Raiders Of The Lost Ark (1981)
(for action violence including an impalement and some gory deaths, some scary images including the supernatural, brief sensuality, and brief language)
Released: June 12, 1981
Runtime: 115 minutes
Director: Steven Spielberg
Starring: Harrison Ford, Karen Allen, Paul Freeman, John Rhys-Davies, Ronald Lacey, Denholm Elliott, Alfred Molina
This is my Desert Island Movie.
Yes, it’s that in theory (i.e. if I had to be stuck on an island with only one movie for the rest of my life, what would it be?), but it’s essentially been that in practice as well. I couldn’t tell you how many times I’ve seen Raiders Of The Lost Ark, but I know I’ve seen it more than any other film (both on the big screen and small). I prefer it and its 80s sequels to, yes, the original Star Wars trilogy, and it’s not even a difficult Sophie’s Choice to make.
But Raiders in particular is the one movie I will never tire of watching because it encapsulates everything I love about the movies. It truly has it all.
The routine pitch that Steven Spielberg and George Lucas have long given regarding their inspiration for this film (and the entire Indiana Jones series) is that this was their homage to the adventure serials they grew up on. That’s obviously true, as you can see in this comparison of old movies side-by-side with the opening Peru sequence…
…but, despite having downplayed his ambitions over the years, Spielberg clearly and intentionally brought the best of Old Hollywood filmmaking to his efforts. That’s what elevated it above your average popcorn movie. It’s that incorporation of artistry into inherently B-movie material that has not only made Raiders Of The Lost Ark a classic but a masterpiece.
With Spielberg, we see cliffhanging derring-do through the eyes (and lens) of David Lean, John Ford, Howard Hawks, and Michael Kurtiz. We see as much (maybe even more) of an homage to films like Lawrence Of Arabia and Casablanca as we do to low budget nickel-and-dime matinees of yesteryear.
Harrison Ford’s Indiana Jones is a fusion of Humphrey Bogart and John Wayne and Gary Cooper in their most iconic forms, but with an added dash of Ford’s own laconic swagger. Karen Allen has the chutzpah of a Kate Hepburn or Barbara Stanwyck. If you’ve never watched Raiders in black-and-white, you should. Much of it plays as if having been lifted straight from studio archives of the 30s and 40s. (Click here to see Evan Richards’ feature-length pictoral essay of screen grabs from the entire movie, in black-and-white, to give you an idea.)
The tone, too, is more serious (in a good way) than its sequels. Yes there’s humor here, but it’s dry, not winking. The Nazis are formidable threats, not comical buffoons, as is Belloq, Indy’s mercenary nemesis who provides a revealing yang to Indy’s yin. (As Belloq says to Indy, with an ominous knowing, I’m “a shadowy reflection of you”. And he’s right.)
For as many times as I’ve seen Raiders, one overarching trait popped out to me like it never had before, all because I was watching it in sequential marathon order of Spielberg’s work: in terms of technique and style, this is a dramatically stripped down version of Spielberg’s instincts and (glorious) excesses. Yes, this has been easily apparent over the years on a basic level, but the scale of restraint and simplicity really caught me by surprise following Jaws, Close Encounters, and 1941.
In the wake of 1941 – which saw Spielberg at his most unrestrained, both in terms of money and shoot length – Lucas forced Spielberg to a limited budget and schedule, challenging him to see what he could still pull off. (Studios, too, were hesitant to throw money at Steven.) Lucas felt it would help facilitate the genre homage they were going for (it did), but Spielberg also elevated it creatively, displaying a knack for first-rate artistry even within a simplified film language.
What does that mean, exactly? Well, first and foremost, this was by far Spielberg’s most fast-paced edit to that point (and still may be). Instead of lingering on action and dialogue for as long as possible, we see a more traditional form of “coverage” in Raiders. Scenes were assembled with familiar wide-to-medium-to-close up progressions, and edits would almost always facilitate a reframing rather than camera movement (a technique that Spielberg had previously used as much as possible).
With dialogue, Spielberg cuts back and forth between each character’s close-ups, another traditional approach. Even the Spielberg Oner is more simplified (making it more deceptive); for example, the one-take drinking standoff between Marion and a patron (have you ever noticed that the whole scene is one take?) is done simply through panning back and forth, not the more complicated choreography he was notorious for, i.e. switching frames, setups, and focus all in one tracking shot from points A to B to C.
And yet, despite this restraint, Raiders Of The Lost Ark is still a masterpiece. Why? Because even when reined in (or perhaps especially because of it), Spielberg always looked for the best, most interesting framing of a traditional setup. He fought to get just enough throwbacks to the Hollywood Masters that gave it a widescreen scope (the silhouette of Indy and his crew – seen above – excavating the Well of the Souls against the sunset is right out of a David Lean epic).
But he also storyboarded high-risk action sequences with a precision not fully seen before (the Desert Chase is an all-timer). It was a “less is more” filmmaking gauntlet that made Spielberg a better filmmaker, both artistically and financially. Since then, every production he’s directed has ended ahead of schedule and under budget, yet his place as a master auteur has only endured.
Thrills, chills, laughs, and romance – everything that people go to the movies for (brought to life by one of the truly great film scores, not just themes, by John Williams) – all made with reverent adrenalin by guys who love movies.
Raiders Of The Lost Ark is my Desert Island / Time Capsule / Save One Movie At All Costs choice because it has everything within it that has ever made movies great, and that ever will.
Available to stream on Netflix.
- The budget for Raiders – $18 million – was half that of 1941.
- This marks the first Spielberg film produced by Frank Marshall. He’s been a Producer on virtually every Spielberg movie since.
- Associate Producer Robert Watts and Director of Photography Douglas Slocombe worked on the entire original Indiana Jones trilogy, but never worked with Spielberg on anything else.
- Toht’s “nunchuck hanger” gag was actually a leftover idea from 1941 that Spielberg couldn’t find a good place for in that film (thank God).
- The same actor – Vic Tablian – plays two different characters: Barranca, the turncoat from the opening Peru sequence, and the bearded Monkey Man spy in Cairo.
- The script was fleshed out by Lawrence Kasdan and Philip Kaufman, two writers with venerable pedigrees. Kaufman, who helped Lucas craft the story prior to the scripting stage, is known more for higher brow material like The Right Stuff and The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Kasdan was hired to write the screenplay after impressing Lucas with the script for The Empire Strikes Back, and went on to make culturally resonant films like The Big Chill. Of course, Kasdan re-emerged into the Star Wars universe when director J.J. Abrams asked him to co-write the screenplay for The Force Awakens.