Movie Review : Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
The Indiana Jones movies are an important piece of pop culture. Their influence exceeds the grasp of their medium: Indiana Jones has become a nickname for kids with adventurous hearts, people who find whips (in a non-sexual situation) all try to wrap it around a high object and swing themselves across the room, the rolling boulder scene has been copied in so many films that few people know it originates from there, etc. They're so much more than just movies.
But what about the movies? What is it that gave Indiana Jones such a lasting cultural power? I will spend the next couple week examining this question and today, we'll talk about Raiders of the Lost Ark. The film that started it all.
The year is 1936, the Nazis are consolidating their power in Germany and they're gathering magical artifacts from around the world in order to consolidate their power against other nations. So, the U.S army hires renowned occult archaeologist Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford), so that he can find the lost Ark of the Covenant before them. According to the legend, the Christian relic would act as a transmitter for God's power and has the capacity to wipe large amounts of people from the face of the Earth. Jones doesn't believe in that jibber-jabber, but he won't turn down the adventure.
Raiders of the Lost Ark is a post-WWII movie about the pre-WII era. It's not exactly propaganda, but it's revisionist history made to poke fun at Nazis cartoonish legacy of evil. And they commit the ultimate transgression in 1981's Ronald Reagan America: they attempt to commodify the power of God. They want to use the power of the Ark of the Covenant in order to achieve their political pursuits. It can't get more evil than that. And having a dashing, smart-mouthed adventurer protecting religious artifacts from their unrighteous pursuits is a seducing proposition. Raiders of the Lost Ark is a familiar ideological battle that's half-free from patriotic constraints: you get to root for the cool guy.
And Steven Spielberg brilliantly sets you up for that. He introduces Indiana Jones in media res, with a scene that's absolutely inconsequential. The only point of the Golden Idol scene at the beginning is hastily explain what he makes for a living and make him look fucking cool. And Indy is not eighties cool, he's timelessly, Humphrey Bogart cool. There are so many details in that movie enhance his character, it takes several viewings in order to fully appreciate. For example, Spielberg uses an old 1940s technique of only showing Indiana Jones' shadow on the wall (with the hate outline and everything) and using a Harrison Ford's voiceover in order to imply that he has a larger than life presence. He does it at least twice.
Here's one occurrence:
Raiders of the Lost Ark is a classic swashbuckling adventure that can be enjoyed with "your brain off" but it has so much more to offer than that. It was LucasFilms' second foray into franchising movies and it was painstakingly studies to be cool, forge emotional investment and deliver maximum thrills to its audiences. I've picked up so many things from this viewing and I'm sure another one would deliver even more of its secrets. I'll be unpacking Last Crusade, Temple of Doom and Kingdom of the Crystal Skull in the next couple weeks and I invite you to watch along with me. There are worse things you could do with your time than revisit this pop culture classic.