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Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Oscarstravaganza: Raiders of the Lost Ark

* * * *

Winner: Best Sound Editing, 1981

Director: Steven Spielbergh
Starring: Harrison Ford

Raiders of the Lost Ark is a rare cinematic achievement in that it is both a commercial/populist success and a critical success. It was the highest grossing film of 1981 and received 9 Oscar nominations, including Best Picture (the big prize ultimately went to Chariots of Fire). It remains one of the most entertaining films ever made and remains a beloved high water mark in the action/adventure genre. No doubt about it, this is one of the great ones.

The film starts with one of the great opening sequences of all time. In the Peruvian jungle in 1936, archeologist/treasure hunter Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) retrieves the Golden Idol and makes a hasty getaway out of the crumbling temple, narrowly avoiding being crushed by a rolling boulder. He is then unceremoniously stripped of his prize by his rival Rene Belloq (Paul Freeman) and chased to a waiting seaplane. These opening minutes alone make Raiders more entertaining and exciting than about 3/4s of the films released any given summer and it's only getting warmed up.

Back in the States, Jones is informed that the Nazis are in search of his mentor Abner Ravenwood and, putting the pieces together, he realizes that they're out to find the Ark of the Covenant. Jones takes off to find Ravenwood and discovers that he's died. He also discovers that Ravenwood's daughter Marion (Karen Allen) still has a bit of a chip on her shoulder regarding her past relationship with Jones. When her tavern is burned down by the Nazis, Marion decides to accompany Jones to Cairo to find the Ark before the Nazis do and together they endure a series of mishaps and adventures leading up to the very satisfying conclusion of the film.

Raiders of the Lost Ark has its roots in the serial films of the 1930s and 40s and was initially developped by George Lucas along with Philip Kaufman. Steven Spielberg came on board the project in 1977 and together with Lucas and writer Lawrence Kasdan, they crafted the end product. What they managed to create is a film that is fun without sacrificing intelligence, a narrative full of action that never shortchanges in terms of story. Roger Ebert once described the film as being the other side of the coin to Schindler's List in that that film was made from the perspective of an adult to memorialize the horrors of the Holocaust, and Raiders is made from the perspective of an adolescent who wants to make the Nazis pay and blow 'em up real good (or, you know, melt their faces off). There is a similar spirit of abandon to Inglorious Basterds, and it has the effect of giving the film a lightness that comes from a youthful indifference to realistic consequences, but also a hard, aggressive edge.

Playing Indiana Jones solidified Ford's status as a star and he plays the role to the hilt. He's rascally and charming, his wit dry as hell, and there's a sense of weariness to him that works well. When he's confronted by a baddie with a sword and just casually shoots him, that's pretty much the essence of the character. It's that attitude of "God, I just do not have time for this shit" that Ford conveys so well that makes Indy so iconic. In many ways he's a throwback to oldschool characters that could have been played by Bogart or Mitchum, with the difference that Indy is also allowed to appear vulnerable and afraid (snakes!) sometimes. I would imagine that the film would still be entertaining with another actor as Indy, but I doubt it would reach the same heights of greatness. Raiders of the Lost Ark is an example of all the right people coming together at just the right time to make a perfect movie.

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