“I’m making this up as I go.” -Indiana Jones
That quote, uttered by the immortal Indiana Jones (played of course by Harrison Ford) sums up everything that is great about “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” directed by Steven Spielberg at the height of his considerable powers.
The Indian Jones movies were the part of a lot of childhoods, except mine. I just never got around to actually watching these movies all the way through until this past year. While Temple of Doom is solid (even though Willie and Short Round are the 2 most annoying characters this side of Jar Jar Binks) and Last Crusade is excellent and Crystal Skull is…Crystal Skull, “Raiders,” the first film, is by far the best. It’s one the greatest action movies ever made, and easily one of the most purely entertaining.
Indiana Jones was based off of the old afternoon serial films that Spielberg and George Lucas loved when they were kids; they had larger than life heroes going on adventures in exotic locations, and getting into absurd situations in the search for some lost treasure. The plot of “Raiders” is no exception. Jones is an archaeologist and college professor who is asked by the government to find the Arc of the Covenant, the chest that Moses carried the Ten Commandments in, before the Nazis do. The Arc has incredible powers, and Hitler is obsessed with finding it. Indy meets up with his ex-fiance Marion (Karen Allen) and his Egyptian contact Sallah (John Rhys-Davies) and he’s on his way.
That’s a pretty simple plot, but the film gets away with it because of how it’s paced. From it’s legendary opening scene to it’s face-melting (literally) finale, “Raiders” is paced like a rocket that just blasted off. The movie is 115 minutes long, but it feels like it’s half that length. That’s what happens when you have a master filmmaker at the helm like Spielberg. This film is basically a series of the most exciting, brilliantly staged and dizzyingly suspenseful action scenes that have ever been conceived. I can’t stand a lot of modern action movies because they all use the shaky-cam and are edited into oblivion, making them incomprehensible to watch. But the camerawork and editing in “Raiders” is crystal clear. If the audience knows what’s happening, then it’s easier to get maximum enjoyment out of the action (that’s why “Mission: Impossible: Ghost Protocol” is so freaking awesome btw). Every set piece builds as it goes along, increasing the stakes and the enjoyment level. Just when you think Spielberg has topped himself, he pulls of another scene that’s even more intense.
What also helps is the performance by Ford as Jones. Ford was born for this part, it fits him like a glove. He makes Indy not only a credible, charismatic hero, but a flesh-and-blood human being. I think Indy is so enduring is because he’s relatable in some ways. He gets injured, he’s terrified of snakes, and he escapes some situations by pure blind luck. These movies wouldn’t register as strongly if Jones was less flawed.
I’ve always loved Steven Spielberg, even though I have some problems with his methods. Some of his movies are incredibly sappy and sentimental, and try way too hard to convey a specific message. I think this is because he cares so deeply about all of this projects; he never phones it in. Even his lesser movies, like “The Terminal,” “War of the Worlds,” and last year’s “War Horse,” he tries damn hard to make each movie as good as he possibly can. That’s something that is pretty commendable. Especially since his great films: “Jaws,” “Close Encounters,” “Jurassic Park,” “Schindler’s List,” “Minority Report,” “Catch Me if You Can” and “Munich” are a murderer’s row that any director would kill to have on their resume (I don’t know if “A.I” is great or not. That movie is for a future post). When he trusts the story and let’s the sentimentality fall by the wayside, Spielberg is as good as any director ever born in this country. “Raiders of the Lost Ark” is one of his masterpieces. Anyone with a pulse can enjoy it.