Happy 20th Raiders

Four years ago 20th Century Fox released a special edition of George Lucas' Star Wars to commemorate the film's 20th anniversary. Next year Universal will do the same for Steven Spielberg's E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial to mark that film's 20th year. But 2001 will go by with no such fanfare for Raiders of the Lost Ark, Lucas and Spielberg's landmark collaboration. Thankfully, the Uptown Theater recently brought Raiders back for a one-week engagement. Despite almost no publicity or advertising, D.C. audiences still came out to see this 20-year-old film. Clearly Raiders has endured in the hearts and minds of those who were fortunate enough to see it in theaters in 1981 and on video from then on.

What accounts for Raiders continued appeal? Some of it is sheer quality. Film historian Douglas Brode wrote that Raiders looks like "every penny (spent on the film) is up there on the screen." Spielberg's camera placement, pacing, and other technical skills are impeccable. The action scenes in particular are flawlessly staged. The story builds the excitement as a treasure hunt becomes a battle for supremacy between one man and an army. As Indiana Jones, Harrison Ford is charismatic and charming while also fierce and determined. Certainly his performance was crucial for the film's success, as was a strong supporting cast. But I think there's something more.

Legend has it that Lucas and Spielberg developed the ideas for Raiders while building sand castles in Hawaii during the summer of 1977. Lucas was captivated by the serials of his youth, while Spielberg said that he had always wanted to direct a James Bond film. In some ways the Bond films replaced the serials. They provided a recurring character in a series of death-defying adventures, but they were better developed and more sophisticated. Lucas and Spielberg acknowledged that Indiana Jones was the cinematic "son" of James Bond in 1989 when they cast Sean Connery as Indy's father in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Like Bond, Indy is an engaging intelligent hero who fights for good against powerful and evil forces.

But the differences between Bond and Indy are more interesting than the similarities and show how Raiders evolved beyond its inspiration. While Bond always has the latest gadgets, Indy has only a pistol and his trusty whip. More significantly, Indy, while brave and heroic, is also flawed and vulnerable. Bond is practically perfect and completely fearless. We can enjoy him as a pure fantasy character who is skilled at almost everything. Indy is far from perfect, and we can identify with him. He is frightened of snakes and he hurts after fights. One the most beloved scenes in Raiders has a huge swordsman preparing to fight Indy in a battle to the death. Instead, a tired Indy shoots him -- not what a stereotypical movie hero would do, but what we might do. Indy fails as much as he succeeds -- he loses the idol to Belloq in the prologue and loses the Ark to the Nazis twice. In the end, Indy does not save the Ark; the Ark saves itself. The Ark destroys the Nazis while Indy is helpless. For all the fantasy elements of his character there is something real, something human at his core that we can latch onto.

Raiders also benefits from its setting. Bond films are hardly realistic, but they do try to be relevant. The 60s films dealt were firmly ensconced in the Cold War, while recent Bond films have focused on computers and huge media corporations. But what is timely at the moment can quickly become dated. By borrowing from the serials and setting Raiders in the 1930s Lucas and Spielberg gave the film a certain timelessness.

Still, there is something more. While Raiders would never be called a religious film, there are touches of spirituality. Indy initially sees the Ark as only an archeological find and dismisses talk of its power as "hocus-pocus." As noted, his own attempts to secure the Ark fail. Near the end of Raiders, when the Nazis open the Ark, the only actions Indy takes is to avoid looking at the Ark and to instruct Marion to close her eyes. It is Indy's belief and respect of a higher power, something beyond his own skills, that saves him. Man can't control everything, not even Indiana Jones.

While few films have offered the total package, the influence of Raiders are clearly visible. You can see some Raiders-esque story elements in The Mummy remake and probably in its sequel which debuts next month. The flawed vulnerable hero, redefined in the Die Hard and Lethal Weapon movies, is now a staple in action films. Meanwhile, rumors of a fourth Indiana Jones film continue to percolate. But for now we have the original Indiana Jones Trilogy on video and likely soon on DVD. We also have the hope that theaters will follow the example of the Uptown and offer the chance to experience Raiders on the big screen, the way it should be seen. Happy 20th anniversary Raiders of the Lost Ark. Looking good.

Adam Spector
April 17, 2001

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