Film review – Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

Raiders of the Lost Ark: Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford)
Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford)

During the period when the New Hollywood era was winding down while the modern blockbuster was being born, one of the greatest mainstream films of all time was made. The story of Indiana Jones, an adventurous archaeologist in 1936 searching for the Ark of the Covenant before the Nazis find it, has lost none of the fun, wonder and excitement it had when first released in 1981. Director Steven Spielberg had already made his mark on cinema with films such as Jaws (1975) and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) while George Lucas, who conceived the story and was one of the film’s producers, had enjoyed success with films such as American Graffiti (1973) and the game-changing Star Wars (1977). Along with other key collaborators, Spielberg and Lucas made Raider of the Lost Ark into one of the most loved adventure films of all time, nostalgically recalling the adventure serials of the 1930s and 1940s that played before the main features in cinemas. Today Raider is a testament to the passion, respect, joy and knowledge that the filmmakers at the time had for cinema as an art form with the power to entertain on a mass scale.

While so much can be said about how entertaining Raiders is to experience once more on the big screen, what is notable about watching it again in 2012 is how progressive it is for an early 1980s boys-own adventure film. Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones is clearly masculine, but he doesn’t possess the hyper masculinity that would come to define many of the action films of the 1980s through characters played by actors such as Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Indiana is extremely resourceful and knows how to use his gun, whip and fists when required, but he’s not an indestructible superhuman either. He openly acknowledges his intense fear of snakes – to great comedic effect – and in the film’s opening sequence he states he is scared of the situation, compelling him to take extra precautions that then pay off. He can take a beating, but only to a point and the film is not afraid to show him knocked down. One of Ford’s greatest acting moments in the film is during his fistfight with a burley German on the airfield when Indiana gets punched and falls to the ground. He goes to get up to resume the fight, but can’t and the look of panic and bewilderment on his face betrays his realisation that his body is starting to fail. Moments such as this remind the audience that Indiana is human.

Like Ford’s other iconic character Han Solo from the original Star Wars trilogy, Indiana in also something of a rebel. He’s not an anti-hero, but he’s not clean cut either. He doesn’t play by any rules and has no problem abandoning notions of a ‘clean fight’ when he needs to. In most of the fight scenes Indiana uses dirty tricks to win, most famously in the scene where he shoots a swordsman challenging him to a duel. The stories about that moment being the result of on-set improvisation rather than scripting are now well known, but the important thing is how well the resulting moment captures Indiana’s worn out and no-nonsense attitude when it comes to fighting. He doesn’t care if he fights honourably or not; he just wants to get the job done without accumulating too much more mileage.

As the title of the film informs us, Indiana is a raider, or a plunderer, of rare and ancient objects. He doesn’t discriminate though – an ancient Peruvian treasure is just as worthy of his attentions as an Old Testament Christian artefact and he’s happy to remove both from their rightful resting places. His motivation is nobler than the Nazi villains, but he is still essentially grave robbing to satisfy an obsession with finding rare treasures of great archaeological significance. This leads to another important character trait that indicates why he is so likeable: he delivers the brain along with the brawn. He works as an archaeology lecture at a university to make ends meet while waiting for funding to come through for his next expedition, making him an underpaid and under-appreciated member of the education sector. He is not a tough guy sent on a mission, he’s not out for revenge, he’s not searching for his fortune and he’s not an Alpha Male thrill seeker; instead he is pursuing his intellectual curiosity, which back in 1981 could be portrayed as something that was appealing without cynicism. The fact that he was also a man of action makes Indiana Jones almost an anomaly in the action and adventure genres.

While Indiana may be seen as morally dubious in some regards, he is still the hero and that is best established by the presence of his ‘shadowy reflection’ in the form of rival archaeologist Dr René Belloq (Paul Freeman). Both Indiana and Belloq are raiders of ancient artefacts, except Belloq prefers to let Indiana do the work and then turns up afterwards to claim the prize. Both are pursuing the Ark of the Covenant on behalf of foreign powers and both would prefer to keep it for themselves, but Belloq is working for the Nazis and Indiana is working for the Allies, specifically the American government. Belloq wants the Ark to harness its power himself while Indiana wants it for its historical and cultural significance. Belloq seeks personal glory and power while Indiana wants to improve humanity’s understanding of the past. It’s individualism versus the common good.

Indiana may be yet another white, male hero – a character-type that is overrepresented in mainstream cinema to the point that it is often mistaken for the norm – but the film reflects a mostly enlightened attitude towards women and other ethnicities. Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen) may be the only female character in the film, but she is for the most part far from being a mere love interest or damsel in distress. Like she says to Indiana, ‘You’re gonna get more than you bargained for. I’m your goddamn partner!’ And indeed she is, at least in the first half of the film where she’s introduced literally drinking a man under the table, going on to shoot and punch the villains alongside Indiana, and even saving his life. Later in the film when she does require rescuing she remains tough, cunning and spirited. She’s assertive with Indiana to the point that their eventual love scene is preceded by her smashing him in the chin with a mirror and then getting impatient with him for complaining about how much it hurts when she dresses his wounds. The final punch line of the scene is that while she is ready to go, he falls asleep.

Similarly, despite having a character who steals cultural artefacts as the hero, Raiders is reasonably progressive towards other cultures. The Hovitos tribe at the start of the film are a threat to Indiana, but only because they have been unknowingly duped by Belloq. In the scenes set in Cairo it is established that a characteristic of the Nazis, whom Belloq is working with, is to shanghai the local population into working for them. The film therefore casts the villains as colonialist-type figures, who are the real threat to Indiana, not the local population working for them. After Indiana and Marion, the other major character in the film is Sallah (John Rhys-Davies) an Egyptian excavator. Sallah is privileged in the film for his knowledge, bravery, resourcefulness and kindness, and like Marion saves Indiana’s life. A smaller but significant role is Captain Katanga (George Harris) who also protects Indiana at a crucial moment. Raiders never goes out of its way to fly the flag of racial diversity, but in a film where the villains are a group notorious for their racial hatred it is notable that so many of the supporting cast that are portrayed as heroic are from a broad mix of ethnic backgrounds.

Curiously the follow up to Raiders was Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984), which was set a year earlier, but went back many more years in terms of its representation of gender and race. The female lead was, to quote Kate Capshaw who played the part, ‘Not much more than a dumb screaming blonde’ and the depiction of Hinduism and Indian culture drew a lot of understandable criticism for being wildly inaccurate and grotesque. Indiana is also a far more mercenary and macho character, making him much less likeable than the roguish yet evolved version that appears in Raiders. Although Temple of Doom is still an enjoyable guilty pleasure, it is fortunate that the third film in the franchise, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989), is far more in the spirit of Raiders.It’s anybody’s guess what Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008) was trying to achieve.

Watching Raiders of the Lost Ark again in 2012 is a strange yet rewarding experience. So much of the film is recognisable having been continually imitated and parodied over the past 30 years, and yet it still feels fresh and exciting. It is such an overt exercise in nostalgia, doubly so now that it is playing to audiences who remember it from when it was first released, and yet its inventiveness allows it to hold its own with anything released since. Indiana seems like such a conventional character, but his mix of intellect, action, charm and deviousness distinguish him from so many other iconic action heroes. Raiders is a classic and repeated viewings, especially when presented properly on the big screen, only reinforce this further.

Thomas Caldwell, 2012


  1. Thanks for this fine analysis. I saw Raiders on its initial run. For me, it shifted the action/adventure genre as Star Wars shifted science fiction, As you observe, Harrison Ford starred in both and did similar things to both. If my memory of the film is intact–and please correct me if I’m wrong–I recall a scene in a market place where Indiana encounters a man with a sword. What takes place there put an unsettling twist into the film and contributed to making the main character a departure in the genre. The final scenes with The Ark were genuinely evil and scary, possibly a too strong for younger people in the audience–and very much on purpose when considered in light of Spielberg’s later film, Schindler’s List.

    It’s unfortunate, in a way, that new viewers can’t appreciate these classic films in their historic context. As you point out, what made them unique has now blended into the the vocabulary of the current cinema. Likewise, because I wasn’t around then (honest!!!), I can never fully, viscerally, appreciate what Citizen Kane did for movies, only conject. My mother was in her twenties then, and in later life still recalled the film as amazing.

    Cinema changes constantly, yet it seems that the late sixties into the early eighties really was a time of stunning basic changes in the artistic style and vocabulary of film. I sometimes wonder if the last decade or so has been more ot major technical advances, mostly digital, than a shift in the directorial plane of expression–though they intertwine of course. Even Malick’s Tree of Life was a further exploration (or muddling, depending on the POV) of previous territory.

  2. I disagree with your assertion that Temple of Doom regressed in terms of gender and race. One, Chao Le, the Shanghai gangster proved to be the only Indy villain that had the last laugh on Professor Jones . . . and survived. Indy would have never survived without the young Short Round’s help. In fact, Short Round proved to be THE HERO of the story, since he was the first to escape Mola Ram’s clutches.

    Temple of Doom (along with Crystal Skulls, which doesn’t touch on religion) is the only film that doesn’t deal with Judeo-Christianity. Yes, it’s portrayal of the Kali sect is very inaccurate. But the film does not put down other aspects of the Hindu religion. Nor does it put religion on a pedestal in the same lavish manner as Raiders and Last Crusade.

    Also, it was the local priest of the Indian village that sent Indy on the search for the Sankara stones, not the U.S. government. Of the four movies, Raiders used the least satisfying literary tool to set Indy on his adventure. It is obvious at the end of the movie that the U.S. government believed in the power of the Ark of the Covenant. But I still found it particularly vague in compare to the Indian priest’s reason, both Walter Donovan and even Indy’s reason in Last Crusade, and Marion and Mutt’s reason in Crystal Skulls.

    Are we supposed to believe that Temple of Doom regressed race issues in the franchise, because the main villain and his followers were non-white? Is there a law in action adventure films that – even in a period piece – that the main villain must always be white? Mola Ram was probably Indy’s most challenging villain. More than just being a fanatic, he was ruthless, tough and smart. And his main henchman Chattar Lal was a witty and sarcastic man who quickly exposed Indy’s grave robber tendencies.

    And I never understood this opinion of Willie Scott as a “damsel-in-distress”. Indy had to save Marion a few times in Raiders. And like Willie, she did express her fear in a scream or two. Yet many tend to forget that Willie came from a poor background and longed for one with wealth and privilege. This is why she associated herself with a Chinese gangster and contemplated becoming a Maharani. She was a gold digger . . . a survivor. And she is the only Indy heroine who saved his life using her fist. That’s right, Willie saved his and Short Round’s life in the mine car. She also saved Short Round’s life on the bridge. And both she and Short Round prevented Mola Ram from getting away.

    Don’t get me wrong. I love Raiders. But I can’t agree with your opinion that Temple of Doom were vastly inferior. I’m sorry, but I can’t. By the way, Crystal Skulls was a take on the sci-fi “B” movies of the 1950s. That would make sense, considering that the story was set in 1957.

  3. Thanks for your spirited defence of Temple of Doom, which as I mention I still enjoy as a guilty pleasure and I don’t regard it as ‘vastly inferior’. But while you’ve pointed out some interesting plot points that suggest otherwise, the Willie Scott character is still overall a caricature and the depiction of Indian culture is very questionable (think of the banquet scene, where the highly misrepresented ‘otherness’ of the foreign culture is completely played for laughs).

    I do find it curious that you consider the treatment of Judo-Christianity in Raiders and The Last Crusade to be lavish or putting ‘religion on a pedestal’. I think it’s quite the opposite – the filmmakers are simply plucking out bits of mythology to facilitate their story, the way other filmmakers do for films based on ancient Greek mythology. I think the films do well to by being respectful of the mythology rather than the faith systems.

    And yes, I guess that Crystal Skulls was an attempt to emulate 50s sci-fi B-films, but it didn’t capture their spirit or resemble any of them.

  4. I guess we simply have too much to disagree with in regard to all of the Indiana Jones films. I haven’t convinced and you certainly have not convinced me with your opinions either.

Comments are closed.