Welcome to the eighties! It’s time for a bunch of huge blockbusters, and some of the most eccentric and weird movies that I’m going to be covering during this entire project! By and large, I’m not the biggest fan of films from the 1980’s. I know that that decade often gets fetishized as some golden age, but I feel like a lot of that is wrapped up in nostalgia that goes a long way to ignoring some incredibly flawed films. But, there’s still plenty of incredible, genre-defining pieces of cinema out there to enjoy. And, 1981 is a pretty solid year. There are plenty of fun movies that I enjoy, but don’t really think too much of, like History of the World Part One, Clash of the Titans, and Time Bandits, but there’s also a handful of movies that certainly provided a good fight for this week’s top spot. I really dig the sleazy and moody crime flick Thief, one of the most understated and fascinating heist movies ever made. I’m also a huge fan of Blow Out, one of the few Brian De Palma movies that I truly love, and one of the most engrossing thrillers I’ve ever seen. I also really adore John Carpenter’s grimy and wonderful Escape from New York, one of my favorite Carpenter’s and one of the best Kurt Russell performances of all time. But, when it came time to pick what my favorite film of the year was, there was never really a choice. There are a few movies from 1981 that I’ve actually never seen, and which I probably should finally get around to, like An American Werewolf in London and The Road Warrior, but I can’t imagine that any of them would be able to take down Raiders of the Los Ark, one of my all-time favorite films.
Much like Star Wars, which I’ve been talking about lately here on Cinematic Century, Raiders of the Lost Ark began life in the mind of George Lucas, desperate to make a modern version of the film serials he loved as a kid. But, instead of science fiction, this one would be a send-up to the adventure serials he adored. He’d actually been working on this Indiana Jones character before he got working on Star Wars, but shelved the idea until after Star Wars was a massive success. Because, while on vacation after breaking every box office record and almost losing his mind, Lucas ran into his friend Steven Spielberg, and the two got talking. Spielberg really wanted to make a James Bond movie, and Lucas told him that he’d created a character just like Bond, but better. Spielberg did like the idea of Indiana Jones, and this adventure aesthetic, but he was a little put off by Lucas’ insistence that the film would become a trilogy. Luckily, Lucas promised that he’d write the scripts if Spielberg directed them, and the ball got rolling. So Spielberg, Lucas, and screenwriters Lawrence Kasdan and Frank Marshall got to work fleshing out the world of Indiana Jones, perfectly capturing the feel of these serials that meant so much to them. Unfortunately, this project was clearly going to be expensive, which scared off every major studio except for Paramount, which decided to roll the dice and let these film-nerds make their homage to their childhoods. The film used cutting edge effects, while also utilizing quite a bit of on-set shooting, travelling the world just like Spielberg’s beloved Bond movies did. Like most movies with such large budgets, so many moving parts, and elaborate special effects, the shoot was kind of a mess. But, in the end, it all came together. The film became the highest grossing movie of 1981, by far, and is still one of the highest grossing movies ever made. And, it was pretty much universally beloved. Critics and fans adored it, and it ended up spawning an entire franchise, giving American cinema one of its most famous characters of all time, and some of the most iconic images the medium has ever had.
The film begins at the tail-end of one of the many adventures of Indiana Jones, a professor of archaeology and part-time treasure hunter. He’s currently seeking an idol kept in a hidden temple in Peru, and after using his knowledge and skills to avoid a whole litany of traps and puzzles he’s able to gain hold of the idol, before racing out of the booby-trapped temple. However, right as he escapes the temple he finds a rival archaeologist, Rene Belloq, waiting for him, ready to take the idol from him. Defeated, Jones is forced to flee Peru and return to Connecticut where he works as a professor. And, shortly after settling back into normal life, Jones is approached by a pair of Army Intelligence officers who need his help. One of Jones’ mentors, Abner Ravenwood, is currently being sought by Nazi’s, and they need Jones to find him. And, what more, it appears that the reason that the Nazis are after Ravenwood is because he may have found the resting place of the Ark of the Covenant, a massively powerful religious relic which could in theory turn any army invincible. And, unable to pass up the opportunity to find one of the most legendary artifacts in human history, Jones agrees to track down Abner and the Ark, heading out to his last known location in Nepal.
Unfortunately, when Jones gets to Nepal he learns that Abner is dead. But, he has apparently given an amulet which holds the key to finding the Ark with his daughter Marion, who Jones just so happens to have had a tumultuous relationship with. Marion is reticent to help Jones, but when a group of Nazis led by a man named Toht arrive and attempt to kill her, she agrees to help Jones, on the condition that she accompany him. Indiana is convinced that the amulet is the headpiece to the Staff of Ra, and when placed in a scale model of an ancient town in Egypt it will reveal the location of the Ark. So, he and Marion head to Egypt and find it swarming with Nazis, who have started looking for the location of the Well of Souls, the hidden location of the Ark, with the help of both Belloq and Toht, who did receive part of the amulet thanks to a horrible burn he received in Nepal. But, after doing a bit of research with a local excavator named Sallah, Jones realizes that Toht only got half of the information, and is thus digging in the wrong place. He and Sallah prepare to start digging for the Ark, but before they can Marion ends up being kidnapped by the Nazis and brought to Belloq as a prisoner. She attempts to escape while Jones and Sallah find the true location of the Well of Souls, but is unable to escape the clutches of Belloq. But, while she’s dealing with him, Jones and Sallah do locate the hidden location of the Well of Souls, and unearth it for the first time in centuries.
But, as Jones and Sallah lower themselves into the snake-filled Well and locate the Ark itself, disaster strikes. Belloq notices the unauthorized digging and has the Nazis surround the Well, taking the Ark from Jones and keeping him inside. They then throw Marion in with him and seal the Well, hoping that the snakes inside will devour them while they take the Ark back to Hitler. Jones and Marion don’t give up so easily though, and they fight through the waves of snakes, before finally locating a way out of the tomb. And, as luck would have it, they find themselves very near an airfield where the Nazis are planning to fly the Ark out of Egypt. Jones and Marion attempt to fight the Nazis, and in the process destroy their plane, causing them to abduct Marion yet again and drive the Ark away in a fleet of trucks. Jones gives chase, getting in an insane set-piece where he gets control of the Ark again, and escapes with Marion, getting onto a ship full of smugglers to escape the Nazis. Unfortunately, the Nazis are very resourceful, and they stop their ship with a U-Boat, taking Marion and the Ark while Jones hides so he too can slip onto the U-Boat. He rides the U-Boat to an abandoned island where Belloq has planned to test the Ark before delivering it to Hitler. And, once on the island, Jones is discovered and taken prisoner, brought to the area where Belloq plans to open the Ark and test it on them. Jones and Marion then stand by as Belloq and the Nazi’s open the Ark, only to find that they’ve released several specters of death, causing a wave of destruction that kills Belloq and all the Nazis, leaving Jones and Marion alive. They free themselves, and manage to bring the Ark back to the United States, where it’s promptly filed away in a massive warehouse, lost in a sea of bureaucracy while Jones and Marion head off to try and start a relationship.
Raiders of the Lost Ark is just one of those movies that I’ve seen so many times, that I saw at such an early age, and that has had such an impact on my tastes in both cinema and narratives in general, that it’s kind of impossible to view it in any sort of objective sense. It’s a miracle, one of my favorite films of all time, and just a perfect reminder of why I love movies. Everything in this movie works perfectly for me, from the wonderful plot, the amazing performances from Harrison Ford, Karen Allen, and basically everyone else involved, the amazing score, the monumental effects, and the a spectacular cinematography from Douglas Slocombe comes together to create a staggering work of art. Indiana Jones has become one of the most famous characters in American cinema, and this film gave us everything we needed to know about him, launching one of the most engaging and beloved characters ever made. I really enjoy all of these films, even Kingdom of the Crystal Skull to a certain degree, and this film is probably my favorite of the bunch. It’s just a perfect adventure film, taking us around the world, giving us great action, and featuring a whole lot of dubious archaeology. And, all the while, it gives us a bit of escapism, a thrilling little slice of adventure that helped usher in an entire decade of cinema that seemed deadset on bringing escapism back to the masses.
I do really enjoy the realism and grit of 1970’s cinema, usually lumped into the New Hollywood movement banner. But, I’m also an enormous sucker for big, boisterous escapism. George Lucas and Steven Spielberg burst onto the scene of American cinema as two huge geeks, obsessed with the sort of pulpy stories they loved as kids, and that had gone out of vogue. So, when placed in the position to make whatever type of movie they wanted to make, they chose to revisit those childhood memories, taking these pulpy adventure and sci-fi tales and legitimizing them by projecting them through a lens of their film-school auteurism. They were able to take the things they loved as kids, give it a new and modern spin, and instantly capture the magic that they felt as children, giving a whole new generation of people a wonderful experience that they could eventually replicate. Because, weirdly, these sorts of narratives work on a bit of a cycle, a fascinating one that has people become inspired by a work, grow up, make a new version of that work, and in turn inspire a new generation of people by telling these wonderful stories over and over again in new and different ways. I think the adventure genre is highly due for a comeback, because the idea of going on a globe-trotting adventure, getting in fights and saving the day will never not be a fantasy. And, I really and truly believe that while there’s undoubtedly a great deal of importance in bringing the real world to life on the silver screen, there’s an equal duty to bring magic to people’s lives. And this is one of the most magical films of all time.
Raiders of the Lost Ark was written by Lawrence Kasdan, directed by Stephen Spielberg, and released by Paramount Pictures, 1981.
Categories: Cinematic Century