We’ve come to accept Raiders of the Lost Ark as such a beloved classic that a lot of people forget just what a risky venture this seemed back in 1981. Spielberg was still smarting from the commercial and critical sting of 1941. George Lucas was the can’t-miss name on this project, but even still, a modern take on the old cliffhanger serials of the 30s and 40s? With a star who had yet to prove he could make a film a hit without a Wookiee next to him? And that title? I remember thinking a movie about a bunch of people raiding Noah’s Ark sounded like the dumbest thing ever, like some kind of glorified Disney movie.
Cut to the early afternoon of Saturday, June 13th, 1981, and me and my dad sitting there in absolute gob-smacked amazement as we watched Spielberg, Lucas and Ford actually pull the damn thing off.
That first viewing of Raiders remains one of my favorite movie-going experiences ever, and it’s one that’s likely never to be repeated simply because they way we hear about movies has so irrevocably changed. We didn’t have the Internet to bring us advance reviews or spy reports from the set. There weren’t elaborate panels at Comic Con. Media coverage didn’t feel like it was about who could reveal the most details before the film was even released. We’d see a trailer or two in the theater, a few TV spots, and maybe tune in to see what Siskel and Ebert thought about it. It was possible to walk into a film with almost no idea what was in store outside of the most basic plot. Which made it a lot easier to be surprised. And boy were we surprised by Raiders.
What set Raiders apart from the raft of pale imitators that came after it was that it wasn’t simply aping those old serials, but was coming from a place of genuine affection for them. There’s no ironic commentary, no wink at the audience as if to say this is all pretty silly. In a lot of ways, Raiders is a close cousin of Star Wars, outside of the obvious Lucas and Ford connections. Both films freely and lovingly embrace an older, perhaps looked-down-upon genre, and revitalize it for a newer audience by playing it completely straight, respecting both the source of their inspiration and the audience that has come to watch. Both hearken back to a simpler time when good was good and evil was evil, and we knew who was going to win in the end.
Probably the smartest thing they did was to jump right in and start the movie off in the middle of one of Indy’s adventures. You’re not given time to ask any questions, you’re not inundated with backstory and set-up, you’re just thrown in and completely immersed in treacherous jungles and hidden temples. And from the second Indy steps out of the shadows, he’s an icon. It’s one of the greatest entrances in film history, and as nice a guy and as good an actor as Tom Selleck may be, it’s impossible to imagine anyone but Harrison Ford bringing the disheveled competence with which he inhabits Indy. A lot’s been made of the fact that, throughout Raiders, Indy basically fails every step of the way. Right from the get-go, he loses the idol to Belloq. About the only thing he successfully does is rescue Marion from Toht in Nepal, and that’s pretty early on. The rest of the way, he’s a purely reactive hero — the finale essentially consists of him closing his eyes and looking away. But the heroism of Indy doesn’t come from his always winning; it’s from his never quitting. Throw him down a well, drag him behind a truck, nearly drown him with a submarine, it doesn’t matter. If he thinks he has a chance, he’ll keep fighting. We’re sort of conditioned to love the underdog, and if anything, that’s Indy to a tee.
Even though I’ve mentioned him several times, I feel like I haven’t given John Williams enough credit through most of these entries; he’s scored all but two of Spielberg’s films, sometimes elevating a less than stellar effort from Spielberg to watchable levels thanks to his music, and sometimes putting the film over the top into masterpiece territory with just the perfect notes. With Raiders, Williams perhaps crafted the greatest signature tune ever (which is saying something for the man who wrote themes for Darth Vader and Superman). The Raiders March is such an instantly evocative piece of music. The driving sequence of notes that begin the march give it a sort of soaring quality, while the brass that joins in with the main theme is almost heraldic; appropriately so for a character who himself is a dustier, more weary version of a knight on a quest. But Williams also knocks it out of the park with his motif for the Ark itself, a piece that, when played softly, conjures up an air of ancient mystery, but when given the full voice of the orchestra, becomes an awe-inspiring statement of divine power.
Raiders isn’t even two hours long, another one of Spielberg’s models of cinematic efficiency. Its beats are so perfectly structured, you can almost go through and chop the film up into fifteen- or twenty-minute segments and each would play like a chapter in a serial, except we don’t have to wait a week to find out what happens. Also efficient was the making of the film itself; Spielberg brought it in ahead of schedule and under budget, earning back a lot of trust after the sprawling, expensive mess that was the 1941 shoot. By the end of the summer of ’81, the specter of that comic disaster was long forgotten, and so wide-spread was the appeal of Raiders that it even managed nine Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture and Spielberg’s third Best Director nomination. A lot of geeks point to Star Wars losing to Annie Hall as their huge Oscar heartbreak, but for me, seeing Raiders lose the night to Chariots of Fire was the gut shot. Well, at least it was for 17 years, until another bittersweet Oscar night for Spielberg and for the final film on this list.
Despite the last few paragraphs as evidence to the contrary, it’s hard for me to describe my love for this film. It fits me like Indy’s worn leather jacket. It’s not just a great film, it’s a time machine, both to a period in movie history I missed out on and one I got to experience first hand. I honestly don’t think there was a better time for a film geek than that amazing run from 1977 to 1984 when so many of the giants of geek lore first strode onto movie screens across the country. Watching Raiders, I remember weekends with my dad seeing whatever new film had come out, sometimes good, sometimes bad, sometimes awful, but always ripe with promise in that moment between the theater lights dimming and the film beginning to roll. While invoking the memories of their early movie-going days, Spielberg and Lucas created new memories for an entire generation. While neither finished #1 on this list as the best Spielberg film, Raiders and Jaws constantly dance back and forth when I think of my favorite films ever. This time around, I think I’ll let Indy take the lead.
Tomorrow: Earned it.