I think the main thing that makes Raiders of the Lost Ark, well, Raiders of the Lost Ark is that it never lags. We’re always gliding forward, a darting red dot, plowing through each action scene to the next, never growing bored or a scene needlessly wasted. If you were forced to edit out 30 minutes of this movie for a condensed, play-on-cable version, I’m not sure it could be done. I mean I’m sure it has been done, the movie has shown on cable before, but I don’t know if it could be done effectively, where we get the full extent of Indy and Marion’s relationship, the thorough, piece-by-piece puzzle of locating and retrieving the Lost Ark, and every fight and shootout sequence so carefully choreographed its like the New York Ballet set a production in the Egyptian desert, with the dancers are packing Luger pistols in their tutus.
You know the drill: Indiana Jones is tasked to locate a lost archaeology colleague and a valuable, one-of-a-kind piece of a staff that is crucial to locating the Ark of the Covenant. Along the way, Indy crosses paths with his old flame Marion Ravenwood, whose love and anger for Indy still burns bright. They travel to Egypt and uncover the ark, only for it to be stolen by Belloq, a smooth-talking, rival excavator in cahoots with the Nazis.
One thing that stuck out to me this time watching Raiders was a little quip that was made on The Big Bang Theory, essentially that Indiana is inconsequential to the story. This is somewhat true, the Nazis would have still found the medallion needed to locate the ark, even if they weren’t following the breadcrumbs left behind from his leather jacket. Anytime Indy finds something, Belloq claims it for his own, and the final climax, Indy has really no impact on it except for having the wits not to look at the ancient ghosts rising from the smoke-filled ark, saving his and Marion’s own hides in the process. But the Nazis still would have died, whether Indy was there or not.
This doesn’t make the movie any less satisfying or thrilling, with every moment feeling like we’re teetering on the edge of destruction, how one false move or a careless wrong turn can easily lead to the downfall of our heroes and civilization as we know it. Spielberg knows how to illicit trust from us that Indy knows what he’s doing, that while he isn’t some sort of archaeological demi-god, he’s pretty darn close. That’s why the opening sequence works so well, it mainly serves as an introduction into Indy and Belloq’s relationship, but also shows us just how cunning and meticulous and incomprehensibly brave Indiana Jones is. And then the following scene, where we see him as a mild-mannered professor with female students fawning over him, hearing his every word but not paying any attention to them, establishes him as a common but smart man. It shows that heroes don’t need to be born from Zeus or carved out of ancient stone, all they need is some grit, gusto and a Ph.D to fulfill their hearts desires.
My family loves the Indiana Jones movies, and if we’re ever choosing one to watch, we more commonly go with The Last Crusade, arguably a better of an adventure film since more stuff happens. It’s more easily digestible, but Raiders is the better film by a long shot. Every character is memorable and detailed, every frame of footage a near-painting and every fist and whip thrown an immensely enjoyable experience.