A man is hired to find a thing. That’s basically the plot of Raiders of the Lost Ark, a film that’s widely considered to be one of the best action-adventure films of all time, not to mention one of director Steven Spielberg’s best movies. It’s also the kick-off to a franchise called Indiana Jones with actor Harrison Ford. And that the plot can, at its most basic level, be boiled down to such a simple description is one of the many, many reasons why all of those other things are true.
That franchise gets its fifth and maybe final installment next month with Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny. In the weeks ahead, io9 is going to revisit each of the Indiana Jones films just to see what, if anything, stands out about them now, in 2023, as Dial of Destiny is coming to theaters.
So, naturally, we’re starting with 1981's Raiders of the Lost Ark, which was the first Indiana Jones film even though its sequel, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, is almost inexplicably set before it. Which we’ll get to. But rewatching Raiders this week, I marveled at just about every single thing in the movie. The way each character is introduced. The deep, fascinating mythology which never overtakes the story. The performances. The lighting. The music. All of it.
Few films then, or now, so effortlessly blend so many genres and emotions without losing focus. Raiders has mystery, suspense, action, humor, romance, philosophy, and more, sometimes all in a single scene. The iconic opening, for example, where Indy (Ford)—a character we know nothing about yet—steals a golden idol sees him almost killed several times, betrayed a few times, and joked about. It sees him being chased after, acting villainous, acting heroic, and ultimately failing, thanks to his rival Belloq’s (Paul Freeman) appropriation of a native culture. I mean it’s got it all and the movie has barely started.
Because that scene is just the teaser, of course. The main story is how Indy is hired by the U.S. government to recover an ancient artifact called the Ark of the Covenant before Hitler and the Nazis do. A simple task, with the highest of stakes. To achieve it Indy must first find a specific relic, which brings him face to face with his past in the person of Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen, who has maybe the best character intro of all time in her drinking contest). The pair fly across the globe to get that relic translated, the translated relic reveals a location, the location contains the Ark, then Indy and the Nazis fight over the Ark in multiple ways before the huge payoff of seeing what, exactly, is inside the Ark. What has all of this fuss been about? And, of course, a bunch of killer ghosts wiping out all the Nazis is the perfect way to defeat the bad guys, while also providing a satisfying answer to the mystery.
I run down the plot very simply like that not because you haven’t seen or understood the movie, but to show how straightforward the story is at its heart. Sometimes franchise films can get lost in too many different threads, or be too worried about explaining everything or setting up future sequels. But Raiders of the Lost Ark is simple, direct, and yet has all of those aforementioned emotions and feelings embedded in that. It’s never confusing, it’s always entertaining, and it’s just masterful.
That comes from the script by Lawerence Kasdan, the story by George Lucas and Philip Kaufman, and of course the direction by Steven Spielberg, which informs the editing, the cinematography, everything. (John Williams’ music? Hello!) They’ve created a world so rich that you’re desperate to know more about it, but it never becomes bogged down in exposition. For example, the previous relationship with Indy and Marion. What happened there? How did Indy become friends with Sallah (John Rhys-Davies) and Brody (Denholm Elliott) and what adventures have they shared? What was Indy’s time with his mentor, Abner Ravenwood, like? Who are these pirates that help Indy and Marion? And oh my god that final shot of the movie! Everything about Raiders feels lived-in and real. Plus, it’s not an origin story. It’s a moment in time with several well-rounded characters. There are so many things you want to know about which live just below the surface, giving the movie a very hearty, complete feeling, on top of the excellent, focused story.
Truly, I could go on and on about Raiders of the Lost Ark, and maybe I will again at some point. But it’s just refreshing—even 42 years later—to see a movie so well-made and confident it didn’t need to have a sequel, but we’re sure glad it did.
Raiders of the Lost Ark is currently streaming on Paramount+. Starting May 31, it’ll be on Disney+
Next week: Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, a prequel to Raiders of the Lost Ark—though Indy clearly says in this that he’s never experienced anything supernatural before!
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