Movie Review: Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)


Title: Raiders of the Lost Ark
Release Date: June 12, 1981
Director: Steven Spielberg
Production Company: Lucasfilm Ltd.
Summary/Review:

When I was a kid growing up in Stamford, Connecticut, my family frequently saw movies at the State Cinema, a second-run movie theater that charged only $1-2 for a ticket to see a movie a few months after it had been released (a big savings on the scandalous $5 ticket prices at first-run theater).  Too be clear, this was not an arthouse theater showing movies that were many years old, all of the movies at the State were movies released in the past year.

The one exception was Raiders of the Lost Ark, which for some reason the State kept bringing back again and again for years after it’s 1981 release.  And we went to see it a lot! It’s almost certainly the movie I’ve watched on the big screen the most times.  And yet, without any intention of doing so, I hadn’t watched it in a loooong time.  The last time I remember watching the movie was 25 years ago when I was in college, and since I’d taken several archaeology classes was a bit snobbish about it to.

So I watched this movie with somewhat fresh eyes.  There are a lot of things I liked as a kid that I’ve discovered have not held up well and are very problematic. Thankfully, Raiders of the Lost Ark is not one of them. It does have it flaws in cultural competence, no doubt, but avoids a lot of the stereotypes present in Hollywood films.  For example, there are a lot of Egyptian characters in the film – some are good, some are evil, most are in the background but none of them come across as the “evil Muslim terrorist” trope common in movies made after Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Probably the strangest thing in this movie is that the most prominent “Egyptian” character in this movie, Sallah, is played by a Welsh actor, John Rhys-Davies.  I never cottoned on to this as a kid, but Sallah’s accent actually sounds pretty Welsh.  It’s unfortunate that an Arabic actor was not cast for the part, and especially so since Rhys-Davies has become a prominent Islamophobe in recent decades, but his performance is respectful and very entertaining.

I’m also impressed by Karen Allen as Marion Ravenwood, who is a clever and capable character at a time when most women were not (the big exception is Princess Leia in the Star Wars movies).  She really is the equal of Indiana Jones as an adventurer and intellect.  In retrospect, it’s disappointing that Karen Allen didn’t get her own Marion Ravenwood spinoff movie in the 1980s.

Harrison Ford’s performance reminds me of why he’s so deserving of his acclaim as one of the great actors of our time. He is subtle in his gestures in a way that conveys a lot of emotion and humor.  And unlike Han Solo, his Indiana Jones is extremely confident without being arrogant, and shows his vulnerability at times.

The action set pieces and special effects which were so revolutionary at the time seem to hold up well (I’m sure there are some people who can pick them apart, but they work for me).  Lots of Nazis get punched, which remains satisfying.  As a kid, I was affected by the horror elements of the movie (such as the faces melting when the ark is opened) but I’d completely forgotten one of the most terrifying scenes when Marion gets caught in chamber of skeletons who are shrieking for some reason.

The depiction of archaeology is still rubbish – they are clearly treasure hunters who actually destroy a number of antiquities in the process of acquiring the Ark of the Covenant.  But then again “Raiders” is right there in the title, so you are warned.

Despite its flaws, Raiders of the Lost Ark is still an all-time classic and I can’t give it any less than five stars.

Rating: *****

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