I had a tremendous time this past weekend enjoying The Complete Indiana Jones Adventures, back on the big screen! One of my local movie theatres was participating in the national event, screening all four Indiana Jones films back-to-back-t0-back-to-back: Raiders of the Lost Ark (please note that, contrary to what the poster for this event said, the title of this film is NOT Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark), Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.
Naturally, I left before Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, so I consider that a moral victory.
What extraordinary fun it was to watch the three great Indiana Jones films back on the big screen! I am a huge fan of the idea of studios giving their great classic films periodic big-screen releases (I had such fun last year when Ghostbusters returned to theatres for a few nights, and also at Universal’s 25th anniversary big-screen re-release of Back to the Future!), and I really wish more studios would get into this business. How could they lose? I know it costs money to restore these films, to make prints, and to advertise, but it’s hard for me to imagine that people wouldn’t eat up the chance to occasionally see a classic film that they love back on the big screen, the way it was meant to be seen.
Watching Raiders through Last Crusade only reinforced what I already knew, that all three films (even the weaker Temple of Doom) are extraordinary achievements, true cinema classics.
Raiders of the Lost Ark – How could anyone argue that this is not one of the most perfect films ever made?? The story unfolds like perfect clockwork, with each scene leading into the next, action sequence after escalating action sequence, as the story builds to its climax. There is no fat on this film — name one scene in the movie that doesn’t HAVE to be there. The stakes are clearly drawn, the characters are sketched with impeccably economy. (We learn about Indy and Marion etc. WHILE they are doing/saying things essential to the plot. The movie doesn’t grind to a halt just so we can get a certain character beat or learn a bit of back-story. It all flows perfectly together.)
The casting is perfection. Obviously, Harrison Ford was born to play this role (even more than Han Solo, in my opinion). He creates a human-sized super-hero the likes of which we have never seen since. Yes, Indy can do extraordinary things like getting dragged under and then behind a truck before pulling himself back on board, but he always pays the price (Marion’s comment that “you’re not the man I knew ten years ago” drives that home, in addition to setting up Indy’s classic reply: “It’s not the years, honey, it’s the mileage”) and is constantly getting beat up. Consider how Indy get shot and temporarily bested by a Nazi soldier during the truck chase (which precipitates his getting thrown through the windshield and then under the truck) or, even better, during the flying wing fight. After getting punched one time by the huge Nazi thug, Indy’s knees wobble and he collapses into the dirt. Is that not a classic Indiana Jones moment? He gets whomped, and we see that it actually hurts!! I can’t think of any other comparable moment from any other movie action hero.
Equally wonderful, of course, is Karen Allen as Marion Ravenwood. Has any action-movie ever had a better female love-interest character than Marion? She is smart, she’s tough, she’s independent, and she is staggeringly beautiful (something really driven home when seeing Raiders on the big screen). The drinking scene that introduces Marion in the film is justifiably a classic, but it’s a few minutes later when she greets Indy for the first time in a decade by punching him in the jaw that I fall in love with the character. (The scene is made even more perfect by Harrison Ford’s wide grin a moment before, showing us that Indy is clueless enough to actually think Marion is happy to see him. It’s such a funny, human little moment.) Marion is impossibly winning, and Karen Allen plays every moment of the film spectacularly well.
The entire rest of the cast is equal perfection. John Rhys-Davies as Sallah? Perfection! Ronald Lacey as the Nazi interrogator Toht? Perfection! Denholm Elliott as Marcus Brody? Perfection! Alfred Molina as poor Satipo? Perfection! And then of course there is the woefully under-appreciated Paul Freeman as Beloq. Beloq is a spectacular villain in the film. He’s not a moustache-twirling psychopath, but a calm, rational, fiercely intelligent man. The moment that cements him, for me, as a fantastic villain comes late in the film, when he outwits Indy on the Nazi island. Indy is up on a ridge, threatening to blow up the Ark if Belloq doesn’t let Marion go. But Belloq sees right through Indy and immediately calls his bluff, daring Indy to “do as you will.” It’s a great moment. More than any of the more theatrical villains of the other Indiana Jones films, Belloq is just a slightly shadowy reflection of Indy. Many movies give their villain characters a “we’re not so different, you and I” speech, but it works for Belloq because in this film it is true. Indy is clearly not above plundering treasures from foreign cultures (see: the opening of the film), and just because he sells his stolen finds to a museum doesn’t make him all that noble. Indy will kill when necessary. Yes, he’s the hero and Belloq is the villain, but we can clearly see the character traits that connect them. I would argue that Raiders of the Lost Ark wouldn’t work nearly as well as it does without Belloq.
Watching Raiders on the big screen, I became even more appreciative of Steven Spielberg’s magnificent direction. I love the way Mr. Spielberg composes his shots, and the way he would constantly play with light and darkness, foreground and background. Examine the scene in Indy’s house with Marcus, in which Marcus comments that the Ark of the Covenant is unlike any archaeological find Indy has ever gone after before. Indy is large in the foreground, almost totally in shadow, while Marcus is back in the background, his face lit by the light of a lamp. It’s a gorgeous composition. Particularly during the opening sequence in the jungles of Peru, but also throughout the film, Indy spends a lot of time in darkness, seen only in silhouette. Characters are constantly moving from the background to the foreground and back again, which gives a fun, playful energy to the shots. (I noted this trait in Robert Zemeckis’ Back to the Future when watching it on the big screen, as well.) Mr. Spielberg is not at all afraid of the extreme close-up, particularly on Harrison Ford’s face.
And the action. Oh lordy, the action. The whole opening sequence in which Indy beats booby trap after booby trap, leading up to the run from the giant boulder. The street-fight in Cairo leading to the basket chase. The brutal flight around the giant wing (Nazi plane). The whole extended truck chase. Any one of those sequences would be the highlight of a movie — in Raiders, they’re just one more great scene in a movie which is exclusively a collection of great scenes. I must give special mention to the truck chase, which I think could be my favorite action sequence in any movie ever. It’s a meticulously constructed sequence, and under Mr. Spielberg’s capable direction we are able to follow each bit of the sequence to the next, clearly following the geography as Indy moves from a horse to a truck to under the truck to back on board, etc., and as he defeats each successive Nazi vehicle/soldier. There’s one clever bit after another, moment after moment as the excitement of the sequence builds and builds and builds. The stunt-work is fantastic, the acting (particularly by Mr. Ford) is superb (just watch Indy’s face throughout the chase), and of course John Williams’ score is pulse-pounding perfection.
Which brings us, inevitably, to John Williams’ impossible-t0-over-praise contribution. Not only is his Indiana Jones theme a work of pretty-much unparalleled iconic excellence (one of the most classic and hummable heroic themes ever written) but the entire score of the film is glorious. Marion’s theme is gorgeous, a wonderfully melodic and slightly mournful love theme, and the theme for the Ark itself is mysterious and epic and ominous. There is, literally, not one false note in the entire score. Would Raiders have been as successful without Mr. Williams’ music? I highly doubt it.
Every element came together perfectly to create Raiders of the Lost Ark. Steven Spielberg and George Lucas and Harrison Ford and all of their collaborators created a character and a world completely from nothing. (I love, by the way, that Raiders isn’t an origin story. We’re presented with a character, Indiana Jones, who is already who he is. The audience is just thrown into the story and the character. How many films do that these days?) The whole world of Raiders is so unique — yes, of course it was inspired by countless pulp adventures, but all of those reference points were blended together to create something completely new and wonderful. I can’t remember the last time a wholly original action hero and fantasy world were created on film. (The Matrix?)
Raiders of the Lost Ark still stands alone, over thirty years later (the film was released in 1981), as an unparalleled slice of movie perfection. It is one of my very favorite films of all time, and it was extraordinarily amazing to see it on the big screen.
Come back soon for my thoughts on Temple of Doom and The Last Crusade!