Saturday 23 April 2016

Movie Review: Raiders Of The Lost Ark (1981)

A boisterous adventure with excitement around every corner, Raiders Of The Lost Ark introduced a new screen hero in the form of Indiana Jones and repopularized the clean fun of escapist treasure hunt movies with clean-cut heroes racing against hissing villains.

It's 1936, and archaeologist Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) battles through the jungles of South America, invades a booby-trapped ancient temple, overcomes a couple of betrayals and gets his hands on a precious golden idol. Unfortunately, at the moment of triumph his rival RenĂ© Belloq (Paul Freeman) seizes the treasure, and Indy barely escapes with his life.

Back at the college campus where Indiana has a day job as tweedy professor alongside museum curator Dr. Marcus Brody (Denholm Elliott), he is hired by government officials to track down the lost Ark of the Covenant, a long lost stone casket with mythical powers believed to contain the remnants of the ten commandments. The Nazis are close to uncovering the Ark's burial site in the Egyptian desert, and any army carrying the Ark would be undefeatable.

Indiana swings into action and makes a stop in Nepal, where he reconnects with the feisty Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen), the daughter of Indy's former professor who has in her possession an ancient medallion essential to finding the Ark. In Egypt Indy and Marion team up with Sallah (John Rhys-Davies), an expert excavator, and they have to fend off repeated assassination and kidnapping attempts and race against Belloq and his Nazi-financed expedition to uncover the Ark's whereabouts.

After the phenomenal success of Jaws, Star Wars, and Close Encounter Of The Third Kind, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg were the hottest filmmakers in Hollywood. They teamed up on Raiders Of The Lost Ark, with Lucas producing and Spielberg directing, to launch what would become one of the most famous and successful franchises in film history. Inspired by the matinee serials of the 1930s, Raiders is a rollicking thrill-a-minute adventure, with a handsome and endlessly resourceful hero, a feisty ex-girlfriend, a faithful side-kick, and despicable villains, all fuelled by an old-fashioned globe-spanning chase for hidden treasure.

joie-de-vivre permeates every cliffhanger moment, the outcome of each climax never in doubt, just the ingenuity of the escape. Several of the film's scenes have become instantly recognizable and legendary screen moments: Indy escaping from a massive rolling boulder in the film's opening sequence; confronting a band of thugs in a Cairo market, including a showdown with a seriously determined sword-wielding assassin; Indy and Marion contending with a massive snake pit; and Indy wrestling for control of a truck, sliding underneath the chassis and using his whip to pull himself back up.

The character of Indiana Jones is the gadget-free James Bond of archaeology. There is no difficult situation that he cannot handle, often by improvising solutions when all seems lost. Using his whip (often), his gun (rarely) and his smarts (always), he may take the occasional beating but always manoeuvres the elements to his advantage. A plane propeller helps him against a sturdier foe in a punishing fist fight, fearsome snakes slithering out of wall cavities point the way to survival, and he has no hesitation latching on to the outside of a Nazi U-boat to pursue his objective (how he survives the subsequent journey is left to the imagination).

The John Williams music score is suitably rousing (with more than a passing resemblance to the Star Wars music). Spielberg and cinematographer Douglas Slocombe stylishly elevate the film beyond its simple adventure status by frequently playing with lights, shadows and silhouettes, and finding interesting perspectives at every opportunity. Many of these angles involve projecting Jones' image as a shadow, emphasizing the man but not the actor, helping to turn the fedora-wearing, whip-carrying image into iconic status.

While most of the action is PG-rated and thrilling for the younger set, Raiders also carries an unexpected edge to keep the adults alert: Spielberg sprinkles some serious violence, blood splatter and gore into the adventure, and the sadism of chief Nazi torture merchant Major Arnold Toht (Ronald Lacey) is a particularly effective example of pure vileness.

Spielberg plucked Harrison Ford from the supporting Han Solo role and Indiana Jones turned him into the megastar of the 1980s. Already 40 years old and a good 15 years after his early uncredited film appearances, Ford found his niche as the ruggedly handsome hero radiating smart determination and not fully aware of his animal magnetism. Karen Allen has rarely been better as his ex-flame, now out-drinking the locals at her bar in Nepal while waiting for her opportunity to again match wits with the man who abandoned her under murky circumstances.

Raiders Of The Ark is a classy adventure with an irresistible attitude: self-deprecating, playful, fast paced and brimming with fun.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

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