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On June 12, 1981, America met Indiana Jones when George Lucas and Steven Spielberg brought Raiders of the Lost Ark to theaters. The Hollywood Reporter’s original review is below:
If George Lucas were to say that he could make terrific entertainment out of Chairman Mao’s Little Red Book, at this point I’d be inclined to believe him — this point being just a few hours after seeing his Raiders of the Lost Ark. And if he wanted to bring along Steven Spielberg to direct, I’d believe him even more.
I can well imagine the executive eyebrows that were raised when Lucas announced his intention of making a feature-length Saturday afternoon special. But since between them Lucas and Spielberg have been responsible for four of the 10 top-grossing pictures of all time, who could say them nay? Especially since Lucas is in a position to finance his own productions.
Suffice to say, he’s done it again — or they’ve done it again. Raiders follows the Saturday afternoon format, the cliffhanger formula with new insurmountable odds every 15 minutes. And sometimes, like in the old serials, he doesn’t bother to explain. Just how did Harrison Ford make it all the way to Gibraltar clinging to the conning tower of a German submarine anyway? Who’s conning who?
What Lucas and Spielberg haven’t copied is the serials’ sleazy look — the papier mache caves, the cardboard rocket ship interiors, the all too obvious miniatures. This production, brought in at a reported cost of $20 million, is a solid achievement for everyone concerned, from production designer Norman Reynolds right down to the last painter and plasterer who worked on the lavish sets. Credit too a veritable platoon of stuntmen, headed by Jack Dearlove, Ford’s stunt double, whose feats of derring-do kept my palms moist for most of the evening.
Ford plays a mild-mannered professor of archeology, a sort of Clark Kent in academia, who transforms himself into an ultraresourceful adventurer when hot on the trail of an archeological treasure — like the “lost Ark” of the title, the Ark of the Covenant which, according to Biblical lore, contains the broken fragments of the Commandments that Moses brought down from Mt. Sinai. The year is 1936, and the Nazis are also interested in acquiring the Ark, although not for archeological reasons. Hitler (and Lucas claims to have documented this) believes that its acquisition will legitimize him as the True Messiah.
Based on a story outline by Lucas and Philip Kaufman, screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan sets up Paul Freeman as a rival archeologist who has thwarted Ford on previous “digs,” and has now sold out to the Germans. On Ford’s side is feisty Karen Allen, the daughter of yet another archeologist, one whose search for the Ark has cost him his life (and it’s so refreshing to have on the screen a heroine who isn’t a total nincompoop when her young man is in danger; this girl is, in the fullest sense, an activist — and she can drink most men under the table).
Also on Ford’s side is John Rhys-Davies, playing a Middle Easterner who’s an expert at dissembling, and a good guy to have around. Heading the German baddies (and in this one they’re all bad) is snaggle-toothed Ronald Lacey, the guy with the black hat, and Wolf Kahler as the prototypical Nazi commandant. Subtleties are not what Raiders of the Lost Ark is all about.
It’s the thrills that keep it moving. From the opening reel, in which Ford is thwarted by Freeman in his attempt to retrieve a golden idol from an ingeniously booby-trapped South American cave, the action just never lets up. There are bruising and bloody fights, the Ark is guarded by thousands of poisonous snakes (how they survived the thousands of years is anybody’s guess), and a car chase after the Nazis have stolen the treasure that is sheer mayhem on wheels.
But it’s all done with such a great spirit of high adventure and good humor that you don’t even begin to count the corpses (although I must confess that I was more than once concerned about the wanton destruction of poor street vendors’ property in the course of the several car chases). The finale suggests that Ford’s Indiana Jones character will soon be back with further adventures, and I’m all in favor of it.
Technical credits in this George Lucas and Howard Kazanjian production are never less than first-rate, including Douglas Slocombe’s photography, Michael Kahn’s editing and John Williams’ pulse-pounding score. And a special accolade is due whoever among the legion of special effects people were responsible for the chilling holocaust that follows the opening of the Ark. It was roundly applauded at the preview — but only after we’d all caught our breath.
I don’t know how strong is Paramount’s percentage in the distribution of Raiders of the Lost Ark, but one thing I’m certain — Lucas and Spielberg have just opened up another goldmine. — Arthur Knight, originally published on June 5, 1981.
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