Retro Review: It’s Not the Years, Honey, It’s the Mileage; Celebrating 30 Years of Snakes and RAIDERS with Indiana Jones

By Thomas Drake
Contributing Blogger

RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK (1981); Directed by Steven Spielberg; Screenplay by Lawrence Kasdan and George Lucas; Starring Harrison Ford, Karen Allen, Paul Freeman, John Rhys-Davies, Denholm Elliot; available on DVD from Paramount Home Video; BluRay release date unknown but allegedly soon; original theatrical trailer here.

Short: Snakes. Why did it have to be snakes? Men. Top Men.

Medium: Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) is an archeology professor by day, and moonlights as a tomb robber by night (for Science!). The film starts in South America with an iconic scene where he is attempting to retrieve an idol from an ancient native tomb. The idol had traps guarding it, including a large well-timed boulder. Once he gets back, his mentor tells him that the government has a job for him.

It’s the early ‘30s, just before WWII, and Indiana has to find the Ark of the Covenant (it’s a radio for talking to God after all) before the Nazis do. Because you know, God might decide these Nazi guys are not so bad if they can just get a chance to relax over a couple of beers. At any rate, off they go to Nepal where they get a map held by Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen), making for the best onscreen chemistry of the Indy movies. Then off they dash to Egypt for a map, and finally to Indonesia for the classic end scene.

Indiana Jones (Harrision Ford) and Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen) in RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK (1981). Paramount Pictures.

When I was a child, I was commanded by my parents to close my eyes when Indy and Marion do. But if you like seeing Nazis get a well-deserved comeuppance, keep ‘em open. It’s not like they don’t do worse with CGI these days….

Maximum Verbosity: RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK is one of those movies that does everything right. And unlike with STAR WARS, George Lucas doesn’t have enough control to be able to have Indy shout, “Noooooooooooo” to the heavens when anything bad happens to him. It’s been 30 years since the original came out, and it’s still going strong.

Paul Freeman as turncoat French archaeologist Belloq gloats over a temporary victory over a web-tangled Dr. Jones, in RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK. Paramount Pictures, 1981.

While no official Bluray release date has been announced yet, Steven Spielberg did confirm it will be soon during a Q&A at a 30th anniversary screening of RAIDERS in Los Angeles earlier this month. But RAIDING THE LOST ARK, a well-heralded online fan documentary by Jamie Benning (STAR WARS BEGINS, BUILDING EMPIRE, RETURNING TO JEDI) is scheduled to be completed by the end of this year. That documentary will include new footage, new interviews and a fresh way of looking at one of the most memorable films in history. Once a film becomes such a part of our culture, it is bound to create ripples. Some of them are good (such as WAREHOUSE 13, the popular Syfylus steampunkish series inspired by the end of the movie) and some bad (such as 2008’s INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL). A serious and well-deserved effort strove to replace, “Jump the Shark” with the latter’s preposterous “Nuke the Fridge” for a while. But it looks like Jump the Shark is too powerful to be buried in the sands of time.

The thing that I like most about RAIDERS is that it knows how to end the story. A lot of good movies these days start with a bang, or have an excellent money shot, but knowing how to end it, leaving the audience with a lasting impression is another skill entirely. And row after row of boxes, making you wonder what else might be inside of them? That’s tough to beat. In fact, right off the top of my head the only movies that I think can compare might be THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION, THE PRINCESS BRIDE and the original STAR WARS (Now known as STAR WARS, EPISODE IV: A NEW HOPE). Something remains majestically triumphant about the latter’s three heroes standing there on a dais receiving medals for their courage against impossible odds.

Harrison Ford prepares to pick up an archaeological prize in the action-packed opening of RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK. Paramount Pictures, 1981.

Some legitimate complaints of stereotypes remain in the INDIANA JONES movies. That’s a bit of a problem at its core since they are designed to emulate pulp movie serials, and pulp was not exactly known for its political correctness. Still, Hollywood has learned over time. The MUMMY series (with Brendan Frasier) did a much better job of maintaining a pulp feel without reducing entire populations to rather flat characters. On the other hand, they don’t tell as a good of a story either. The stereotypes also are largely in the background with RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, mainly because neither Spielberg nor Lucas felt the need to resort to the occasional cheep gag or gimmick to fill time. And it isn’t as if RAIDERS doesn’t have its humor. After all, who else can forget: chop, chop, chop, chop, yell, sneer, BANG!

RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK is a movie I will always have on my shelf. And hopefully (assuming Lucas doesn’t get his hands on it), it will always be available in its original form for anyone else to do the same. Indiana is a flawed but magnificent hero, who has guts, derring-do and a handy whip on his side. The sequels may fade into obscurity, but Indiana Jones will be part of American cinematic mythology for as long as there are humans to tell stories around the campfire.

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