In the immortal words of the legendary Rocky Balboa “It Ain’t How Hard You Hit… It’s How Hard You Can Get Hit and Keep Moving Forward”. Steven Spielberg certainly got hit hard when 1941 proved to be a massive disappointment. In many ways Spielberg was a victim of his own accomplishments, because 1941 was actually commercial success—just not as big of a hit as they were hoping for. Perhaps even more important it plainly was not a good movie. So how did Spielberg make up for his first massive failure? Well he directed a little feature film known as Raiders of the Lost Ark. From the moment of its release Raiders struck a chord with audiences everywhere and has remained one of Spielberg’s best films. From the first crack of his whip, Indiana Jones became an icon of the adventure genre. While Jaws exemplifies terror and ‘Close Encounters’ explores the cosmos for deep meaning—Raiders of the Lost Ark is pure unadulterated entertainment at its highest levels.
In the film Harrison Ford plays Indiana Jones, an archeologist who is on constant search for lost treasures. Ford was by far the first choice to play lead. Actors like Tom Selleck, Nick Nolte, Martin Short, and even the comedic mastermind Bill Murray were all coveted to play the role of Dr. Jones. Luckily for us all they hired the right man for the job a few weeks before they started filming. Ford is simply perfect in this role. He has the comedic wit of a Murray or Martin, but he also the charm and charisma needed to make Jones into this idyllic champion of magnetism. Spielberg has stated when he was making Raiders he thought he was making nothing more than a B level move as an homage to the classic serials of the past. In many ways that is exactly what the movie is, though like a good homage should, it takes what has been done before and elevates it to another level. One key contributing factor in that success is the character of Indiana Jones.
With a chiseled jaw, rigidly detailed costume design, and unlimited amounts of bravery Indiana Jones is made into this hyper realistic version of the ultimate male protagonist. However, he is much more than a poster boy for the power of testosterone. If you look at his introduction, which is one of the best introductions to any character in cinema history, you see a man who relies on wit and athletic prowess equally. More importantly after outrunning rolling boulders, swinging over treacherous caverns, and dodging poisons tip darts he fails to claim his prize. All of his heroic acts cannot make him the conqueror of the day. The only victory he claims is his own life as he retreats to safety. It was as if they were announcing, “You have seen this character before…but not quite like this”. In addition adding facets like his day job as a teacher or his fear of snakes inputs a large amount of humanity into the character. He can do larger to life acts, but he never feels out of this world. Undoubtedly he is one of the best characters in modern movie history.
Once Indie returns back to the States he is quicky hired by the U.S. Government to track down the Ark of the Covenant that they believe is located someplace in Egypt. However, he is not alone as the Nazi government also have their eyes set on discovering this prize. Indie must overcome an old rival as well as a jilted past lover to claim the artifact for his country…and more importantly for his museum. Karen Allen plays that jilted past lover and does it brilliantly. Often when it comes to female parts in action films there are two distinct types; one being the typical damsel in distress and the other the leather clad sex-pot that enjoys punching things. Allen refuses to be categorized. She is one of the few people willing to bark back at Indie, and though she can hold her own when backed into a corner she also knows when a fight is lost. Sure she is used for a vice for Indie to rescue, but he is as much to blame for her capture as anyone. Both Ford and Allen have unlimited chemistry as the share in this chaotic relationship full of passion. Whatever emotion they are sharing it is surely going to be amped to the highest level.
When you look at what makes Raiders of the Lost Ark work so well it starts and ends with the amazing action. There is a certain amount of spectacle to this grandiose adventure. The set-pieces are designed with the utmost fluidity—as the action moves from moment to moment without hast. Excitement is always present—bursting at the seams—waiting to explode. Over thirty years have passed since it first hit the big screen and everything still looks as if it only happened days ago. Incredible stunt work adds a level of physicality to the unbelievable feats occurring on screen. Bringing the action to another level is an awesome score by John Williams. Today praise for the world renowned ‘Raiders March’ theme has become common place. What is habitually forgotten is how well it used throughout the film. Williams peppers the main theme throughout the early onset of the story, but masterfully adjust it to another theme or key. It is not until the final climax that the entire theme is released in all its glory. Like an enthusiastic rallying cry—it pushes our hero forward beyond normal restraints. Anticipation is at its highest limits and it opens the gates allowing our emotions to pour out with a reckless frenzy.
Another key aspect of what makes ‘Raiders’ such a triumph is how technically sound it is. From its classic use of light and shadow effects to its pitch perfect sound design, it emerges you fully into this experience. The way they went about creating sound effects were rather clever in their methodology. Whether it was sticking fingers into cheese casserole to augment the sound of snakes or hitting leather jackets with a baseball bat to create the most famous punch in cinema history, the use of sound was a key factor in making this film into a legend. It would also be outlandish to not mention the finite detail that when into the set design. Indiana Jones would not be the icon he is today if he was not given so many intriguing playgrounds to play in. Everything from the small minute details to the grand scope come together create one of the finest spectacles of pure entertainment.