Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

Review

Raiders of the Lost Ark

You’d have to be a heathen to argue with the fact that Raiders of the Lost Ark stands as the best action-adventure movie ever made.

And an un-American jerk.

And a fool.

But knowing how many foolish un-American heathens there are out there, I feel compelled to defend the majesty of Raiders anyway.

The story is now an archetype of cinema, aped — and invariably aped badly — in countless pop culture projects from The Mummy to Tomb Raider. The elements? A flawed hero, in this case Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford), a rough-and-tumble archeologist/professor who’s impossible not to like. A gaggle of co-conspirators, including two of cinema’s most memorable henchmen: Denholm Elliott as a clueless professor friend of Jones and John Rhys-Davies as his only slightly less clueless man in Araby; Karen Allen’s punch-drunk Marion is one of the film’s least compelling components, though she’s still unforgettable as Indy’s foil. And don’t forget a nemesis that represents evil that’s as evil as evil gets, in this case the Nazis (and could Ronald Lacey’s bespectacled Toht be any more creepy? Fun fact: Lacey would return, uncredited, as Himmler in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade).

Continuing: There’s action, action, action, taking place in just about every continent across the globe, with the perfect amount of resting time between adventures and a script that gives Jones some of cinema’s most quotable lines (‘Why’d it have to be snakes?’) and most memorable scenes (the shooting of the heavy in the bazaar). There’s also the score that punctuates the action with a half-dozen memorable themes, possibly John Williams’ best work ever. And lest we forget Steven Spielberg, who proved he was the movies’ best working director way back in 1981… and remains so today.

Raiders — renamed to the stultifying Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark for the DVD release — isn’t without its pedanticly troubling bits. Paul Freeman’s Belloq is hammy and a bit too effeminate to be effective as the bad guy. Why he’s so obsessed with Karen Allen’s butch Marion is a mystery the film never properly answers. (In keeping with the grand tradition of Indy movies that feature supporting actors whose careers go nowhere, Freeman’s biggest role in the next 20 years would be in a Power Rangers movie.) Also, that face-melting bit rocked in 1981, but today it looks too much like the claymation that it is.

If you’ve been watching Raiders on the Superstation for the last 20 years, you owe it to yourself to check out the new DVD box set, which packs all three films and a bonus materials disc into one unforgettable collection. The picture — gotta see it in widescreen — is crystal clear, but it’s the surround sound that really reminds you how thrilling a home theater experience can be. If nothing else, you gotta check out the screen test with Tom Selleck and Sean Young. Alas, though Spielberg wanted Danny DeVito for Sallah, he never auditioned… oh, the humanity. And did you know the sub Indy hangs on to is the same one in Das Boot? I could go on and on… If you buy one box set this year, this is the one to get.

The 2008 ‘Adventure Collection’ box set includes all three movies, plus 12 new featurettes created for this release, including some new interviews (heavy on stars of the upcoming Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull) plus reflections from Lucas and Spielberg. The feature-length making-of documentary that appears in the earlier ‘Indiana Jones Trilogy’ set is not included here, so choose the one that works for you.

Prepare for the ride of your life, Dr. Jones.