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Criticwire Classic of the Week: Steven Spielberg’s ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’

Criticwire Classic of the Week: Steven Spielberg's 'Raiders of the Lost Ark'

Every now and then on the Criticwire Network an older film gets singled out for attention. This is the Criticwire Classic of the Week.

“Raiders of the Lost Ark”
Dir: Steven Spielberg
Criticwire Average: A+

In 1977, directors George Lucas and Steven Spielberg went on vacation to Hawaii, primarily so Lucas could get away from the “Star Wars” opening weekend. While they were there, Lucas asked Spielberg what we wanted to do after he wrapped on “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” and Spielberg remarked that he’d like to try his hand at a James Bond film. Lucas replied that he had something better than Bond. It was called “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” a modern mash-up of the best parts of the classic film serials from the ’30s and ’40s, and it featured an archaeologist adventurer named Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford), whip and all, at its center. Four years later, the modern classic was released into theaters to a tidal wave of critical and popular acclaim. Almost 35 years later, “Raiders” still lives in the imagination of adults and children alike as one of the most thrilling, stylish, and honest-to-God fun blockbusters of all time.

Though the “Raiders” plot largely exists as a clothesline for Spielberg to hang his dazzling set pieces on — the famous boulder sequence, the Cairo street fights, the escape from the Well of Souls — it begins with Indiana Jones narrowly escaping a booby-trapped temple in Peru after trying to retrieve a golden idol that was taken from him by René Belloq (Paul Freeman). After returning to his teaching position at Marshall College, his colleague Dr. Marcus Brody (Denholm Elliott) informs him that two Army Intelligence agents want to speak to him about his old mentor Abner Ravenwood. Apparently, the occult-obsessed Nazis are trying to find Ravenwood because he’s the leading expert on the lost Egyptian city of Tanis, the resting place for the Ark of the Covenant. The Nazis believe that if they acquire the Ark, its supernatural powers will make their armies invincible. Now, it’s up to Indiana Jones to get to it first, with the help of Ravenwood’s daughter and ex-love interest Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen) and jolly excavator Sallah (John Rhys-Davies) by his side.

The joy of watching “Raiders” is almost entirely tied to Spielberg’s confident direction and how he creates suspense from a perfect sense of staging (see Steven Soderbergh’s introduction to his recut version of the film for more on this point.) Spielberg has a borderline-preternatural understanding of what to include and not include in a single frame that simultaneously moves the story forward at a pleasant clip and also tells a story of its own. Think of the sequence when Indy tries to exchange the golden idol for a bag of sand: Though Spielberg and longtime editor Michael Kahn’s deliberate cuts draw out the tension, the shot that has stayed with me for years is the hand-level shot of Indy dropping sand framed by the light of the golden idol as it sits at the right edge of the frame. It perfectly captures the power and allure of mythical iconography, as well as human beings’ desire to capture and “own” these things, and how much they’re willing to sacrifice to do so. It’s a statue worth dying for because it contains the past.

Of course, none of this would work if “Raiders” didn’t have Harrison Ford leading the way through every scene. At the time, Ford was best known as Han Solo from “Star Wars,” but he established his status as a leading actor with Indiana Jones. Using a delicate combination of wry sarcasm and endearing earnestness, Ford imbued the character with not only strength and good humor, but also with an abiding morality. Indiana starts off saying that the religious and historical power of the Ark doesn’t scare him as he knows it’s only really an artifact, but when faced with it once and for all, he averts his eyes knowing that its too great for mere mortals. Unlike Belloq who wishes to use the Ark to become a part of the Heavens (and pays a heavy price for it), Indiana distinguishes himself as someone who respects the enormous influence these objects hold. He may start off as an indifferent adventurer, but with the help of Marion, he’s humbled by humanity itself.

But despite the genuine emotional undercurrent that runs through the film, “Raiders” is mostly plain fun top to bottom. It moves at a steady pace and contains some of the best action sequences ever put to film. I’ve seen “Raiders” more than a dozen times over a number of years, and while I may have trouble recounting the exact nature of the story, I know the film front-to-back by its set pieces. Roger Ebert described it as “an anthology of the best parts from all the Saturday matinee serials ever made,” which hits the nail right on the head. There’s the Bar Fight, the Street Brawl, the Boat Attack, the Car Chase, etc. On their own, they may simply be technical exercise, but when Spielberg strings them all together with technique and care , it rises above the sum of its parts and becomes something beautiful. As audiences, we may all simply be passing through history, but “Raiders” is history.

More thoughts from the web:

Roger Ebert, RogerEbert.com

But Spielberg is not trying here for human insights and emotional complexity; he finds those in other films, but in “Raiders” he wants to do two things: make a great entertainment, and stick it to the Nazis…Consider. The plot hinges on Hitler’s desire to recapture the long-lost ark. “Hitler’s a nut on the subject,” Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) is told by a government recruiter. “Crazy. He’s obsessed with the occult.” But not just anything occult. The ark, if found, would be the most precious Jewish artifact imaginable — the chest that held the Ten Commandments that God gave Moses on the mountain top. “An army which carries the ark before it is invincible,” Indy says; Hitler wants to steal the heritage of the Jews and use it for his own victory. Throughout the film, there is a parade of anti-Nazi symbolism and sly religious satire, as when a desperate Indy grabs the hood ornament of a Mercedes truck, and it snaps off. And when a Nazi torturer grabs a sacred relic and it burns a stigmata into his hand. When the ark is being transported in the hold of a Nazi ship, inside a stout lumber crate, the swastika and other Nazi markings spontaneously catch fire and are obliterated. A Nazi officer, uneasy about opening the ark, says: “I am uncomfortable with the thought of this Jewish ritual.” And of course when the spirit of the ark manifests itself, it’s as a writhing column of fire that skewers the Nazis. (“Keep your eyes closed,” Indy desperately tells his sidekick, although one assumes the holy fire would know friend from foe.) There is even a quiet in-joke in the character of Belloq (Paul Freeman), the Frenchman who tries to play both sides against the middle, just as Occupied France did. Nazis were favorite villains of Saturday serials, prized more for their costumes and accents than for their evil beliefs. Spielberg here makes manifest their values, and then destroys them: “Raiders of the Lost Ark” has all the qualities of an exuberant serial, plus a religious and political agenda. That Spielberg places his message in the crevices of the action makes it all the more effective. “Raiders” may have an impersonal superstructure, but its foundations are personal, and passionate. Read more.

Keith Phipps, The Dissolve

Yet what sets “Raiders Of The Lost Ark” apart from its sequels and imitators is the way Spielberg and Lucas turn it into a genuine clash between good and evil, with truly despicable Nazis and their profit-minded sympathizers seeking to exploit a sacred artifact to the worst possible ends. (The solid “Last Crusade” did the same, but not as effectively.) “You and I are very much alike,” Jones’ rival Belloq (Freeman) tells him. “It would take only a nudge to make you like me, to push you out of the light.” Yet by the end of the film, Jones proves him wrong, continually putting his life at risk for the greater good. Spielberg and Lucas have cited Carl Barks’ Uncle Scrooge comics as a source of inspiration, one from which they borrowed specific gags, like that giant boulder. But they also borrowed Barks’ moral concerns. As in many of Barks’ most famous duck stories, everyone chases treasure here, but some of those doing the chasing lose their souls along the way. It’s a film of great stunts and feats of daring, but also one worried about what separates heroes from villains. Read more.

Matt Zoller Seitz, Slant Magazine

And when I saw [“Raiders of the Lost Ark”], something happened; a sea change in consciousness, though I didn’t have the words to describe it at the time. From start to finish, I was into the movie, yet I was also outside of it, delighting in what it was doing to me and to the packed crowd around me; I was realizing, for the first time, that you go into a particular kind of movie with particular expectations, and that the source of delight isn’t just what happens, but in the ratio of expected to unexpected moments, the timing of those moments, and the sensibility behind their orchestration. Steven Spielberg’s sensibility, his personality, came through so strongly in the first ten minutes of “Raiders” that I felt, in some strange yet identifiable way, as if I was back in that coffee shop hearing the big man recap the film for his buddies; by which I mean that I didn’t feel I was simply watching a movie, but listening to a specific person with a specific personality — my friend Steve — telling me a story, filtering each moment through his own quirky sense of what was exciting or scary or funny, all the while carefully reading and anticipating my reactions, giving me more or less what I expected most of the time, then hurling a wicked curve. Read more.

Vincent Canby, The New York Times

From the first moments, when the star-circled mountain in the Paramount Pictures logo fades into a similarly shaped, fog-shrouded Andean peak, where who knows what awful things are about to happen, “Raiders of the Lost Ark” is off and running at a breakneck pace that simply won’t stop until the final shot, an ironic epilogue that recalls nothing less than “Citizen Kane.” That, however, is the only high-toned reference in a movie that otherwise devotes itself exclusively to the glorious days of the B-picture. To get to the point immediately, “Raiders of the Lost Ark” is one of the most deliriously funny, ingenious, and stylish American adventure movies ever made. It is an homage to old-time movie serials and back-lot cheapies that transcends its inspirations to become, in effect, the movie we saw in our imaginations as we watched, say, Buster Crabbe in Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars or in Sam Katzman’s Jungle Jim movies. Read more.

Dave Kehr, Chicago Reader

One would think that a collaboration between Steven Spielberg and George Lucas would produce something better than this giggly pastiche of a Republic serial, but then again maybe not: their gadget-freak aesthetics and propensity for instant gratification seem to reinforce each other. Harrison Ford is a swashbuckling archaeologist, Karen Allen is his girl; together they battle the Nazis for possession of the Ark of the Covenant. Spielberg, who directed, knows a lot about action cutting but nothing about narrative rhythm: this 1981 film travels fast and straight down a linear plot, and the ceaseless rush quickly becomes monotonous. The body count is somewhere on the far side of “Dawn of the Dead,” but with no sign of Romero’s underlying moral seriousness: when a hero is twice given a choice between saving the booty and the woman he loves and chooses the booty both times, I have to wonder what makes him different from the Nazis he’s fighting. But God, Spielberg tells us with dumbfounding literalness, is on his side. Read more.

Pauline Kael, The New Yorker

Kinesthetically, the film gets to you. It gets your heart thumping. But there’s no exhilaration in this dumb, motor excitement. The best of the satirical pulp-adventure movies—the 1939 “Gunga Din” (with a plot lifted from “The Front Page”) — was carefree: there was fresh air between the thrills and the gags, there was time for digressions and for the pleasure of seeing actors you knew horsing around. The picture made you feel good, as if you were singing along with it. In the past, Spielberg has demonstrated a talent for just that kind of elating silliness, and he has a lot of it going here, especially with Harrison Ford, who does mammoth double takes, recoiling in disbelief. But “Raiders” is so professional and so anxious to keep moving that it steps on its own jokes. You can almost feel Lucas and Spielberg whipping the editor to clip things sharper — to move ahead. (I say the two, rather than just Spielberg, because this picture gets dangerously close to cancelling itself out, in a way that recalls “More American Graffiti,” which Lucas also produced.) The effect of the obsessive pace is that the picture seems locked in. Our eyes never have a second just to linger on a face or on an image of planes coming out of the clouds. The frames fit into each other, dovetailing so tight that sometimes it seems as if the sheer technology had taken over. It’s all smart zap — a moviemaker’s self-reflexive feat. Read more.

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