Monday, November 21, 2011

Movie Review: Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark

In one of the most iconic films of the early 80s, Harrison Ford defies death, the Third Reich and, most importantly, the Star Wars curse as he battles to obtain one of the most sacred artifacts of the Western World.
The opening scenes to Raiders of the Lost Ark set the tone perfectly for the film- and, I believe, for the entire series, though I'm still speculating on that. Once I finish this review, I can send Raiders back to Netflix and watch Temple of Doom. Anyway, Indy quickly reveals his skill, temperament, his luck and the extent of his planning- in that order.

 Let's get on to the inevitable. I have a Star Wars column, so naturally when I see Harrison Ford I need to make a Han Solo comparison. Well, yes, there is a little of that inclination. More importantly, in my eyes, is the fact that I've heard comments made to the effect that Han Solo and Indiana Jones are the same character. From “a certain point of view” I can understand that. There are two different sides to Han Solo, both of which are necessary to understand him as a literary character and both of them are present in Indiana Jones, although to different degrees.

 One side of Han is the way he's constantly built up- his exploits, his ability to function as a cold-hearted businessman, his survival of impossible situations. There's also the side of Han in which he exists as comic relief: the stories that everything he accomplishes is due to luck, his history of being turned on by his comrades or otherwise facing impossible odds. The success of Han Solo as a character relies on the first side being shown just enough to convince the reader that it is his default mode with the reality being that the second side is far more prominent in works heavily featuring him. The success of Indiana Jones as a character requires that just enough of the second category be shown to create a cheesy and amusing atmosphere while he relies on the first category for his very survival and those of his comrades (although luck certainly plays a part in his survival as well).

 Jones, like Solo, is of a morality that is not entirely devout, but nor is it the callous disregard for human nature shown by Boba Fett; another character that shows a bit of reflection in Jones's skills and body language. While I'm on a Star Wars trip, the opening of the film shows us one more character, as slight as Fett, that may have influenced Indiana Jones: Sir Alec Guiness's portrayal of Obi-Wan Kenobi. It's not much, but subtle hints in the way Jones reacts to sudden turnabouts in circumstances and his canny regard as he identifies traps just seems informed by the elder actor.

 After the opening sequence, which has little relevance to the plot but is rather effective at introducing us to both Indy and Belloq, his rival and Arkh nemesis. We then move on to the main plot: finding the Ark of the Covenant before a detachment of Nazis, including Arkhaeological adviser Renee Belloq. First, we need to go on a side trip to introduce us to Marion, the sort of love interest and token female in this flick, and S.S. Major Toht, the villain that Belloq is too apathetic to be. Marion is a big question mark all around. I just can't tell when she is supposed to be acting and when she's not. If she's pretending to be drunk, we should see more scenes of her acting sober immediately afterward. If she's not pretending, then why does she keep playing drinking games and losing? Then again, she acts like she's drunk whether she's sober or not, so again, this begs the question- when is this character acting? Is she serious about how she has no particular loyalty for Jones? O is she acting? Is she just horny and will take any companionship she can find? The lack of understandable motivation for this character is probably this movie's biggest flaw. That said, I think Karen Allen did a great job creating a somewhat likable and rather entertaining character- I just think she needed a little more direction.

 A better script wouldn't have hurt, either (though she seems to be the only character that suffers from this- last minute addition?). Even though Raiders of the Lost Ark came out years in advance, I can't help but make a comparison to Disney's Aladdin once they make it to their destination. Maybe it's because of the monkey that manages to say “uh oh” (although Abu didn't play both sides of the fence). Maybe it's because Marion in Cairo reminds me of the way Jasmine would have acted if she were drunk (was Marion drunk?). Maybe it's just the imagery and the hustle and bustle of an Arabian city which I have yet to see in many contexts.

 The tone of the film is intentional cheesiness with a realistic presentation- the type of film that won't show the gruesome details of an airplane propeller making short work of a Nazi but doesn't shy away from portraying the blood spatter either. And that's not a figurative example in this case. Raiders toes the line in the expert way that the mind behind Return of the Jedi could accomplish- along with Spielberg and others in major roles. Harrison Ford, so good at his role (Han and Indy's attitudes are similar enough that it's like a third film in a row for him at this point), plays a major role in this tone, as does Karen Allen.

 I'm not going to go down the IMDb list, but I can't think of a single major or supporting role from this film that does not do a great acting job here. The perfect example of the tone is the first appearance of the now-iconic Indiana Jones theme music (score by John Williams, which doesn't even need me to elaborate): Indiana jumps onto a vine, starts to swing, the epic music starts playing... and he falls into the water and swims to the plane. This is followed shortly thereafter by what must be the cheesiest scene in the entire film, not for anything that really happens or the effects, but simply Harrison Ford's immense (presumably intentional) overacting, coupled with the choppy edits, as he explains to Jacques just how he feels about snakes. To clarify: no, this does not look as professional and modern as the rest of the film, and no, I do not think this is a drawback. It's like putting a big cheese wheel on top of the platter and crackers- now you know exactly what to expect from the rest of the film. The pepperoni and hummus are now pleasant surprises as you enjoy the cheese you came for in the first place. Normally, I would conclude this review here. But, I think I just did, by accident. Seriously, what can I say that will top that? Oh. Wine. Well, I did mention a token female who drinks. I think she works as the wine in the metaphor.

  Bill Silvia is a regular contributor at Fantasy & SciFi Lovin' News & Reviews. You can find more of his work at


Charles Gramlich said...

One of my favorite films of all time.

Project Savior said...

Indie shot first.
Had to say it. That was the key to the movie. Where it wasn't clear in Star Wars that Han shot first, in Raiders Indie just walked down the street and blasted someone who might have been a threat, or might have been an innocent by-stander. Showing him to be a complete psycho.

SQT said...

I agree with Charles.

I grew up with Indiana Jones-- saw every movie (except the abysmal Crystal Skull) in the theater as they came out. But I never saw Indiana as Han Solo. Even though there was a slight overlap of the characters (Jedi was made in '83 and Indiana was introduced in '81) I never felt like they were trying to make Han into an archaeologist. Every actor brings certain mannerisms to a film, but I never had a problem separating the characters.

I suppose you could say there's a certain cheesy quality to Indiana Jones, but nothing that isn't intentional-- they are based on 1930's era film serials after all. The music and the maps that show Indy's travels are all part of that and the overall feel is consistent with what they were trying to portray.

I also didn't feel that Marion was a confusing character. Her motives regarding Indy are crystal clear IMO. She resents his past behavior but still loves him. She's tough and used to getting by on her wits (hence the ability to hold her liquor and play drunk when necessary). I think having her do an over-the-top drunk act is unnecessary as it would come across as spelling things out too much for the audience.

xenophon38 said...

It's unfortunate that Lucas decided to re-release Star Wars in 3-D instead of Raiders. The B-movie action/ adventure genre this film is an homage to perfectly lends itself to 3-D. Besides, who doesn't want to see a giant boulder rolling at them or a whip jump out of the screen?

Alexander Knight said...

Great movie! And someone with enough dedication might be able to pull off all of the things he did.