VINTAGE REVIEW: Raiders of the Lost Ark


This new series of "vintage reviews" will review classic movies and focus on their lessons and history and shorten the plot synopsis, since most people know these favorites.  Hopefully, they will also spur some great experiences and discussion too.  Enjoy!

Steven Spielberg and George Lucas invented and reinvented the summer blockbuster in their own ways with Spielberg's Jaws in 1975 and Lucas's Star Wars in 1977.  When they joined forces with 1981's Raiders of the Lost Ark, they created arguably the greatest hero character in movie history and cinema's best adventure movie.  Henry "Indiana" Jones, Jr. was bigger than a Harvard archaeologist and professor.  He was the embodiment of pure adventure: an Allan Quartermain who hunted for science, a Sherlock Holmes for education, James Bond without the gadgets, Zorro with a career, and Clint Eastwood with a pulse and a purpose.

To this day, Indiana Jones ranks as the second greatest (to Atticus Finch in To Kill A Mockingbird) movie hero of all time by the American Film Institute's "100 Years... 100 Heroes and Villains" and second on Entertainment Weekly's list of "All-Time Coolest Movie Characters" to James Bond.  Just recently this year, Time just ranked him #2 to Sherlock Holmes on their list of the greatest fictional characters of all-time.  That's ahead of anything comic (Superman, Batman, etc.), anything Shakespeare (Romeo, Hamlet, etc.), and anything from an American novel (Finch, Caulfield, Gatsby, etc.).  That's pretty impressive company for a silly movie creation!

We can thank Tom Selleck for being too busy with Magnum, P.I. which opened the door for Harrison Ford to reteam with Lucas.  Doesn't that create a visual of a mustached hula shirt masquerading as the romantic cynic?  If it doesn't, that's because Ford nailed the part in every way.  We can't envision anyone else playing Indiana Jones, not in the past, not in the future, and not in this lifetime.  This goes on this list of one of those movies you can never update or remake.  The series can never be matched or duplicated.  Even when they tried to resurrect it with today's dazzling effects you got the suspect Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. It didn't feel the same as the gritty, sweaty, and dusty original.

Raiders of the Lost Ark started it all and went on to be nominated for eight Academy Awards (including Best Picture) and won four.  The movie follows our hero's quest to find the "Ark of the Covenant," which holds the remnants of the original Ten Commandments, before the Nazis did in 1936 Cairo.  The movie is known for showcasing the globe-trotting chase and stunt-filled action, but it is just as successful in displaying a sweeping redemptive love story with Indiana and his ex-flame Marion Ravenwood (Karen Black) along the way.

Spielberg and Lucas made Raiders of the Lost Ark as a homage to the Saturday morning adventure serials of the 1930's and 1940's.  The look and feel of the finished product is like no other, between the locations, the fashion, and the sets (and the snakes!).  The use of shadow and silhouette by cinematographer Douglas Slocumbe was genius, and there isn't a more recognizable movie anthem than the great John William's march and score (unless you count the other film music he himself has created for Jaws, Star Wars, and Superman).  Today, Raiders of the Lost Ark hasn't lost it's entertainment edge in today's day-and-age of CGI effects-driven blockbusters.  If anything, the old-fashioned homage and stunt-work is appreciated more.

LESSON #1: WIT CAN OUTPERFORM BRAWN--  Sure, Indiana Jones could put his dukes up, pull a .45, or crack a whip and throw down if he needed to, but he prided himself on outwitting and being smarter than the other guy.  He wasn't afraid to take notes in class and use his intellect to solve problems and defeat his competitors.

LESSON #2: DON'T BRING A KNIFE TO A GUNFIGHT--  I think you all know what classic scene I'm talking about! 

LESSON #3: NETWORKING EXTENDS YOUR REACH AND EFFECTIVENESS-John Rhys-Davies's Sallah is just one of many friends around the world Indiana Jones has picked up along the way in his travels.  Whether it's a reference list, a Rolodex, or "a girl in every port," it helps to network and have contacts in foreign places.  You never know when you'll be somewhere and need a friend, a favor, or a place to lay low.

LESSON #4: THE DEBATE BETWEEN SCIENCE AND RELIGION-- Indiana Jones is classically characterized as a worldly, romantic cynic.  He is highly educated in his scientific field but doesn't believe in the hocus-pocus, mumbo-jumbo, and magic that sometimes is associated with religion and indigenous beliefs.  One thing that makes the Indiana Jones series so watchable and fascinating are the connections to fabled religious artifacts and the challenges of faith it puts its scientific characters through.  The audience is along for the ride in that debate and challenge.

LESSON #5: SOME THINGS ARE BETTER LEFT UNDISTURBED-- Items, places, and things of great power should be used, visited, or wielded only by those who truly understand or can control them.  This translates from the simple to the divine.  Kids, don't touch shiny objects.  If you're not trained to use a gun, don't pick one up.  If you don't know how to properly handle reptiles, don't try to wrestle an alligator.  Don't tug on Superman's cape and, Nazis, don't mess with God's stuff!