#210: Raiders of the Lost Ark
Initial release: June 12, 1981
Director: Steven Spielberg
Few film franchises define Gen X and early Millennial culture like Indiana Jones. Oh sure, Star Wars has supremacy, but Spielberg invented the modern adventure film with the iconic Raiders of the Lost Ark.
It’s hard to overstate the influence this film had on pop culture. Aside from rejuvenating the adventure film genre, it also created an entire look for similar characters. You can’t have an “explore ancient ruins” theme without referencing Indiana Jones in some way. Doubly so if it’s Egypt, or somewhere in the jungle. Video games definitely have no shortage of imitators: Tomb Raider is the obvious example, but there’s also Uncharted, Pitfall, La-Mulana, among others. All feature a daring archeologist-cum-grave-robber (or tomb raider, if you will) braving dangerous ancient ruins full of traps. So with that kind of legacy it stands to reason that Raiders of the Lost Ark (later amended to include “Indiana Jones” in the title) is a good film, and it is! It’s one of Spielberg’s very best movies, and that guy has made a lot of movies. Spielberg’s style has a certain je nais se quois about it that’s obvious across nearly all his films. Perhaps it’s his use of music and technique, perhaps it’s just the sharp, snappy scripts. Whatever it is, it makes his films identifiably Spielbergian.
That style is quite obvious in this film. We open in 1936 with a James Bond-style cold open, the iconic South American temple with its rolling stone ball and golden idol. Jones returns to his job as university professor in the United States, until two Army officials pay him a visit. It seems the Nazis have been digging in Egypt for the mythical Ark of the Covenant, and if the Nazis seem to think it’s important, the United States government feels it’s in everybody’s best interests that they don’t get it. And thus it falls to Jones to retrieve it before they do.
While Nazi occultism had been a running theme in popular media for years, this was the film that revived interest in it for a new generation. Ironically, the academics continued to dismiss it as hooey until Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke’s landmark thesis and book on the subject, The Occult Roots of Nazism, did a deep dive on the historical connections of Nazi ideology and the weird racist pseudopaganism that forms much of the core of esoteric Nazi thought. But what all that means, at least as far as the movie is concerned, is that we get iconic scenes such as Indy punching Nazis, shooting Nazis, throwing Nazis off a truck, running over Nazis in a truck, kicking Nazis to unconsciousness to steal their uniforms, and tricking Nazis (well, one anyway) into getting pureed by an airplane propeller. All this Nazi slaughter and yet somehow the film managed a PG rating, though they had to do some trickery to satisfy the ratings board during the climactic scene with melting faces and exploding heads. (It seems God doesn’t like Nazis either.)
This is a fun, punchy flick that borrows as much from the likes of James Bond as from the adventure serials the film is an obvious love letter to. Its iconic nature aside, it’s just a good film, even if some things don’t always make sense (how did Indy survive the sub trip?) Later entries would be a lot more uneven; it’s almost worth arguing that Raiders was lightning in a bottle, so perfectly embodying the adventure genre that Spielberg and George Lucas grew up with for a new generation that nothing else could come close.
Regardless of whether that’s true or not, this is one of those important films that form the building blocks of modern pop culture, and you owe it to yourself to see it at least once.