Sunday, December 13, 2015
RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK
(June 1981, U.S.)
If you were to go back to the early 1990s and take a look at the back of the VHS box for RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, the first words you'd read in the plot description would be "This is it!". Nearly twenty-five years later, these are the same words that still pop into my head first when reflecting on the legend that has not only become this film, but the iconic character of Indiana Jones himself! The adventures of this archaeologist and part time college professor have become synonymous with action and adventure for nearly as long as STAR WARS has with not only my own generation of film fans, but with today's, as well. It's been a genuine homage to the great Saturday matinee serial cliffhanger heroes of the 1930s and 1940s (while never copying them!) that started on a beach in Hawaii in 1977 (just after the release of STAR WARS) between two legendary film makers you may have heard of once or twice...Steven Spielberg and George Lucas! Steven wanted to do a James Bond film, but George convinced him that he had a better idea (the rest was history!) It's one of those films you can't help but discuss with enthusiasm and yet can't imagine what you'd actually say that every fan around the world hasn't heard or discussed themselves. It's the only film that TV's Sheldon Cooper of THE BIG BANG THEORY actually stole from a movie theater because he was unable to purchase a ticket to see it himself; because if he couldn't, then no one else would, either! You go, Sheldon!
This first film in the franchise that takes place in 1936 pits Indiana Jones (played by Harrison Ford) against a group of Nazis who are searching for the ancient Ark of the Covenant, the actual chest which the Hebrews carried the stone remains of the actual Ten Commandments, which Adolf Hitler believes has extraordinary powers and will make his German army invincible against the rest of the world. Indy is joined by his ex-girlfriend Marion (played by Karen Allen), his Egyptian sidekick Sallah (played by John Rhys-Davies) and must do battle against his nemesis, French archaeologist René Belloq (played by Paul Freeman) and the rather sick Nazi agent and torturer Arnold Toht (played by Ronald Lacey). In the classic cliffhanger tradition, it's a constant race against time for our heroes to stop the forces of evil while repeatedly getting themselves into the kind of trouble that will get them killed if they're not rescued in time. Unlike an era long since gone, the audience didn't have to wait until next Saturday at their local movie theater to find out what happens. And unlike many movie heroes of the past, Indiana Jones is a bit more modern in that he's the sort of man that is flawed and vulnerable. While always ultra brave to the hilt, Indy can be easily hurt, and often is. Just watch how fast he goes down when hit with one punch in the jaw during a fight scene with a bald and muscular German soldier. Indy has his fears, too, the main one being snakes (who can blame him??). This is just what makes him more human to his audience. His adventures on the big screen before our eyes are enthralling and a non-stop, mile-a-minute journey into the unknown of not only ancient religion, but into the heart of evil and the deadly consequences against it. Like our heroes (and our enemies), we long to see the Ark open to learn its secrets. During the climactic sequence, even when it appears there's nothing but sand inside, we know better because we're in the hands of the mighty Spielberg who would never let us down at a moment like this. The Ark possesses the power and the magic to not only protect our heroes, but to violently defeat our evil enemies. For those who choose to believe in the religious aspects behind it all, I suppose it's also a message that you don't want to fuck around with God or else you may likely internally combust in the end (like I said, if you choose to believe that stuff!).
Okay, I think I've summed up a very well-known classic more than sufficiently to all who already know it by heart. So now, let me focus some of my attention at moments of the film that continue to stand out and hold a dear place in my heart (okay, maybe I'm not that sentimental about it, but these moments are pretty fucking cool, in my opinion!). There are two moments in RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK that stand out in how they seem to define Indiana Jones and his bravery for me. The first is in the Egyptian marketplace when Indy is confronted by an Arab dressed in black who, through his rather majestic and fast moving sword play, one can only presume is the deadliest and most feared swordsman in the village. Indy, while clearly not afraid of him, also deduces in that one moment that he simply doesn't have time for this shit and defuses the situation the only way he knows how - by shooting the poor bastard...
Nearly thirty-five years later, I still laugh my ass off when that shot is fired and the Arab in black goes down. I can't help but think in my mind, "You're so damn stupid to bother fucking around with Indiana Jones!". The second sequence is the desert chase when Indy must regain control of the Ark resting inside a speeding truck. At a time when CGI didn't exist yet and the dependency for the expertise of movie stuntmen would make or break a truly great action sequence, I can still cite (even today) the truck dragging scene (performed by stuntman Terry Leonard) as still one of the greatest movie stunts I've ever had to pleasure of watching over and over again...
For me, it's the knowledge of knowing that this isn't CGI taking place here; it's a real man making his way under the truck and then being dragged side-to-side along the dirt road (with Ford himself in some of the closer shots). It's simple, it's real, it's raw, it's totally effective and continues to impress me still far beyond anything a computer may be able to do today in a fraction of the time! This is also the moment of the film when John Williams' score rings absolute true for me because the action is so death-defying and pulsating and the score just manages to bring the intensity of it all to a greater light. You see, there's a reason why Williams and Spielberg have joined forces on all of his films (except THE COLOR PURPLE)! The scene also simplifies Indy's bravery and hard-edged attitude toward stopping that truck, come Hell or high water, in order to keep the Ark from getting to Germany. He may be scared, but we'd never know it because it's simply what he must do to get the job done, even if he's just making it all up as he goes.
Well now, I suppose at this time, I need to dive into the franchise itself a bit. My feelings for all four films are divided evenly, fifty-fifty. RAIDERS - an absolute five-star classic! INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE (1989) - a very worthy successor with action and performance to almost match its 1981 originator! INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM (1984) - a film, with its bad story, bad casting (Short Round - seriously???), bad acting and unnecessary gore, that I can only describe as one of the low points of Spielberg's career (second only to HOOK!) and one of the reasons the summer of 1984 was such a disappointing blockbuster season for me. INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL (2008) - a slight improvement over TEMPLE OF DOOM if for no other reason in that it's a pleasure to watch Indy and Marion reunited and bickering all over again. The rest, unfortunately, is a bad story (aliens - seriously???) with a truly waste of good talents like Cate Blanchett and John Hurt. As for TV's THE YOUNG INDIANA JONES CHRONICLES, I can't say that I ever really watched it, so I can't judge it now. So there you have it - two up and two down! Actually, I'd say that's not too bad considering my rather low threshold for sequels and franchise films. Anyway you or I choose to judge it, though, I take comfort and pleasure in the fact that a film like RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK exists and is forever immortalized in the hearts and minds of its true fans...and it also looks so fucking good on Blu-Ray!!! Thank you Steven, thank you George and thank you Harrison!
Oh, a quick personal story before I leave you. It was the summer of 1981 and RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK was playing at the local theater in Westhampton Beach, where I've spent every summer of my life since the age of ten. You know how many times I got to see the movie? NONE!!! My parents were just too fucking lazy to bother to take my little brother and me to the biggest blockbuster film of the summer! I didn't see it for nearly a year until it was re-released in the theaters in 1982. Like I told way back in the beginning of this blog, when it came to movies as a kid, I swear, I was born under a bad sign!
Favorite line or dialogue:
Indiana Jones: "I'm goin' after that truck!"
Indiana: "I don't know, I'm makin' this up as I go."