Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
April 10, 2018 6:35 PM - Subscribe

Archaeologist and adventurer Indiana Jones is hired by the U.S. government to find the Ark of the Covenant before the Nazis.

NYTimes: From the first moments, when the star-circled mountain in the Paramount Pictures logo fades into a similarly shaped, fog-shrouded Andean peak, where who knows what awful things are about to happen, ''Raiders of the Lost Ark'' is off and running at a breakneck pace that simply won't stop until the final shot, an ironic epilogue that recalls nothing less than ''Citizen Kane.'' That, however, is the only high-toned reference in a movie that otherwise devotes itself exclusively to the glorious days of the B-picture.

To get to the point immediately, ''Raiders of the Lost Ark'' is one of the most deliriously funny, ingenious and stylish American adventure movies ever made. It is an homage to old-time movie serials and back-lot cheapies that transcends its inspirations to become, in effect, the movie we saw in our imaginations as we watched, say, Buster Crabbe in ''Flash Gordon's Trip to Mars'' or in Sam Katzman's ''Jungle Jim'' movies.

Rolling Stone: Above all, the film has an infectious, roistering spirit of fun – a slightly more grown-up brand of fun than in previous Lucas or Spielberg films (though kids'll probably love this one, too). Lucas' and Spielberg's big hits have tended to start out as children's fantasies. Star Wars is all about coming of age in a galaxy far, far away. Jaws is about our primal fear of the elements. Close Encounters of the Third Kind is one of the most appealing movie-kid's dreams ever cooked up, conjuring a UFO "mother ship" to take us away from this vale of tears. Raiders of the Lost Ark, though, like The Empire Strikes Back, takes a step further into adolescence. Rather than reentering the womb, Indiana Jones is always tearing up things and poking into forbidden places. He's like H. Rider Haggard's Allan Quartermain, who trailblazes Africa to get between a pair of mountains known as the Breasts of Sheba.

Remember when movies used to promise a thrill a minute? Well, Raiders of the Lost Ark nearly doubles the ratio. It makes you feel like you're beating the speed limit just sitting still.

New Yorker: But Spielberg’s technique may be too much for the genre: the opening sequence, set in South America, with Indy Jones entering a forbidden temple and fending off traps, snares, poisoned darts, tarantulas, stone doors with metal teeth, and the biggest damn boulder you’ve ever seen, is so thrill-packed you don’t have time to breathe—or to enjoy yourself much, either. It’s an encyclopedia of high spots from the old serials, run through at top speed and edited like a great trailer—for flash. It’s like a hit number in a musical which is so terrific you don’t want the show to go on—you just want to see that number again. When the action moves to Indy back home lecturing to an archeology class, you know that Spielberg, having gone sky-high at the start, must have at least seventeen other climaxes to come, and that the movie isn’t going to be an adventure but a competition—Spielberg versus Spielberg. Even if he could keep topping his own showmanship (and he can’t), he’d still be the loser, because the audience is fresher at the start.

Roger Ebert: The Saturday serial aspects of "Raiders of the Lost Ark" have been much commented on, and relished. But I haven't seen much discussion of the movie's other driving theme, Spielberg's feelings about the Nazis. "Impersonal," critic Pauline Kael called the film, and indeed it is primarily a technical exercise, with personalities so shallow they're like a dew that has settled on the characters. But Spielberg is not trying here for human insights and emotional complexity; he finds those in other films, but in "Raiders" he wants to do two things: make a great entertainment, and stick it to the Nazis.

Empire: Though some are loath to call Raiders a thoroughbred Spielberg film, they're just being silly. The shadow of Lucas notwithstanding, it so is. There are Nazis in it. There's a big old religious metaphor in it. It's no good at relationships (so "no good" that it doesn't even bother). The number of filmic references in it would embarrass Brian De Palma. It was, and let's not be coy about this, globe-buggeringly successful. And of course there was no director Oscar.

Slant: Raiders of the Lost Ark‘s climax is unique among Hollywood blockbusters in that the hero and heroine are curiously passive. The film’s villain, rival archeologist Belloq (Paul Freeman), taunts Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford), who has pursued the golden relic of the occult with two-fisted courage, moxie, and even recklessness. But his girlfriend, Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen) has been captured, the Nazis have stolen the prize away to a remote island, and Jones surrenders and allows himself to be tied up because, as Belloq says, “You want to see it opened as well as I.” For an action-adventure film, Lost Ark is about spectatorship, and our hero transforms into a stand-in for the audience.


Why'd it have to be snakes?

Sword fight?


Filming locations

Raiders of the Lost Backyard

See How Three Kids Remade Raiders of the Lost Ark Shot for Shot

The Making of Raiders of the Lost Ark

How Raiders of the Lost Ark’s Boulder Chase Scene Got Made

Here's Why the Boulder Scene from 'Raiders of the Lost Ark' is So Iconic

‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’: Lucas and Spielberg’s Epitome of Action-Adventure Films Still Waiting to Be Surpassed

Indiana Jones and the Misunderstood Character Arc

The Desert Chase in "Raiders of the Lost Ark" is Action at its Finest

Indiana Jones: ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’ Historical Fact-Check (Photos)

History of Film: Steven Spielberg’s ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’

Raiders of the Lost Ark, in 30 seconds, and reenacted by bunnies.

Indiana Jones-Star Wars mashup manages to brutally murder Jar Jar, so there’s that
posted by MoonOrb (40 comments total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
I love this film so much.

I saw it last year at the San Francisco Symphony with the orchestra playing the soundtrack... but the film was so gripping I almost completely forgot to look at the orchestra.

It's aged incredibly well. It amazes me that it was deliberately made on the cheap - everything about it still looks so good.

When I was a kid I always wondered how they built the set for that last shot of the warehouse full of boxes. I later learned that it was a matte painting with a small area of clear glass through which they filmed the moving part of the scene. It's actually considered one of the greatest examples of matte painting in cinema history. The artist, Mike Pangrazio later become an art director at Weta Digital.
posted by simonw at 7:42 PM on April 10, 2018 [12 favorites]

I have a book about the matte paintings used for the Indiana Jones films. They all exhibit fantastic craft.
posted by Brocktoon at 9:11 PM on April 10, 2018 [3 favorites]

Oh, I've heard this is good.
posted by Chrysostom at 9:18 PM on April 10, 2018 [3 favorites]

I was 12, and my brother was 11, and we very rarely went to the movies -- several older siblings were in college so money wasn't particularly abundant and in any case we lived a fair ways from the only theater in the area at that time..

But mom must have had something going on that day, or perhaps she just wanted us out of her hair for a couple of well-deserved but lamentably rare hours of peace so she dropped the two of us at the theater after buying us tickets to see "The Great Muppet Caper".

And with all due respect to the muppets, we were at the wrong age to properly appreciate that film and not enjoying it very much. So we decided to leave the theater we were in and sneak over into the other theater to see what was showing there, some flick we had never heard of about an ark or something.. and we had our little minds blown by the archetypally perfect movie to see if you are an 11 or 12 year old boy in 1981.
posted by Nerd of the North at 1:45 AM on April 11, 2018 [6 favorites]

I saw the Indy movies in the totally wrong order when I was growing up. I saw Last Crusade on home video in 1990 at the age of 9, and then since I enjoyed it, my parents rented Temple of Doom soon after, but no video store in town had Raiders anymore. Most people who rented it stole it and the stores never restocked. I finally saw it on cable TV in the mid-1990s with edits and commercials, and it wasn't until the age of streaming video of all things when I finally saw it uncut in widescreen.

Sadly the first and only Indy film I've seen in a theater was Crystal Skull.
posted by Servo5678 at 5:02 AM on April 11, 2018 [1 favorite]

I'm young enough to have had no awareness of the serialized B-pictures that the contemporary reviews all mention, but old enough that this film was sort of a consistent, bedrock element of my cinematic/cultural awareness. I remember schoolyard chums saying that the second one sucked, so I know this one and Last Crusade the best, but to me, they don't feel like homages—they just feel sort of like their own universe.*

What worries me about this franchise is that the youngest generations won't understand what the point of it is. Especially if they keep making ill-advised sequels. (Like, here's one franchise where I might actually want them to go the prequel route.)

* = That said, the GURPS RPG system has at least one book that might as well be called "Fedorapunk" and I've always wanted to do an Indy-style tabletop campaign.
posted by CheesesOfBrazil at 5:12 AM on April 11, 2018 [1 favorite]

I took my then-8 year old son to see it when it came back to a local theatre for a one-time showing last year. I have seen it many many times, but was still kind of surprised at how much painful-looking violence there was. My son liked it, but boy did we have a talk about all the impalements and such afterwards. Also, somehow he knew about the face-melting, and he asked me to tell him when it was about to start so he could hide his eyes.
posted by joelhunt at 6:45 AM on April 11, 2018

Mefi post on story board conference between Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, and Lawrence Kasdan. The link in the article is dead, I could access the original document here.

Scenes from The Big Bang Theory dicussing Raiders
posted by Query at 7:08 AM on April 11, 2018

This movie caused an enormous war between my father and brother during a family vacation. Because I was eleven when this came out....but my brother was only eight. So when we were at one of our family visits to my grandparents that year, and my father hit on the idea of a movie night, he decided that he and my mother and I would go - but not my brother, who was "too young" and would stay with my grandparents.

My brother, understandably, pitched an enormous fit about how it wasn't fair that he was being left behind. My father, just as stubbornly, said that it was too violent and he wasn't old enough. "....You know, it's okay, i can stay home too," I said, wanting to keep the peace. But when I said that, my father would just as stubbornly say it wasn't fair to me, and that I should go to the movie if I wanted to.

And the three of us got caught on this ridiculous round-robin for a good three minutes:

"It's not fair, why should I stay home when EC gets to go?"
"You're too young, she's not!"
"It's okay, I can stay home!"
"But that's not fair to you, you should get to see the movie!"
"But I should too! Why does EC get to see the movie and I don't?"
"You're too young, she's not!"
"But I really don't mind, I can stay home!"
"But that's not fair to you...."

I have absolutely no recollection of how we resolved this, only that we kept on getting caught up in this spiral of argument. My brother may have actually worn Dad down and gotten to come along too after all. And upon reflection - I think my brother would have been fine with the violence in it anyway when he was eight.

I should ask my brother if my nephew's seen Raiders yet. He's only about six and a half so I doubt it...
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:38 AM on April 11, 2018

I was 14 when this movie came out, totally in luv with Harrison Ford and fascinated by archaeology, so I've seen it a few times. despite my utter terror of tarantulas its always such a fun watch.

also, damn I am really behind on my 30-second bunny theater watching. they did CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST!!!!
posted by supermedusa at 9:57 AM on April 11, 2018

Sadly the first and only Indy film I've seen in a theater was Crystal Skull.

This is like the pitch for Raiders of the Lost Childhood.

I love this movie; I remember my wife and I watching a Big Bang Theory that we happened upon one night when we were tired (don't judge me), and part of the episode revolved around Amy pointing out to Sheldon that Indiana Jones fails consistently and constantly throughout the movie, which provokes an existential crisis for Sheldon. My wife was looking at me kind of expecting some kind of shocked reaction, and I was like "Pfft. Not only is that obvious, it's part of what makes Raiders so good - Jones fails constantly, and yet always persists, always tries something, and in the end, it is the fact that he failed all along that leads him to victory - if he had succeeded, he would have been a participant in an Ark Opening somewhere, not a captive who thought about closing his eyes."

I'm looking forward to sharing it with my kids who are now of the right age to appreciate it.
posted by nubs at 10:23 AM on April 11, 2018 [3 favorites]

Wow, I completely disagree with folks here. On a recent rewatch, it really struck me what an unabashed asshole Indiana Jones is. He's a terrible teacher. He's a terrible archaeologist (he has no interest in anything but grabbing the treasure). He's even a failure as a grave robber. It's strongly implied he committed statutory rape, which he blames on the woman. He gives her a very insincere apology only because he wants something from her. He has the opportunity to save her from captivity (and probably rape & torture) but doesn't, because it might blow his opportunity to get the treasure. Later, when he has another opportunity to save her from captivity, he surrenders instead when the Nazis call his bluff; they know he's not going to blow up the ark for this girl. The only thing that raises Jones over Bellocq morally is that Jones isn't working with the Nazis. But nothing he says or does shows him to be ideologically opposed to the Nazis. He just happens to be working for the Americans instead. In fact, if he was up against anybody BUT Nazis, you'd have to root against the guy. You have to wonder why the filmmakers went to such great lengths to make their lead an absolutely despicable person. And the sad thing is, they got away with it. Seemingly, nobody in the Eighties even noticed.

Han Solo was a scoundrel, but he was loyal when it counted. Indy pointedly did NOT have a heart of gold. He didn't seem to have a heart at all. Maybe as kids we conflated their characters, but I was shocked at how there's basically no room in the movie itself to read Indiana Jones as a decent human being. He's not just flawed, he's all flaw.
posted by rikschell at 12:13 PM on April 11, 2018 [12 favorites]

Sadly the first and only Indy film I've seen in a theater was Crystal Skull.

I saw Crystal Skull at a pre-release screening at Lucasfilm in San Francisco. It was really awkward hating the movie so much but not being able to talk about it because some of the people in the audience probably helped make it.
posted by kirkaracha at 4:03 PM on April 11, 2018 [2 favorites]

He's a terrible teacher. He's a terrible archaeologist.

Obligatory: Back From Yet Another Globetrotting Adventure, Indiana Jones Checks His Mail And Discovers That His Bid For Tenure Has Been Denied.

I was too young to have seen this in the theaters, but we definitely wore it out on VHS and I wanted to be an archaeologist for quite some time, Indy's dubious teaching skills and research record aside.
posted by TwoStride at 8:12 PM on April 11, 2018 [3 favorites]

I love loved loved this movie. I was 17 when it came out, and I saw it over and over.

That said, Indy is the worst archaeologist.
posted by suelac at 10:13 PM on April 11, 2018

He has the opportunity to save her from captivity (and probably rape & torture) but doesn't, because it might blow his opportunity to get the treasure.

William Goldman refers to this as an example of excellent screenwriting. At this point in the movie, Marion is dead, and his mourning shows him how much she means to him. And when he finds her in the tent, they're both overjoyed. But there's a serious plot issue here, which is that this is a complete accident, and if Marion is freed because of this, then the audience is basically being cheated. So Marion stays tied up to preserve the integrity of the plot. The other side of this is that it emphasises the importance of the Ark. It's not treasure - "An army which carries the Ark before it... is invincible."
posted by daveje at 1:32 AM on April 12, 2018 [3 favorites]

Saw this in a theater for my birthday last year and remembered all over what an amazing action director Spielberg was at peak. The fights and chase are just so perfectly done. The fight at the flying wing is a five minute mini-masterpiece of blocking, editing and suspense. And those face punch sound effects are just the greatest.
posted by octothorpe at 4:36 AM on April 12, 2018 [3 favorites]

I first saw this in a middle school gym. Our class had won the privilege by selling an exorbitant amount of magazines, IIRC. I've seen it a good number of times since.

Also, I played the hell out of the Atari 2600 game.
posted by DrAstroZoom at 7:09 AM on April 12, 2018 [1 favorite]

For the recessional at the end our wedding, we handed everyone kazoos and they played the Indiana Jones theme, just sayin'

I never got to be an archaeologist, but the Indiana Jones movies and the Young Indy series were definitely formative in my career decision. I do blame his poor teaching the lackadaisical scientific method for my visions of academia, however.
posted by Hermeowne Grangepurr at 2:10 PM on April 12, 2018

I didn't really enjoy this film very much until I saw it in a theater some years back. AMC showed all four movies in a showing back in 2012 or so. Despite having zero interest in the final film, it was nice to see the first three on the big screen.

A lot of films are better on Blu-Ray at home on a big TV with a good surround sound system, but spectacles like Indiana Jones just aren't the same outside of the theater.
posted by wierdo at 4:49 PM on April 12, 2018

Great, perfect movie. One of the few. I sometimes wish it had never been sequel-ed because nothing can ever match that first perfection.
posted by I_Love_Bananas at 6:40 AM on April 13, 2018 [1 favorite]

Spielberg is not trying here for human insights and emotional complexity; he finds those in other films, but in "Raiders" he wants to do two things: make a great entertainment, and stick it to the Nazis.

Done and done.
posted by I_Love_Bananas at 6:40 AM on April 13, 2018

My favorite part of Raiders is the complex, flawed, oddly dark/light symbiotic thing that Indy has with Belloq. I still CRAVE the Belloq prequel I can never have. He's one of the bad guys but damn, he charmed me and I bet his backstory is a good one. There's got to be a point in time where he stood at the crossroads and chose the dark path. I WANT THAT STORY!
posted by I_Love_Bananas at 6:42 AM on April 13, 2018 [5 favorites]

And the music! Perfect marriage of music to movie.

"What truck?"

[Music comes in and it's SO GOOD!]
posted by I_Love_Bananas at 6:46 AM on April 13, 2018

I contend that the horse/truck chase is the greatest and most exciting action sequence ever committed to film. The way it’s choreographed, with action occurring absolutely everywhere it possibly can on that truck; over it, around it, inside it, UNDER it, is endlessly inventive while also seeming inevitable. It’s an amazing summation of Indy’s character as well, highlighting his resourcefulness, his ruthlessness, and his stubborn tenacity. And it is SO satisfying to see him get back in that truck after getting dragged behind it and get his revenge on the Nazi that sent him through the windshield. I also love that there is absolutely NO logic behind the geography of the road they’re on. It’s like a Road Runner cartoon. Palm trees? Sure! Endless desert? Of course! Impossibly high cliff? WHY NOT?! It never gets old.
posted by wabbittwax at 6:46 AM on April 13, 2018 [7 favorites]

I also want a Captain Katana prequel. And a Sallah prequel. All these people Indy knows are INTERESTING and I want those stories dammit.
posted by I_Love_Bananas at 6:51 AM on April 13, 2018 [2 favorites]

Is that Sallah’s friend with the boat?
posted by wabbittwax at 6:52 AM on April 13, 2018

Yes! The one who pretends to want to keep Marion, to "ease their losses on that voyage" or whatever, and distracts the Nazis so Indy can swim to the submarine.
posted by I_Love_Bananas at 7:01 AM on April 13, 2018 [1 favorite]

Even when casting was completed most of the actors didn’t know the film’s plot. Freeman (Belloq), since he would appear in the first scenes shot, knew the plot, though most didn’t, not even Karen Allen. Bill Hootkins hadn’t been shown more than his own lines either, but since he played Major Eaton of US Military Intelligence, who briefs Indy and Brody, contained the entire story. On the night of his casting he rang a friend to announce, “I’m in the new Spielberg film”. “What’s it about?” asked his friend. “It’s the Bible”, Hootkins replied, “with Nazis!”

The TL;DR of Raiders.
posted by I_Love_Bananas at 7:01 AM on April 13, 2018 [2 favorites]

On July 14th started the filming of the Well of Souls sequence in Elstree’s stage three that lasted two weeks. According to the script, the Well of Souls is a hidden chamber under the sands where the Ark of the Covenant was supposed to be rested. When Indy finds the Well he discovers that the whole place is inhabited by snakes. Spielberg wasn’t pleased with the number of snakes they had on the set (about 2000) and ordered 4500 more from Denmark in order to achieve the horror the script so well described. The set was designed as the interior of a pyramid dominated by three jackal statues over 35 feet tall. Indy would be lowered in the pit from the top of the statues and suddenly would fall down only to come face to face with a cobra. In safety for the actors, they could do nothing without an anti-venom serum. The serum-man, as Frank Marshall called him, couldn’t come through with the serum and he was the only one in the country. They went to a hospital but the serum there was out of date. Finally, the serum arrived from France with a little help from the American Embassy, the Air Force Hospital and the Naval Hospital. During the filming of the scene the doors of the stage were open permanently, and an ambulance was backed inside with its doors open. Standing in either side were two enormous men in white coats, with a syringe in each hand. Every unit member wore protective clothing high rubber boots and strengthen canvas trousers and jackets.

Holy shit.
posted by I_Love_Bananas at 7:04 AM on April 13, 2018 [4 favorites]

Ford and Allen had to stand in the center of the set with more than 6000 [snakes] sizzling around. Even though snakes are Indy’s worst nightmare, they didn’t bother Ford, since as a teenager he loved snakes and even collected them to put on display. Poor Allen had to wear only a white evening dress with her arms and legs naked. When things began to turn rough, Wendy Leach, Allen’s stunt double continued her scenes and when things became really nasty, animal handler, Steve Edge, put on Marion’s dress, shaved his legs and finished her shots.

I cannot even. Gonna re-watch and see if I can spot the shaven-legged man....
posted by I_Love_Bananas at 7:06 AM on April 13, 2018

That’s surprising because my sense of how they shot the scene with the snakes was that the only venomous snake in the whole set was the cobra, and the rest were garter snakes or a similar variety.
posted by wabbittwax at 7:34 AM on April 13, 2018 [1 favorite]

The coat hanger is the most underrated prop of all time. ALL TIME!
posted by spikeleemajortomdickandharryconnickjrmints at 8:00 AM on April 13, 2018 [8 favorites]

I suppose one cobra on the loose is dangerous enough.

All these people Indy knows are INTERESTING and I want those stories dammit.

I think there's an interesting point here about protagonist-as-catalyst. It's always seemed significant to me that this is the only Indy movie that isn't explicitly "Indiana Jones and..." Like Indy's role as protagonist is mostly to put all this other exciting stuff into motion (and also punch some Nazis, when necessary).
posted by tobascodagama at 8:03 AM on April 13, 2018 [1 favorite]

Lucas actually retitled it to: "Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark" for the DVD release.
posted by octothorpe at 8:07 AM on April 13, 2018 [1 favorite]

I think it's well established at this point that most of Lucas' ideas are bad, especially when he goes back to revise old material.
posted by tobascodagama at 8:30 AM on April 13, 2018 [6 favorites]

Holy shit.

Practical effects are the best effects.
posted by mikelieman at 9:01 AM on April 13, 2018 [4 favorites]

I_Love_Bananas: "Bill Hootkins hadn’t been shown more than his own lines either, but since he played Major Eaton of US Military Intelligence, who briefs Indy and Brody, contained the entire story."

I wonder if he knew more as Jek Porkins?
posted by Chrysostom at 10:44 AM on April 13, 2018 [1 favorite]

So much of this is a great silent film.

Although my rewatch tonight did send me to google wait, did Belloq just eat a bug in the canyon scene, to which the answer is no, they cut out the frames where it flew away in post.
posted by figurant at 11:25 PM on April 14, 2018 [3 favorites]

I rewatched this last night because my SO did not remember the mirror-smacking scene.

The line in the review above, saying that little serial at the movie can't be topped by the rest of the movie is so wrong. The tavern fight and chase in the market are so full of linked things, this happening because that happened, and it all escalates to the amazing truck chase. After that it's fairly exhausted yes; the stretch between the truck chase and the opening of the ark is a little weak but it's fine.

It's interesting how shocking the opening of the ark is. The movie is pretty PG up to that point, but it dishes out some nasty little murders pretty fast at the end. Like yeah, close the lid on that! And then it is such a relief to see Indiana and Marion back in civilian clothes, reduced in stature back down to human size.

I think Karen Allen gets underrated in this. It's funny that there are some de rigueur sexualization things -- getting her into a dress, then ripping the skirt of it -- but they just bounce off; the camera is not horny for Marion at all, thankfully. Allen's face is so electric and expressive though, and she brings a ton of energy to the screen and makes it look effortless. Like at the end, on the stairs, when Indiana starts to turn around like he's going to head back in to argue more, and Marion is like scampering beside him and does a couple quick reverse scampers to stay following him. She's gorgeous but her energy is goblin energy. (And I choose to believe that she's like, 29 in this movie.)

Also I never realized that Alfred Molina was the "throw me the idol" guy.
posted by fleacircus at 5:04 AM on November 27, 2021

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