Overview: Archaeologist Indiana Jones races Nazis to discover the Ark of the Covenant. 1981; Lucasfilm/Paramount; Rated PG/PG-13; 115 Minutes
Is There Such a Thing as A Perfect Movie? The short answer is no. The slightly less short answer is yes, and that movie is Raiders of the Lost Ark. Raiders has been a staple in the Fallon household for as long as I can remember. In terms of building cinematic obsession, for me, it’s up there with the Star Wars Trilogy (the first movie I saw on the cinema was Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, which my parents took me to for my fourth birthday. Other kids in the cinema ran around like lunatics and I stared at the screen in abject adulation.)
Obtainer of Rare Antiquities: The thing that still appeals to me about Indiana Jones is that he acts like a real person. He gets dirty and sweaty, he has cuts and bruises. He gets his ass handed to him many times throughout the film but keeps fighting. And when he does fight, he often fights dirty. Look at the fight with the massive mechanic. He distracts his opponent then kicks him in the nuts, biting, scratching, throwing sand in the mechanic’s face. It is a world away from James Bond beating up a thug with choreographed precision before straightening his tie and dishing out a quip. It is only out of dumb luck (and a whirring propeller) that he survives that fight and escapes from the air field.
Indiana Jones comes across as a lived-in character. There is no need for an origin story. Everything required to understand him is offered in the epic opening scene. This man is an archaeologist/adventurer. He is capable, he is smart, he’s good with a whip, and he can outrun a boulder. And when the film cuts sharply to him teaching a class of enamoured students, the circle is complete. Teacher by day, adventurer by night. What more do you need to know?
The supporting characters are the same. We are offered some background on Marian but no concrete reason for her to be running a bar in Nepal. Sallah is introduced as the best digger in Egypt, and his friendship with Indy actually strengthens our knowledge of our hero by showing that he has friends all over the world, who we can only assume he’s met on adventures we haven’t seen.
And it continues with the villains. We learn nothing about Belloq and need nothing more than the vile sleaziness (and occasional flashes of likability) that Paul Freeman gives him with his outstanding performance. The Nazis are… Nazis. They’re unrepentant baddies so they’re going to get what’s coming to them.
It’s Not the Years Honey, It’s the Mileage: This sense of a lived-in world extends to the romance between Marion and Indy. The relationship has happened years before and the chemistry between Ford and Karen Allen speaks volumes more than a clumsy meet-cute or a protracted courtship. They act like people who have been friends before lovers, and even though the love has cooled there is still genuine affection between the pair. However, this romance pales in intensity to that of Indiana Jones and the Ark of the Covenant. Indy’s character is established as a treasure hunter so it makes sense that his first love would be the prize and not the girl. In fact, there are two scenes in which Indy chooses the Ark over Marion (leaving her tied up in the enemy camp and refusing to blow up the Ark in the canyon) and as the film progresses, it quickly becomes apparent that we are actually watching a tragic love triangle between Indy, Belloq, and the Ark.
Snakes, Why Did It Have to be Snakes? Three people make Raiders what it is. Lawrence Kasdan’s script is as good as it gets. It’s fast, funny, scary, self-deprecating, intense. There is probably an action beat every ten pages and the story drags you along frantically from scene to scene. It’s exhausting trying to keep up. As I discussed earlier, Kasdan gives us everything we need in the first couple of scenes. No time is wasted on anything superfluous. We get a character, a villain, a quest and we’re off to the races.
John Williams’ score is one of his best. The chilling piece that keeps threatening to start every time the Ark appears but only gets going at the very end of the movie is a great example of character/music synergy (another example being the high-pitched discordant sound that plays whenever the Joker is around in The Dark Knight). And, obviously, The Raider’s March is one of the best scores in cinema and instantly recognisable.
But the most important technical contributor to this movie’s success is sound designer, Ben Burtt. His sounds in the opening jungle scenes could lead audiences to think the action was happening in another world. The chirps and animal calls that fill the unseen jungle create an aural space in which danger and adventure lurk around every corner. I can also directly trace my intense fear of snakes to this movie, and it’s not just the sight of them that freaks me out, it is the noise. The snakes hiss and slither and writhe together and the noise (which I later found out was Burtt plunging his hand into a cheese casserole, which I am now also afraid of) is a nauseating mix of wet and alive that permeates the scene and that I half expect to start dripping out of my speakers.
Is Raiders really the perfect movie? No, not really. Its failure of the Bechdel Test is pretty intense and some of the special effects haven’t aged well, and, if we wanted to be Cinema Sins, (i.e. joyless dicks) we could nit-pick all manner of errors but where would the fun in that be? In the end, there probably is no perfect movie but, for me, Raiders is pretty damn close.