Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

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By Scott Ross

32 years ago — Christ, I’ve gotten old — and despite the enormous success of Jaws and Stark Wars, popcorn movies were not yet the sole type of movie the Hollywood studios produced, or understood how to make. That fundamental shift was certainly in process, but only as a faintly detectable tremor. You could still go to the theatres and see, on a pretty regular basis, the likes of Prince of the City, Blow Out, Pennies from Heaven, S.O.B., True Confessions — my god, even a full-on epic about American Communists (Reds)! Even flawed items like First Monday in October, Fort Apache, the Bronx, On Golden Pond, Ragtime, Thief, Absence of Malice, Body Heat and The Postman Always Rings Twice were, whatever their individual shortcomings, made by and for an adult audience. There were comedies that were, mirabile dictu, actually funny — and occasionally pointed (Arthur, Buddy Buddy, The Incredible Shrinking Woman, The Four Seasons) and even the genre pictures (Dragonslayer, Wolfen, The Howling) were beautifully crafted, intelligently conceived and written, stylishly made, and either had something pertinent to say or engaged their audiences on a level above the sub-literate.

I suppose the enormous success of Raiders was more than partly responsible for what was to come. Certainly the movie’s two most important creative forces, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, produced, separately, some of the worst and most dispiriting garbage of the decade (The Goonies, The Land Before Time, Howard the Duck, Willow.) But, as Larry Gelbart once noted of television executives, in a phrase equally applicable to movie suits, “You don’t even have to say to them, ‘Steal.’ That’s all they know how to do.”

At the moment of its release, however, Raiders of the Lost Ark was a great blast of fresh, escapist air. About the movie itself, going in on opening night all I knew about it were the images on the evocative Richard Amsel poster, a copy of which I’d picked up as a radio station giveaway

and the Big Names associated with it. I was entirely unprepared for the inspired set-pieces, or for an opening sequence that packed as much of an electric wallop as the finales of most adventure pictures.

I’m no fan of Lawrence Kasdan’s as a writer-director yet even I must admit his work with Lucas— Raiders and, especially, Kasden’s screenplay for The Empire Strikes Back* — enriched those movies immeasurably. It’s probably no accident that those two back-to-back productions represent the best work either has done. But there’s a telling name in the “Story By” credits: Philip Kaufman. As author and director of White Dawn, the marvelously witty and atmospheric 1978 Invasion of the Body SnatchersThe Wanderers, The Right Stuff and The Unbearable Lightness of Being, it may be Kaufman who is ultimately responsible for the strong narrative arc, the engaging quirkiness of the movie’s characters and (perhaps) its Howard Hawks-like central romance.

Harrison Ford, until Raiders primarily known and remembered as the scruffily charming Han Solo, was revelatory here. Doctor Indiana Jones is almost the diametric opposite of Solo in bearing, temperament and essential character: Solemn were Han was ebullient, witty where the space jockey was more of a smart-ass, as phlegmatic as Solo was excitable. He was also one of the few men I’ve ever seen who could carry off a two-day beard — a look not nearly as ubiquitous (nor as studied) in 1981 as it has since become.

One of the wonders of the movie is the infinitely varied presence of the great Karen Allen as Indy’s inamorata. Delightfully freckled in an industry that views facial blemishes in a woman as a sin rivaled only by passing the age of forty, Allen’s Marion Ravenwood is spunky, irritable, sexy, adorable — a perfect match for Jones. None of the women in the subsequent sequels comes close to Allen in sheer strength of personality; she’s as womanly as she is formidable, and never less than utterly engaging.

Raiders is a movie full of splendid curlicues and delightful accidents. Jones, while hardly macho in the Schwarzenegger mold, is the modern equivalent of the unflappable Saturday matinee serial heroes  (Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon) Lucas was both emulating and updating. Yet the filmmakers were willing to wink at the audience by sending their hero up, especially in the early admission of ophidiophobia and its ultimate payoff, when Jones and Marion are sealed in the ancient tomb filled with cobras and their slithering kin.

One of the most effective moments in the movie was entirely un-planned. As originally scripted, Jones, menaced by an ostentatiously scimitar-wielding Arab, was to engage with the brute physically. Ford as suffering from a cold that day and asked a personal privilege. The way he, Lucas and Spielberg handled the moment, with disarming comedy that utterly reversed audiences’ expectations and left them cheering and laughing at the sheer, demented logic of it, was probably better, and more memorable, than the scene as written. (It also opened the movie up to a patently ridiculous charge of xenophobia.)

The supporting characters were carefully cast with then-unknowns (Paul Freeman, Ronald Lacey, John Rhys-Davies, Denholm Elliott, Alfred Molina) whose very anonymity lent a freshness to their various evocations of movie “types.” The score, by John Williams, provided not merely an indelible new movie march to his growing pantheon of almost uncannily memorable themes, but was brilliantly devised, and composed, for maximum harmonic impact. The great Douglas Slocombe provided the atmospheric cinematography, and Speilberg’s later cutter of choice, Michael Kahn, was responsible for the movie’s kinetic editing (with an un-credited assist from Lucas.)

There’s a charming moment, early in the film, where Indy is instructing his college archeology class. As the students file out, one boy, eyes averted, slaps an apple on teacher’s desk. I’ve seen impassioned idiot threads on the ‘net in which the movie’s aficionados argue this simple spin on the old classroom cliche endlessly. Not one of them gets that the student is gay, and rushes out of the room in embarrassment at his own (and, in the 1930s, dangerous) declaration of a school-boy crush. Do filmmakers now have to insert subtitles on these things so even the slowest member of the audience understands the jokes?

*Although the Empire screenplay is credited to Kasen and Leigh Brackett, that venerable scenarist died well before the movie was made and, while she is probably as responsible as Lucas for many of the movie’s darker narrative contours, he was reportedly unhappy with her work and hired Kasden to punch up the script.

Text copyright 2013 by Scott Ross

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