Raiders of the Lost Ark
directed by Steven Spielberg
(Paramount, 1981)

I can still remember the feeling in 1981 when Harrison Ford and Steven Spielberg redefined action-adventure movies for all time.

Raiders of the Lost Ark (renamed Indiana Jones & the Raiders of the Lost Ark for the DVD release) brought to my youth the kind of big-screen astonishment that old movie serials sparked in an earlier generation. Unlike Star Wars, which employed massive special effects and a grand space opera to bedazzle the crowd, Raiders went back to the basics: nonstop action, a roguish hero, a gutsy heroine, detestable villains and exotic locations along with spiders, snakes, booby-traps, artifacts, whips, guns and a monkey.

Raiders, set in 1936, makes an obvious choice for its villains: Nazis, the goose-stepping group we all love to hate. Foremost among them is the scarred, giggly German interrogator Toht (Ronald Lacey), who epitomizes everything there is to despise about them. Standing apart from the Nazis is the opportunistic French archeologist Rene Belloq (Paul Freeman), whose sneering arrogance allows an occasional slip of sympathetic, three-dimensional character-building.

As the hero, Harrison Ford made an enduring cultural icon of Indiana Jones. For every noble and courageous quality, Jones has his rough edges and failings. These imperfections further define him as the embodiment of adventure -- a bit over the top and prone to the occasional blunder, but lovably cocky, notoriously lucky and impossible not to adore.

He meets his romantic match in Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen), who is nothing like the shrinking violets and damsels in distress so prevalent in the genre. Marion needs the occasional rescue, sure, but she can outdrink and outpunch many of the men she encounters.

The movie begins with an expedition to recover an ancient Peruvian idol, and the sequence moves swiftly from a jungle trek and betrayal to Indy's fast but cautious penetration of the lost temple. Once the idol is found, it becomes a thrill-a-minute rollercoaster of excitement, which -- after a bit of necessary exposition back in the States -- rarely lets up.

Jones is dispatched by U.S. military intelligence to find the Lost Ark of the Covenant, last known residing place of the shattered tablets of Moses, before Hitler's minions can retrieve it for an evil purpose. The quest takes Jones from a snowbound Nepalese bar to long-lost, snake-infested chambers beneath the Egyptian desert; along the way, he and director Spielberg supply enough fight and chase scenes to sate even the most avid action enthusiast.

Although it spawned the inevitable sequels, Raiders of the Lost Ark stands on its own as a pinnacle of adventure filmmaking. Spielberg didn't strive for deep meaning or to break new ground with this one; it was and remains a boyish fantasy that appeals to the wide-eyed child in all of us.

- Rambles
written by Tom Knapp
published 3 January 2004

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