RECAP: Raiders of the Lost Ark
Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981): Steven Spielberg
Coming at number two on the AFI list of all-time best heroes, Indiana Jones, since 1981, has filled the role of modern American cowboy. Carrying a whip and a fedora, Jones has a signature look that surpasses even Harrison Ford’s other iconic character, Han Solo.
ONE SENTENCE PLOT SUMMARY: An American archeology professor fights Nazis to unearth the Ark of the Covenant before it lands in Hitler’s hands.
The year is 1936, and deep in the jungles of South America, a man walks when others run, a man trudges forward when others turn back, and when another man’s hand quakes with fear, his makes a steady fist, to strike away that fear. He is…Indiana Jones.
Harrison Ford takes the role of a lifetime as a swashbuckling archeologist who, somehow, is as boring in the classroom as he is fearless in the field. Being a dull teacher, though, means little to the thirsty ladies in his college classes.
But it’s later that we meet Indy the man. First we meet the legend. Raiders does an exceptional job introducing its protagonist as more myth than human. As Indy leads a team of treasure hunters and guides through the jungle, he does so incognito. The camera hides his face as the archeologist coolly walks amongst ruins and dangers old and new. His underlings are frightened, but for Indy this is a walk in the park. Poisoned darts? No big deal. Terrifying stone gods? Been there, excavated that.
Not until a traitorous underling draws a gun on Indy do we see his face, as he steps from shadow, and only after we’ve seen him use his whip to disarm the dude. Spielberg and company deal in myth making, and they hold the best cards.
Often Indy is shot in silhouette, as if more avatar than man. This makes sense, because many of his feats are superhuman.
Consider the opening gambit in South America. Indy fearlessly enters a cave no man has ever survived. He knows all the traps, except the ones he doesn’t, which don’t kill him through luck. Even after a betrayal, Indy survives the cave with calm demeanor and the ability to nail wearing a fedora.
Indy’s fearlessness shows up in nearly every scene, every act. When paramour Marion (Karen Allen) and the Ark are placed on a German U-boat, Indy swims to the boat and rides it. In Egypt he lowers himself into the Ark’s resting place despite its floor crawling with snakes. Poison darts mean nothing to him. A truck full of Nazi soldiers means nothing to him. A massive dig site crawling with troops means nothing to him.
And few people can take a beating like Indy. In Raiders he is slapped; punched; shot; dragged beneath and behind a truck; chased by archers, soldiers, and the wrath of God. Only two things scare Indy: snakes and commitment. Those things show up a few times. He finds the Ark, in the end, but he does not conquer those fears.
The only archeologist better dressed and more connected than Indy is a French asshole named Belloq (Paul Freeman). We first see Belloq as he’s removing the monkey idol from Indy’s hands, after Indy did all the work, in South America. He’s got a tribe of locals behind him, and he orders them to kill Indy. “There is nothing you can possess,” he says to Indy, “which I cannot take away.”
Believing himself a civilized person among savages, Belloq wears the finest suits of linen that money can buy. He smokes a hookah in Egypt and speaks the tongues of jungle tribes in South America, proving linguistics to be a solid course of study.
Belloq is a clever guy; even Indy’s best ally Sallah (John Rhys-Davies) has to admit that. The Nazis seem to agree as well, as Belloq appears to command even them at the Ark dig site near Cairo. Belloq barks orders when he realizes Indy is mucking up their plans.
Languages and styles of dress aside, Belloq knows how alike he and Indy are. Late in the film, Indy threatens to blow up the Ark unless Marion is released. Belloq calls his bluff. “Archeology is our religion,” Belloq says. “It would only take a nudge to make you like me.”
I think he’s dead right. Indy has a puritanical streak about artifacts, not gods, and anyone in his way will be hurt, including Marion, the only woman he ever loved.
Belloq gets points for bravado and creepiness. He buys white clothes to dress Marion in, often demanding “the girl” to accompany him as payment for his services. It’s gross. And it’s sad. A civilized man doesn’t need coercion to get laid.
Also, his clear command of the Nazis helps prove his villainy. In four years those same soldiers will walk down the Champs-Élysées.
Raiders of the Lost Ark is chock full of iconic scenes. You could probably show a random still to a movie watcher and half the time they would guess correctly. A melting face, tumbling boulder, floor of snakes, Karen Allen, the creepy Nazi torturer, even a wood crate with the number 9906763 labeled on it would all lead to a guess of the correct movie.
In such a classic, Raiders still manages to inject a single action sequence that stands a Ra’s head above the rest: the time when Indy decides to steal the Ark of the Covenant from a truck convoy.
Sallah informs Indy that the Nazis will drive the Ark to Cairo and load it onto a plane from there and fly to Berlin. Indy won’t allow this. He’ll stop it, but how? “I don’t know,” he says, “I’m making this up as I go.”
The world’s best improvisor takes off on horseback to chase the Ark. He rides to the cheers of a thousand Egyptian diggers, who seem to know what he’s up to.
Indy follows the convoy and somehow catches it, despite being on a horse that tires and following motorized vehicles that do not. Indy joins the convoy on the road, riding beside the truck carrying the Ark. He boards it first, tearing open the passenger door and throwing out the truck’s passenger.
Now, the other Nazis watched Indy approach and board the truck, and did nothing. Why not? Was Indy a game to them? Perhaps. That would couch with the cockiness of the not-yet-tested-in-battle Master Race.
There’s a good Wilhelm scream as Indy forces another enemy from the truck. Listen out for that. Indy, at the wheel, floors the truck and nudges the lead car carrying Belloq, Toht, and two others. Behind the truck is a jeep and a motorcycle carrying soldiers. These vehicles attack now, trying to flank Indy in the truck.
It’s dangerous to tussle with a larger vehicle, and Indy makes them pay. He swerves the truck first into the jeep, sending it into the brush, then into the motorcycle, which collides with a roadside stand of water. Some guys also fly over a massive cliff that seems to appear almost instantly and disappear as quickly, long enough to allow the Nazis to fall for a long time to their death. As if God was on Indy’s side.
You knew, as the Nazis did, that at least a half dozen soldiers were sitting in the truck’s rear, guarding the Ark. Why they were not the first to attack Indy no one knows. But now they do, seeing their brethren fall by the wayside and over cliffs.
Two men grip the truck’s canvas covering on either side. Indy spots them and their drawn handguns in his side view mirrors. Luckily there’s plenty of plant life in this part of the desert. Indy uses it to knock these chickenshit soldiers from the truck. Felled by palm fronds–no wonder they lost the war.
The next guy out waits until Indy thinks he’s safe. This new guy pops into the passenger door and shoots Indy in the arm. That’s a problem. Indy delivers a few kicks to the guy and dislodges the door. The last guy in the truck has the sense to climb the roof.
This final guy pops in through doorless cab and punches Indy in his bullet wound. This guy has some wits to him. He throws Indy through the blood-splattered windshield and takes the wheel.
Indy, who never gives up, grips the Mercedes hood ornament, which bends. Next, Indy holds the wheel well, his well-traveled nether regions inches from the rumbling truck tire. Carefully, Indy moves to the front grill, holding the bars that bend easily.
(Indy has destroyed the hood ornament and grill bars on this truck. The passenger door is missing, and he was easily thrown through the windshield. Mercedes made terrible trucks in the 1930s. No wonder Germany lost the war.)
Now comes a recreation of one of cinema’s most famous stunts. In the 1939 John Wayne movie Stagecoach, a stunt actor slides beneath a rumbling stagecoach to emerge behind it.
Indy does the same thing. With only his leather coat to protect his back from shredding, he grips the undercarriage of the truck and slides beneath and behind it, all at 40 mph. Next, Indy jabs the handle of his whip into the metal and lets the whip dangle behind the truck, taking him with it. Now Indy is dragged behind the truck, but he uses great strength to pull himself up on the whip, climb onto the truck, slip out through the hole in the canvas, and re-enter the truck cab.
Before you know it, Indy drives over the last soldier and runs the lead car off the road. He returns to Cairo and disappears into a makeshift garage that’s disguised immediately by Sallah’s friends, confounding the Nazis still on his tale.
We can’t talk effects without discussing the moments after the Ark’s opening. Plaster models were created of Toht’s face, and they were exposed to heat lamps that literally melted them. The days of CGI are as far away as the Star Wars galaxy. It’s as famous and gruesome as face melts come.
Karen Allen’s injection into the movie sends it from good action movie to all-time classic. Marion is a long-snubbed lover of Indy’s, perhaps the only woman capable of matching his joie de vivre.
Marion doesn’t take lightly being dumped by Indy. They meet for the first time in 10 years in a Nepalese bar, when she slaps him and tells him “I learned to hate you,” in the past decade. Indy says he’s sorry. “Well, say it again anyway,” she retorts.
Marion, a firecracker in white, can drink like no woman in Nepal, perhaps in the Eastern Hemisphere. We meet her during a drinking contest, a dozen shots deep, a glass sliding down her face.
She’s got the head piece of the Staff of Ra, an amulet needed to locate the Ark of the Covenant, the most sought-after archeological artifact in the world, dangling from her neck. Through no fault of her own she gives up its secret to the Nazis and spends the rest of the movie being passed around like currency.
Yes, Marion is a great character poorly portrayed. I love how she calls Indy “Jones” when no one else does. That’s how you’d treat a student or player, not a lover. It’s funny. But no one else sees that. Belloq demands “the girl” as part of his payment. He dresses her and tries to get her drunk. Marion is often captured and can do little except call out to Indy.
And she’s terrible in choice of men. Marion loved Indy 10 years ago, but admits she was “a child” and hates him now. By movie’s end, however, she’s back in love, though she knows Indy is a cad and always will be. Still, who could rebuff Harrison Ford?
Sallah also deserves mention. He greets Indy in the so-called greatest city in the world, Cairo, and seems to run it from the sidelines as the Irish guy ran Ireland in Braveheart. When Indy steals the truck carrying the Ark, he drives it into an open building that the locals running the square immediately, ingeniously conceal. Sallah perhaps did not organize this, but perhaps he did.
Sallah’s greatest move comes when he realizes the date that Indy is about to consume is poisoned, thanks to a dead monkey. That’s a true friend right there.
Countless Nazi soldiers assist Belloq in his quest to out-Indy Indiana Jones. Mostly they are well-dressed fodder for Indy to throw into gulches, ponds, and over cliffs.
The creepiest dude in the entire series is Toht (Ronald Lacey). Bald, spectacled, and constantly clad in black, Toht is a Nazi torturer destined for a better gig in a few years but forced to chase Indy and Marion to Nepal and Egypt.
Toht enters Marion’s bar after she wins the drinking contest. If Rick Moranis was bald and hunchbacked, he’d be this guy. Interested in the Ra artifact, Toht immediately heads to the fire to draw out a hot iron for torture. He dispenses with the friendly part of any interrogation and goes straight for torture.
After a long fight in the bar, in which Toht orders a German to shoot a hired goon, Toht spots the Ra head on the floor. It’s not on fire, but close to one, and it’s hot. Hot enough to burn its markings into Toht’s hand when he grips it. The burn is strong enough to read the words and create a fake artifact for the Ark dig in Egypt.
Indy gets into plenty of scrapes and fights, and gosh darn it, they seem realistic!
Indy’s most iconic fight occurs on a sandy tarmac in Egypt, where he confronts Nazis preparing a plane to fly the Ark to Germany. Indy finds a plane with propellers warming up, a distracted pilot, and a single mechanic. Oughta be a breeze.
Indy first fights the mechanic, who takes a couple swings with his arm-length wrench, missing Indy’s torso. From a shack nearby emerges a bald man. With a smile he removes his cap as he spots the fight. He’s excited. This guy lives every day hoping a fist fight will be a part of it.
Indy dispatches the mechanic and faces the gentleman masher with the bald head and shaved chest. Indy tricks the guy by looking away, drawing the gaze of the other guy. Indy kicks this man in the gonads. Doing little damage, the German punches Indy so hard the latter falls on his ass.
Indy is a smart fighter. He recognizes immediately that he’ll need other tactics to beat this goon. He tries biting and running away.
Meanwhile, the pilot catches sight of the fight. He shoots at Indy a couple times with his pistol, missing, giving reasons as to why he flies planes and isn’t in the infantry. Marion sneaks in to remove the wood blocks holding the wheels in place.
More punches are thrown and shots taken at Indy. Marion climbs behind the pilot and clocks him with the wood blocks. The pilot collapses onto some levers, sending the the plane slowly spinning in place.
A truck of Nazis drives into view. Marion does her thing. She sits in the bubble housing a machine gun. Marion lays her finger on that trigger and kills the entire squad. Plenty of squibs pop up sand as Nazis fall.
The plane wing knocks into a gas truck and sends the liquid flooding the into area. All this time, Indy’s being thrown around the sandy tarmac by the German boxer, Indy landing zero significant blows.
As Marion kills the last soldier, she also blows up a fuel barrel, sending a fireball high enough to alert the remainder of the hundreds of troops guarding the dig site. Bad news. Also, the gas is about to catch fire.
Indy delivers four tremendous blows to try to stop the boxer. Again, they do nothing. The bad guy throws Indy to the ground. Indy sees what the German does not, the approaching blades of the propeller. He tucks into a ball to avoid the seemingly inevitable as the German turns just as the blades slice him apart. Sweet blood splatter covers the Nazi insignia on the tail wing and on the cockpit bubble entrapping Marion.
The stunt work during the action set pieces helps set apart Raiders from so many other treasure hunting movies. They strove for grit over choreography, and it makes the movie much more charming and accessible. Indy isn’t doing back flip vines swings over a chasing boulder; he’s running the hell out of there.
Raiders of the Lost Ark packs its action scenes into the first 90 minutes. The climax is God’s time.
Indy follows Marion and the Ark to a small, barren island in the Mediterranean, where the German U-boat docks and unloads the Ark. There’s a good chance that a Bond villain will repurpose this base in a later decade. Belloq has a ceremony planned for opening the Ark. He wants to know what’s inside before presenting it to Herr Hitler.
Belloq leads a parade of soldiers, Toht, Marion, and a disguised Indy to the prepared altar in the island’s interior. The Nazi colonel nominally in charge expresses his discomfort with the “Jewish ritual.” Belloq might be a bad guy, but he’s not that bad.
After Indy threatens to blow up the Ark but has his bluff called, he and Marion are tied to a stake. Another terrific set greets the Nazis. Floodlights surround the rock-hewn arena. Soldiers stand below the stage where the Ark sits. Belloq stands robed in priestly (or rabbinic?) garb. The colonel and Toht, always in black, of course, flank the archeologist.
Indy tells Marion to shut her eyes no matter what. Belloq starts chanting (likely) Hebrew and opens the Ark. The colonel plunges his hand inside and draws out–sand. The holiest, finest-grain sand in the Old World. Toht laughs. No commandments present. Hitler will be displeased.
All of a sudden the floodlights blow. The generator powering them and the Nazis’ camera rig burst. We get a peek into the Ark, where the sand gives way to a dark swirl building strength. That ain’t natural.
Mist flows from the Ark and spirits emerge, flying around the area. The soldiers are having a grand old time. One spirit appears to be a young woman in desert garb. She looks pleasant and flies toward the camera, where her face quickly turns maleficent.
A fiery laser emerges from the Ark and zaps every last Nazi soldier. Marion and Indy are smartly keeping their eyes shut. Then, of course, comes one of the most famous death images in film history. The colonel’s skull caves in, Toht’s face melts, and Belloq’s head explodes as a mystical flame wall sweeps the area. An energy beam blasts into the sky and the Ark’s top flies back on.
Indy is the first to open his eyes, Marion second. They survived, and all they had to do was shut their eyes.
Back in the States, Indy rails against the bureaucrats and their uncaring possession of the greatest weapon of mass destruction until/including the atomic bomb. The fat bureaucrat tells Indy they have “top men” working on it. Top. Men. Cut to a box labeled “Top Secret Army Intel 9906763” and being carted to its final resting place in a warehouse a thousand yards long.
Raiders is plenty funny, and that’s the real secret to its success. For example, Indy’s constant annoyance at doing the job no one asked him to do produces one of the most famous ad libs in film history.
In Cairo, as Indy pursues Marion and runs from Nazis, he encounters a black-clad, sword-wielding maniac who wants to fight Indy. Now, legend has it, Harrison Ford was suffering from dysentery, and he didn’t want to do the scripted fight, which would take two or three days to shoot. Instead Ford drew Indy’s pistol and shot the guy. The look on Ford’s face is as funny as his shooting a sword-wielding maniac.
Also, any time you work a monkey/ape into a movie earns points from me, even (especially?) if the monkey/ape works for the bad guys. It died, so it got what was coming to it.
Sallah describes Cairo as “Paradise on Earth.” I am here to tell you that’s not the case. I’ve been to Cairo, and I did not enjoy one square meter of it. Hot, dusty, and brown, Egypt’s capital is as crowded as it is unpleasant. The amount of green seen in Raiders is more than I saw in several days in the city.
Let’s get out of the city, then. The strength of Raiders lies in its set pieces, for which the movie won an Oscar. This is a treasure hunting movie, and treasure hunting requires great hiding places.
Few rooms in cinema are as memorable as the Ark room. Indy first looks at the place when Sallah asks, “Why does the floor move?” That’s a question you never want to learn the answer to. Turns out it’s snakes. “Snakes,” Indy says, “Why’d it have to be snakes?”
Indy and Sallah descend into the room after dropping torches on the ground to create a sandy space without snakes. Indy’s first act is to pump gas on the writhing mass of snakes and set them aflame. That’s rude, but we know he hates snakes.
Sallah and Indy find the Ark inside a stone sarcophagus, easily lifting the top. The Ark glows from within, illuminating Sallah’s face golden. The pair came prepared with two poles for sliding into the case, with which they lift and carry back to the snake-free area below the room’s ceiling. Pretty soon the Ark is crated and lifted to the surface.
Soon after, the Nazis find out what’s up and toss Marion into the room, sealing it for the next 3,000 years. Now the four large statues come into play. Marion catches the teeth of one, the only reason she lives to stand on the floor of the room. Which she doesn’t stand on for long, climbing onto Indy after she lands inches from a cobra.
The pair swipe torches at the snakes that are just dying to slither across the floor. Some are literally dying. Indy spots holes in the wall, through which more snakes are happy to slide. Indy realizes that the surface can’t be far away. The plan: plunge a statue through the wall. Indy climbs onto a statue, slaps his whip over a ledge, and uses the leverage to rock the statue into the wall, crashing through it into another room full of dead bodies. After some harrowing encounters with corpses, they escape.
The Ark room was one of several great sets. Indy’s brush with a golden idol in South America and his subsequent escape from a boulder has been parodied countless times, best as an episode opening of The Simpsons. The ruined locale, with booby traps, tarantulas, moss, and stone doors is the stuff of a every childhood boy’s pillow fort, backyard, and playground.
The dig site looks like a desert straight out of Lawrence of Arabia. Cairo’s streets are a purified shopping mall. Marion’s Nepalese bar is the largest interior in the country, I’d bet.
Nazis, bad, Americans, good.
It’s more complex than that. The villain is French. A sidekick is Egyptian, and numerous countrymen his aides. All of Egypt seems to be opposed to Germany’s excavation of the Ark, and able to complexly act against them in minutes.
The real story is that God exists. Though Indy and Belloq are professed skeptics, they witness the power of the Ark, which is unquestionably God at work. Who else but God could burn off the painted German logo on its crate? That’s showin’ ’em, God.
But also, God evokes the No Witnesses Clause from His contract with humanity, aka The Bible, aka the book of 1 Samuel, chapter 6 verse 19, which insinuates that people best not look upon the Ark unless they want to die. Indy knew it, and he lived because of it. Belloq did not care, and died, explosively.
Finally, perhaps the only power strong enough to counter God’s in the American government’s power to catalog everything known to Man and then ignore it.
If two women compete in a drinking contest, but don’t speak to each other, does that count as passing the Bechdel Test?
- I love when the feds meet Indy for the first time and have a “strictly confidential” conversation with him on the stage of a huge lecture room.
Summary (52/68): 76%
Winner of four Oscars, Raiders of the Lost Ark was 1981’s most successful film, earning almost twice as much as the number two earner that year, On Golden Pond. Can two movies be more tonally different than those?
Spileberg and Raiders bother received nominations for the year’s biggest prize, but missed. Seems like a classic Academy preference of small, slow movies to big spectacles. Raiders is a fantastic movie of derring-do that doesn’t slack for a moment. It’s actors are perfectly cast, and the lead love story crackles with as much energy and malice as an opened Ark of the Covenant.