"South America, 1936"
With that subtitle, something small and innocuous, begins the greatest adventure ever filmed. It has to be one of the best openings on film, a slow atmospheric build up that hides the lead character in the shadows waiting to show his face, and his abilities. Following a sinister trek through the rainforest our hero makes his entrance with the crack of a whip. The no nonsense approach shows us what we need to know; Indiana Jones is revealed through actions and not words.
This kind of meticulous reveal of both the location and character sets the scene here, in a film I have no doubts about putting at the number one in any list of perfect cinema experiences. The dappled light casts the protagonist in both light and dark, his grizzled appearance matched by his untrustworthy companions. It immediately lends him the aura of someone who isn't the clean cut treasure hunter. There's a ruthless edge behind the college professor, he fights dirty and shoots before asking questions. Despite the second sequel softening the mercenary feeling a little, here it's set up to provide a few nice layers right out of the gate.
As the story unfolds each part is expertly done. In a discussion of Raiders as a simple action movie, the level of craft can be overlooked at times. It's so well framed and there are many great moments that the subsequent outings of Spielberg's man with the hat never quite managed to recreate on a technical level. While they are still favourites of mine, the original is on another level. There are several stand out shots that have particularly striking visual elements -- a monkey laid out on the floor beneath a ceiling fan like a murder victim, a German agent standing in a door way as his hired muscle comes on screen; or a central villain preparing a red hot torture device viewed through the lattice of a wall decoration.
This emphasis on style is in contrast to the fast shooting, low number of takes style that is talked about by the film makers. Perhaps having to think quickly added this level of inventiveness. Maybe they just wanted to do something special in an era dominated by sci-fi in the wake of Star Wars. In any case they put together a bar raising adventure. It's not just a light hearted exploit where the iconic fedora never comes off. Except of course at the same time ... it is. That's the beauty of it.
The film is an example of masters at the top of their game, enjoying themselves as they do it. It balances all of the ingredients - while Temple of Doom overplays the supernatural horror and The Last Crusade pulls things back in favour of bigger laughs and a family centric core arc, Raiders of the Lost Ark is a finely tuned machine. It never goes overboard, but it never plays it safe either. There's a gritty edge and a warm heart, with equal parts comic book violence and romantic escapade. It's easy to see why this might so quickly become too silly but with enough care it works out just right. It might have a touch of schmaltz, but at the same time it's always a chase to the finish style movie where bad guys are chopped by propellers and set on fire.
One of the best examples of all these parts in motion is the big chase sequence out of Cairo. Leaps are made from horses, trucks are hijacked, motorcyles are smashed - the use of music and the way this sequence is edited uses every part of the screen experience to create something really incredible. It becomes more than just a series of action beats, but a feat of pure cinema. The hero never feels perfectly safe as the villains come at him from every side. Even the continuity is kept in check as his blood is splashed on a vehicle windscreen. The sound of it is key however, the way it uses the score by John Williams can't be overlooked. Have I said it's a perfect mix once to often at this stage? I suppose so but it's still true even after repeated viewings.
Another central piece to this balancing act is the cast. That they managed to get together such a strong ensemble is quite something, against the odds. Harrison Ford could have been written off as being too well known as Han Solo. Ronald Lacey might have considered staying out of acting altogether after working as an agent. The alternatives exist but it will never seem plausible in hindsight. Karen Allen is pitch perfect as the alcoholic, jaw breaking no nonsense side kick. John Rhys Davies is boisterous but never overbearing with perfect comedy timing. Paul Freeman is snake-like but always likeable, with just the right amount of charming sleaze. There are no weak links, even a smaller character like Marcus Brody is given great gravitas with limited screen time by the great Denholm Elliot.
It's also packed with colourful bit players like the eye patch wearing 'monkey man' who loudly salutes Nazi spies in broad daylight and recurring heavy hitter Pat Roach as both the 'giant' Sherpa and the plane mechanic who come to blows with the Indy during key action set pieces. There are many others to talk about but these small elements fill every facet of the movie. There's a lot of luck involved with this kind production even beyond the casting. I don't think I have to talk about the iconic sword to-a-gun-fight gag being a result of illness for example. But this could have been Indiana Smith starring Tom Selleck and Klaus Kinski. Thankfully former was unavailable and the latter declared that the script was 'moronically shitty'.
As you might have gathered I don't quite agree with that assessment of the screenplay. Much of the material brings it above the level of a simple quest story. There's a lot to be said about the dry wit of the script. It can be found throughout the dialogue, particularly from the bad guys - Major Toht's 'always overdressing for the wrong occasions' quip being a personal favourite of mine. In terms of basic plot it all works too without ever feeling totally absurd. The biblical mythology is quickly used as a setup but is never heavy handed. It helps that the air of power and mystery is fuelled by magic in both the visual effects and the musical score.
The characters themselves are painted with broad strokes, but they manage to have a subtle level of depth in the quiet scenes. Marion gets a quiet moment alone with her father's last artefact, right before the pyrotechnic mayhem begins. The romance is underplayed as Indy falls asleep after his chase ordeal, providing is with a group of good guys who are constantly pushed to the edge. The whole outing thunders along at a great pace, but each set piece is broken up with little moments like this that are never boring and always add something of worth. It's been said by some that it runs out of steam in the third act around the time with the submarine in the last moments before the Ark is finally opened. But I can't agree. After all, a little respite makes that face melting finale all the more amazing. How else could such a wonderful ride come to an end if not with exploding heads and a touch of sentimentality?