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Catching Up with Classics: Indiana Jones – Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

I’ve never seen Die Hard. There, I’ve shared my embarrassment with you.

I’ve also never seen the Lord of the Rings series. Or the original Ghostbusters. Or 2001: A Space Odyssey. And I’m sorry for it…

These weren’t films I grew up with, or favourites of my parents’ they went on to share with me. My childhood picks, watched on repeat for weeks on end before swapping out for something else, were Jurassic Park, Mary Poppins, The Lion King…and Carry On Screaming! All titles my brother and I loved, wearing our VHS tapes down to nothing as we witnessed Tim and Lex escape from the jaws of a T-Rex, and gasping in disbelief as Julie Andrews pulled a standing lamp from her handbag, over and over again.

But other titles considered ‘true’ classics? Science fiction epics and Christmas action adventures starring Bruce Willis? Nope. I’m embarrassed by the fact I’ve reached my late 20s and haven’t seen some of my friends’ and family’s favourite films – so I’m using this year to right that wrong.

Over the next 12 months, I’ll be sitting down to tuck into 12 classics – many being 80s blockbuster hits – and will share my thoughts. Does the film hold up, so many years later? In today’s political climate, do its themes carry over, or does it make for uncomfortable viewing with 2020 vision?

I’m excited to be dipping into the archives, catching up with some of my loved ones’ favourites. Here goes!

January’s pick: Raiders of the Lost Ark

Considered to be one of the greatest films ever made, my first choice is Raiders of the Lost Ark. Released in 1981, this was the first in Steven Spielberg‘s Indiana Jones series, followed by The Temple of Doom (1984), The Last Crusade (1989) and 2008’s Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (but apparently we don’t talk about that one).

It was adapted from a story by George Lucas and Philip Kaufman. Lucas, running high off the success of Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope, approached Spielberg when the two bumped into each other on holiday in Hawaii, suggesting he direct an adaptation of The Adventures of Indiana Smith, penned in 1973. Lucas wanted to create a series similar to those released in the 1930s and 40s; adventure stories following a brave lead as they travel the world, fighting off enemies and saving civilisations. Spielberg, after reading it through, described it as ‘a James Bond film without the hardware’ and signed up to direct.

For those like me who are new to the story, it’s 115 minutes of pure action. Set in 1936, Harrison Ford, Han Solo himself, stars as Jones, an esteemed archaeology professor tasked with discovering the Ark of the Covenant, a precious but lost artefact rumoured to have ancient, mystical powers, before the Nazis find it and use it for world domination. Travelling to Nepal, Jones bumps into former lover and definite badass Marion Ravenwood, played by Karen Allen. However, the Nazis aren’t far behind, with Major Arnold Toht (Ronald Lacey) and his cronies interrupting their cosy catch-up.

Surviving a bloody fight, the pair then land in Cairo, where the Nazis are digging for ‘the Well of Souls’, where they believe the Ark is hidden. Chaos ensues as Indy and Marion become separated, are reunited, then dropped into a snake-filled crypt, before escaping again, blowing up a Berlin-bound plane and finally landing on an island where the Ark is to be opened and its powers revealed.

Has it aged well?

I’d say so. Visually, it’s very 80s – compared to the supercrisp CGI we now take for granted – but it holds up. With production based at renowned British TV and film studio Elstree, the story’s exotic locations take Indy on a global tour, shooting in France, Tunisia, California and Hawaii. With so much of the film set in foreign lands, and then mostly shot outside (and it’s 1936, remember), it’s difficult to say the film’s ‘aged’.

Yes, the ‘look’ of the film isn’t as shiny and new in comparison to recent blockbusters, but that’s 80s technology for you. And it’s the same for certain CGI-heavy scenes, like when Indy and his team uncover the Well of Souls, for example. With Ford standing against a stormy night sky, the fuzzy halo of light outlining him makes it obvious he’s standing against computer-generated clouds, while fake lightning cracks in the background. Does it take away from the suspense of the scene? Maybe a little, but only because I took a second to chuckle at how far visual effects have moved on.

Hindsight is 2020

Looking back, the relationship between Indy and Marion isn’t nearly as problematic as others seen on-screen at the time (or as corny as the one between Indy and Kate Capshaw‘s Willie Scott in Temple of Doom).

Granted, there’s a nine-year age gap between Ford and Allen – and Indy is actually looking for Marion’s father, Adner Ravenwood, at the start of the story – but it’s not an uncomfortable watch. Allen fights a good fight, is quick on her feet and intelligent, playing the Nazis at their own game. She’s a great partner for Jones and I was definitely pleased to see them survive the power of the Ark together.

As for wider representation of characters within the film, Raiders of the Lost Ark could do better. Indy’s seen hiring a group of young men to help him dig down to the Well of Souls; they’re slaves, right? Aside from Sallah (played by Welsh/Tanzanian actor John Rhys-Davies), Jones’ guide around Cairo, other people of colour within the narrative are ‘bad guys’, helping the Nazis dig for treasure. I guess we let this one slide, as it’s ‘of the time’ and place (1930s Egypt)?

Classy or classless classic?

Raiders of the Lost Ark made $389.9 million worldwide. It was nominated for eight Academy Awards, winning five (including a Special Achievement Award). It’s one of the top 25 highest grossing films of all-time.

From the famous boulder run opener, to the epic cliffside truck chase, to watching Toht’s face melt off, this is the epitome of ‘Hollywood blockbuster’. I’m so glad I’ve finally seen it and enjoyed every minute, and am now working my way through the rest of the series. Definitely a classy classic, Raiders of the Lost Ark deserves the high praise it still receives to this day, 39 years later!

My Catching Up with Classics series returns in February with Lord of the Rings

10 thoughts on “Catching Up with Classics: Indiana Jones – Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

  1. ‘Raiders’ easily sits in my top 10 favourite films of all-time. Nice recap Jazmine. By the way 2001 should be seen in a theatre. We have a classic movies theatre here in Melbourne that plays nearly all my fav films – Casablanca, Lawrence of Arabia and of course 2001 to name a few.

    Liked by 2 people

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