Retro movie review: Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark

(courtesy The Movie Database)

Diving back into a film you haven’t seen for 42 years can be an interesting and yes, let’s be honest, fraught experience.

Will it be as good as you remember? Is it still an escapist wonderland or schlocky ’80s pulp? And does it hold up as a movie overall rather than simply a prop for nostalgia?

Happily, Indiana Jones and the Lost Ark, which premiered in June 1981, holds up remarkably well, buoyed by a snappy script, sparkling dialogue, vibrantly fun characters and a willingness to jump from vivacious adventuring to scary horror and right back again without breaking a sweat (leave that to Indy in his chase around the crowded, sandy streets of 1930s Cairo).

Here is a film that wowed audiences in its day with its evocative recalling of 1950s serial cinema and its willingness to continually place its characters including naturally its protagonist in harm’s way over and over again and then pull him back out again with derring-do, snappy banter and a can-do attitude that was frankly no match for the Big Bads, which in this case are the Nazis in search of an artefact ( guess what?) that will supercharge their military machine with god-like power.

Harrison Ford is perfect in this role because he has just the right mix of good looks – it’s not only the women, and surely the men too (one leaves an apple on exit so you assume there’s some same sex attraction at work) in Professor Jones’ college class who will sign at this handsome man in some gorgeously tailored retro suits – and cheeky chutzpah to convince us that he can carry off dancing just outside the law with his archeological shenanigans.

You forget, if you haven’t seen the films in a while that while Indiana holds down a respectable job as a university professor, he also goes and collects objects from around the world that don’t technically belong to him; he’s not as bad the evil archeologists he encounters in The Lost Ark but he’s not exactly squeaky clean either but that works in the context of a man who love for adventure and the chase is integral to who he is.

And what adventuring he gets up to in a film that takes him to Nepal in search of an Egyptian artefact, held by spurned love Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen) who ends up coming along for the ride – she doesn’t intend given her long-simmering fury at how caddish Indy behaved (see not perfect! Doesn’t it make you love him all the more?) but events and Nazis interfere and off we go – and then to Egypt for the Ark which is supposed to be buried deep under the sands in a place rather poetically named the Well of Tears.

Why does everyone want the Ark you might ask? Surely it was just a box covered in gold that the Ten Commandments and some other sacred objects rode inside?

Ah, you dear, sweet summer child but no, in the The Lost Ark it has become imbued with all kinds of supernaturalistic powers, all of which sound gleefully farfetched until you read the Bible and discover that it did have the power to do some rather terrible things to people when God so chose.

It was, religious veneration aside, an effective weapon of war, yes even in the Bible which is hellishly violent and way darker than many casual observers might appreciate, and The Lost Ark runs hard with it, gilding the magical realistic lily in order to drive then propulsively thrilling and fun-filled narrative forward with ever-greater speed and ferocious vivaciousness.

But it’s not all escapist escapist action adventure though.

In amongst all the Nazis being customarily despicably evil, there are moments of effervescent visual comedy that remind you that terrible though people and circumstances can be, and underlying it all, the movie is about fascists with power wanting even more of it, peoples’ welfare be damned, that life can be gloriously silly too.

Take a scene in first half of the film where Indy is hot on the trail of a kidnapped Marion – they are in Cairo before heading to the dig site to get intel via Sallah (John Rhys-Davies) on the object that will hopefully lead them to the Ark – and a master swordsman is standing in Indy’s way theatrically waving his rather large sword before doing unspeakably fatal things to our hero.

He arrogantly decides that Indy is trapped and cannot be prevail only to be shot dead seconds later by an exasperated archaeologist who’s been messed with and has no time for all this performative nonsense.

It’s a ton of fun, and the death is so comic book perfect in its execution (see what I did there?) that it leavens some very sense dueling with the bad guys which is happening and also to come.

Even when he and Marion are trying to foil the Nazis attempts to fly the Ark back to Berlin, the resulting scene is peppered with such vibrant comedic theatricality that it’s almost pantomimish but not quite in its quest to show how easily, though not without difficulty, Indy can prevail over the bad guys.

The final act might be scary as hell in parts, and the Nazis diabolically nasty but our hero overcomes it all with wit, tenacity and a willingness to do whatever it takes to get the job done.

It’s that seamless mix of garrulous adventurism and deadly earnest thwarting of evil that makes the Lawrence Kasdan-penned, Steven Spielberg-directed The Lost Ark such a riotously enjoyable viewing experience.

The remarkable thing is all of the cheekiness and hilarity doesn’t diminish the plot’s more serious elements one bit, and while we know Indy has to win over the Nazis because that’s the kind of film this is, you are still invested in every frame, in every tense standoff, fraught exchange and deadly second.

It’s tense stuff, and while it’s undeniably superbly executed escapist fun of the highest order, The Lost Ark is also dark and scary and full of snakes (“I hate snakes” signs Indy more than once) and so full of arrestingly compulsive twists and turns that you are invested right from the start and don’t turn away for the duration, testament to how wonderfully well this piece of moviemaking is and why it is every bit as good today as it was some four decades in the past.

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