Raiders of the Lost Ark
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Raiders of the Lost Ark

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There was a time when going to the movies was an all day event. You would have the main feature, a second feature (whose cast was less than ‘A’ list), a newsreel (this was in the day before CNN), a cartoon and a Saturday morning serial. The serial was a brilliant device thought up by the movie house owners and the studios to keep you coming back week after week. They would take a flick and cut it up into 15 minute or so segments. Each segment told part of the story and always ended in a cliffhanger. In fact this term comes from these serials since it was not uncommon for the hapless hero to be left dangling from a cliff until the fresh installment next Saturday. Raiders of the Lost Ark returned me to those days and forever changed the action genre. Dr. Henry ‘Indiana’ Jones (Harrison Ford) is a meek and mild professor of archeology. With his little glasses and tweed jacket his class is full of love struck co-eds. On his frequent field trips he loses the jacket and dons the now famous leather bomber jacket, fedora hat and bullwhip as he searches for lost artifacts to bring to museums for scientific studies. Indy is approached by government agents seeking his help. Hitler is obsessed with religious treasures and is searching for the lost Ark of the Covenant, the sacred box that held the original Ten Commandments. With this ark his armies would be invincible. Unless you have been in cryogenic storage for the last twenty odd years you know the story. What really works here are the seeming simplicity of the plot and the straight forward presentation of the characters. The Nazis are pure evil, there is no redeeming qualities, no complex motives, and they want nothing less than to rule the world. Indy, by contrast, is pure good, a hero of almost mythical proportions. He hates the Nazis, is devoted to science and loves his country. The serials this film was based on was popular during World War Two and a typical theme was the raging conflict at the time. Sure, it was propaganda but it delivered the intended entertainment. True to form almost every 15 minutes Indy would find himself in a seemingly impossible predicament. Although he would escape by some fantastic means but we don’t care, the audience is permitted to suspend belief entirely and just enjoy the ride. While many films feel obliged to provide a morality lesson this film makes no apologies for just being fun to watch. You are given permission to grab some popcorn and soda and hoot and holler for the duration of the show. You can not watch this film like and adult, you will revert back to a simpler childhood time.

Although the role of Indiana almost went to Tom Selleck, the muses of film were smiling when the part ultimately went to Harrison Ford. He has that curtain quality held by only a few actors, the ability to be the every man that can draw the audience into enjoying the story. Here he has to maintain himself on the thin line of being the meek professor and the action hero. There are moments where Ford as his characters gives a crooked little smile (drives my wife and daughter wild), that sort of shows he is not as confident as he often pretends. His Indy is both resourceful yet human. While he gets out of the most unusual situations he does so with is wits rather than any super human strength. The female lead Karen Allen as Marion Ravenwood is perfectly cast. She harkens back to some of the strong women in the action films of the forties and fifties. Allen plays Marion as tough, she can literally drink a Mongol warrior under the table yet she is well suited to wearing a silky night gown, retaining her femininity. Ford gives us an Indy that we can believe in, a hero that we can identify with. No super powers, nothing special about him other than he is resourceful and determined to do the right thing. Even in this he harkens back to a time in film and in our society when it was easy to tell the good guys from the bad.

Steven Spielberg is a national treasure as a director, especial for those of us roughly from the same generation that he represents. He grew up about the same time as I did and the movies that created my love for film also affected him. The main difference is he is in the position to express this love through his work. Since this film reflects the old time serial the pacing is all important. Spielberg nails it. In the old serials the hero had to get into a dangerous situation every 15 minutes, the length of the episode. This is reflected here. Indy goes from one predicament to another, never losing his cool or his hat. Spielberg interjects just the right amount of humor into the show so as to keep the audience literally on a roller coaster ride, a build up a pause at the top and a rapid ride down again. Thankfully this film was presented in its original widescreen aspect ratio. Most of us have seen it cropped (butchered) into a format that is ‘modified to fit you screen’. What a waste. This film has so much going on that only widescreen and multiple viewings can allow you to take it all in. even the musical score here is perfect. The now famous Indy theme recalls the heyday of Hollywood with flair.

This film represents a turning point for American cinema. It brings us back to a simpler time while using special effects not to drive the film but rather as a canvas for the action. Lost Ark is a movie that combines religious symbolism, highly polarized moral standards and believable characters into something that is just fun to watch. Not every film has to have a profound message, some are their just for us to forget our hassled lives for a couple of hours and enjoy the ride.

Posted 10/13/03

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