Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

Rating: PG
Writers: Lawrence Kasdan (screenplay by), George Lucas (story by)
Director: Steven Spielberg
Stars: Harrison Ford, Karen Allen, Paul Freeman
Release date: June 12, 1981
Runtime: 1 hour, 55 minutes

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The United States government, in 1936, hires archaeologist Indiana Jones to find and retrieve the Ark of the Covenant before the Nazis can do so.

The action adventure film remains one of the top 25 best grossing movies, of all time, when adjusted for inflation. And it was the number 1 movie at the box office in 1981. As of June 29, 2020, the movie is available for streaming if you have a Netflix subscription. Otherwise you can rent it from numerous streaming platforms.

The movie starts at breakneck speed and does not really slow down until it ends. Indiana Jones, along with a colleague named Satipo (played by Alfred Molina), brave many dangers and take a priceless gold statue from the interior of a remote jungle temple somewhere in South America.

Indiana Jones, sable fedora on his head, and whip in hand, conquers ancient booby traps, giant spiders, a betrayal from the aforementioned Satipo, and in one of the most iconic scenes in action film history, even a rolling boulder. But upon his escape from the temple, he is bested by French archaeologist, Belloq, played by Paul Freeman. Belloq has hired local tribesmen to point their blow darts and arrows at Indiana Jones. So he is able to just walk up and take the golden item from Indy’s hands.

And thus we set the stage for the rest of the film.

Jones returns to the university where he teaches. The film makes note, and a joke, of Harrison Ford’s handsomeness. His students are almost exclusively attractive young females. Very progressive for 1936! One of them even writes “love you” on her eyelids. (How did we not get a follow-up bunny boiler flick about Indy and that girl?) But maybe the answer is that he is not back at school long when the U.S. government pulls him away to seek out the Ark of the Covenant.

Did the U.S. consider Hitler a potentially dangerous enemy as early as 1936? I am not so sure. Germany had not begun its wars of European conquest just yet. We know from history that Nazi Germany had influential friends among the American political establishment. Either way though, from the comfort of our movie theaters in 1981, the movie paints the U.S. government as suspicious of the Nazis early on. Hence… if Hitler wants ancient religious artifacts, Americans want to oppose it. Enter Indiana Jones.

Jones learns that the Nazis have been working with an American archaeologist named Dr. Abner Ravenwood. He further learns that the Nazis, perhaps with Ravenwood’s help, have discovered the lost Egyptian city of Tanis where the Ark is believed to be hidden. The U.S. approaches Jones because Ravenwood was Jones’ mentor. He takes the job. Indiana’s first move after being hired is to establish contact with Ravenwood’s daughter, Marion (Karen Allen) and learn more about her father’s work.

[Sidenote: There are numerous theories about where the Ark may be hidden. There’s zero chance I will not eventually blog about other theories here.]

It’s not a smooth reintroduction. Marion is a spitfire. She runs a bar in Nepal and we meet her initially as she wins a drinking game against a very large Nepalese man. When she finally talks to Indy, we learn that her father, Dr. Ravenwood, has died. We also learn that when Marion was *very young* she had a relationship with Jones that ended badly. This is what led to a falling out between Jones and Marion’s father, too. Indiana goes to her hoping that she can lead him to one of her father’s relics – a talisman that is said to be necessary to locating the “well of souls” where the Ark is hidden. She bluffs that she does not know where it is. When she eventually tells Jones to leave, and is alone, we see her get the talisman out and look at it. Shortly after, a group of Nazis enter her bar and intend to extract information about her talisman with a red hot poker. Just as she’s about to have her flesh singed, Jones shows back up, rescues her, a fire is started, the now fire-heated talisman gets picked up by a Nazi – who then drops it, before Jones and Marion escape with it while the bar burns down. Whew. With no bar anymore, she tells Indiana that she is his new partner.

The two set off for Cairo. Shortly after arriving, Jones learns that the Nazis have hired Belloq to run their dig site, Marion is kidnapped, Jones wins a duel against a saber wielding man by shooting him with a gun, Jones believes Marion dies in the kidnapping attempt, he gets really drunk, he is saved by a small army of children from certain death, a monkey who had been spying for the Nazis eats a poisoned date and dies, and we learn that the Nazis are digging in the wrong spot. Whew again.

Jones finds the subterranean map room, uses the talisman, and begins a dig in the correct spot. While he’s at the dig site, he finds Marion is still alive but tied up and gagged in Belloq’s tent. He leaves her with her kidnappers because he does not want them turning their camp upside down looking for her (they might find out what he’s doing nearby.) Eventually Jones locates the Well of Souls, and thus the Ark, the Nazis see him locating the Ark, he and Marion are tossed into a pit covered on the ground with snakes, the pit is resealed from the top so that they cannot get out, Jones and Marion escape by knocking a hole in a priceless 3,000+ year old glyph covered wall, they climb out of the pit, Jones wins a couple of fights – one that ends with a very brutal death for a shirtless German, Marion commandeers a fighter jet but gets trapped inside of it, she and Jones blow up all of the German planes on the site, they learn that the Ark is on a truck, which is part of a convoy, headed back to Cairo in search of a plane, Jones somehow chases down the convoy on horseback, he avoids bullets and jumps from the horse onto the truck carrying the Ark, forcibly commandeers the truck and thus the Ark, successfully uses the Ark’s truck as a battering ram to one-by-one crash the other vehicles in the convoy, he does this while fighting off German soldier attempts to enter and re-take the truck he is driving… and then when he succeeds, he drives the Ark back to his friends and arranges to take it by ship to a place where it can be flown back to the U.S. WHEW.

Perhaps predictably, Jones’ ship is commandeered at sea by the Nazis. They take Marion and the Ark. However, they are unable to take Jones because he stowed away, not on the ship where they found the rest of his party, but instead on the Nazi ship that stopped them. (He jumped off his ship, swam a considerable distance, and climbed aboard the German vessel while the Germans were on the ship he had jumped from.)

Belloq persuades the Germans to open the Ark on an island before returning with it to Berlin. Don’t want to open that thing up in Berlin and have things go sideways. Jones approaches Belloq and the Germans after they unload the Ark onto the island… and he has a bazooka. He says that he will blow up the Ark unless they give up the girl. Marion smiles. Eyelids “love you” girl is jealous (probably.) Belloq calls Indy’s bluff. Indy decides against blowing up the Ark of the Covenant after all (perhaps realizing that if he had done so he and Marion would have been killed.) The Germans take Indy prisoner.

So finally we see Belloq and the Germans open the Ark. Turns out… bad idea. Fire and a host of vengeful spirits kill everyone in sight with their eyes open. Fortunately, Indiana Jones listened in Sunday School so he and Marion have their eyes closed.

The film ends with the Ark not displayed in a museum, or being studied as Jones preferred, but stowed away in a box labeled top secret, in an enormous warehouse of other items with a similar label. We get a sense that whatever Hitler’s interest might have been in ancient relics, it paled next to the interest of the American government. But we are assured “top men” are looking into it.

Top. Men.

Reaction:

Non-stop action. Killer ghosts. A treasure hunt. Jungles. Deserts. Improbable avoidance of bullets. Nazis. A Nazi that literally has his face melt off. This movie has it all.

Let me nitpick a few things before I run off a list of my favorite scenes. On the one hand, Indiana Jones isn’t a modern day superhero. He kills people somewhat indiscriminately. He suffers injuries. But… he does have a miraculous ability to avoid bullets, blow darts, arrows, deadly snake bites, etc. I think we are supposed to assume that the Nazi Stormtrooper types aim as badly as the Star Wars Stormtroopers. That said, when you watch this movie, be prepared to suspend some disbelief. Modern audiences have a harder time with that, I think, than earlier audiences did.

In the scene where Indiana Jones stows away on the submarine, did he stow away on top of it? The whole time? If we follow the red line on the map from that scene, it appears he did that for hundreds of miles. That seems… improbable.

When Jones and Marion escape from the Well of Souls, Indiana moves some stones that must weigh many HUNDREDS of pounds. Harrison Ford was approaching 40 years old when this movie was released. He is a strong looking guy, but he’s not a body builder. I call shenanigans.

And now for my biggest criticism… how did Jones and Marion get off the island? Did they carry the Ark to the Nazi boat parked off the coast, open it up again, kill all of *those* Nazis, dump their bodies off the side, then use their communication devices to call out for help? If they did not do that, wouldn’t the Nazis who were not with the party that went inland and opened the Ark have just retaken it? Getting the Ark away from Nazi Germany is the most important contribution Indiana Jones makes to the story… and we do not see how it happens on screen.

One other nitpick. The movie is rated PG. HOW ON EARTH is this movie PG? Is there any kid who wouldn’t be traumatized by watching a guy have his face melt off? Or another guy have his face ripped off by airplane propellers? Not to mention, there’s a fair amount of swearing in this movie, too.

Now, onto the praise. This movie probably began the best action-adventure franchise of all time. (No, that internet rumor about a Crystal Skulls movie never happened. Stop pretending that it did. Nobody would EVER cast Shia LeBeouf as Harrison Ford’s son. It’s a ridiculous idea. Just stop with that nonsense. IT NEVER HAPPENED.)

The score is iconic. It’s probably a top 5 movie theme of all time.

Here’s how I’d rank my favorite scenes.

  1. Nazi (Toht) has his face melted off. Who doesn’t enjoy that?
  2. Indiana Jones outraces the boulder.
  3. Indiana Jones just shoots the guy who wants to duel him with a saber.
  4. Indiana Jones outraces the tribesmen and escapes on the seaplane.
  5. Indiana Jones escapes the Nazis, swims a fairly long distance, and hides on their own sub.
  6. “Top Men.”
  7. Propeller to the face incident.
  8. Marion drinks the Nepalese guy under the table.
  9. Scary Nazi makes a suit jacket hanger from what was perceived to be a torture weapon.
  10. The entire “monkey is a Nazi spy” subplot.

Honorable mention for the scene where we meet the girls in Indiana Jones’ archaeology class. I chuckle at that scene every time I watch it.

There are a couple of other entertaining things I noticed in this movie. Sallah is played by John Rhys-Davies. He’s the best digger in Egypt. OF COURSE Gimli, son of Gloin, is the best digger in Egypt.

Alfred Molina’s first movie role was in this movie, playing Satipo. It’s interesting that the guy best known for playing Doc Ock had a scene in this movie where he was covered by tarantulas. Also… that’s one heck of an introduction to the movie business.

All in all, I still greatly enjoyed the movie. Great popcorn flick. Non-stop action. But I’d recommend not letting kids watch this until they are old enough to handle the content. It’s a lot.

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