Raiders of the Lost Ark

17 01 2008

Raiders of the Lost ArkIn 1981, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg were two of the hottest names in town: Lucas had made American Graffiti, Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back; Spielberg, meanwhile, had directed the blockbusters Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. A film produced by Lucas and directed by Spielberg would almost certainly be money in the bank.

Enter Harrison Ford as the globetrotting archaeologist Indiana Jones in the Lucas/Spielberg collaboration Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Set in 1936, Raiders follows Jones as he attempts to retrieve the lost Ark of the Covenant (on behalf of the U.S. government) before the Nazis get a hold of it — it seems the Ark may contain the power to make any army who possesses it invincible. Along the way, he teams up with former love interest Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen), who owns a medallion which could uncover the location of the Ark, and Egyptian digger and friend Sallah (John Rhys-Davies).

The plot, however, serves more as a framework for a series of cliffhangers in the style of Saturday matinee adventure serials, and in that sense it’s cut from the same cloth as Lucas’ own Star Wars. For example, the film opens in the jungles of South America, and by the end of the sequence, Jones has faced tarantulas, snakes, dart-blowing natives, rivals, traitors and cunningly constructed booby traps (including the famous rolling boulder — an iconic image that encapsulates the film in only a handful of shots). As he continues to face increasing dangers in Nepal and later Cairo, each sequence seems deliberately designed to end with the audience wondering, “How will he get out of this one?!”

Like Star Wars before it, Raiders is fashioned from our collective memories of adventure movie clichés, but also like Star Wars, it doesn’t simply stitch tropes together in a haphazard fashion; instead, it synthesises elements in such a way so that the film itself becomes an archetypal example of the very genre it’s trying to ape. Raiders is as much a classic as the films it imitates.

But credit must be given to screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan, who took the ideas generated by Lucas and Spielberg and (remarkably) transformed them into a coherent narrative. While the space epic Star Wars was purely Lucas’ project, Raiders was a truly collaborative effort, combining Spielberg’s warmth with Lucas’ fertile imagination, and it was Kasdan’s skills as a screenwriter that unified the visions of these two men.

Spielberg’s direction is simply flawless. The film never seems too self-conscious or self-aware, so the reality of the piece (however fantastic it may seem) remains intact, but there are still enough subtle nods to the audience to keep things light and fun. The performances, meanwhile, never shatter the illusion — Harrison Ford in particular manages to create a character who is perhaps a distant relative of Han Solo and yet more intelligent, more well-rounded and much more capable of carrying a film.

Raiders of the Lost Ark still

The score, provided by John Williams, completes the package. Like his work on Star Wars and Superman: The Movie, Williams’ theme for Raiders is instantly recognisable, capturing the spirit of the film in a few short bars. The recurring motifs in the score evoke the required moods beautifully, and it really is hard to imagine the film working as well as it does with any other composer on board.

In fact, one suspects that by removing any one member of the team of Lucas, Spielberg, Kasdan, Ford and Williams, the film would not have been the creative success that it was. Remove Kasdan and you end up with the Indiana Jones sequels, which, while fun and entertaining, either felt muddled or rehashed; remove Spielberg and you potentially end up with Return of the Jedi (although Irvin Kershner served a similar function to Spielberg on The Empire Strikes Back, also resulting in greatness). But put these five men together and you’re almost assured a masterpiece.

Raiders of the Lost Ark is about as good a popcorn movie as they come. There are no grand themes being explored here (besides, perhaps, the human lust for power and the consequences of hubris — an oldie but a goodie), but in any case, the film’s function is one of pure entertainment, and that it overwhelmingly achieves. That it manages to maintain a respect for the intelligence of its audience all the while is an accomplishment in itself.

(star)(star)(star)(star)(star)

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