Raiders of the Lost Ark
(United States, 1981)
Although Raiders of the Lost Ark is an unconventional choice for a Top 10 film, I'm not going that far out on a limb. Most film-lovers would probably agree that Raiders is among the best action films of the past 25 years. It is arguably Steven Spielberg's best non-serious motion picture, and the most impressive title on George Lucas' resume. (Star Wars is more important from a pop culture standpoint, but Raiders is a better film, and, at least in terms of cinematic impact, has had more far-reaching implications.) I first saw the film as a teenager in a vast cathedral of a movie theater (one that has long since been torn down to make room for a multiplex), and it was an almost religious experience. Raiders has never looked better than in that amazing setting. Back in those pre-VCR days, it was standard practice that, if you loved a movie, you would see it more than once during its theatrical run. Theater managers would often allow you to sit in an auditorium for multiple showings. I used this approach with Raiders, seeing it about a half-dozen times before it departed along with the summer of 1981 (then another time during its subsequent re-release). The recent DVD edition is impressive, but, regardless of the quality of the home theater, nothing can quite match a 50-foot high Indy. The sequels disappointed because they were market-driven, but Raiders of the Lost Ark is movie magic at its most enthralling.
Plot Summary (Spoilers Possible):
The film, which transpires in the late 1930s, opens with a wonderfully tense, pulp-inspired sequence inside a ruined temple as archeologist adventurer Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) seeks to avoid a number of pitfalls and traps on his way to recovering a priceless artifact. Tarantulas, gaping pits, lethal spikes, arrows, and a huge rolling boulder are a few of the dangers he overcomes, only to lose possession of the statuette to his arch-rival, Rene Belloq (Paul Freeman), once he emerges. Indy escapes relatively unscathed, but returns home with his tail between his legs, disappointed at being unable to retrieve the prize. His consolation, however, is that the U.S. government would like him to track down the Ark of the Covenant, and they are willing to pay handsomely for him to do so. Indy's journey in search of the Ark reunites him with an old flame, Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen), who holds a key piece of the puzzle necessary to pinpoint the artifact's location. Then it's on to Cairo, where he teams up with an old friend, Sallah (John Rhys-Davies), who gives him information on the Nazi dig site, supervised by none other than Belloq. It becomes a race between Indy and Belloq for the prize - a race that Indy wins before Belloq steals away the spoils, leaving Marion and him trapped in near-darkness surrounded by thousands of hissing snakes. But Indy isn't finished, and, after escaping from Belloq's trap, a chase ensues involving planes, trucks, ships, and a submarine. In the end, the Nazis get the Ark, but learn that sometimes it's better to lose than to win.
Raiders of the Lost Ark is a breathless, white-knuckle experience of a movie. It is also perfectly paced. There's enough time in between the frequent action scenes to provide the minimum of exposition and character development for us to understand what's going on and to appreciate the relationships between the individuals who populate the screen. This is the kind of movie that, even today, audiences immediately fall in love with. It has all the right ingredients: a smart script, a likable hero, a dash of romance, more than a touch of comedy, and a lot of fast-paced action. In 2003, it's a formula, but Spielberg and Lucas were the ones who established the recipe by using ingredients both old and new. Raiders of the Lost Ark is a movie to be savored by viewers of all ages and all persuasions.
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