Raiders of the Lost Ark

Raiders of the Lost Ark ★★★★★

I could write an entire review on that opening sequence alone. The stalking shots of Indy without the face reveal. The terror strewn across Alfred Molina's face. The jungle sounds. The whip. The reveal of Harrison Ford from the shadows. John William's titanic score. The entrance to the cave. The tarantulas. The skeletons. The floor traps. The bag of sand. The boulder!

If you've seen this movie before - and if you haven't, stop reading now and go right a serious wrong - then any one of those sentences above will invoke a feeling inside you that only a handful of other moments in cinema can.

Every frame is like a painting in your mind and yet no matter how well you know it, no matter how many times you've seen it, it remains one of the most exciting sequences of all time.

Truly iconic.

And thankfully, it's only just the beginning. It's quite difficult to put into words just how special Raiders of the Lost Ark is. In many respects, it's the Star Wars film we never got. The one created by Lucas, written by Kasdan, with Han Solo as the lead, and Spielberg as the director.

The story follows Indiana Jones, a professor by day, globe-trotting archeologist by ... day? Whatever.. he's a treasure hunter, and he's about to get the gig of a lifetime - the opportunity to locate the Ark of the Covenant - the chest that the Hebrews used to carry around the Ten Commandments - yes, the actual Ten Commandments.

"You guys never went to Sunday School?".

Only problem is, the year is 1936 and that means there's a pesky German dictator with a taste for the occult who wouldn't mind getting his hands on it too.

And that's it. High concept cinema at it's finest. Replace Vader with Hitler... Replace stormtroopers with stormtroopers, etc. etc.

But that's only the basic template. Where George Lucas always shone was in his unparalleled imagination. He takes a simple premise and builds a universe around it. Here working with Philip Kaufman - this really was a who's who of great talent in the early 80's - he crafts a world that is part historic and part fantastical.

The Nazi's for example - they are as evil as they should be and yet that darkness never gets in the way of the lightness of the tail. They are necessarily bad but never to an extent that we are repelled by them. Absolutely nothing in this film is repellent, it is non-stop joy from start to finish.

Casting Harrison Ford was a masterstroke too. It may have seemed the obvious choice after the back-to-back of A New Hope and Empire, but Han Solo was a very specific character. He was the sidekick rogue, not the leading man. But here, Ford becomes Bogart, Newman, Mitchum and Connery rolled into one. He took acting with a glance to a new art in action-adventure cinema. One of the most iconic moments in the film is the "bring a gun to a knife fight" moment, and it's all in Ford's reaction. I'm not sure there's another actor who could have pulled that off so well.

Karen Allen is also perfectly cast. I do love the original Indiana Jones trilogy but I've always felt the biggest testament to Allen here was the appearance of Kate Capshaw in Temple of Doom. In that movie, the screeching performance from Capshaw very nearly kills the film stone dead for me, but with Raiders, Allen acts as Dr. Jones' equal - never his helpless damsel in distress. Sure, there are moments of distress for her, but they're more than shared across the board for Indy himself too.

And then there's the main man himself. I'll always hold Jaws up as both my favourite and in my opinion, best Spielberg work, but Raiders is a very, very, very, very, very close second.

He's obviously gone on to make hugely successful films throughout his career but in Jaws, Close Encounters and Raiders in particular, you can still see small-scale filmmaker in there, which is what's so fascinating to me.

At this point in time, he is already a blockbuster filmmaker, and yet his films don't yet feel like they're pandering to an audience. They just effortlessly generate that euphoria in the viewer because he was so damn good.

Compare Raiders to E.T. (another stellar film, of course) and you can see the subtle differences in the filmmaking. There's a concerted effort with E.T. to maximise audience response, and you know what, he's Steven fucking Spielberg so he's great at that too, but there's a charm to him managing to hit those peaks without even seeming to try with Raiders.

Alongside Jaws too, it's the best directed film of Spielberg's career. He can do the breakneck action and suspense of the opening sequence or the basket chase or the physical comedy of the propellor fist fight, but here is some of his best pure acting and dialogue direction too.

I wanted to highlight one fairly early scene where Denholm Elliott's Marcus visits Dr. Jones at his home. It's an un-flashy, un-broken take, roughly a minute and half long, that features pretty much all of the essential plot points that you need for the film, combined with some fairly fantastic acting and a couple of comic interplays between Elliott and Ford. And throughout, Spielberg holds the frame, taking Marcus and Jones from the hallway to the living room, slowly zooming on Marcus for a partial monologue, then reversing across the room as Jones excitedly paces about, packing his suitcase hurriedly, whilst Marcus warns of the dangers - then the classic suave Indiana Jones comeback combined with the cut to a gun. It's that subtle cut that makes the whole scene. It's just phenomenal filmmaking.

I think it was Paul Thomas Anderson who said he never went to film school and he never needed it because everything is right there in the films of the past. Well, I'd be surprised if he hasn't watched that scene more than a few times, because everything you need to know about great filmmaking is in that minute and a half.

At least four or five iconic set pieces, a new superstar leading man born, peak Lucas and Kasdan, one of John Williams most inventive scores, brilliant Douglas Slocombe cinematography, fantastic supporting cast of heroes and villains....

Is it the greatest pure action adventure film ever made? I can't think of a better one.

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