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Raiders of the Lost Ark

#500 - Raiders of the Lost Ark
Steven Spielberg, 1981

A professor of archaeology who travels the world in search of new artifacts is recruited by the U.S. government to recover the mysterious and powerful Ark of the Covenant before the Nazis do.

I figured that I needed a special film to commemorate reaching 500 films in this thread, and what better choice than one of my true all-time favourites? Also, Indy 500. Ba-dum-tish. But seriously, folks, where do I begin with Raiders of the Lost Ark? It's been a favourite of mine for as long as I can remember - to quote one of the film's antagonists, I grew up on this. Indiana Jones was one of my earliest childhood heroes and even now he holds up as a believably developed action hero who has very human flaws that lend serious weight to his more notable acts of derring-do and sell the film's quieter moments really well (thanks in no small part to Harrison Ford's surprisingly good range here). The film surrounds him with an impressive cast playing everything from tough-mannered women to smarmy rivals through to sadistic interrogators. The plot moves along at a constant pace where even the non-action scenes still manage to bring in good characterisation or plot developments. On a technical level, there is a lot of craftsmanship put into every possible aspect of the film, whether it's the detailed production design or the clever mixtures of both cinematography and editing that keep things running at a brisk pace no matter what...and that's without mentioning the fact that it features one of John Williams' best scores.

Now, because positive superlatives are boring, let me write about the flaws that I find with the film.

Of course, it's still a major favourite, but that doesn't mean I can't subject it to the same kind of scrutiny that has come to define my reviewing style in recent times. I give the film some credit for introducing audiences to Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen), a rough-and-tumble heroine who is first introduced winning a drinking contest against a larger male opponent in the snowbound tavern that she owns and her reaction to seeing ex-lover Indy for the first time in a decade is to punch him in the face. These are some pretty good badass credentials that do add to the reasons why the tavern fight is one of the best bar-brawl scenes I've ever seen, but it's a shame that they soon go to waste as she ends up becoming something of a damsel-in-distress for much of her screen-time (even though she does do her best to escape, but would it really have killed Indy to free her that one time? Maybe, but still...) That's without mentioning that her whole line about being a child in love is quite possibly the clunkiest line to ever come out of a George Lucas-penned story, though I think that might just be because the rest of the dialogue feels so polished. Just watch the scene where Belloq (Paul Freeman) and Indy meet in a restaurant, then have one of the better "we're not so different" exchanges in film history.

The flaws even extend to the action that has come to define the franchise so well - the truck sequence may be one of the better-executed vehicular chases in film history, but after so many viewings it gets hard to ignore the haphazard ways in which the scenery changes for Indy's convenience (such as trees that dislodge the enemy soldiers clinging to the outside of the truck almost immediately changing to a cliff for an enemy jeep to go flying off). It's interesting to see just how many plot-holes get covered up by the power of editing - there's the notorious submarine situation, but scenarios such as Toht (Ronald Lacey) being ignored in the wake of the fiery bar brawl or even the speed with which the film reaches its conclusion. Having learned that the film won an Oscar for editing, I wonder if it did so simply because it was good enough to cover up certain narrative shortcomings. To this day I still don't quite know what the hell is going on with the room full of mummies that Marion stumbles into at one point, only that it works as an easy enough scare that probably shouldn't be thought about in depth.

Some of you may be wondering "if this is one of your all-time favourite movies, then why are you poking holes in it like this?" In short, because it can take it. Listing everything that I like about Raiders would not only take a while but it'd be boring to read and boring to write. Everybody knows how great Raiders is - even if somebody does somehow read this without knowing, then I can sum it up reasonably well. The characterisation is generally strong when it's not coming second to the narrative - having well-trained British thespians like Freeman or John Rhys-Davies on hand to bring extra gravitas to familiar archetypes certainly doesn't hurt. It may draw heavily on classic adventure serials, but its attempt to add a modern spin to the genre works wonders in every instance. There's a well-developed humour that doesn't fall completely into banal slapstick, the romantic sub-plot stands out because it doesn't feel poorly-developed, the music is constantly changing things up and makes use of not just one but two heroic leitmotifs that never get old, and so on and so forth. You shouldn't need me to sell you on how good this movie is even to people who don't normally go in for films like this. I'd argue that this is one of the few truly essential Hollywood adventure films. If you haven't seen it, then please do so at the earliest opportunity.