1 Year, 100 Movies #66 Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

by Trey Hock on October 21, 2010

in 1 Year, 100 Movies,Columns

For 1 Year, 100 Movies, contributor/filmmaker Trey Hock is watching all of AFI’s 100 Years, 100 Movies list (compiled in 2007) in one year. His reactions to each film are recorded here twice a week until the year (and list) is up!

Life always has a way of derailing even the best-laid plans, and my journey through AFI’s 100 Years, 100 Movies was half-baked at best. Keeping up has been a struggle at times. With any long-term project, at some point it feels less like a cohesive vision, and more like performance art. I’m not quite to that stage of the game yet, but with more than one third of the list behind me, I was certainly glad to see this next film come in at #66. It is a breath of fresh air and a much needed recharge.

It may be impossible to imagine a world before Indiana Jones. The cultural references abound and there are countless licensed ad campaigns for snack chips, diet sodas, or national fast food chains, which can be sited as examples of the cultural invasiveness of this now iconic character. Dr Jones didn’t make it cool for middle-aged men in the 80s to wear battered fedoras, but that didn’t stop the trend. The hero archeologist’s call was just too strong, and what makes this movie really, really awesome would also later spawn poor judgments in taste from its viewers and even its creators.

I know that it seems like I’m a Steven Spielberg hater, but coming off of “Jaws” (1975), and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” (1977) and partnering with George Lucas, who had “American Graffiti” (1973), “Star Wars” (1977), and “The Empire Strikes Back” (1980) under his plaid-loving belt, Spielberg and Lucas were primed to secure their claim to the relatively new phenomenon of the summer blockbuster. They would do so be revisiting the pulp comic book, television, and radio serials of their youth and the youth of their parents.

Beginning with the long version of the movie’s title, “Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark” places the viewer in a world of serial entertainment. Before the first frame lights up the screen, or we are introduced to the main character, we know that these characters have had these adventures before, maybe not in South America, but definitely somewhere.

And oh what an introduction Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) gets. (Sound starts at 3 seconds.)

Lashing out with his bullwhip, disarming a pistol-wielding double-crosser, stepping from the shadows, within the first moments of the film Spielberg tells us we’re going for a ride, and he does not disappoint.

The story itself is relatively straightforward and simple. Indiana Jones is a professor of Archeology and obtainer of rare artifacts. Some government men approach Jones and his academic superior, Marcus Brody (Denholm Elliot) about the Ark of the Covenant. It seems that Hitler is showing interest in various religious artifacts and may be on the verge of finding the Ark. The rest of the plot is summed up in this nicely framed and almost seamless piece of explication, which takes place as Indy prepares for his trip to secure the Ark of the Covenant for the US of A.

Did you see that? Spielberg used to be able to employ amazing restraint and subtlety. He just introduced a main character, Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen), who will show up soon, in a verbal digression from Jones. He is letting the viewers do a little work and not burdening us with handholding or unnecessary explanation. Spielberg’s assuming we’re smart.

So we’ve got the story. Jones, Ark, Nazis, Adventure. Then we dive into what is basically a stylish action movie that packs all of the awesome stuff that Spielberg’s and Lucas’ 13-yr-old selves would have loved into a two-hour movie. Spielberg does an incredible job balancing the cool, with the absurd and always crafting the film so it is believable. Indy and Marion’s chase through the streets of Cairo is exciting, funny, even silly and yet still thoroughly entertaining.

This may all be cinematic urban legend, but I heard somewhere that Indiana Jones was originally supposed to have a big sword wielding fight with the black clad swordsman. On the day the scene was shot, Harrison Ford was ill and not up to it. With a quick rewrite, we have one of the most memorable scenes in modern American film. This could be urban legend, but it’s a legend I want to believe.

The action doesn’t stop. Let me offer a small portion of the chase sequence that, according to Roger Ebert, would far surpass the car chase in “The French Connection.”

This chase uses a horse, a truck, a car, two jeeps, a motorcycle with a sidecar, and countless stunt men. I didn’t even show some of the best parts because it is so long and awesome I didn’t want to overwhelm you. It was shot 30 years ago and still holds up.

Spielberg doesn’t abandon story all together. When the characters are put in troubling positions, their weaknesses work against them and they must suffer the consequences. In this late scene, Indiana Jones attempts to save Marion by threatening the Ark. (Sound starts at 4 seconds.)

Of course a rogue adventurer archeologist can’t blow up the Ark of the Covenant, and instead of making some stupid, sugar sweet moment, Spielberg lets Indiana Jones fail. Young Spielberg knew that well-developed characters with real flaws are more interesting. I wish he would help Old Spielberg relearn that lesson.

“Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark” is a film constructed from the childhood passions of two young filmmakers. It’s a film intended to bring excitement, adventure and joy, with enough story and character to make us care about the people on screen. I really wish Spielberg and Lucas would take a page out of their earlier playbooks, and return to the days when they owned the summer.

Up Next #65 “The African Queen” (1951)

1 Year, 100 Movies #67 Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966)

1 Year, 100 Movies #68 Unforgiven (1992)

1 Year, 100 Movies #69 Tootsie (1982)

For links to #70 – 79, click on 1 Year, 100 Movies #70 A Clockwork Orange (1971)

For links to #80 – 89, click on 1 Year, 100 Movies #80 The Apartment (1960)

For links to #90 – 100, click on 1 Year, 100 Movies #90 Swing Time (1936)

In addition to contributing to Scene-Stealers, Trey makes short films and teaches at the Kansas City Art Institute. Follow him here:

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{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Michael Bird October 21, 2010 at 12:32 pm

The gun thing isn’t a legend. Ford tells the story himself and I don’t know him to be any fan of bullshit legendeering. Lest anyone give Spielberg implicit credit for it, though, the scene was shot by the second unit director as I remember hearing it. Could be Spielberg, might not have been. Either way, its amazing we didn’t see a revision where Indiana pulls out a flashlight or walkie-talkie and aims that at the thug.

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2 Eric Melin October 21, 2010 at 1:10 pm

Yeah, the bullwhip could be considered too violent for today’s kids, Michael! Good idea! Agree that Lucas (and Spielberg to some extent) could learn a lot from watching their old movies–great insight.

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3 Charley Downey October 21, 2010 at 1:28 pm

This is my favorite movie of all time. It’s the one that sparked it all, and made me understand the potential power of the cinema. By the way, the way I heard it was that Ford said to Spielberg, “Why don’t we just shoot this son of a bitch”! Essentially, Harrison Ford wrote that sequence. Brilliant.

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4 Xavier October 21, 2010 at 1:31 pm

Spielberg still does on occasion show that restraint and command of character, Munich was wonderfully subtle for a film that was that political and ultimately character driven

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5 Streams of Whiskey October 21, 2010 at 2:25 pm

Love this film, from its iconic and oft-imitated protagonist to its sweeping John Williams score. It’s unfortunate that the rest of the Indiana Jones franchise produced mainly clunkers (“Last Crusade” is decent, but “Temple of Doom” and “Crystal Skull” are forgettable).

One measure of the popularity and lasting influence of a movie is the way in which it gets parodied and referenced in popular culture. Someone touched on this topic before in the “Silence of the Lambs” comments. Raiders references are too numerous to count, but my favorite Raiders parody is probably the opening sequence of 1989′s “UHF,” in which Weird Al daringly advances through a cave to claim a golden Oscar statue before getting chased all over the world (and ultimately flattened) by a rolling boulder.

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6 Trey Hock October 21, 2010 at 4:15 pm

Glad to have some back up on the swordfight/gunfight story. I just couldn’t remember where or when I’d heard that, so without citation it’s hard to offer it as fact.

Even though Lucas/Spielberg (Can I just refer to them as Spucas?) want to revise their own films to the detriment of the film and our childhoods, “Raiders” somehow comes away unscathed. Streams, you’re right the films that followed this one in the franchise were mediocre, derivative, or just plain unwatchable, but it doesn’t affect my enjoyment of “Raiders.”

I can’t say the same for the first Matrix movie, the first Pirates of the Caribbean, the first Spiderman, or many of the other recent first in any set of films. “Raiders” is just really great. You won’t hear this often , but thank you Mr Spielberg for “Raiders.”

And thanks for not effing it up by touching it again once you got old and your taste levels tanked.

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7 Amanda Beggs November 12, 2010 at 12:33 pm

So I might be a little late to this party, but SOMEONE requested some comments, so leave comments I will. First off, I LOVE Raiders, and Indiana Jones. My family latched on to these movies and for years we would refer to my father as “Illinois Beggs” (we lived in Illinois at the time; it seemed fitting) and my dad always wore a brown fedora to work every day. My older sister even became an anthropologist and worked at the museum Indy worked for in the movies. Raiders is that brilliant introduction to Indy, and I’ll always love it, but it will always remain my second favorite Indy film. Yes, that’s right, I like Last Crusade better than Raiders. The statement that “the films that followed this one in the franchise were mediocre, derivative, or just plain unwatchable” could not be farther from the truth for me. I can understand everyone’s lackluster attitude towards Temple of Doom, and I can certainly agree to never watch Crystal Skull again, but Last Crusade is, for me, even better than Raiders. Not only to we get to see Indy back in his element, after an odd turn in his Indian adventure with Chinese co-horts (sorry, Short Round), but we get Indy times 2 – we get his father. Played by the estimable Sean Connery. I mean, come on! The family interactions are classic – “we named the dog Indiana!” and the B-characters are just as fun as the main guys – Sallah is back (we missed him in Temple) – “The dog? You’re named after the dog?” and Marcus Brody is also back in force, this time taking part in the action – “The pen is mightier than the sword, Henry!”. And of course, Spucas (I like that one, Trey) realizes that no bad guys are as bad as Nazis, and the audience can never have too many Nazis to hate – and we even get a Hitler cameo! From beginning to end, Last Crusade just rocks it for me. I love the father-son dynamic, I love the religious implications at the end, I love the relationship between Prof. Jones and Marcus Brody, and best of all, I love the riding off into the sunset end. It almost lets me pretend that is where the franchise ended and Crystal Skull was never made. :) For me, Raiders starts the adventure, but Last Crusade is the climax and the fantastic end.

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8 Trey Hock November 12, 2010 at 6:36 pm

Amanda,

Awesome comment. The fact that you’re only defending Last Crusade is a doable argument. Sean Connery is charming as Dr Jones Sr, even if he is the film equivalent to Cousin Oliver. The side characters too are welcome, but the story is highly derivative from Raiders. I will say that Last Crusade is the only other of the series that I would watch and defend, but I often feel that it’s a guilty pleasure. The story of your family is awesome. I always like hearing about how films affect people.

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