It's brilliant, obviously. That's not even up for discussion. Regardless of my opinion today, when I was a child I thought it was one of the greatest wonders of the universe. There are a few films where your opinion of them is steamrollered and Raiders of the Lost Ark is one of those.
However that said, I just rewatched it and thought it was okay.
To quote Spielberg, "I made it as a B-movie... I didn't see the film as anything more than a better made version of the Republic serials." This is true. It's not really about anything, except Spielberg repeatedly topping himself. Imagine it as a roller-coaster. Most directors would be proud to create a ten-minute sequence that measures up to what Spielberg achieves throughout the entire second half of this movie. He lets the film breathe, yes, but he never lets you go. (Jurassic Park, on the other hand, lets go halfway through when everyone wakes up on a beautiful morning.)
For what it's worth, my childhood self thought this roller-coaster quality was the most important thing in an Indiana Jones film. Its presence meant that I loved Temple of Doom
just as much as this, whereas I was disappointed by The Last Crusade.
It's fun. It has a lightness and a playfulness, despite being staggeringly gruesome. (An exploding head at the end was going to get the film an R certificate, until Spielberg wrapped it in flames.) I always had to look away at the propellor decapitation, even though we don't see anything. Watching it today, I now think the most impressive thing about the film is that it keeps its balloon in the air. Spielberg never loses control. You'd expect relentless action like this to get dull or brain-numbing, yet Spielberg goes on, and on, and on, and just keeps getting more entertaining. He never turns into Stephen Sommers.
The real question, of course, is whether or not it's the best Indiana Jones film. I love Temple of Doom
, but Raiders of the Lost Ark has the best villains (by a whisker) and the best girl (by a mile). Karen Allen is the greatest. Is she the best female action hero? I'd have to think about it, but she's definitely up there. SHE'S AMAZING. She punches Indy. She has drinking competitions. She takes out bad guys and lets rip with machine-guns. She outwits Belloq, which even Indy never manages. She's as dodgy and slippery as anyone in this movie and we adore her for it. This is every bit as much Allen's movie as it is Harrison Ford's, frankly, and she makes any action scene twice as good by being in it.
She also spends most of the second half wearing dresses like Fay Wray's, which I presume is another homage to those old 1940s adventures.
As for Harrison Ford, what's cool about him is the fact that he's not cool. He's neither Superman nor James Bond. He's a flustered nerd of a teacher, while I love his two key conversations with Belloq about their passion for antiquity. Belloq's "bury it in the desert for a thousand years" speech for me still defines the beauty of archeology. Then, when the action begins, Ford doesn't wear a Heroic Shield of Indestructability, but instead is more like a rat that just won't die. He's a bad boy, he's laconically funny and he usually looks as if he's been dragged under a truck (bingo).
All that's good. It's a joyful film, full of youth, wit and energy. It has a monkey. It also has Spielberg sticking it to Nazis. However it doesn't really add up to anything, although I love the way it's proud to be about an academic discipline and is in no way trying to sugar-coat the fact. Random observations:
(a) The Nazis are oddly anonymous, except of course for the unforgettably toad-like Ronald Lacey. He reminded Spielberg of Peter Lorre. I can see that.
(b) It's a miracle that the ending isn't garbage. Think about it. That should have been, literally, deus ex machina bullshit... yet Spielberg makes it awesome. It helps that he's so shamelessly going for the horror, while of course the "God hates Nazis" subtext is satisfying even if Indy's "shut your eyes" suggests a different explanation for why our heroes survived. (Love the bit earlier where the Ark burns the swastika mark off its crate.) Karen Allen's reaction afterwards is part of what sells the finale too.
(c) The lightning when Indy and Sallah open the Well of Souls looks to me like Spielberg's nod to Universal horror.
(d) I was reminded of Star Wars when Nazis are carrying the Ark through the Tunisian canyon where Jawas shot R2-D2, accompanied by John Williams music.
(e) Great music, obviously. One of the most recognisable movie themes of all time.
(f) Near the beginning, when students are filing out of the classroom, a boy leaves an apple on Indy's desk. My theory is that that boy's gay and fancies him.
It's one of the highest-grossing films of all time. It was nominated for nine Oscars (including Best Picture) and won four technical ones. It's the start of one of the best-known movie franchises... and even if you personally don't like The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, compare it with other fourth instalments. Terminator Salvation? The Phantom Menace? Batman & Robin
? Jaws: The Revenge? (I'm looking forward to seeing it one day.) I wasn't blown away on today's watching, certainly not to the degree that I was when I was a child... but that doesn't matter. Young Finn's opinion trumps the opinion of Jaded Cynical Finn. Young Finn thought it was pure awesome on toast.