RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK (1981) – Indiana Jones and the Template of Contrivances

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When Raiders of the Lost Ark was first released in 1981, I was as gaga over it as anyone, watching it over and over for the fine filmmaking and stunt work involved. A quarter-century later, I decided to show the movie to my then-9-year-old son (who had become a George Lucas-phile thanks to his intense connection with the Star Wars series).

In 1981, I would have given this movie five stars just for its non-stop thrills. Viewing it again, though, it looks a lot less than perfect.

As archeologist/adventurer Indiana Jones, Harrison Ford remains as roguish as ever, perhaps even channeling a little Humphrey Bogart into his sly performance. (Indeed, it’s a pity that Ford didn’t keep his “dark side” in further movie roles, instead transmogrifying into a pointy-jawed Mr. Perfection with each passing movie year.)

At the other end of the acting spectrum is Karen Allen as Marion, a long-deserted lover of Indy’s who reunites with him for his latest adventure. Marion is obviously intended as another spunky Lucas heroine (a la Princess Leia in Star Wars), but she fails miserably. She is forever telling the villains to “get your grimy hands off me,” and then as soon as they throw her over their shoulders like a sack of potatoes, she shuts right up with no riposte. (Reminds me of the woman in Monty Python’s Life of Brian who pounds incessantly on a Roman soldier’s chest, only to have him look down and nonchalantly say, “Stop that.”) There’s an especially unforgivable shot of Indy and Marion in the middle of a village swarming with bad guys; Indy seems to be literally fighting for his life, while in the background, Marion looks as though she’s taking a TV tray and robotically bopping willing villains on their heads.)

The story is set in 1936 and involves the lost Ark of the Convenant, which (the story tells us) Hitler as a fan of the occult was eager to possess. Archeologist Indy has been craving this treasure for years, and against all odds, tries to snatch it back from the Nazis.

There’s no denying that the thrills are still there and that the bad guys are movie-legend bad. (As evil Major Toht, Ronald Lacey seems to be letting the dialogue drip off his tongue.) If only it weren’t for that silly climax. (Big spoiler paragraph next.)

The greedy Nazis decide to have a look at the Ark’s treasures before delivering it to Hitler, while Indy and Marion are tied to a pole that is tantalizingly close to the Ark. The sucker gets uncovered, and suddenly ominous shapes and spirits ascend from the Ark and literally melt down the bad guys. Indy warns Marion to keep her eyes closed until the fracas is over. This leads to the strange thought that, if all these bad guys just shut their eyes for a while, they’d still have the Ark to themselves.

And then there’s that inane, Citizen Kane-tribute ending, where the Ark gets shoved into a warehouse with thousands of similarly crated treasures, and Indy complains that the Washington bureaucrats “don’t know what they have there.” But Indy does — shouldn’t he be warning them that if they ever open that thing, Washington bureaucracy will be decimated very quickly? Or does the evil that’s inside the Ark work its wonders only on Nazis?

Raiders of the Lost Ark is still an adventurous hoot, but nearly four decades have worn away its novelty, revealing a few too-smooth contrivances beneath.