Thanks to my love of Star Wars and my favorite character, Han Solo, it was a pretty safe bet that I would like Harrison Ford’s next character after Solo, Indiana Jones. What I didn’t know before I saw Raiders of the Lost Ark for the first time in 1981 was that I was about to see the most perfect film ever made.
Now I clearly didn’t realize this when I went into the theater at four-years-old with my dad and my oldest sister, but over the years, I’ve seen it to be true. Of course, all the Indiana Jones films are great—okay, the ones released in the eighties are great—but Raiders had that little extra something that made it perfect.
Temple of Doom was too dark, while Last Crusade was too much of a comedy. Raiders was just right. It struck the perfect balance between all sorts of elements and genres. With Raiders of the Lost Ark, there really was something for everyone. Clearly, there was plenty of action. There were also equal helpings of character drama and humor and in just the right quantities—it killed me that Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade essentially turned Marcus Brody (Denholm Elliot) and Sallah (John Rhys-Davies) into bumbling idiots. There’s mystery as Indy tries to find the Ark and then the mystery increases once it’s found, as the audience wonders what’s inside. There’s a romance element with Marion (Karen Allen), but it never gets too saccharine. There are even horror elements when you consider what happens when the Ark finally is opened as well as the mummy scene in the Well of Souls. Actually, depending on how one feels about spiders and snakes, the whole movie could be considered a horror film. With the involvement of the Nazis, it could even be seen as a war picture in parts. So, moviegoers of every stripe can find something to like in Raiders of the Lost Ark.
Aside from the genres it touches, Raiders is just a perfectly written film. Lawrence Kasdan’s screenplay is whip-smart, (no pun intended), and perfectly paced. It crackles with great dialogue and interactions between the characters. The scenes between Indy and Marion flow with ease as does the banter between Indy and Sallah or Brody. Who can forget the meeting between Indy and Belloq (Paul Freeman) in the café? In a single scene, Kasdan and Director Steven Spielberg sum up the essence of both our protagonist and antagonist all while giving the actors some fantastic dialogue. Watch Harrison Ford in that scene and his barely contained rage. He never looks at Paul Freeman, until he’s ready to kill him. It’s easily one of my favorite scenes in the film, but only one of the several great scenes found throughout the movie.
The interactions between Harrison Ford and Karen Allen are simply magic. The two of them have a fantastic dynamic that is reminiscent of Han Solo and Princess Leia—which makes sense since Kasdan wrote the screenplay for Empire Strikes Back—but with Indy and Marion, you can feel the history between the two characters. Apart from their amazing first scene together, when Indy turns up on Marion’s doorstep after a decade apart, my favorite scene between them is the romantic comedy that takes place on the Bantu Wind tramp steamer. Marion unknowingly decks Indy with the full-length mirror and then attempts to seduce him. It’s some of the best comedy in the film and it effortlessly evolves into a truly tender scene.
Kasdan’s screenplay is backed up by a solid story from George Lucas and Philip Kaufman. Making the Nazis the villains was a brilliant move to get the audience behind Indy. Let’s be honest, when we first meet Indiana Jones, we’re not even sure we should be rooting for him. When he’s first introduced, he comes across as a hard and unforgiving man, who could just as easily turn out to be a villain. It’s not until Satipo (Alfred Molina) betrays him that the audience really begins to root for Indy. He shows his humanity and resourcefulness as he fights to survive and escape the temple.
Harrison Ford’s overall likability helps, but we learn quickly that Indiana Jones is not the same sarcastic rogue as Han Solo. Indy is a much more well-rounded character. We know his fears, some of his history, etc. This is partly because Han Solo is more of an archetype than a character, though we come to know him better as the Star Wars Saga goes on. But Indiana Jones comes to us fully-formed and, therefore, a more interesting character. This is also a big reason why Ford has always stated publicly that he favors Indy over Han. And why not? Ford was great as Han Solo, giving an easy, confident performance, but his work in Raiders of the Lost Ark is some of the best of his career. Watching the movie again just recently, I was thoroughly impressed with his performance. There’s a lot of nuance there for a film that could have been written off as just a “popcorn flick.”
He will forever be linked with Indiana Jones. Even now, as rumors persist about re-casting the role for future installments, it’s difficult to imagine anyone else in the role. Unlike characters like Batman and James Bond, who originally appeared in other media prior to hitting the big screen, Indiana Jones was originated on the screen and Harrison Ford was the originator. As far as most are concerned, he will always be Indiana Jones. Disney will do what they need to do in order to make the property profitable, but no matter what happens, there will always be just one Indiana Jones.
Of course, a hero is only as good as his enemies and Kasdan, Lucas, and Kaufman cooked up a great one in René Belloq. My love for Belloq as a villain goes back to that café scene. The audience finds truth in Belloq’s taunts that he is just a “shadowy reflection” of Indy. Although he does bad things to get what he wants, Belloq is more of a gray villain than a straight Black Hat. He does what he does for himself, but he’s not outright evil like the Nazis. He did seal Indy and Marion in a tomb, though, so he was still a pretty bad guy. Paul Freeman brought a suave elegance to Belloq that just made him more sinister. He seemed to get a kick out of playing the role. He is truly Indy’s rival and one of the great screen villains of all-time.
Another good villain is Toht (Ronald Lacey), the Nazi interrogator. He only shows up in a few scenes, but he demonstrates the lengths the Nazis will go to secure the Ark. The guy’s a sadist and Lacey gives a fantastically creepy performance.
Indy’s allies are no slouches, either. With Raiders, we get serious interpretations of Marcus Brody and Sallah, two characters that, as mentioned above, are mined solely for comedic relief in Last Crusade. The two of them have their light moments in Raiders—“Bad dates”—but for the most part, Denholm Elliott and John Rhys-Davies play the roles straight. Brody comes across as a serious academic who has a healthy respect and fear for the dangers of Indy’s adventuring. Sallah is a devoted friend and family man who is pretty pragmatic. Rhys-Davies never overplays the character. When Indy tells Sallah, mistakenly, that Marion has been killed, Sallah reacts with a solemn, “Yes, I know.” It might come off as cold, but consider: he barely knew Marion and he’s keeping it together to protect his kids. In other words, Rhys-Davies plays him like a real person, which is in stark contrast to the caricature he becomes in Last Crusade. And that last bit goes triple for Brody.
As Marion Ravenwood, Karen Allen gives a feisty, but vulnerable performance and I can’t imagine anyone else in the role. Like Princess Leia before her, Marion is far from a damsel in distress. Her initial rescue from the Nazi camp is turned on its head, though, when Indy finds her, but leaves her tied up in order to avoid detection. Some hero, right? But Marion turns the situation to her advantage—or at least tries to—with a call back to the drinking contest she won when we first met her. Her arc is well-written. She wants to forgive Indy for whatever happened between them in the past, but she’s not sure if she can. I was happy when I’d heard that Allen was returning to the role in Crystal Skull, but like most everything else with that film, her part was completely mucked up. She had nothing to do but stand around. It was a total waste of the character, so I like to remember her from Raiders.
While all the character work from the cast was great, at its heart, Raiders is an adventure movie and what an adventure it takes us on. The film’s pacing is perfection. The audience is never bored and the dialogue-heavy scenes are broken up by exciting action set pieces staged by the master himself, Steven Spielberg. Spielberg’s direction in Raiders is amazing. The shots he composes are gorgeous and the action scenes are breathtaking. From the collapsing temple and giant boulder at the start of the film all the way to the opening of the Ark at the end, Spielberg created the greatest action-adventure picture of all. Every set piece elevated the game in one way or another. The boulder was an amazing start. The fight in the burning bar had danger in every form from physical beatings, to gunmen, to the fire itself, but it also had a plot-driven danger in that Toht might have secured Marion’s medallion. That fight was a real highpoint, only to be trumped by the bare-knuckled brawl with the big Nazi (Pat Roach) at the airfield. I didn’t mention the marketplace fight because I consider that more of a chase sequence than anything else—by the way, that scene’s great too. And who can forget Indy’s “fight” with the swordsman?
But they all pale in comparison to the truck chase scene as Indy pursues the Ark on horseback, at least at first. The scene begins with a joke—“I don’t know, I’m making this up as I go”—and then launches into a chase scene so great, they even tried to rip it off in Crystal Skull. Indy gets on the white horse and John Williams’ fantastic score swells as our hero races to intercept the Nazis. The truck chase is simply amazing. There are so many elements in that scene that we take for granted now as moviegoers, but it was a tense, exciting sequence. Lucas did some of the Second Unit Directing, but Spielberg had set everything up ahead of time in storyboards. Raiders of the Lost Ark was truly a demonstration of a master at work.
Speaking of masters at work, John Williams’ score is pitch-perfect. Indy’s Theme (“The Raiders March”) has become as iconic as Williams’ “Star Wars Main Title” and from just the first notes, you immediately picture Indiana Jones. The score is heroic when it needs to be and equally creepy when the film calls for it. I can listen to the score and the associated scenes come to mind instantly. It’s some of Williams’ finest work.
Everything works in this film and it all works brilliantly. None of this was lost on me growing up. Indiana Jones quickly became one of my all-time favorite characters. Every belt I had in my closet became a makeshift whip and while my blue windbreaker wasn’t a leather jacket, it made due. One Christmas, I received a brown fedora, which I still have to this day. From re-enacting the movie on my front lawn for interested spectators to collecting all sorts of Indiana Jones memorabilia and merchandise, I was an Indiana Jones fanatic. In fact, he played a very important role in my discovering my love of writing. My third grade teacher put up a poster featuring penguins on an iceberg and told the class to write a story about it. Everyone wrote stories about the penguins’ day out or some such thing. What did I write? Indiana Penguin and the Iceberg of Death. That’s how much Indiana Jones and Raiders of the Lost Ark impacted my life.
No matter what anyone says, the only correct answer to “What’s the best Indiana Jones film?” is Raiders of the Lost Ark. Temple of Doom wasn’t just dark—which is fine, mind you—it was essentially cobbled together from sequences that couldn’t fit into Raiders. Also, Willie (Kate Capshaw) doesn’t hold a candle to Marion. I did like Short Round (Ke Huy Quan), though. Last Crusade was great and revealed more about our hero in a flashback featuring the late River Phoenix as a young Indy, but much of the story was played solely for laughs. While the comedy was free-flowing in Raiders as well, that film was an action-adventure film first, while Last Crusade felt more like a comedy first, adventure film second. But, Sean Connery is great as Indy’s dad and it is easily the second best entry in the series. The less said about Crystal Skull the better. That film is just a mess, as if they had taken nineteen years’ worth of spec scripts and stapled them together. The only thing that is solid about Crystal Skull is Ford as Indiana Jones. A lot of critics mocked him for his age and made jokes, but his performance was on target. It wasn’t his fault that the script was a piece of crap.
Raiders of the Lost Ark is the most perfect film ever made. That’s a bold statement to make, but the results speak for themselves. From top to bottom, it’s an absolute winner. There’s really nothing one could change to make it better. Spielberg and Lucas tried with the sequels, but none of them really measured up. Its legacy as one of the modern classics is secure and it launched Harrison Ford from stand out ensemble player in Star Wars to full-fledged blockbuster leading man. It also reignited the popularity of the pulp adventure genre. Other films have tried to replicate its magic, but all have failed. To paraphrase the series’ tagline, “If perfection has a name, it must be, Raiders of the Lost Ark.”
Doug Simpson is an author and blogger. As one half of The Hodgepodge Podcast, he talks movies, music, TV, and pop culture with his partner, Dirty A. He also writes a ton of movie reviews, which can be found at Doug’s Reviews and The Hodgepodge Podcast. His first Young Adult novel, Great Big World: The Trouble with Dr. Beamo, will be available in Summer 2014. Please follow him on Twitter.