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Action Alphabet: 'Raiders of the Lost Ark'

It’s no big secret that I love Quentin Tarantino, but before I discovered him there was my true first movie love: Steven Spielberg. Though they don’t actually have a whole lot in common – they share almost no artistic or aesthetic parallels – I love them both for the exact same reason: they only make movies by their own standards, that is, they craft the kinds of stories that always admired and wanted to see. Granted, Spielberg has evolved into a director who gifts the world with grand and beautiful cinematic endeavors, but even so he’s never really lost the spirit of the boy who loves to read Edgar Rice Burrows novels and watching 1940’s adventure serials. He made a lot of incredible movies early in his career – I never get tired of watching Jaws and have always felt that Close Encounters of the Third Kind is the unsung magnum opus of the sci-fi genre – but the most important of all was unquestionably Raiders of the Lost Ark, not just for him as a director but for the entire action genre.

Harrison Ford and Pat Roach in 'Raiders of the Lost Ark'

George Lucas created a globetrotting, whip-wielding archaeologist named Indiana Smith in 1973 and planned to make it into a movie but the project was shelved when too many obstacles kept halting production. While on vacation in Hawaii enjoying the successes of Star Wars, Lucas started chatting with Spielberg who expressed a desire to direct a James Bond movie; but Lucas brought up his Indiana Smith idea, and the rest is history. If you don’t know the movie, it stars Harrison Ford as the hunky professor who is tasked by the U.S government to find the Ark of the Covenant (from the Book of Exodus, a chest containing the remnants of the Ten Commandment tablets) before the Nazis find it and try to use its supernatural powers. His travels find him in places like South America, Tibet, and Egypt, meeting up with former flame Marion (Karen Allen) and friend Sallah (John Rhys-Davies) and battling foes like his Eurotrash French rival Belloq (Paul Freeman) and various Nazi thugs. Even though the film set the standard for plots that serves formally as vehicles for fantastic action, the story holds up well and remains interesting even with epic – and I mean epic – fistfights, firefights, and car chases competing for your attention.

As action movies go, there is no end of things to love about Raiders of the Lost Ark. First of all there’s the hero; the American Film Institute names Indiana Jones its #2 hero of film history right behind Atticus Finch, which is pretty impressive considering AFI rarely ever warms to adding films to their sacred top 100 lists unless they were made in the seventies or before (Raiders was released in 1981). He’s a quintessential action hero, cool and dashing like James Bond but not smarmy or vaguely misogynistic, tough and comedic like John McLane but not insensitive or reckless. The portrayal of violence was groundbreaking too; it wasn’t all that common to see a movie so thanklessly gory that wasn’t a horror film (the melting face of Commander Toht is spectacularly and unforgettably horrifying). But it is the fabulously staged action sequences that everyone most loves about this movie: even if the practical effects are now really transparent thirty years plus after the fact and a vast number of scenes have a theatricality to their staging that makes them obvious, the action of Raiders of the Lost Ark set the bar for cinematic action so high and set Hollywood reeling, trying desperately to catch up to what Spielberg and Lucas created. Take the opening sequence, for instance – was there ever a more perfect character introduction in movie history? – where we get to follow Indy through a cave of ancient booby-traps as he searches for a precious artifact. He is, all at once, clever, agile, and tough while also taking pause to be human (I hate snakes!) He dodges arrows and giant boulders and tarantulas and looks awesome in a Fedora all the while. The movies best moment though is probably Indy fighting a gang of Nazis on and in the trucks of a moving convoy – a brilliant tribute to John Ford – and at one point is dragged underneath a truck. If you have seen it, you know there are no words to explain how great the scene, and the whole movie for that matter, is; if you haven’t seen it, all I can say is that it must be a sad and lonely life, living underneath that rock of yours.

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