When Raiders of the Lost Ark came out in 1981 it achieved the impossible; it was as cool as Star Wars despite being confined to Earth and set in the past. (Yes, technically, Star Wars was also set in the past, but that was in “a galaxy far, far away” and it sure looked like the future to us Earthlings.) Raiders had all the same ingredients as Star Wars, they were just more recognisable; bullwhips instead of lightsabers, revolvers instead of blasters, aeroplanes instead of spaceships, The Old Testament instead of The Force. And despite the more mundane nature of these ingredients, and the fact that the hero belonged to our grandparent’s generation, it gave the 80s kid the same white-knuckle rush and playtime inspiration as its galactic contemporary.
Of course it helped that Indiana Jones was played by Han Solo himself. Harrison Ford’s appearance in this second iconic role cemented him as the highest grossing actor of the decade. But he further defined the decade by being the actor that all 80s children were thinking of when they said they wanted to be an actor. The 80s child concluded that any film in which Harrison Ford appeared would be brilliant and in my family, arguments over which of the dwindling selection of Betamax tapes we should take home from the video shop were often ended by someone holding up one of his. And so it was that in my tender years I was baffled by Bladerunner and bored by Witness and Hanover Street. But I still called my first goldfish Harrison (R.I.P. little fella).
The plot of Raiders was concerned with the search for the Ark of the title. I don’t think I was the only child to see the film expecting to see Noah’s boat featuring prominently. But this confusion didn’t detract from my enjoyment of the film, because the plot didn’t matter. What did matter was the action, and there was an awful lot of that. Even when Indie was wearing glasses and talking earnestly to Denholm Elliott, you knew there was excitement just around the corner.
When you saw it for the second, third and fourth time, you could anticipate the order of the action sequences. First there was the scene in the booby-trapped temple. Indie negotiates, spring mounted spears, built-in blowpipes, stone doors that threatened to entomb him and that giant, rolling boulder, only to have his treasure stolen and be pursued across jungle by tribesmen, before escaping in a seaplane (with the characters C-3PO on the side!).
Then there’s some talking.
Then he’s in Nepal, fighting Nazis in a blazing bar.
Then there’s a chase around Cairo, and a run in with an Arab swordsman, casually dispatched with a single shot from Indie’s revolver (perhaps a metaphor for U.S. foreign policy at the time? Perhaps not.).
Then he has to escape from a tomb full of snakes.
Then he has to fight Bomber from Auf Wiedersehen Pet under a spinning aeroplane that will explode at any moment.
Then he chases a heavily armed Nazi convoy on horseback and gets dragged behind a truck.
Then he swims to a submarine.
Then a load of ghosts turn up and melt the Nazis faces. It’s relentless stuff and it’s put on screen with style and wit and so convincingly that it still looks good today. It also made archeology look like the most exciting job in the world.
Aside from the high quantity and quality of the action, Raiders had so much else to offer. It was full of humour; Indie brushing dozens of tarantulas off his treacherous sidekick’s back; the nun chuck/coat hanger; the reluctance of the sea plane pilot to drop his fishing rod despite the imminent, mortal danger; Marion smacking her battered hero on the jaw with a freestanding mirror. There was great dialogue; “Why’d it have to be snakes?”; “I’m so glad you’re not dead”; “It’s not the years, honey, its the mileage”.
It had scares courtesy of creepy skeletons and ancient shriveled corpses on spikes, even before the really scary climax (watched through fingers on later viewings) where the Nazis get their gruesome comeuppance. It (like Star Wars) had music by the great John Williams, which, to this day, its impossible not to hum when darting through a slowly closing door.
Raiders of the Lost Ark is an undisputed 80s classic, loved by children and adults alike. It’s two hours of adventure and escapism, expertly directed by Steven Spielberg in his blockbuster heyday. The 80s later saw the successful release of a prequel and a sequel, which followed the format of the original, and are held in similarly high esteem. But Raiders is the original, by far the strongest of the franchise and a cultural touchstone for the 80s child. And it was as cool as Star Wars.
Review supplied by Nick Perry.