You Call This Archaeology? Part 1: Raiders of the Lost Ark

Raiders of the Lost Ark

I usually try to keep a sizable variety of post topics here. Yeah, last week I had three posts about comic books, but that was mostly an anomaly. This week I had several posts planned. My usual quick post about what video game I’ve been playing, my book reviews for last month and maybe something about how stupid Mizzou going to the SEC would be were all ready to go. Sometime late last week, however, I decided, “screw that, I’m going to write about Indiana Jones.” Why you may, but probably didn’t, ask? Because it is almost my birthday, and around my birthday I like to watch some of my favorite movies. The Indiana Jones movies are some of my best-loved movies, and are frequently watched around my place. So, this week I am going to review all four Indy movies. Starting today with my thoughts on Raiders of the Lost Ark. (Spoilers: I like Raiders a whole lot.)

Raiders of the Lost Ark is a perfect adventure movie. There is no film in the genre that can touch it. It is terse and action packed, fun but not stupid. This first one is particularly focused, with some but little of the slapstick humor that would come later. It is the only film in the series with a believable love story. While Indy visits large portions of the globe, it is tightly plotted and steams from start to finish without ever losing momentum. In short, it is everything an adventure movie should be.

Much of lure for this film, and the whole series, lies in its hero. Indiana Jones is the possibly the greatest character to ever appear on screen. He is simultaneously larger than life and believably human. Indy does amazing things, like out run a giant boulder and hijack trucks filled with Nazis single-handedly, but doing so is visibly difficult for him. His feats are a struggle, they leave him physically drained and damaged. He doesn’t win because he is smarter, though he often is. He doesn’t win because he is stronger, though he sometimes is. Indy wins because he perseveres. He will not, cannot quit. It is primarily his struggles that make him appealing. The other part of his appeal is Harrison Ford. Indiana Jones is nowhere close to a wholly original character. He is a throwback to pulp heroes like Doc Savage and Allen Quartermain (I don’t think Quartermain actually counts as a pulp hero, but the intent is the same.) There is even a dash of Superman in there with his mild mannered Dr. Jones who, with a change of hats, becomes the unstoppable Indiana. Ford infuses Indy with a perfect roguish charm, alternately exasperated and amused by what he encounters. There is not movie star from the last 30 years that has charisma like Ford. Even when he is sleepwalking through a movie, he is still eminently watchable. Raiders of the Lost Arc, and the rest of the Indiana Jones films, feature Harrison Ford at his best.

The part of this movie that shines above the rest is in its villain. Rene Belloq is the only true rival Indiana Jones faces in any of his movies. Belloq claims that he and Indy are alike, but that is far from true. Their goals and their skills are similar, but their methods and outlooks are wholly different. Belloq is cynical, he is ruthless. As long as he achieves his goal there is no deal he won’t make or break. Indy is an idealist, he has limits. A big visible difference is in whom they ally themselves with. Indy has friends, from Marian to Sallah to Jock with his plane at the beginning. Belloq has tools that he uses to achieve his goals. There is no trust between Belloq and the Nazis, just like there is none between him and the Hovitos (?) at the beginning. He has constructed his relationship with them to last as long as it is convenient. Indy has to rely on his partners, and sometimes they let him down.

The conflict between Indiana Jones and Belloq is established wonderfully in the opening scene. We see Indy do all the work to find the idol, but Belloq comes in with an army and takes it from him. “Dr. Jones. Again we see that there is nothing you can possess that I cannot take away” is likely Belloq’s most famous line. That right there is the conflict that drives the movie. The Nazi’s are but window dressing, not important other than to have someone to fight. Belloq is whom Indy is truly at war with. Over everything. Belloq tries to seduce Marian not because he is attracted to her, or at least not only for that, but because she is with Indy. Belloq employs an army of Nazi’s to find the ark, using his expertise, of course. Indy digs with a small crew right under his nose to get it first. Note how Indy gets down and dirty to help with the actual digging; Belloq seems to believe that he is above that.

Their rivalry drives the movie to its conclusion, when Belloq opens the arc. There we see Belloq’s true cynicism and Indy’s romanticism. Unlike the Nazis, Belloq believes in the Ark’s power, but he doesn’t fully believe in it. He thinks he can control it, that he can master it. Indy does believe in the power of the Ark and knows the dangers it represents. He is romantic enough to believe in the mystical power of ancient artifacts, and wary enough to believe that power poses a threat. Belloq believes he is untouchable and that is his downfall.

There is no real point in going over the plot of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Nearly every scene is iconic, from the rolling boulder in the opening temple to the melting faces at the end. My personal favorite is the whole truck hijacking scene. It is perfect. The whole movie is nearly perfect. This is the gold standard for adventure movies.