Revisiting “Raiders of the Lost Ark” in cinema…

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Whip it good.

This week, my wife and I took in a screening of the 1981 Steven Spielberg/George Lucas classic “Raiders of the Lost Ark” at our local cinema.   I hadn’t seen “Raiders” theatrically since the summer of 1981, when I was all of 14.   This time, nearly four decades later, I was a bespectacled married man a few years shy of qualifying for a Denny’s discount.

The screen wasn’t one of the larger ones at this particular multiplex, but it was certainly a whole lot bigger than the varieties of TV screens I’ve seen “Raiders” on in the decades since its initial release (including our current 43” TV).

What a difference a cinema-sized screen made, too.

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I’ve always enjoyed “Raiders” and the other Indiana Jones films (well, more like half of them), but I’d forgotten over time just how truly exciting “Raiders” on the big screen could be.

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With a nearly packed theatre (surprising for a Thursday night), the smell of popcorn hanging heavy in the air, and (best of all) no trailers, the movie started right on time at 7:15 pm.   Unfortunately, a lot of Johnny-come-latelies moseyed in anywhere up to 15 minutes after the movie started (always come a little early, people), but pre-assigned seats took care of that issue for us.   There were also quite a few kids in the audience as well, and a part of me was wondering what their experience of seeing this movie for the first time would be like.

I won’t go into a plot summary, nor will I bother with spoiler alerts, since the movie is nearly 40 years old and is widely regarded as a classic.

Harrison Ford in Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

The print used for this digital presentation looked slightly brighter than I was used to, which also had the effect of making it look more like the slightly faded, grainy film copy I remembered seeing as a kid.   My own DVD of the film has somewhat stronger black levels and more saturated colors, but this was okay; I was seeing the film the way it was supposed to be seen; on a big screen with a full audience.

Many of the old beats of the movie I’d seen countless times before seemed fresh again.

Harrison Ford in Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

The giant rolling boulder chasing Indy (a shockingly young Harrison Ford) through the Hovitos’ temple seemed a lot more harrowing on a larger screen.   I was half-tempted to duck.  My wife said after the film, “It gives me a new appreciation for the Disneyland ride.”

Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

My wife and I giggled at the “Eye-Love-You” student in Dr. Jones’ class.  Have no idea who the actress is, but her expressive eye shadow still gets a good audience reaction.

I still laughed aloud at the moment where Indy is confronted by the fearsome, black-clad, bearded swordsman whom he simply shoots dead with a single shot from his pistol.   Seeing that gag once again on a large screen amplified the comedy of it.

Karen Allen in Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

Karen Allen as “Marion Ravenwood” is a performance that really leaps off the big screen.  Even as a kid, I remembered her from “National Lampoon’s Animal House” (1978) which I saw at age 12 (don’t ask, don’t judge; we saw lots of R-rated movies when I was a kid… free-range parenting).   Allen’s performance in “Raiders” is every bit as big as Ford’s, and it still works.   Marion isn’t some ice-queen Bond girl; she is a two-fisted, hard-drinking, bold-as-brass woman more in the mold of Carrie Fisher’s Princess Leia (even more so).  Seeing Marion on the big screen again reminded me how important a counterweight her presence is to the movie.   She is not Indy’s arm candy; she truly is his “goddamn partner.”

Despite the period setting,  Marion feels a lot more like a modern female character than a character from the 1930s or even 1981 (and that’s a compliment).  I sincerely wish that Marion came back for the next two Indiana Jones’ movies, but more on that later.

Paul Freeman in Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

Also deserving of special mention is actor Paul Freeman as “Rene Belloq,” the champagne sipping-villain to Ford’s beer-drinking hero.  Freeman gives Belloq many shadings, including moments of vulnerability and humor which elevate the character beyond a simple mustache twirler of the kind seen in the action-serials of the 1930s (the kind the “Indiana Jones” movies lovingly reference).  There is, of course, also that famous moment in the canyon where he faces off against Jones for possession of the Ark when the actor clearly swallows a fly mid-sentence and never breaks character.

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Actor John Rhys-Davies’ sidekick “Sallah” is played as warmly gregarious, and not just as one-dimensional comic relief.  My wife and I actually had the chance to meet the actor 14 years ago in Pasadena, and he was very kind.  He posed for a selfie with us, and even signed my wife’s “Lord of the Rings” DVD box set (which we just happened to have with us…hehe).   This was not a paid autograph-signing event either, just a chance encounter.   The good natured grace of John Rhys-Davies is what I remember most.    He also has a terrific singing voice; just listen to his rendition of “A British Tar” in the film.

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The late Ronald Lacey’s “Toht” is a scary, creepy-as-hell  homage to classic villain/character actor Peter Lorre, with a bit of Laurence Olivier’s diabolical dentist from 1976’s “Marathon Man” thrown in.   Once again, Lacey’s larger-than-life villainy is more powerful on a big screen.   Lacey just oozes creepiness in his otherwise simple line of  “Now…what shall we talk about?”

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Aside from those great big characters filling up the screen, I was also (once again) impressed with the amazing, all-practical stunt-work.

There was no CGI in 1981.  Those were hundreds of real snakes in the Well of Souls.  Those were full-size cars and planes blowing up.   That was a real performer being dragged behind the Nazi truck (in the closeups, you can clearly see it was Ford).  The tangible reality of the stunt work makes this film feel a lot more dangerous than most action films of today.

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Even the large submarine that Indy hitches a ride on is ‘real’; it was a full-size WW2-era prop built for the 1981 German TV miniseries-turned-theatrical-film “Das Boot” (directed by Wolfgang Petersen).

Like that other Spielberg-favorite movie of mine JAWS,  I imagine a remake (or special edition) of this film would be drowning in computer-generated FX, and would probably lack the tactility and danger that makes “Raiders” such a wildly entertaining ride to this day.   Forgive the old cliche, but they don’t make ‘em like that anymore.

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If anything puts a bit of a time stamp on this movie, it’s the pre-digital optical FX seen in the final Ark opening ceremony.   Some thick matte lines are present, and the hand-rotoscoped ‘ghost’ FX look like a precursor to 1984’s “Ghostbusters.”   This isn’t meant as an insult or even a criticism, as the effects were state of the art in those days, and they still work.  “Raiders” doesn’t need a CGI-packed remake or “special edition” to be viable for modern audiences.   Since the movie is a period piece anyway, the slightly dated opticals only add to its charm.    The kids I saw at our screening seem to dig it as much as we oldsters did.  “Raiders of the Lost Ark” is as timeless today as the original “Star Wars.”   It doesn’t even have bad ‘70s hairdos to betray it.

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It’s also a bit cathartic, in the alarmingly fascistic times, to see brutal Nazi thugs get a well-deserved ass kicking.  

 

Disputing the Amy Farrah Fowler “Raiders of the Lost Ark” problem.

The TV sitcom “Big Bang Theory” posited a major problem with the plot of “Raiders of the Lost Ark.”   After watching the movie with her beau Sheldon Cooper (Jim Parsons),  Amy Farrah Fowler (Mayim Bialik) points out a glaring flaw with the film; the character of Indiana Jones seems utterly inconsequential to the story.    There is merit to this theory, too (see the video).

However, as my brilliant wife pointed out after we saw it, Indiana and Marion did play a role in the outcome of the story, though it’s largely presumptive and off-camera.

Once the Nazis abandoned the Ark on the island (Crete?) following their disastrous attempt to probe its secrets, nothing prevented the Nazis from simply sending reinforcements to back to the island to reclaim it.   But Indy and Marion survived the Ark’s wrath, and prevented this outcome.

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Jones and Marion must have somehow signaled American allies (perhaps some of the Nazi’s radio equipment was undamaged) who then rescued them and were thus able to retrieve the Ark for safe-keeping in the cavernous government warehouse full of who-knows-what seen in the film’s final shot.

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If Jones and Marion hadn’t closed their eyes to survive the Nazi-induced blasphemy, the Ark could have wound up in Nazi hands.  I’d assume that Hitler would’ve gladly wasted entire squads of his own men trying to understand the Ark’s power, so long as the artifact remained in his control.

Either way, it wouldn’t be safe in the hands of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s United States were it not for the (admittedly unseen) efforts of Indiana Jones and Marion Ravenwood and whatever allied forces rescued them.

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Sequels and prequels of the Lost Ark.

The sequels to “Raiders” were largely hit-or-miss for me.

Harrison Ford, Kate Capshaw, and Jonathan Ke Quan in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984)

I recently watched the prequel “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” (1984) about a year ago, and it hasn’t aged nearly as well as its predecessor.   The movie is darker (which I’m generally okay with), but it comes at the expense of its sense of fun.   I was also a bit surprised at how shockingly racist it seemed today in 2018, with Indians in the movie depicted as sad-faced, mystical primitives who need a white savior to swoop in and save them.

Harrison Ford and Kate Capshaw in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984)

No offense to the current Mrs. Spielberg, but Kate Capshaw’s “Willie Scott” is a screaming, obnoxious creampuff.   Her character is a throwback to the shrieking damsel-in-distress female leads largely seen in pre-1970s cinema.   Willie’s a considerable downgrade after the rough-and-tumble Marion.

The sidekick role was given to talented child actor Jonathan Ke Quan (who would later costar in the 1985 cult-film “Goonies”).   Quan’s “Short Round” is one of the few bright spots in a movie surprisingly short on charm.  Most of the film’s most memorable quotes are his (“No time for love, Doctor Jones!”).

To its credit, there are a handful of really good action pieces in “Temple” (the inflatable raft landing and mine car chase are exceptionally well-executed).  But at the end of the day, the movie is a depressing disappointment that lacks the energy and fun of “Raiders.”

Sean Connery and Harrison Ford in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)

“Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” (1989) rebounded in a big way from the disappointing “Temple” with the introduction of Indy’s pop, Henry Jones Sr (played with  owlish charm by former James Bond Sean Connery).   Ford and Connery make for a perfectly natural pairing onscreen.  Despite the actors’ mere 12-year age gap, their casting as father and son truly works.

Sean Connery, Harrison Ford, Denholm Elliott, and John Rhys-Davies in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)

In many ways “Crusade” is something of a remake of “Raiders,” with another race between the Nazis and the Jones boys to obtain another all-powerful religious artifact.  The artifact in question this time is (literally) the Holy Grail; the original cup of Jesus Christ, which is supposed to grant immortality to anyone who drinks from it.

Right off, I enjoyed the movie’s prologue sequence, with the late River Phoenix playing a teenaged Indiana Jones to perfection.   Phoenix had played Ford’s son a few years earlier in 1986’s “The Mosquito Coast.”   Even 25 years later, Phoenix’s loss is keenly felt.

Julian Glover and Alison Doody in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)

The villainy is better this time out as well.   The loyalty of “Walter Donovan” (Julian Glover) is for hire, like Belloq, to whomever aids him in his quest for the Grail.

Irish actress Alison Doody’s “Elsa” is an equally duplicitous, seductive Nazi archeologist who also shifts allegiance between the Jones’ boys and her fatherland.   Doody gives a fine performance, and is much more interesting than Capshaw’s Scott, but I still miss Marion.

Harrison Ford and Karen Allen in Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

I think that was one of the biggest missteps made with this movie series; the impulse to ‘Bond it up’ by giving Indy a different girl in every movie.

Marion was all Indy ever needed.

Karen Allen’s Marion would eventually return almost 20 years later for the ill-conceived “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” (2008).

Harrison Ford, Karen Allen, and Shia LaBeouf in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008)

“Kingdom” was a sequel that didn’t need to exist.   “Last Crusade” had the Jones’ boys, Sallah, and Marcus Brody (the late Denholm Elliot) riding off into the sunset together.  It was a near-perfect end to the trilogy.    Now, we have a 60-something Jones teaming up with his greaser son Mutt (Shia LaBeouf) and eventually reuniting with Mutt’s mother Marion.   Nice to have her back, but it’s too little, too late.

Harrison Ford, Cate Blanchett, Andrew Divoff, and Pasha D. Lychnikoff in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008)

While the late John Hurt’s presence in the movie is welcome, I was less interested with Cate Blanchett’s “Boris & Natasha”-sounding Soviet agent.  For an actress of her abilities (see: 2015’s “Carol”), she comes off as cartoonish, and the one-note character has none of the shadings of Belloq, or even the duplicitous Elsa.

The plot of “Kingdom” involves aliens in flying saucers from another dimension.  This particular story feels far more like generic science-fiction than the mythic, holy quests of the previous movies.  Personally, I prefer mythic holy quests over sci-fi aliens in an Indiana Jones movie.   I say that as an atheist who gladly suspends disbelief for the sake of good entertainment.

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I get that Lucas & Spielberg were trying to pay homage to the many ‘flying saucer’ B-movies of the 1950s (the period in which this movie is set) but with so many slick, computer-generated FX ladled into it, the homage ultimately fails.   It doesn’t look or feel like a 1950s B-movie, nor does it try.   Even if the aliens were done in the Ray Harryhausen style of 1956’s “Earth vs. the Flying Saucers,” it wouldn’t have worked because the idea is ill-conceived.   Inter-dimensional aliens make a poor substitute for all-powerful, wrathful divinities.

Indiana Jones just shouldn’t do hard sci-fi.

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The ending of “Kingdom” sees Marion and Indy getting hitched, but that’s small consolation for such a disappointing story.

 

Sean Patrick Flanery and Francesco Quinn in The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles (1992)
^ Sean Patrick Flannery (right, with trademark fedora and chin scar) is a younger Indiana Jones.

Sadly, I don’t remember TV’s “The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles” (1992-1993 ) very well.  I do remember watching a few episodes back when it first aired, but it never really stuck with me for some reason.   At the time, the show seemed a lot more meandering, and lacked the roller-coaster adventure of the feature films.  Granted, an Indiana Jones TV series with the movies’ impact would’ve been prohibitively expensive for early 1990s television, but it reaffirmed my belief that the adventures of Indiana Jones truly belonged on the big screen.   That said?  The show wasn’t exactly awful, either.  I do remember there were many interesting historical encounters (Sigmund Freud, Pablo Picasso, etc), as well as some lush production values.  It was like studying for a history exam on the grounds at Disneyland.  I’m sure my older self would find a lot more to enjoy about this series than my younger self did.

I think I need to revisit this one sometime…

 
Summing it up.

Seeing “Raiders of the Lost Ark” cinematically once again has reawakened my love for this film, despite my mixed emotions for its prequel/sequels.    Like Spielberg’s JAWS, “Raiders” still works for today’s audiences just as well as it did in 1981.

If I had another chance to see “Raiders of the Lost Ark” (or even “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade”) in theatrical release again, I’d go in a minute.

With its in-camera stunts, effects, epic adventure and wonderfully larger-than-life characters, “Raiders of the Lost Ark” is analog-era moviemaking at its apex.

 

 

 

 

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One Comment Add yours

  1. David says:

    Great reminiscencing! I would have brought my DVD box set to get signed by Jon Rhy-Davies of the great 1980s miniseries Shogun where he played the roguish ship captain Rodriguez. In fact, I hope you review Shogun sometime in the future: it rocked my world and opened up mind to Japan!

    Liked by 2 people

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