The Case Against “Raiders of the Lost Ark”

I rewatched Raiders of the Lost Ark as if I had never seen it before. After all, it had been a good 20 years, if not longer. As I approached the idea, I was trepidatious. Raiders was a favorite growing up and I didn’t want to tarnish the memory somehow. The idea, however, would not go away. For days I poured over dozens of reviews and, apart from a rare exception, Raiders enjoyed the kind of all-encompassing adoration that few other classics have managed to attain. It seemed to me like an exaggeration, like the reviews, many of which were written within the last 10-15 years, looked at Raiders with nostalgia for a simpler time in Hollywood. After all, it was the beginning of the 1980s, a period in which mainstream cinema took a turn, giving way to the summer blockbuster and to all-encompassing silliness. Perhaps, I thought, Raiders of the Lost Ark had ceased to become “just” a film, in order to transform into a cultural touchstone for people who came of age around the early 1980s.

When navigating reviews I encountered statements like “the greatest action-adventure film of all-time”, or other more nuanced if still hyperbolic comments like “has any film done a better job at introducing its major characters?”. Even with the muddled memory of the film that I had, I could not make a connection between the enjoyable Indiana Jones of my childhood and this revered cinematic object.

Raiders of the Lost Ark combined the cinematic bravura of Steven Spielberg at the director’s chair, and the unique talent of George Lucas as a writer and producer to distill large projects into manageable and intimate human stories. The character of Indiana Jones, forever tied to Harrison Ford, is neither a cartoonish version of a man nor an archetype. He is like the cooler version of Cary Grant in North by Northwest, replacing the suit and tie with a leather jacket and a hat that screams adventure. Instead of the spy or the lawyer or the government agent that was so preeminent in Hollywood during the Cold War, Jones was an anthropologist, a profession that had never before (or since) been romanticized in the big screen. Jones was a superhero without superpowers, a Superman without a cape incapable of reversing time, but able to take down an entire Nazi division through sheer fearless determination, a whip, and a gun.

While Han Solo (the other iconic character played by Ford years earlier) had the rebellious and independent attitude that Indiana Jones also demonstrated, Jones’ goals were a lot clearer and demonstrable. He sought treasures of civilization to protect them and, in doing so, he fought against forces of evil who sought them for less than noble causes.

I would argue that, in fact, the best thing about the film is “Indy”, interpreted by an actor at the peak of his powers. Ford, a blockbuster powerhouse through the decades, was unfairly equated to his roles and the types of projects he was a part of. He was seen by many as an attraction rather than a very good performer. Though most of the roles that brought him fame did not demand a great deal of range, something has to be said of a man that turned nearly every character he embodied into cultural icons. The weight of Ford is that we, as the audience, cannot separate him from his various contributions. There is no other Indiana Jones, as there will be no other convincing Han Solo (see the new Solo: A Star Wars Story for an example), nor a Rick Deckhard (a role he effectively reprised in last year’s Blade Runner 2049). Ford gave Indiana Jones charisma to sell, a smile to make anyone melt, and a confidence to make a hat and a whip look like acceptable parts of an outfit.

The first ten to fifteen minutes of Raiders are rightfully legendary. The sequence in the jungle highlights everything the series did well. It pitted Jones not against people, but against an obstacle course of sorts that has inspired a vast array of films, videogames (Tomb Raider and Uncharted to name just a couple) and other types of media. It made him the kind of explorer we would all like to be: strong, intuitive and fearless. Jones’ introduction to the world in shadow as powerful an image as Spielberg has ever created for the big screen.

Despite the film’s astute construction, which successfully took us on a trip around the world, Raiders of the Lost Ark suffered dearly as it progressed. For instance, I never bought into Ford’s professorial life. The whole act felt stiff and lifeless, perhaps intentionally, but it did not quite give me enough about Jones’ gentler and more mannered side to really sell me on that part of his personality.

Some of the film’s action montages haven’t aged well. As accomplished a director as Spielberg has been, some of those scenes suffer from what I call directorial ingenuity. Though ambitious and impressive as an idea, the staging, composition and timing of some of the action sequences is questionable. An example of this is a sequence in which Jones must fight off a couple of Nazi soldiers as a armed airplane slowly rotates on a platform. The whole thing, from beginning to end, is largely unexciting, without any of the cinematic magic that a film like Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train (released in 1951) was able to give to a similar climactic battle between its hero and villain atop a carousel as it frantically spun out of control.

Though there are moments in which Raiders is able to win us over, every bit of awesomeness is followed by clunky set pieces, where the intent, as written on paper, does not quite match the result. A perfect example of this comes in the last act where Indiana Jones and his love interest, the feisty Marion Ravenwood (played by Karen Allen), find themselves trapped inside an Egyptian temple inundated with snakes (Indy’s least favorite animal). At first, it is the sort of scene that seems like the perfect choice for a thriller filled with marquee moments, but that is unimpressive as a whole due to its clunky execution.

Albeit understandable that scenes like those would be somewhat messy in a B-movie type of way, Raiders took itself seriously enough to leave me wishing the details were a bit more ironed out and polished.

Yet, as I reread my post and I try to reach a conclusion about the film, I try to remind myself of the context. Indiana Jones was released in 1981, a moment in time where a thriller of this magnitude was much more of a herculean task than it is today. If we are to judge by the same metric, a similar thing can be said of George Lucas’ own magnum opus: Star Wars: A New Hope, which in 1977 managed, beyond all expectation, to crack the cinematic glass ceiling of possibility. Even today, the B-movie type script of Star Wars tells little of the end product since Lucas’ vision, which he had been dreaming for many years, was much grander and spectacular than the script could ever hope to describe.

As demonstrated by the recent HBO-produced documentary on Steven Spielberg simply called “Spielberg”, Raiders of the Lost Ark wasn’t a “passion project” for neither Lucas nor Steven. As the story goes it was George, fresh of his unexpected Star Wars success, who reached out to his friend Steven with an idea and an opportunity to bounce back after the calamitous failure of Spielberg’s previous effort: 1924.

It is this the reason why perhaps Raiders of the Lost Ark feels a little soulless to me. It feels like a film where two friends stumbled upon an idea that, with their talent and their sense of timing turned into something culturally significant. It was, when compared to their other efforts, a much more laissez faire undertaking, where “fun” and “adventure”, however clumsily or nonsensical, were prioritized over all other concerns.

New rating: 3/5

2 thoughts on “The Case Against “Raiders of the Lost Ark”

  1. I love everything about this review. It CAN be so scary to revisit films you loved as a kid, because you do risk the possibility of tarnishing the film in some way.

    I also adore that you brought context into the conversation, which is something I feel is lacking a lot in film criticism. A movie should be able to stand on its own, sure, but acknowledging that making a film like Raiders was damn near impossible in 1981, helps us appreciate the film more. Great work here!

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