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Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

Most pop culture enthusiasts recognize the iconic image of the fedora and whip since the release of Raiders of the Lost Ark on June 12, 1981. The image can truly only belong to the archaeologist Indiana Jones, the character that brought “the return to the

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Most pop culture enthusiasts recognize the iconic image of the fedora and whip since the release of Raiders of the Lost Ark on June 12, 1981. The image can truly only belong to the archaeologist Indiana Jones, the character that brought “the return to the great adventure” as the movie poster’s tagline stated.  The adventure film genre, never a critical favorite, was nearly commercially terminal prior to the eighties. So how did Raiders leap from its B movie roots to achieve a status of near-universal acclaim? It’s a story of film-making magic and genius.

When director Steven Spielberg came together with conceptual story writers George Lucas and Philip Kaufman and screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan, what initially started out as a tribute to Republic Pictures serials became much more. With an estimated budget of $20,000,000, the film has since grossed $350,000,000+ theatrically, not including rentals and home purchase. As the number one film of 1981, Raiders set the new standard for family-friendly adventure tales. What is the premise? It’s 1936, and the Nazis are searching for the famed Ark of the Covenant of the Bible. The United States government authorizes skeptical Indiana Jones to find the Ark before they do. It’s simple, but the adventure story, having elements of action, comedy, romance, and horror, still enthralls nearly four decades later.

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Who is Indiana Jones? He is our charming protagonist portrayed by Harrison Ford. However, he is neither a John Wayne-like white hat-type, nor is he Clint Eastwood-like anti-hero. He’s intelligent, but finds himself in situations where sometimes it takes a combination of ability and chance to triumph. He has no qualms of “fighting dirty” when he is being pressed. He’s a bit of a scoundrel in his dealings with females. He has a determination to reach his goals, but his attitude along the journey is typified, as he says to his friend Sallah (John Rhys-Davies), “I’m making it up as I go along.”

Ford is not known as one of the top actors, in the sense of possessing great range of character portrayal. However, one should take note of his facial expressions and body language when he displays triumph after retrieving relics, shows fear in the presence of snakes, and oozes contempt for his rival Belloq (Paul Freeman). In contrast with other action stars, Ford portrays the character with a sense of vulnerability. After the truck chase scene, he reveals his physical pain and general weariness to his love interest, Marion (Karen Allen). He becomes more identifiable to the every-man in the audience.

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This brings us to the other characters of the film. What can be said of Marion Ravenwood that hasn’t been said many times before by other viewers?  She’s tough, spunky, stubborn, but full of charm. All of these qualities are depicted in her introductory scene in Nepal. The audience gets an inkling of her past frayed relationship with Indy. Still, despite her conflicted feelings toward Indy, the audience knows that the two are meant for each other. The peril of the adventure will reignite the flames of romance.

The viewer also gets to glimpse further at Indy’s personal life with his interactions with his friends Marcus Brody (Denholm Elliott) and Sallah. The film’s antagonists round out the cast. There’s Toht (Ronald Lacey), the mysterious and brutal Gestapo agent, Col. Dietrich (Wolf Kahler), the leader of the excavation, and Belloq, the French rival archaeologist, who has his own agenda for finding the Ark.

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There are other aspects that truly elevate this film from just a fun romp to classic status. John Williams’s score, like his Star Wars music, not only fits the film, but lives outside the screen. Of course, nearly everyone is familiar with the rousing “Raiders March.” If you can’t crack a grin while that plays, you might want to check your vital signs. However, I encourage one to pay similar attention when the “Ark Theme” plays. It gives off a tone of wonder, spiritual awe, and ancient eeriness that lingers. Further, one should pay attention to the wind sounds that accompany the theme; it’s as if God has made his presence known. Touching in another way is “Marion’s Theme.” This brief piece brings to mind the melancholy-tinged romance between Indy and Marion.

In recent viewings, I have paid more attention to the cinematography, especially use of lighting and shadows. When Indy first appears on the screen, the audience doesn’t see his face.  He is as a walking shadow until he triumphantly steps into the light after countering one of his treacherous guides. It’s interesting that later in the film Belloq refers to Indy as a reflection of him. One should note that Belloq is nearly always dressed in lighter hues, while Indy is usually dressed in darker shades. When Indy meets Marion, you first glimpse his shadow on the wall before his body is visible. Even a bit later during the bar fight, the viewer sees some of the only in shadow. In contrast, consider the brilliance of light that floods the area when Indy discovers the Ark’s location in the map room.

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I can still recall playtime from my childhood where I would swing from my treehouse to my playset mimicking the action of Indiana Jones.  For most of my life, Raiders has been a part of it.  To me, it’s a perfect film. That doesn’t mean there aren’t any goofs. However, it’s a movie that intelligently entertains young and older alike.  It’s a phenomenon that’s hard to duplicate. Yes, there are blockbusters coming out every month, it seems like.  However, most won’t become part of the public consciousness.  If you know a person who hasn’t seen Raiders, introduce them to this classic.  If you’ve seen it, watch it again.  You won’t tire of it.  As Indy says to Marion, “Trust me.”


Writer in a variety of forms. Author of poetry collection All Aboard the Timesphere (2013) and the novel Whole Lot of Hullabaloo: A Twenty-First Century Campus Phantasmagoria (2020).

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