Raiders of the Lost Ark Movie Review
George Lucas & Steven Spielberg did not simply develop an epic action-adventure, their character of Indiana is an absolute icon of cinema!
Genre: Action / Adventure
Director: Steven Spielberg
Cast: Harrison Ford, Karen Allen, Paul Freeman, John Rhys-Davies, Ronald Lacey, Wolf Kahler, Anthony Higgins, Alfred Molina & Denholm Elliot.
Run Time: 115 min.
US Release: 12 June 1981
UK Release: 30 Juli 1981
German Release: 29 October 1981
Given that the new Indiana Jones chapter will be released later this year in cinemas, I decided that it is time to review the complete series, starting with the first instalment: Raiders of the Lost Ark. Praised for having modernised serial films, Raiders became the highest grossing movie of 1981, despite initial pre-release polls showing little interest. Next to Star Wars, the franchise was an integral part of my childhood, with my uncle introducing me to the original trilogy on VHS as a young kid. Grab your fedora, whip and shoulder bag, as we venture into the depths of my review.
— WARNING, THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS! —
Henry Jones Jr., better known by his adventurer pseudonym Indiana Jones, is an archaeology professor tasked by the United States government to find a powerful religious artefact, known as the Ark of the Covenant before the Nazis get their hands on it. Jones must venture to distant places, save his ex-girlfriend from enemy Rene Belloq, fight snakes, all while searching for the ark.
George Lucas came up with the idea for Raiders of the Lost Ark, after finishing American Graffiti. Inspired by the early twentieth-century serial films he enjoyed as a child, he was set on producing a low-budget picture, modelled after that genre, coming up with “The Adventures of Indiana Smith”, naming him after his dog. He shelved the idea for the time being while focusing on his space opera Star Wars. In 1975, Lucas shared his idea with his friend Philip Kaufman, who would be integral in shaping the character of Indiana, as well as suggesting the Ark of the Covenant as the plot’s central goal.
Initially, George wanted Kaufman to bring his idea to life, but the director had already other commitments. While vacationing in Hawaii with Spielberg, Lucas convinced the regisseur to take on directing duties. Spielberg did not like the name Smith, which was then quickly replaced by Jones. Laurance Kasdan was then brought on board, to write the feature’s screenplay. While the three men worked on a script, all came to the conclusion that the lead character, needed to be imperfect and vulnerable; an everyman the audience can relate to.
The final screenplay managed to balance humour and serious moments brilliantly. The romance interweaved is sweet, yet never sappy. The stakes are high, playing during the Second World War, utilising the threat of Nazi Germany well. Finally, the sense of adventure is infectious, immediately engaging viewers. This is as close as a script can get to perfection!
The dialogue is superbly written, only using exposition when exactly needed. Though a professor, Henry Jones Jr. never talks down to the audience, preferring to use himself a simpler vocabulary.
Indiana Jones was finally envisioned as an anti-hero; a professor of archaeology, reduced to grave robbing for the greater good. While he is prone to make mistakes, he does have a clear set of morals, which makes him an idol for viewers. He is a person, made out of flesh and bone, with a day-to-day job. Harrison Ford infused the character with a lot of cockiness, though he is also emotionally vulnerable, plus humble when it comes down to it. Ford made the persona his, giving a great rendition of an academic adventurer.
Karen Allen was cast as Marion Ravenwood, a former lover of Indiana, as well as the daughter of his mentor Abner Ravenwood. She equals the leading anti-hero in ferocity, witts and spunk, all of which Allen easily encompassed in her grand portrayal. The chemistry between her and Ford is impeccable, with their romance feeling real, yet never cheesy. The duo’s renewed love story makes also for great comedic relief.
Paul Freeman as Dr. Rene Belloq is supposed to be the antithesis of everything Indiana Jones represents. Slimy, power-hungry, plus always out for money. He has no moral compass, unlike the lead. Freeman did great at portraying Beloq.
The rest of the cast is made up of Denholm Elliot as museum curator Marcus Brody, a good friend of Jones. A shiveringly scary performance by Ronald Lacey, as the sadistic Gestapo agent Arnold Toht. Finally, an extremely fun portrayal of the Egyptian excavator Sallah, by John Rhys-Davies.
The cinematography is magnificent, with the introduction of the main character himself being iconic, keeping him in the shadows, his back always to the camera for the first three minutes, until he needs to defend himself. Staying true to the low-budget serial films this was based on, the director gave the imagery a grimy look. Old-fashioned camera tricks were employed, to sell that feeling of the original adventure serials. The lighting uses shadows plus darkness to full effect, while the colours are kept dirty. It is also very violent and bloody.
Lucas’ special effects company ILM, handled the effects for the movie, while Elstree Studios worked on the bigger, practical set pieces such as; The boulder rock cave at the beginning, the Well of Souls, as well as the setting for the reveal of the Ark. The majority of the effects are practical, still looking great to this day. The Melting face was created by using different coloured layers of gelatine, over a fire-resistant stone skull. What came out of the Ark, was created using composite effects. The spirits were small robed puppets, suspended in a clouded water tank in front of a blue screen.
The music, composed by none other than frequent Spielberg collaborator John Williams, created an excessive, at times ominous, soundtrack. This contrasted with the more emotionally sombre theme for Marion.
Verdict: Directed by Steven Spielberg, envisioned by George Lucas, this action-adventure is one of the earliest movies I can remember seeing at my uncle's house, in Madrid. When he presented me with the trilogy on VHS as a gift, I must have worn out the cassette recorder, as it was on constant replay. This first feature of the franchise is not just a technical marvel, but it also contains one of the best stories ever put to screen. The action is thrilling, the dialogue to the point, the romance fitting. Every aspect of this film has been meticulously thought of. The cast is on point, with every actor giving it their best, making the roles theirs. The main character is flawed, imperfect, but has strong ethical rules. The cinematography is jaw-dropping and the effects still look impressive. The Music by John Williams is iconic. Raiders of the Lost Ark is not simply one of my all-time favourite adventure flicks, it is a cinematic masterpiece, nearly flawless in all its runtime, and deserving of a 10 out of 10.
Do you agree with my review of Raiders of the Lost Ark? Leave a comment & look forward to my review for Temple of Doom next Thursday! Thank you for reading!