Raiders of the Lost Ark (review) Childhood Favorites Week

No, it is not Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark, regardless of what the above poster and your DVD case might like to think. They only added the prefix "Indiana Jones and the" after it became a franchise with the release of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (see the original cover art here). So this review, day three of my Childhood Favorites Week, is of Steven Spielberg's Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981). As I'm sure was the case with anyone who grew up watching movies in the 80's and 90's, Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones was one of my idols as a kid. As I grew up, however, I lost my respect for Spielberg as a filmmaker, so when I returned to this classic piece of Americana I worried that I wouldn't like it and would have to write a negative review about a movie that everybody loved. Fortunately, I was wrong.

For the two of you out there who are unfamiliar with the story here, these are the basics. Indiana Jones is an archaeologist and professor of archaeology who travels the world in search of rare and mysterious artifacts. But he's not just your average tomb raider (well, there actually might be some similarities with Lara Croft, but that's not the point): Indy keeps a pistol and his trusty whip at his side in case of danger, which he faces frequently living in a world populated by murderous fellow archaeologists, angry aborigines, and, of course, Nazis. In this first installment, Jones is after the Ark of the Covenant, the legendary chest said to contain the original stone slabs on which were written the Ten Commandments. But he's not the only one looking. His nefarious and determined nemesis Belloq (Paul Freeman), as well as the one and only Adolf Hitler, are also in the market.

Before I jump into my analysis, I feel it necessary to address the elephant in the room. Five years ago (27 years after the original installment and 19 years after the last sequel), Steven Spielberg and co-writer George Lucas attempted to reboot this franchise with, as far as I'm aware, little to no success. The movie came out in 2008, but was met with scathing criticism from fans. The biggest problem? The MacGuffin, the silly nonsensical centerpiece around which the plot revolved, involved aliens. Admittedly, when I saw the movie in theaters I had a similar reaction, but there's always been a mystical, fantasy element to these movies. Sure, in the past it was generally religious, but is there really that much of a difference that people who loved the originals would hate this new release? Don't get me wrong, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull was an awful movie, but the culprit isn't only the aliens. Crystal Skull was a bad movie because it majorly shifted the themes and tone of the series, and, where the originals relied on amazing practical special effects, the reboot utilized a whole lot of really terrible CGI (it's hard to understate the negative effect this one stupid decision had).

Beautiful shots like this are a thing of the past.

Anyway, I'm not here to whine about the new monstrosity. I'm here to show how, despite my alienation with his more recent endeavors, there was a time when Steven Spielberg could direct the heck out of a film. Something that really impressed me on my return visit was his ability to use cinematic techniques to create character. What really struck me was his use of shadows, and if the above picture doesn't do it for you there's also this, this, and especially this. Spielberg also loves his reveals, and while we follow Indiana from the start of the movie, we don't actually see his face for three and a half minutes. Then there's the antagonist, Belloq. Part of the reason he comes off as such an effective villain is the amount of screen time he gets, and especially the amount of time he shares with Indy. The two are allowed to talk to each other, and from this we learn what an evil guy Belloq is (I mean, he's also working with the Nazis, so there's that). He also has a killer evil laugh.

Speaking of which, the sound design is part of what makes this movie so iconic. Many of the chosen Foley sounds are somewhat unconventional or over the top, particularly by today's standards. Even the gunshots and punches have a deeper and almost more artificial sound than we're used to today. Of special note, of course, is the sound Indy's whip makes. It whooshes and cracks all over the screen, acquiring a sort of larger-than-life status. Spielberg also features the Wilhelm scream (at 1:24:25 on my DVD), which is a fun little piece of cinematic history for those of you interested in that sort of thing (read about it here). It's also impossible to talk about the sound in this movie without at least mentioning John Williams's score. It's fairly common knowledge that everything he touches instantly turns into a classic. Something about the way he designs character themes just makes them so memorable (for the uninitiated, John Williams composed all the soundtracks for both the Star Wars and Harry Potter franchises, as well as countless other modern classics).

For what it's worth, I think Indiana Jones is a pretty good role model to have as a kid. There's undeniably a fair amount of drinking in the movie (mostly on Marion's part), but I seem to remember having no idea what was going on during those portions as a child. Unlike most action heroes, Indy also values knowledge over strength. When Marcus cautions him against going to find the Ark, Indy shrugs him off, and throws a gun into his suitcase. He's willing to risk his life for the pursuit of knowledge. He also gets his butt handed to him by a large Nazi grunt but manages to escape with the help of Marion, showing the importance of brains over brawn in a way that I think children can understand.

Careful, making films can be deadly.

My absolute favorite aspect of Raiders of the Lost Ark is that it reverses a trend in Spielberg's cinema in a way found nowhere else aside from A.I. and maybe his early TV movie Duel. The Spielberg Face is a visual trope found in nearly every single movie Spielberg has ever made, and Raiders is no difference. The reason I love Raiders is the way it treats the face and the gaze embodied in it. Traditionally, the Spielberg Face represents a feeling of childlike wonder and a submission to that which is seen, which in film theory translates to a surrender to cinema. This look embodies the desire to watch things uncritically, to resist thinking and let yourself fall into the warm embrace of the camera's ideology. For more information on the Spielberg face, here's the video essay from which the idea originates (it's just under 10 minutes long and definitely worth watching).

Raiders of the Lost Ark continues to utilize the Spielberg Face, but in a critical way that wouldn't be duplicated again for 20 years. That is to say, every character who puts on a Spielberg face dies because of it. This trend begins immediately as the movie starts when Satipo, Indy's guide, dies at this hands of his unconditional admiration of gold. The ultimate critique comes when the Ark of the Covenant punishes an entire squadron of Nazi soldiers for gazing in awe at the power of God emerging from within (in what is easily one of my favorite sequences of cinematic gore to date). They are punished for not thinking about the consequences their actions might entail. The inclusion of the cameraman among the victims (pictured above) signals that this is not just about the characters within the movie, but about movies themselves.

But what about Indiana Jones? He certainly wears a Speilberg Face of his own at least once in the film, right? The reason Indy is allowed to survive is that somewhere along the line he learns from his mistake (and then, of course, unlearns for the sequels). In this final sequence during which the Nazis are killed, Indy tells Marion (and the audience) that they must close their eyes. They must not watch if all they're going to do is mindlessly stare into the screen.


  1. Good review. I like the contradictory idea of the Spielberg Face, choosing not to look, especially at this spectacle. Concerning the late reveal of Indy's face at the beginning, that might be a reference to James Bond ('Dr No').

    1. That's definitely a possibility. I don't think hiding your protagonists face is anything new, but Dr No is certainly a prominent example. Good catch.


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