Sunday, September 16, 2012

Stubs – Raiders of the Lost Ark

RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK (1981) Starring: Harrison Ford, Karen Allen, Paul Freeman, Ronald Lacey, John-Rhys Davies, Denholm Elliott. Directed by Steven Spielberg. Screenplay by Lawrence Kasdan, Story by George Lucas and Philip Kaufman. Music by John Williams. Produced by Frank Marshell, George Lucas and Howard Kazanjian. Run time: 115. Color. U.S. Action, Adventure, Romance.

I was recently invited to a screening of Raiders, which has been remastered and is currently enjoying a re-release in movie theaters and on Blu-ray this week. If you’re like me, you’ve already seen it once in a movie theater, but this version is supposed to be better than the original, without any of the objects digitally replaced (no cell phones for guns as was the case in ET, a few years back.)

This film was made back in the days when the top summer movie seemed to be traded back and forth between some film Spielberg directed and one that his best friend George Lucas produced. The summer was their bank and the two of them made millions in withdrawls. So it’s no surprise that the two of them who pair up to produce what would turn out to be the biggest film of 1981, Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Apparently, Lucas, who was awaiting the results from Star Wars at the time, told Spielberg his idea and Spielberg signed on immediately. At the screening, Spielberg made reference to the serials produced at Republic Pictures as the inspiration for the movie. However, earlier he had supposedly given some credit to Scrooge McDuck for inspiring the opening sequence of the film (See #4).

That said, the presentation was set up to praise Spielberg, so no one would question anything he said. For the most part, he was an engaged and witty guest, as was Harrison Ford, who showed up unannounced. I will admit Spielberg is a very successful director with a large following, but I don’t put him in the same list as say Alfred Hitchcock, as far as storytelling goes. Spielberg films are sometimes too cute for their own good (see the four Indy sequels if you need proof of that).
While Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull was a failed attempt to pass on the explorer torch to Shia LaBeouf, of all people, the story is what made the movie almost laughable in the wrong places. But that is a review for another day. The purpose of this review is to discuss the first of the films, and definitely the best of the four, Raiders of the Lost Ark.
The movie opens in 1936 with Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford), and that is apparently his real name, leading an expedition to an ancient temple in the jungles of South America. Armed with only his wit and bull whip, Indy enters the temple with the last member of his crew Satipo (Alfred Molina). While there are booby traps on the way in, things get even hairier after Indy switches out a golden idol for a bag of sand. The famous rolling boulder is unleashed and Indy is deserted by Satipo and left on his own to narrowly escape.
But Satipo isn’t so lucky and a booby trap gets him and Indy escapes with the idol in hand. But waiting for him is a rival archaeologist, Rene Bolloq (Paul Freeman). Bolloq has an army of Hovitos, the indigenous people of the jungle and Indy is forced to surrender his prize. But before Bolloq can have him killed, Indy flees into the jungle and toward the seaplane that will carry him to safety. One last thing we learn is that Indy hates snakes, since the pilot inexplicably keeps a snake as a pet on the plane.
Returning to his day job as a popular college archaeology professor, Indy is alerted by a friend, Dr. Marcus Brody (Denholm Elliott), that two government agents are waiting to see him. These men inform Indy that the Nazis are looking for his old mentor Abner Ravenwood, a leading expert in ancient Egypt and the city of Tanis in particular. The Nazis are on the hunt for occult items and Indy is convinced the Nazis are looking for the Ark of the Covenant, the biblical vessel built at instructions from God to hold the original stone tablets on which were written the Ten Commandments. With the Ark in their possession, the Nazi’s think their army would be unstoppable.
Per the movie, an Egyptian pharaoh’s army stole the Ark and took it to Tanis. However, the city was soon after wiped off the face of the earth by dust storms. (In reality, the Babylonians stole the Ark in 586 BC, but ancient Egypt makes for a better story and place.) According to Indy, the Ark was taken to the Well of Souls in the city of Tanis and the only way to find its exact location is with the headpiece from the staff of Ra. When the sun’s rays hit the map room in Tanis, the light passing through the headpiece will illuminate the location of the chamber. The army authorizes Indy to retrieve the Ark before the Nazis can.
First stop: Nepal. While that might seem like an odd way to go from the U.S. to Egypt, Indy is looking for Ravenwood, whom he knows has the headpiece. When he arrives at the bar Ravenwood’s daughter Marion (Karen Allen) runs, he find out Ravenwood is dead. Marion, who happens to be an embittered former lover of Indy’s, knows where the headpiece is (around her neck) and agrees to sell it to Indy for $3000.  However, she requires him to come back the next day. But as soon as he leaves, the bar is overrun by native thugs at the command of Major Arnold Toht (Ronald Lacey) who also wants the headpiece.
Indy, who apparently couldn’t find room at the Nepal Holiday Inn, returns to the bar and a firefight ensues, which leads to the tavern being burned to the ground. During the fighting, Toht sees the headpiece and makes a grab for it, but it is too hot to handle and sears the palm of his hand with one side of the image. But it is Marion and Indy who make it out with the actual headpiece. Marion informs Indy that she’s going with him until he can pay her for the headpiece.
Next stop: Cairo. There Indy and Marion are hosted by Sallah (John Rhys-Davies), whom Indy states is the best digger in Egypt. Sallah knows that the Nazis, with Belloq’s help, were trying to excavate Tanis and thought they had the headpiece based on the seared scar in Toht’s hand.
In a bazaar, Indy and Marion are beset by Nazis and their Egyptian allies chase the two through the streets. They are attempting to kidnap Marion. One of the more famous fight scenes in the movie takes place at this part of the film. When confronted by a sword wielding man, rather than fight him off with his whip, as he had done previously, he simply takes out his gun and rather nonchalantly shoots him. But despite his best efforts, Marion is kidnapped and apparently dies in a fiery explosion.
Marion’s death appears to hit Indy hard. (Notably, there are apparently no police in Cairo, since no one ever seems to investigate the noise of the explosion.) Indy is confronted by Balloq and as usual, a horde of thugs, but Sallah manages his escape by sending in children as a sort of protective shield and Indy once again escapes from the Nazis.
Sallah takes Indy to someone who can read the inscription on the headpiece. It turns out the Nazis only had one half of the puzzle and thus were using the wrong measurement for the staff. Armed with the right length of staff, Sallah smuggles Indy into the dig.
Using the light coming through the headpiece, Indy locates the Well of Souls. But the Nazis stumble across Sallah where he’s not supposed to be. But again, Indy escapes, coming across Marion in the process. She is tied up in a tent. Happy to see her alive, he starts to release her, but stops, not wanting to give himself away to the Nazis. Marion is not happy about being left behind.
Sallah, Indy and crew begin their own digging, even though they are surrounded by Nazis, no one notices. Even though they are digging on a hill, no one notices. Even though Indy puts on his iconic hat at sunset, no one notices.
Belloq comes in and tries to get Marion to talk ahead of her being left to Toht’s ways of getting her to talk. He has a fancy dress and wine. Marion tries to drink Belloq under the table, which we have seen her do to men before. But he seems to be more than a match for her. Marion is sober enough to try to escape, but she gets stopped when Toht and a couple of goons appear in the tent.
Sallah and Indy lower themselves down into the chamber which is beset with snakes which we know by now give Indy the willies. But with the help of gasoline, the two manage to make a path through the snakes and retrieve the Ark. By morning, they are pulling the Ark out and that’s when Belloq notices them. Before Indy can make it out, Belloq and the Nazis are at the top of the well. They have the Ark and are planning on taking it back to Berlin. Before sealing Indy in the well, they throw Marion down into the well. With their torches, they manage to keep the snakes at bay, but that’s only temporary. With their torches going out, Indy manages to figure a way out and the two manage to escape the well.
They make a beeline to the airplane, a flying wing, that is supposed to transport the Ark. Indy gets into a fight with a guard and subdues one, but then a giant Nazi mechanic gets involved. Marion gets onboard and subdues the pilot, but the plane starts to move in a circle. The trucks arrive with the Ark and Marion manages to fire on them, but she also manages to shot a fuel depot as well. Indy manages to maneuver the mechanic into the spinning blades of the plane and to get Marion off the plane before it inevitably explodes.

But the Nazis are anything if not adaptable and decide to truck the Ark out of the site instead. And Indy takes chase on horseback. As expected, Indy catches the convoy and takes control of the truck with the Ark. Not that it’s easy doings; Indy gets shot, gets thrown out of the truck and has to do his best Yakima Canutt impersonation, or rather the stuntman on Raiders imitates Canutt’s famous horse team stunt but with a transport truck. Indy drives the truck with Nazis in pursuit, to the next village down the road and straight into a welcoming garage. Before the Nazis pass by, villagers set up a bazaar in front of the garage door, so it looks as if Indy and the Ark have vanished into thin air. A little too convenient if you think about it too much.

Indy meets up with Sallah, who has arranged for transport of the Ark on a tramp steamer. In the captain’s quarters, Indy and Marion reconcile their feelings, but happiness is very short lived. A Nazi sub stops the steamer and relieves it of the Ark and Marion. Indy though manages to escape detection. The crew of the steamer is still looking for him, when he shows up on the outside of the sub.

Luckily for Indy, the sub does not submerge as it makes its way to a secret Nazi island. Instead of taking the Ark directly to Berlin, Belloq convinces his Nazi cohorts that they need to see what’s in the Ark and they take it to a special altar set up for the occasion. Indy tries to stop them, threatening to blow up the Ark with a grenade launcher. But Belloq calls his bluff, knowing Indy couldn’t destroy such a valuable artifact.

This leads to a set piece that reminded me of the alien meeting in Close Encounters of the Third Kind (all cuts). Indy ends up tied to a post with Marion, while Belloq performs a Jewish ritual to open the Ark. But what first appears to be nothing more than sand quickly turns into spirits which start to ravage the Nazis present. Aware of the danger of looking at the apparitions, Indy instructs Marion to close her eyes. And that simple action saves the two of them, while demonic creatures ravage the Nazis, exploding Belloq’s head and famously melting Toht’s face. With everyone dead, the Ark sends energy into the air before closing itself up.

With the Ark safely in U.S. possession, Indy and Brody want to examine it, but instead it is quietly crated up and put away in storage in the National Archives, surrounded by other like crates.

To begin any review, let’s talk about Steven Spielberg as director. I have always preferred Spielberg as a director over his BFF Lucas. Lucas is a sterile director by comparison. There is no sensuality in his movies, even slight. On the other hand when Karen Allen is standing in the wind in the dress Belloq picked out for her, you get the real feeling that she is naked underneath. It is a minor point, but you don’t get that feeling watching Princess Leia.

My complaint would be that the action is almost too paramount to the movie. We never get a real sense of the backstory between Indy and Marion; or Indy and Belloq. Stopping to give any backstory would just get in the way of the action. This is not a Republic Pictures serial, it is a major motion picture and expectations are set at a higher level.

Spielberg is also a director that uses special effects sometimes to excess. While there are special effects in this film, they are not overused. They add to the action of the movie. This is not his best effort, but it is definitely a sign that he is going to be, as he has been, a major director in Hollywood. Again, he may be the most successful ever dollar-wise. And he is someone who has made the most of his power in Hollywood. Any studio, even his own Dreamworks, would be happy to have a film directed by him.

The cast, especially the male and female leads, are very well cast. Harrison Ford, coming off his second film as Han Solo, is perfectly cast as the sexy, smart and quick thinking Indiana Jones. It is interesting to think that if Magnum P.I. hadn’t come up, Tom Selleck would have been Indiana Jones. Somehow, it would be a very different franchise if that bit of casting had held up. Ford brings a bit of swagger that Indy needs that I don’t know if Selleck possesses. Karen Allen is also a great choice for Marion. She is just the right mix of cute and tomboy for the role.

The writing is somewhat suspect. There are too many loopholes for me. Why don’t the Nazis see Indy’s crew digging? Where are the police in Cairo? How did Indy set up that garage and bazaar after stealing back the Ark? Why doesn’t the sub submerge? That’s a sign that things happen in the script because they need to happen in the script in order for the story to be told. Scripts should work within the world it sets up not manipulate it for the sake of the story. But this is not a story you’re supposed to really pay attention to. As the audience, you’re supposed to concentrate on the battle of good v. evil and be mesmerized by the action on the screen. Don’t look too closely or think too hard.

John Williams’ music is somewhat reminiscent of other John Williams scores. While the Indy theme is memorable, listening to just the music, as I had to do before the movie started, and you could imagine some of the music could fit easily into say The Empire Strikes Back. But he is part of the successful combination that Spielberg feels comfortable with, so the man is assured a job for life.

The real question of a review is would I recommend it. If you have never seen the movie before, the answer would be yes. It is a fun romp as long as you don’t think about it too much. If you have seen the movie before and loved it, then you should definitely see it again. This is one case that the movie has been remastered and has not been altered. Would I say buy it, and in some cases, again? That would depend on how much of a diehard fan you are. For me there are other films I’d rather spend my money on, since I already have the first three Indy films on disc.

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