11. Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

Director: Steven Spielberg

Starring: Harrison Ford, Karen Allen, Paul Freeman, Ronald Lacey, John Rhys-Davies, Denholm Elliot, Wolf Kahler, Alfred Molina

Unlike most of my favorite films, I can’t seem to pin down exactly when I saw “Raiders of the Lost Ark” for the very first time. Rough estimate would be between the ages of 8 and 10. Back then, it was a really fun adventure movie which happened to be set in the 1930’s. Now, as an adult, I can better appreciate the mythological and archeological material. I’m also more familiar with the source material, the old 12-part adventure serials that used to play in the theaters. When you watch this movie, you can tell exactly where the “To be continued…” card would show up as Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) faces one seemingly inescapable danger after another.

As this is set in the 30’s, the Nazis, being the most evil of all evil the modern world has ever known, are the bad guys. They are working with the French archeologist Belloq (Paul Freeman), a longtime adversary of Indy’s. In relation to our hero, Belloq is the Moriarty to Indy’s Sherlock. The two men are more alike than Indy is willing to admit and, as Belloq points out in one scene, they could be just the same if Indy were given the right push. Belloq is great, but I find myself the most interested by the Nazi gestapo named Toht. Actor Ronald Lacey’s performance is so snake-like that he fits right in among the dozens of slithering carnivorous reptiles which cross Indy’s path in this movie.

There are two actresses with the last name Allen whom I am fond of, though they bear no relation to one another. One is Nancy Allen of “RoboCop” and several Brian De Palma films. The other is Karen Allen, who plays Indy’s feisty love interest, Marion Ravenwood. Among the leading ladies of the Indiana Jones series, there has only ever been one who was a match for Indy, as Marion’s return in “Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” suggests. When the other options are a whiny ‘dumb blonde’ and a Nazi sympathizer, you have to call it a no-contest. Where Indy differs a lot from other adventure film heroes is his capacity for screwing up quite often, in choosing the wrong partners for his archeological expeditions, and in his relationships with women. Marion’s a tough lady, and is quick to tell Indy where to get off when he’s done her wrong. But there’s always been love there between them. Another good movie to watch with Karen Allen in a starring role is “Starman,” but she is at her best here as Marion.

Astonishing are many of the films action sequences. In particular, I love the truck chase in Act Three. Indy is chasing down the Nazis, who are headed for a transport from Cairo to Berlin. In the process of intercepting them, he gets beaten up, shot, nearly run over, and dragged by a car with only his whip to hold onto. It’s the part where he goes under the car just before being dragged that’s the most intense part of that whole sequence. He survives, of course, but not without suffering cuts and bruises to nearly ever inch of his body.

All four movies have an object of historical and religious significance as their MacGuffin, each having their own place in real-life mythology.  As the title suggests, the object which both Indy and the Nazis are after is the Ark of the Covenant. The other artifacts of history which appear in the series are the Holy Grail, the Sankara Stones of India, and the Crystal Skulls of Mesoamerica. Many fans balk at the idea of aliens appearing in “Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.” I won’t disagree that the movie itself is of lesser quality than what came before, but the idea that aliens (or inter-dimensional beings) are a dealbreaker is funny to me. Isn’t it Sallah (John Rhys-Davies) who declares the Ark to be “not of this Earth”? The case could be made that he’s not talking about the stars, but the heavens. But the “aliens” from the fourth film are no different. To quote Dr. Jones himself, it “depends on who your god is.” With that out of the way, I’ll watch “Raiders” a dozen times over before I feel the need to watch “Crystal Skull” again.

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