Original US release date: June 12, 1981
Production budget: $18,000,000
Worldwide gross: $389,925,971
So, I have a personal story regarding this week’s #ThrowbackThursday, the all-time classic Raiders of the Lost Ark.
For those of you who don’t know me personally, when I’m not writing about movies and taking trips to Alaska, I’m a teacher. I now teach at a university, but I was once doing some part-time work for Sylvan Learning Center.
We had this one particular student whose real name I will of course not be divulging. Let’s call him Donald. Donald was seven years old and incredibly precocious. I once overheard him and his family discussing with the center director when his next session would be. The director suggested that Donald return that following Thursday. Donald, all seven years of him, replied, “I’m not available this Thursday. How about next Tuesday?” Donald and the director then proceeded to do the scheduling themselves while the parents just idly stood by.
On one particular day, Donald was sitting in front of me and I was working with him as well as two other students. I had assigned him some work on his iPad (which had Sylvan apps for the students to use) while I worked with the other students to my left and right. He was way too smart for his own good, so he finished quickly. As I was wrapping up with one of the other students, I heard him say, “Look! I drew the Nazi symbol!” I looked at his iPad and, sure enough, he had drawn a swastika.
My initial reaction was to put my face in my hands and say, “Whyyyyyyyyyy?” (which I actually did, no lie). This wasn’t what I was hired to deal with, but there I was. I calmly explained to him that I understood he wasn’t trying to draw anything bad but that the symbol he drew is very hurtful to people and isn’t something that he should be drawing.
I told the director about it and he said he would relay the incident to the parents. Once he did, he came back to me a few days later and asked, “So, you want to know what the deal was with Donald?” “Yes!” I replied. The director smirked and said, “He’d been watching ‘Indiana Jones’.”
Ahh, the power of movies. That’s what “Parental Guidance” is supposed to be for, folks! But, at the end of it, no harm was done, we had a laugh over it (because very few things are more relieving than discovering that your student’s parents are, in fact, not Nazis), and hopefully Donald learned something.
But Indiana Jones fought the good fight against the Nazis long before I did my small little part, 30+ years later. And it all began with Raiders of the Lost Ark!
Indy and I actually have a lot in common. We’re both college professors. We both hate snakes. We’re both devilishly handsome. But he’s got me beat when it comes to adventures (though only slightly!). I’m going to proceed from here with those of you who haven’t seen the film in mind. (I know you exist! Shame!) If you’ve seen it, you know why it’s great and you can just reminisce along with me, here.
First, here’s a little perspective. Raiders of the Lost Ark was one of Steven Spielberg’s earlier films (his fifth, to be exact). He had previously established a name for himself through Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Meanwhile, Harrison Ford was hot off of The Empire Strikes Back and this was audiences’ first chance to see him post-carbonite. And, of course, there was producer George Lucas, also of Star Wars fame. So, it was a perfect storm of elements all coming together with the right project at the right time.
Raiders is designed to be a throwback adventure, along the lines of westerns, The Lone Ranger, and other radio serials. In 1981, huge tentpole releases weren’t coming out every weekend. The market was completely different than it is now and, while a movie like Raiders might be dismissed as more of the same, today, back then it was something special.
I certainly don’t need to say this (and who am I to discuss the merits of Raiders of the Lost Ark? But that’s what I do, I guess, so I’ll pretend to wield some sort of credibility, here.) but the film completely holds up to this day. The sound mix is hurt a little bit by its age but, other than that, the film feels virtually timeless.
Harrison Ford is, of course, the heart and soul of the film. As the iconic Indiana Jones, he brings a humble confidence to the picture, somehow existing as a seemingly-paradoxical larger-than-life Everyman. Indy knows he’s good but he also knows he has his limits and that he can be bested. In other words, he’s beatable and that makes him relatable. Ford also brings his trademark smoldering charm and wit to the part, allowing Indy to be likeable by all members of the family.
Karen Allen plays Indy’s ex and partner, Marion Ravenwood. Spunky and game, Marion is out of her element in this adventure but rises to the challenge. Allen infuses Marion with an alluring moxie, determined to take care of herself but also pragmatic enough to understand that she can’t in actuality handle this situation on her own. Indy and Marion function as a team as they battle the Nazis for the possession of a mystical item of great supernatural power.
Spielberg further adds to his already-then-sparkling résumé with an effortless execution of what had to have been a very challenging project, at the time. CGI (computer generated imagery) was in its infancy in 1981 and couldn’t be relied on. Yet, in re-watching the film it didn’t really matter. I’m not so foolish as to say that practical effects are always better than CGI (CGI allows for more natural character movement than wirework, for one example. For another, compare the Thing in Tim Story’s Fantastic Four to the Thing in Josh Trank’s Fantastic Four. CGI is often a great tool and, despite what many believe, most people can’t truly tell when it’s being used and when it’s not.), but Spielberg finds a way to not only get by with almost nothing but practical effects but to actually overachieve while using them. There is one effect towards the end of the film that blew my mind considering that the film was released in 1981. The only time the effects look dated is in that same scene when a little CGI becomes necessary. It’s only about five seconds’ worth of the movie and, otherwise, everything looks flawless. One of Spielberg’s greatest strengths is his efficiency and that particular trait of his is on full display, here.
On a side note, Raiders also happens to feature the single greatest actor-induced script change in film history, when Indy finds himself face-to-face with a very skilled and intimidating swordsman. Harrison Ford wasn’t feeling well during shooting, suffering from dysentery, and took it upon himself to suggest to Spielberg that they speed things up and get through it in a far more effective way, resulting in one of the most memorable movie moments of all-time.
The theme of Raiders of the Lost Ark is one dealing with the respect of power, and that’s a theme that occurs often throughout Spielberg’s career (probably most notably in Jurassic Park). Indy’s humbleness and respect for that power is what ultimately gets him through this adventure and it’s a lesson that is still applicable to this day and will still be applicable on the day that humans go extinct. It’s part of what makes the film so timeless and could provide an opportunity for a teachable moment as adults who grew up on this film share it with their kids.
I’m sure some will nitpick (and have in the past). The movie can be a little campy at times (by design). And some of the action is a little implausible. But, really, why would anyone care? This film is (as many of its ilk are) meant to be fun and not to be taken seriously. That’s where so many critics fail in their responsibilities. They fail the movies, they fail their readers, and they fail themselves by having the exact same expectations and preconceived checklist for every single film they see. I’ve said before that criticizing a movie like Raiders of the Lost Ark for implausibility is akin to criticizing Schindler’s List (another Spielberg classic) for not being funny enough. Stop it.
Bottom line: Raiders of the Lost Ark is a film that every single human should see at least once in their lives. It’s film royalty and it’s a relic from a time when the blockbuster was starting to emerge and find its identity. If you haven’t seen it, you need to. If you have seen it, watch it again. And show it to your kids. Just, for their teachers’ sakes, please explain to them what a swastika is.
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