Movie Reviews

Movie Review: Raiders of the Lost Ark – The Best Movie of 1981

Written by Philip Kaufman, George Lucas, and Lawrence Kasdan
Directed by Steven Spielberg

In the early 1980s, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas teamed up with the idea of creating an adventure serial the likes of which they remember from going to the movies during their own childhoods. The result was Raiders of the Lost Ark, a film that spawned four sequels (the newest is due to be released next year), a television series, novels, comic books, toys, video games, and a couple of theme park attractions.

Raiders of the Lost Ark opens with an archaeological expedition through the jungles of South America, led by Professor Henry “Indiana” Jones (portrayed by Harrison Ford). This sequence sets the tone for the remaining part of the film – the rivalry between Jones and Rene Belloq (portrayed by Paul Freeman); the adventure-like quest for a treasured artifact.

When Indy returns to the university that sponsored the trip, he is greeted by Dr. Marcus Brody (portrayed by Denholm Elliott), a friend who urges him to meet with two men interested in his work. These government representatives are interested in his work with Professor Ravenwood, to be specific. They have gotten word of archaeological expeditions by the Nazis and an intercepted transmission leads them all to believe the Nazis are hot on the trail of the Ark of the Covenant. It is believed to be located in the lost city of Tanis, which it seems the Nazis might have located beneath the desert sands.

Indy is hired to locate the Ark before the Nazis get their hands on it and secure it for the U.S. Government. There’s one problem that he hasn’t told anyone about: bad blood between him and Professor Ravenwood over his daughter, Marion (portrayed by Karen Allen).

There is just so much right about Raiders of the Lost Ark. It’s got a terrific mix of action as well as a great story. It’s not like a story that is there just to fill in the gaps between the all-important action sequences. The story is terrific in its own right. The movie moves along at a good pace, dishing out bits and pieces about the famed archaeologist as well as clues about the location of the Ark.

The action sequences are terrific with the right amount of suspense and are often offset with a bit of humor, such as when Indy confronts the knife-wielding assassin in the Egyptian street. Marion provides a love interest as well as a conflicted history.

There are a few slow moments, but even those serve to propel the story and do fit nicely in the overall flow of the movie. The way Indy tells what the headpiece of Ra’s staff is and how it fits into the story works well without feeling forced.

The cinematography is stunning, especially the scene where Indy is leading a digging party against the backdrop of the setting sun. There are many instances of using the characters as shadows against a light and it’s done quite well. From the mountains of Nepal to the sands of Egypt, everything looks beautiful without looking too beautiful. The special effects scenes are great, even if they are limited to a few minutes near the end.

The acting is superb. Harrison Ford is spot-on as Indiana Jones. He wears a Fedora, a well-worn leather jacket, and carries a bull-whip and never once feels fake or forced. The demeanor with which he carries himself is not quite a swagger but is definitely self-assured. He treads a thin line to overdoing it, and the way that the character was written could be unbelievable in the hands of another actor. Ford pulls it off magnificently.

Karen Allen is fine as the love interest. She’s capable in her own right, while at the same time giving off an air of vulnerability and sex appeal. John Rhys-Davies is excellent as their Egyptian host and provides some good comic relief at times.

On the villain side, well, they are Nazis. You don’t have to work hard to make the audience hate them. Belloq is at least multi-dimensional in Freeman’s hands. He has a soft spot for Marion. The rest of the Nazis are bad with no redeeming qualities and there’s neither the time nor inclination to humanize them. That’s perfectly fine – they are the bad guys; the ones with the black hats. That’s all the audience needs to know.

Raiders of the Lost Ark is pure fun and something the whole family can enjoy together. There are a few scenes that might frighten younger viewers, especially near the end, but in general, it’s just a lot of fun.

6 replies »

  1. Raiders of the Lost Ark is the first movie directed by Steven Spielberg that I ever saw in theaters. I’d seen Jaws – either in 1979 or 1980 – at a neighbor’s house; the family that lived there owned a then-rare and pricey VHS videocassette recorder, and the lady of the house (a real estate agent named Jackie) invited me to watch Jaws. I had not been allowed to watch Jaws in ’75 (I was 12 then, and Mom didn’t want to see it, so…), so when I saw it as a teenager, it blew me away and turned me into a Steven Spielberg fan.

    Although Spielberg made Close Encounters of the Third Kind and 1941 between Jaws and Raiders, I wasn’t into UFO lore so I skipped CE3K, and 1941 was not a movie that got good buzz, so even though I kinda, sorta wanted to see it, I eventually chose to sit that one out.

    Raiders, though….That one I wanted to see, partly because it starred Harrison Ford, partly because John Williams wrote the score, and partly because George Lucas was involved. Plus, the novelization came out a month before the movie came out and I’d read it, so…

    This is my favorite movie from 1981, and I saw it three times in theaters in both Miami and Sebring (a small town that is not that far from where I am now, at least not in the context of driving).

    • I got to see Close Encounters when it came out because my parents were interested in it. 1941 I don’t remember seeing until it was on VHS years later. Raiders, though, was something I was really looking forward to. I can remember all of the buzz around this at the time.

      • I was just getting into science-fiction in 1977, and since I had not seen Jaws yet, I had zero interest in CE3K (even though now it’s one of my fave 1970s movies).

        I wasn’t too keen on 1941 until relatively recently; it was Spielberg’s first big flop, and that was a major disincentive. It wasn’t till I heard John Williams’ “March from 1941” that my curiosity was aroused, but I still waited till the ’00s to get the DVD. (It’s not a terrible movie, but it’s also not one of my favorite Spielberg films, either.)