"Well, Jones, at least you haven't forgotten how to show a lady a good time." - Marion Ravenwood
Director: Steven Spielberg
Writer: Lawrence Kasdan, George Lucas, Phillip Kaufman
Principal cast members:
Action heroes need a number of things to be truly iconic. They need signature quips, they need approachable faults, they need appealing sidekicks and loyal friends, and most of all they need to be able to endure adventures and misfortunes that would kill an ordinary person a dozen times over. Welcome to the world of Dr. Henry "Indiana" Jones, Jr.
The 1981 debut of Indiana Jones was one of the most entertaining adventure films of all time. It benefitted from a number of key ingredients and represented an ideal blend of story, script, and direction along with a highly capable cast. It is pretty easy to examine the assorted ingredients and come to the conclusion that this team would have found it pretty hard to fail.
When it comes to screenplay, Lawrence Kasdan is a veteran with many credits and proven skill with pacing and dialogue. His list of awards and nominations for screenplay is very impressive. George Lucas, while nowhere near as capable when it comes to dialogue, is a great storyteller, especially in the science fiction/fantasy worlds. Phillip Kaufman is also an accomplished screenwriter whose list of awards and nominations is only slightly less impressive than Kasdan's.
Spielberg's abilities are well-known and while he has assorted strengths and weaknesses like any filmmaker, the Indiana Jones stories really play to his strengths. Spielberg excels at fast-paced adventure, feats of derring-do, spectacular wide-shots and startling reveals. Raiders offers him dozens of opportunities to use these skills to great effect.
The story opens with a shadowy introduction to our hero as he craftily sneaks his way into a Central American tomb to steal a golden idol. He must outwit fiendish traps and manage a hairs-breadth escape from a massive rolling boulder only to have the idol stolen by a rival, the fiendish and French Rene Belloq. This leads to a terrifying dash through the jungle being chased by a tribe of poison-dart wielding natives. Our hero, Indiana Jones, barely escapes on a seaplane, only to face his worst phobia - a snake.
We next see our hero in the world of academics for he is no mere tomb-robber. He is, in fact, a professor of archeology. The classroom setting establishes two key facts which will impact the entire series of movies to come. First of all, he is an academic foremost and not some mere tomb-robber and second, he is a major hunk - the object of desire for women everywhere.
In the scenes that follow, we learn that in this time before World War II, the Nazis - every writer's ideal movie villain - are collecting paranormal artifacts of great power and now they are going after one of the most dangerous of all - the Ark of the Covenant. Jones sets off in a race to beat the Nazis to the Ark and his first stop is the Himalayas where he must win the cooperation and support of a former girlfriend, Marion Ravenwood.
Marion is played by Karen Allen in an iconic role as the liberated, independent tough-gal who is not content to be arm candy or a supportive housewife. She is as adventurous as Jones and while not an academic, she is the daughter of one and knows the importance of Indy's work. Allen has a very approachable beauty which has served her well in many roles. She also shows amazing chemistry with Harrison Ford and her ability to be his damsel in distress without appearing helpless was one of the keys to this film's great success.
In Egypt, Indy looks up an old ally to help him locate and unearth the Ark. His Egyptian friend, Sallah, is a crafty and creative sidekick. Ably played by John Rhys-Davies, we see Sallah as both entertaining and extremely resourceful, the exact thing Indy needs to steal a buried treasure right from under the noses of the Nazis.
From there, the adventure races at Spielbergian speed. In short order, Indiana Jones faces down a scimitar-wielding assassin, escapes from an underground chamber filled with deadly snakes, fights one of the burliest Nazi airplane mechanics ever, gets dragged behind a truck, dives from a freighter and stows away on a Nazi submarine - and in the end, it all seems rather wasted effort on his part.
Indy seems somehow unable to prevent the Nazis from capturing Marion not once, but twice. He can't stop them from stealing and opening the Ark for their own nefarious purposes. In the end, it isn't Indiana Jones but the Wrath of God that saves the day in a frenzy of supernatural face-melting. The movie closes with Jones facing the frustration of the US Government taking the Ark and hiding it in a vast warehouse somewhere in parts unknown.
At the end of the day, Raiders offers us much of what makes for great adventures. We have a very human and approachable hero surrounded by interesting and loyal friends. The hero endures every sort of trial and tribulation imaginable and in the end, even if he doesn't exactly triumph over the bad guys, he at least helps prevent them from getting what they came for.
The pacing and plotting of the movie move at light speed and offer us little chance to catch our breath between the start and the finish. When they describe movies as being thrill rides, the Indiana Jones series offers up textbook examples. The dialogue is snappy, the action is non-stop, and the special effects are cool and state-of-the-art for 1981.
And of course, the truest test of a movie featuring an action hero is this: it left us wanting more. Much more
Coolness factor: 7
Overall entertainment: 7