Indiana Jones: An Appreciation – Part 1 – Raiders of the Lost Ark
As a kid, no other film franchise kept me on the edge of my seat, made me as excited, or captured my imagination more so than the Indiana Jones films. To me, Indy was the Alpha and Omega when it came to action heroes. The films are the epitome of movie entertainment, they are the reason we go to the movies in the first place, and were lead by a character that was a complete original. No other character in movie history held my attention with as much captivity and exhilaration as him: he was the definition of cool. Harrison Ford may have been Han Solo first, but he will always be Indy in my book.
Indiana Jones is so iconic, that the very look of him is burned in to our brains. The hat, the whip, the dirty brown clothes. Steven Spielberg once mentioned that he was one of three characters he created that can be recognized by its shadow alone, the other two being the shark from Jaws and the alien from E.T. He was right. Indiana Jones is the man’s man: he takes charge, does what needs to be done in a tough situation. He has the comedic timing, the scruffy facial hair, and always gets the girl in the end. In a way, he’s a lot like James Bond, but without the uptight sophistication. Indy is also educated, a professor of archeology. I don’t think anyone has ever made a professor look as cool as he has.
I remember the first time I was introduced to the series, with my parents buying a VHS tape of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989). I instantly fell in love with it, I must have watched that movie three or four times the day I got it. That played so much in our VCR that the image quality of the movie faded, but I wanted to remember everything, every single image. I then realized that the film was the third of a trilogy, the first two being Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984). Needless to say, I would eventually watch those soon after.
How can one not like the Indiana Jones movies? They literally have everything one looks for in a film: action, adventure, mystery, romance, horror, suspense, and comedy, there’s something here for everyone. These are not the type of movies where you find a deep catharsis or some statement about today’s society, it is all surface, but made so damn well. They are the definition of the popcorn movie: relentless adventure to exotic places, bad guys that do bad things, and buried treasure hidden deep in the earth. These are the kind of movies you take a date with to watch, and by the end you have bruises in your arm, from your date digging their fingernails in to it from the suspense.
Much is said about its take from Saturday matinee serials, the programs George Lucas and Steven Spielberg grew up loving, and with that inspiration they added to a genre that seems to no longer exist in today’s cynical movie world, which is a shame. I remember sitting in front of the screen, wide-eyed, watching as Indy explored new places, read from his treasure maps and book of clues, looking for the treasure that was so hotly pursued by his rivals. I held my breath as he dangled from enormous heights by nothing but his whip, and avoiding the booby-traps that would certainly kill him if he were to step in the wrong place. I covered my eyes from the horror of his enemies dying cruel deaths because they did not follow his advice, and at the end of the film taking a huge breath of relief, knowing that I had just been taken on a one of a kind adventure.
It all started with Raiders of the Lost Ark. The opening sequence is now legendary: Indy carefully walking up to the golden idol, pouring out the sand from his pouch to get just the right weight, as Alfred Molina’s character watches on. After a sequence of near misses and the early departure of Molina, Indy narrowly escapes the arrows of the natives, led by his rival archeologist, Belloq (Paul Freeman). This scene has nothing to do with the rest of the film, but sets a tone that resonates; we realize that we are in for a movie that is filled with fun and wall-to-wall action.
The meat of the story is centered on the hunt for the Ark of the Covenant, the chest that held the stone tablets that the Ten Commandments were written on (man, I love this stuff). The government recruits Indy to find the Ark before Hitler’s Nazi goons do. To do this, Indy enlists the help of some colorful characters, such as Sallah (John Rhys-Davies) and Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen), with whom Indy shares an intimate history. Allen plays Ravenwood with feistiness; in her opening scene she out drinks a heavy-set Himalayan woman (or was it a man?). She is the perfect counterpart to Jones, tough and scrappy at times and at others vulnerable and sweet, how can you not fall in love with her? Together, they go on an adventure that takes them from the hilltops of the Himalayas to the deserts of Cairo, in an attempt to stop Belloq and the Nazis from claiming the Ark and unleashing its power upon the world.
Raiders’ success is attributed to its great set pieces and pitch perfect casting. Spielberg did a tremendous job with creating visuals that stick so easily in our minds. We can all recall the great scene where Indy runs away from a chasing boulder, the scene where he has to face his fear and climb down a tomb filled with poisonous snakes, his battle against the enormous Nazi while dodging a plane’s spinning propellers, how Marion gets herself in to a bind and is lost in a sea of African baskets, and the horror of the final scene when the Ark is finally opened. We all remember the bad guys: Belloq as the “champagne villain,” suave and sophisticated yet calculating and dangerous, or the straight-up evil of Major Arnold Toht (Ronald Lacey), who threatens Marion with a smoldering rod but ends up branding his own hand. Harrison Ford was absolutely correct for this movie. Already established from Star Wars, Ford brings the right amount of rebelliousness, intellectualism, and tough-guy attitude that I feel no one else could have done. This all builds up to a film that is nothing short of exhilarating, a bringing forth all the love and admiration the filmmakers have of those classic matinee serials. It’s a movie made by movie fans, as if the child in Lucas and Spielberg put together all the best parts of those stories in to one spectacular whole. Audiences would respond both critically and through the box-office. Not only was it the biggest box-office draw of that year, but it was also nominated for nine Oscars, including best picture.