“Raiders of the Lost Ark” is the stuff that raucous Saturday matinees at the local Bijou once were made of, a crackerjack fantasy-adventure that shapes its pulp sensibilities and cliff-hanging serial origins into an exhilarating escapist entertainment that will have broad-cased summer audiences in the palm of its hand. Even within this summer’s hot competitive environment, boxoffice prospects are within the top rank.
Steeped in an exotic atmosphere of lost civilizations, mystical talismans, gritty mercenary adventurers, Nazi arch-villains and ingenious death at every turn, the film is largely patterned on the serials of the 1930s, with a large added dollop of Edgar Rice Burroughs.
Story begins in 1936 as Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford), an archeologist and university professor who’s not above a little mercenary activity on the side, plunders a South American jungle tomb. Fending off an awesome array of deadly primitive booby-traps–ranging from light-sensitive poison darts and impaling spikes to legions of tarantulas–he secures a priceless golden Godhead, only to have it snatched away by longtime archeological rival Paul Freeman, now employed by the Nazis.
Back in the States, Ford is approached by U.S. intelligence agents who tell him the Nazis are rumored to have discovered the location of the Lost Ark of the Covenant (where the broken 10 Commandments were sealed). The ark is assumed to contain an awesome destructive power which Hitler (“He’s a nut on the occult,” we learn) is intent on using to guarantee his global conquest.
Ford’s mission is to beat the Germans to the ark, a trek that takes him first to the mountains of Nepal to retrieve a hieroglyphic medallion that will pinpoint the ark’s location, from his onetime flame Karen Allen. Later a feisty, hard-drinking spitfire, operates a Nepalese gin-mill; after a massive shootout with medallion-seeking Nazis, the pair wings it to Cairo, where Ford finally makes it to the digging ground.
The action unfolds as a continuing series of exuberantly violent and deadly confrontations–with the Nazis, hired Arab assassins, thousands of venomous snakes that guard the ark, etc., in which Ford miraculously outwits the elements in approved comicstrip fashion before fending off the next round of dangers.
As such, the film has some surprisingly explicit violent action and bloodletting for a PG-rated entry and at least one scene (when the Nazis open the ark, liberating divine fury in the form of special beings that melt the defilers’ faces and explode their heads into smithereens) that would be attention-getting in an R-rated pic.
Still, for all but the most squeamish that won’t detract an iota from the film’s overall effect and the virtual start-to-finish grip of the offbeat tale of its viewers. Lawrence Kasdan’s script (exec producer George Lucas and Phillip Kaufman wrote the original story) spins along the storyline, revealing in all the dialog cliches of the genre without really tipping into self-mockery. Film, cheerfully wearing its improbabilities on its sleeve, is constantly leavened by humor. The kids should love it.
Spielberg has harnessed a perfect balance between escapist fun and hard-edged action, and the film is among the best-crafted ventures of its kind. Suspense components kick in virtually from the first frame onwards, and are maintained throughout the pic.
More important, Spielberg has deftly veiled the entire proceedings in a pervading sense of mystical wonder that makes it all the more easy for viewers to willingly suspend disbelief and settle back for the fun.
Conforming to the traditions of the genre, characterizations are hardly three-dimensional. Still, Ford marks a major turning point in his career as the occasionally frail but ever invincible mercenary-archaeologist, projecting a riveting strength of character throughout.
Allen’s pugnacious personality provides bristling romantic counterpoint and supporting roles (including Ronald Lacey in the most outrageously offensive Nazi stereotype seen on screen since World War II, John Rhys-Davies as Ford’s loyal Egyptian helpmate and Denholm Elliott as his university colleague) are all delightfully etched.
Technically, the film is another standard-setter from the Lucas-Spielberg camps (this is their first collaboration), with Douglas Slocombe’s lush lensing and John Williams’ dramatic score underscoring both the action and the globe-hopping epic scope.
Recruited from the “Star Wars” ranks, production designer Norman Reynolds and art director Les Dilley have created a vibrant and period-perfect world of wonders. Michael Kahn’s crisp editing keeps the pace and energy unflagging, and Richard Edlund’s photographic effects–highlighted by the apocalyptic unveiling of the ark–are intelligently spectacular.
Film’s ending leaves the field wide open for a sequel (Lucas already has two more chapters up his sleeve). Hopefully, the film’s broad commercial promise going in will translate to a large enough bottom-line to keep raiders coming for a long time.
1981: Best Art Direction, Sound, Editing, Visual Effects, Sound Effects Editing.
Nominations: Best Picture, Director, Cinematography, Score