Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark

In 1981, adventure got a new name as Indiana Jones swept into theaters in Raiders of the Lost Ark, a nicely contained take on the action serials of old. Several decades later, the renamed (but thankfully untouched) Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark is considered a classic, and with good reason. Adventure films don’t get much better than the ones carrying the name Indiana Jones. Within the first ten minutes of Raiders of the Lost Ark you know everything you need to know about its hero, Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford). He’s smart (spotting all those dart traps in advance). He’s resourceful (attempting to counterbalance the weight of the gold idol with the bag of dirt, even if it doesn’t work). He’s rugged (pulling himself up from a pit using loose roots and later running from that iconic boulder). Oh yeah, and he doesn’t like snakes. Frankly, the opening hunt for the golden idol has all the makings of a good movie all by itself, and it only serves the purpose of introducing our bold hero, paving the way for one hell of a story once the real plot starts to unfold.

It isn’t long before Indy finds himself on the trail of the fabled Ark of the Covenant, the container rumored to hold the remnants of the ten commandments. To find the Ark requires Indy to team up with an old flame, Marian Ravenwood (Karen Allen), the daughter of an old professor of Indy’s who was an expert on the subject of the Ark. Unfortunately, Jones isn’t alone in his quest for the artifact, as he finds himself coming face to face with Nazis, led by Indy’s nemesis, Rene Belloq (Paul Freeman).

When Raiders debuted in 1981, Steven Spielberg was still proving himself as a director (it wasn’t until the following year’s E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial that Spielberg would fully earn his reputation). Anyone who had any doubt as to what Spielberg could do didn’t have to look much further than Raiders, however. The movie had everything, from high action sequences to decent character development, romance, and even the horrific face-melting sequence for the horror junkies. It’s no coincidence that Indy’s first adventure was conceptualized by George Lucas and Philip Kaufman, largely based on old action serials, and then penned by Laurence Kasdan, who also wrote the best movies of the Star Wars saga. Working with that as a foundation, Spielberg is able to assemble a masterful product that has withstood the rigors of time and improved technology and continues to hold its own today.

In the twenty year lull since Indy last had an adventure, Spielberg has made statements regretting the portrayal of the Nazis in Raiders (and the other Indy movies) as more comedic. While Spielberg may regret that portrayal after taking on the seriousness of Schindler’s List, the characters here are exactly what they need to be. By giving the Nazis a bit of an incompetent slant at times (on par with Star Wars’s stormtroopers), the film allows Indy to be a bit larger than life – perfect for an adventure hero. Indy can outsmart and outfight the Nazis, although they frequently give him a run for his money and push him to the edge of his physical stamina before he gets that upper hand. At the same time, for those who think the Nazis are too comical, don’t forget about Major Toht (Ronald Lacey), one of the more nefarious Indy villains to appear on screen.

Part of what has solidified Raiders' status as a classic film is the numerous memorable moments the film carries, leading the picture to be spoofed and parodied quite often. Who can forget Indy’s marketplace battle with the overzealous swordsman, the brawny battle with the German mechanic, and, of course, the abuse Indy takes chasing a simple truck. If nothing else, nobody who has seen the movie will ever forget the face melting mayhem as the Ark’s power is revealed and proves to be more than the Third Reich is prepared for.

Raiders of the Lost Ark ought to be required viewing for modern filmmakers who want to come anywhere close to the action/adventure genre. I picked up the Indiana Jones trilogy box set back in 2003 when the trilogy first came to DVD, which I assume most fans of the classic character did. Because that set included all three movies, plus a bonus fourth disc, all of my Indiana Jones needs were pretty well taken care of, so I haven’t bothered to double dip and pick up the new release, which is being used to capitalize on the hype of the new Indy flick.

My biggest complaint about the DVD release, regardless of which version of the movie you pick up, is the blatant retitling of the movie just to make it fit with the rest of the films in the saga. After Spielberg and Lucas realized they could build a franchise around this awesome character, the rest of the movies used his name in the title. To make the first film fit that formula, the name has been retconned and the DVD packaging has been labeled as Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark. This is yet another move in the revisionist history of Lucas and Spielberg. Thankfully, the film itself hasn’t been touched, still bearing the original name. I hope they leave it that way, or, if they do feel the need to retitle the movie itself as well, they don’t do anything else to mess with a film that is almost absolute perfection.

The remastering of Raiders is quite incredible and will push your home theater more than a lot of twenty-five year old movies. The base and surround sound during Indy’s bar brawl in Nepal almost literally threw me out of my seat, and, while some of the effects may not hold up fantastically (the face melting is cool, but the animation surrounding it is a little dated), the image quality is pretty spectacular.

If you pick up the new DVD release you’ll get a look at a few featurettes that weren’t included on the previous release. Spielberg and Lucas introduce the film, and the cast of the new movie discuss the original film in a retrospective. There’s also a look at the beloved melting face sequence, which sounds like something that’s on the bonus disc of the previous set. Add in a couple of image galleries as well as a trailer for the upcoming LEGO Indiana Jones video game and you’ve got a pretty decent release; just not one that I would pick up since I already have the movie.

If you don’t already have Indy’s adventures on DVD, or somehow have never seen Raiders of the Lost Ark, grab your whip and swing to your local video store and familiarize yourself with how awesome Indy’s first outing still is.