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Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

by on 2011/01/11

“It’s not the years, honey, it’s the mileage.”

* * * *

When I originally saw Raiders of the Lost Ark, the year was 1981.  To my knowledge, there was nothing else quite like it.  I might have been reminded of The Lone Ranger, Tarzan, or Zorro, while my parents probably had different references, perhaps Casablanca or The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.

James Bond by way of a Republic Pictures’ serial, Raiders’ hero, Indiana Jones, was the brainchild of producer George Lucas, filtered through director Steven Spielberg.  His globe-trotting exploits serve archaeological science instead of Cold War politics, shifted back to 1936 and a world constructed by Exotica:  South American jungles, remote Asian villages, and Middle Eastern markets.

We’re introduced to our hero gradually, in a manner reminiscent of Bond himself in Dr. No, or the apes in Planet of the Apes (1968), hiding his face from sight until a pivotal revelation.  Known widely as Han Solo at the time, Harrison Ford must have posed a challenge to the filmmakers.  Fortunately, his rough hew and easy charm suit this character just as well.

The rest of the cast is effective, many in a league with Ford himself.  John Rhys Davies as Sallah leaves a lasting impression of warmth and humour, qualities common to many of his roles, including Leonid Pushkin in The Living Daylights and the dwarf, Gimli, in Lord of the Rings.  Karen Allen as Marion Ravenwood recalls the look, manner, and voice of Margot Kidder’s Lois Lane, only younger, and with more edge.  Finally Ronald Lacey, as Toht, gives a childhood-haunting performance as a psychotic John-Denver-esque Nazi, with a terrible smile and worse hair.

Raiders is meat and potatoes moviemaking well done.  In truth, it should be a three-star affair, but its uniqueness (or at least rarity), pervasive sense of fun, and as-yet unsurpassed effectiveness make it a treasure for the ages.  Like Alien, it’s another B-movie done to A-list standards.

The quality of its construction, however, is less the artifice of studied grit than careful economies . . . in script, in performance, and in post-production “meddling”.  While it isn’t perfect — watch the skies behind the opening of both the Well of Souls and the Ark — like Jones himself, that’s either part of its charm, or excused by it.

And could any discussion of the film not celebrate its music?  Unlikely given all John Williams achieves here.  It’s no insult to suggest the lyrical low-key passages match his Star Wars themes, and the sweeping action fanfares evoke his own Superman.

But the audio vamp in the Ark-focused scenes employ a descending three note riff so eerie, it’s always greatly unnerved me.  As with his work on Jaws, this modest refrain demonstrates many of what I’d consider Williams’ greatest strengths; it is at once elegant, evocative, and memorable.  Once heard, it’s irreplaceable.

Of course, we know the rest:  sequels, a television series, games, and many pretenders.  Cloaking themselves in the trappings of Indy, they attract and distract, not without fun, but ultimately reminding us of their original inspiration.  For its near-perfect unity of story, cast, and care, Raiders of the Lost Ark has, to date, reigned unmatched, certainly never bested.

* * * *

Rated PG/14A for frightening scenes and violence

115 minutes

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