Decisions, decisions. It’s 1973 and George Lucas has just had an idea for a film. A big, brash, colourful adventure full of peril and spectacle like the old Saturday morning adventure serials of his youth. But wait, he’s got another idea. A big, brash, space opera, full of peril and spectacle just like... Well, you get the picture. Lucas chooses to make his space opera, cinema is changed forever and the ‘Saturday morning adventure serial’ idea gathers dust for a couple of years, until...
Lucas mentions it to fellow beard-nurturer Steven Spielberg when the two meet up for a holiday in Hawaii in 1977. Spielberg adores the concept but suggests Lucas direct the film himself. “I’m retired,” claims Lucas. “If you want it, it’s yours...” He does, it is, and by the summer of 1979, there’s a finished script, courtesy of Lawrence Kasdan, writer of The Empire Strikes Back. Spielberg still wants a few changes (“Indiana Smith? Hmm, how about Jones?”) but, by and large, they’re ready to start casting. And the good news is they know who they want to play Dr Jones. Unfortunately, Tom Selleck isn’t available...
A myriad of rethinks and revisions later, Raiders Of The Lost Ark is ready for public consumption. And how the public consume it. Raiders is the smash hit of 1981, more than doubling the box-office take of the year’s other big hitters, On Golden Pond, Superman II and Arthur.
More pertinently, Raiders still stands up as the most exhilarating, imaginative, out-and-out fun movie in the Spielberg canon. “I didn’t see Raiders as anything more than a better-made version of the Republic serials [adventure shows from the ’30s],” the director remarked, not damning the film with faint praise but unlocking the key to its success – pure unadulterated escapism, with not a pretension in sight.
The movie ferries the viewer along at breakneck speed before, in the words of Roger Ebert, “depositing you back in reality two hours later, breathless, dizzy, wrung out and with a silly grin on your face.” From the jungles of South America to the deserts of Egypt, via the mountains of Tibet, the film refuses to stand still. Every Boy’s Own location is present and correct, seasoned with the staple B-movie mix of sadistic Nazis, scheming Frenchmen, hairy spiders and slithering snakes.
There’s also the obligatory plucky female: in Raiders’ case, Karen Allen’s extraordinarily spunky Marion Ravenwood, a real old-school dame’s dame, able to drink any man under the table but still carry a torch for our hero. Like her peers of the time – Margot Kidder, Debra Winger – Allen brought a smidgeon of sharp, late- ’70s feminist edge to her role, which sits particularly well with the occasionally arch tone of Raiders. We never fully understand how she comes to be running a gin mill in Nepal but, like a lot of things in the fantastical plot, it seems perfectly plausible.
After all, was Hitler really obsessed with the occult? Would a team of ‘Nazi archaeologists’ be seeking the Lost Ark of the Covenant as a precursor to the invasion of Poland? Could an academic lecturer really be a dab hand with a bullwhip? Let’s say yes, shall we? It just makes everything so much more fun. Besides, it’s just downright churlish to question a plot that offers some of the most thrilling set-pieces in movie history, including the genius boulder dash, the pit of seemingly endless snakes, the ‘blinding’ climax, and the best chase scene involving a truck, three jeeps, a horse and a motorcycle ever. And of course, the suggestion that, among all the fates worse than death on offer, few hold more torture than the amorous advances of a duplicitous Frenchman...
Rumour has it that Harrison Ford was nervous before accepting the role of Dr Jones. “I don’t want him to become some kind of Professor Solo,” barked the typecast-shy lead, in a presumably well-practiced exasperated tone. But, really, turn Solo’s cynicism up a notch, bulk him up, add in some ophidiophobia, hand him a bullwhip and what do you have? Another surefooted leading performance from Ford that gives the film exactly the laconic, masculine hero it requires.
Because, although a celebration of B-movie adventures, Raiders is more than just a better-budgeted remake of such tales. It employs a modern, knowing sensibility that doesn’t undermine the action but only cranks it up even further. By making Indiana a flawed hero (afraid of snakes, crap with women, obsessive about his hat...), every daring rescue, frightening encounter and hare-brained chase scene seems that little bit sharper, that touch more vivid.
What Lucas and Spielberg did with their own particular childhood favourites – pulp adventure comic-books and B-movie serials – Tarantino would do again in the ’90s: taking something old and familiar and shooting it through with smart-arse wit and post-modern wisdom till it becomes fresh and exciting. Of course, the bearded ones managed it with a tad less violence and considerably less swearing, the end result being a movie-movie that still brings out the wide-eyed kid in all of us.
Tagline: The return of the great adventure.
Best Line: Sallah (John Rhys-Davies): “Indy, why does the floor move?”
Critical Mass: “‘One of the most deliriously funny, ingenious and stylish American adventure movies ever made.” Vincent Canby, The New York Times