments brought down by Moses from Mount Sinai, or the fight around the plane, or even the climactic opening of the Ark. My mind boggles as to how she had arrived at her mid-twenties without ever seeing this image:I think the best way to tackle this review could be scene by scene, so please forgive me if I go on a little longer than usual. You see, I’ve recently been listening to the Star Wars Minute podcast which, if you’re not familiar, sees a couple of guys analysing Star Wars (and subsequently The Empire Strikes Back, with Return of the Jedi planned for 2015) minute by minute, discussing a minute a day and spending about ten to twenty minutes on each. I truly believe that such a project could be undertaken on Raiders of the Lost Ark, as it’s such a rich tapestry of a movie, with so many areas that could be expanded upon. Of course I’d do Jurassic Park Minute first, but you get the idea.As with the other Indiana Jones films, the story opens with a transition from the mountainous Paramount logo to an actual mountain, which Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford), Satipo (Alfred Molina) and a third man are heading towards, because somewhere nearby is a temple, and inside said temple there’s some treasure. This got me thinking; now that Disney has taken over Lucasfilm, and therefore the rights to Indiana Jones, if they were to make a fifth movie (which is not an idea I’m entirely against, as long as they do it properly and jettison most of the elements from the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull), would it begin with a shot of a big castle, as per the Disney logo? I like to think so.
This opening scene could be the most iconic in movie history. It’s a completely cold open, the tail end of a previous adventure that, in the space of a few minutes, features a temple full of booby traps, double crosses, some stellar whip action, gory deaths, the most rousing score ever applied to a movie and, least I forget, a gigantic and entirely implausible perfectly spherical boulder, just waiting to smush anyone attempting to steal the idol it protects. This is a film that doesn’t necessarily stand up to an abundance of criticism when it comes to the realism of its plot, but it makes up for that with its sense of adventure and fun. The greatest element of Raiders of the Lost Ark, and what makes it such a brilliant adventure movie, is that the action never stops. As soon as Jones has escaped the crumbling temple with barely his whip and his hat, he suddenly finds himself being chased through the jungles of Peru by a tribe of bow and spear wielding natives, as he makes his way to a rickety plane with a pilot whose mind doesn’t seem to be entirely on the job. Even once he’s in the plane he’s got to deal with a bloody great snake in the footwell! It’s a genuine relief once we cut to Jones at his day job – a university professor – teaching in the classroom, because it gives us a chance to get our breath back and realise that what we’ve seen is only the beginning, and there’s so much more in store.
The real adventure begins when Indy heads off in search of the headpiece to the Staff of Ra, which, if used correctly, will reveal the location to the Ark. The first step of this journey is to visit Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen), the daughter of Indy’s mentor, and also an old flame, who still bears something of a grudge against Dr. Jones. This scene is masterful in it’s construction, comparable to the infamous conversation scene aboard the Orca in Jaws. Here, it begins with Marion finishing off a drinking match against one of her customers – she owns a bar, you see – but it proceeds into a reunion with Indy – which doesn’t fare well for him – an attack from treasure-seeking Nazis and a full-on brawl, involving gunfire, actual fire and a heck of a lot of destruction. Amongst it all, my favourite element is the initial drinking match, which I’ve only recently discovered is actually one long take, subtly panning from Marion and her customer, but in a manner that isn’t flashy or attention grabbing, but just keeps you fully engaged within the scene without one of those nasty distracting cuts. Also, it should be noted that throughout this entire scene, Marion is wasted. Utterly trollied. She must be, considering the size of the guy she defeated in the game of shots. She even helps herself to a mouthful of liquor spilling from a bullet-ridden barrel when she needs a little top-up of Dutch courage.
Marion is a great addition to the cast of Raiders. In fact, all of the supporting characters are excellent, but Marion stands out by being the only female, and being a particularly strong one at that. For the most part she can hold her own, or is at least integral to any action that breaks out around her, and she proves capable of not only coming up with a plan, but instigating it herself in later scenes. Granted, there is a little damsel-in-distressing to be done later, but to a much lesser degree than would be otherwise expected from a film such as this. The next character we’re introduced to – other than Toht (Ronald Lacey), the menacing Nazi we’ll get to shortly, is Sallah (John Rhys Davies). For many years I knew that Davies played the character of Sallah, and that Gimli from The Lord of the Rings was also played by a man of the same name, but it took far longer than it should have for me to piece these two together. Of all Indy’s many sidekicks throughout the franchise, I think Sallah may be my favourite, with Sean Connery giving him a run for his money come the Last Crusade. Sallah is flamboyant, larger than life and, like everything else in this film, just damn fun. Speaking of which, Marion would also be my favourite love interest in the franchise, but then again she doesn’t have an awful lot of competition, what with one being evil and the other being Willie fucking Scott.
OK, Toht. He doesn’t say much throughout the film, but he’s clearly the most evil person on screen. Belloq (Paul Freeman), a rival archaeologist who isn’t quite as charming as Indiana Jones, is also a bad’un, but he has his redeeming moments with his interactions with Marion, though they always come off as more than a little creepy, and it’s always worht remembering that when it’s suggested they take the Ark straight to Berlin – just before World War 2 – and open it up for Hitler, it is Belloq who is against the idea, so in effect it’s his fault the war went on at all. No, Toht is the one true villain of the movie, which should be pretty clear from his blank, sweaty face, impassive glasses, quiet demeanour and the way he’s perpetually dressed in black leather. I love his entrance into the tent within which Marion and Belloq are having dinner. Everything has been set up as though Marion is to be tortured for information when in walks Toht, who slips a segmented chain out of his pocket that looks like just the sort of thing you’d use to beat some about the face with. In actual fact it’s a travel coat hanger, which he uses to hang up his coat. It’s an inspired bait-and-switch that gets me every time.
Earlier I mentioned that when the action starts in these films, it doesn’t let up. This is doubly true from the moment Indy and Sallah head underground. It’s one long series of set pieces, from the snake pit (twice), escaping the snake pit, the inexplicable skeleton pit next door to the snake pit (including a skull with a giant snake coming out of it’s GOD DAMN MOUTH, which my girlfriend did not appreciate), leading straight into the fight on, under and around the plane – which is itself a masterpiece almost lost amidst a sea of amazing scenes – and then, after half a second’s breather Indy’s straight on a horse and chasing down the Ark, then it’s a car chase with a truck-load of Nazi goons in the back of the truck Indy commandeers, and there’s always something going on, and there’s never a chance to be bored, and dammit but I love this movie.
The infamous climax was actually spoiled for me at school, when it was deemed necessary to show that one scene, completely out of context, in a Religious Education class. Whilst I don’t doubt it’s relevance to that particular branch of education, and whilst it was far more entertaining than the usual guff they preached at us, as a film-lover I now consider it appalling to have a classic such as this ruined by something as menial as an R.E. lesson. Thankfully it still holds up, despite the sub-Ghostbusters spirit effects and the way it clearly looks like a wax model melting sped up.
Other than the breakneck action and sheer inability to be thrilled by this film, there are still a great many reasons to enjoy it. For starters, the music is incredible, and is justifiably ranked up amongst some of John Williams’ other scores. The script is also wonderful, full of endlessly quoted lines. I also appreciate that it lets the audience work things out for ourselves. We’re never explicitly told that the Nazis created their own headpiece to the staff by using the burned imprint on Toht’s hand, but there are enough clues to piece it all together as we go along. I think what resonates most, however, is that technically it’s a happy ending, but it’s one in which the hero doesn’t get what he wants. Granted, he ends up with the girl, but it’s unclear as to whether he actually wants her or not, especially considering the last time she kissed him he fell asleep.
I do have one negative point to the film, however, and it’s a testament that this is the only flaw I can come up with. The final scene sees Indy and Marion walking away together, talking about going for a drink. Were we to follow them for said drink, and the events that would conspire afterwards, there’s a strong possibility that we would see the conception of Shia LeBoeuf.
Choose Film 10/10