If I was to be asked, “What is one film that meets nearly every qualification you would need to earn the title of a perfect action adventure film?,” I could think of none better than Raiders of the Lost Ark. When it was first written by George Lucas, the origin and character concept behind Indiana Jones was paying homage to the campy adventure serials of the 30’s and 40’s. Lucas sought out Steven Spielberg to direct the film, who would go on to direct the rest of the franchise.
The film begins as we are introduced to our protagonist: Indiana Jones (played by Harrison Ford). Jones is an adventuring archeologist, professor, and explorer with a vast knowledge of history and various cultures. His iconic outfit of choice includes a leather jacket, a weathered fedora, a satchel, and a bullwhip. Jones is hunting a lost Peruvian treasure and must brave the dangers of booby traps and betrayal. Upon his apparent successes at acquiring the treasure, he is met by a rival archeologist: Rene Belloq (played by Paul Freeman). Belloq believes himself to be the superior to Jones in every way- constantly one step ahead, always ready to capitalize on Jones successes. Belloq acknowledges the nature of his character when he compares himself to Jones:
You and I are very much alike. Archeology is our religion, yet we have both fallen from the pure faith. Our methods have not differed as much as you pretend. I am but a shadowy reflection of you. It would take only a nudge to make you like me. To push you out of the light.
After escaping, Indiana Jones returns home to America only to be met by U.S military intelligence officers. They proceed to inform him that Nazis, at Hitler’s order, have been seeking out all manner of occultist and religious artifacts and are currently attempting to find Jones’s mentor Abner Ravenwood, who possesses an Egyptian artifact that may hold the key to finding the lost Ark of the Covenant. Jones comes to the conclusion that the Nazis want the Ark in hopes of making them invincible. He agrees to seek out his to find his old friend and keep the Nazis from obtaining the Ark.
Upon learning the location of his friend, Jones learns that Abner had died and the amulet he needs is in the possession of Abner’s daughter, Marion. Marion Ravenwood is played by Karen Allen. Jones and Marion were once romantically involved, but he ended up abandoning her, which she resents. Marion demands that Jones leave her alone.
At this point we are introduced to a sinister Nazi officer, Arnold Toht (played by Ronald Lacey). Jones springs to help Marion escape Toht, and the two decide to travel together to search for the Ark. Upon reaching Cairo, Egypt, Jones reaches out to his friend Sallah, a well known digger who has information on where the Nazis are searching for the Ark. Sallah is played by John Rhys-Davies. The rest of the film is a back and forth struggle to locate the Ark and keep the Nazis at bay, leading to fantastic action sequences and one after another heart-pounding close calls. The film’s dynamic conclusion will leave you satisfied and awed. Harrison Ford’s performance stands out with his ability to play a no-nonsense, “man’s man” character. Jones’s character growth in the film is subtle but noticeable. He starts out as an overconfident skeptic but, as the story progresses, he rekindles his love for Marion and gains a new found reverence for holy relics.
This film began a beloved franchise that would include three more feature films. Raiders of the Lost Ark, in my opinion, is the gold standard of how to do an adventure film right. Adventure films should have a simple but pragmatic protagonist who is thrust into an ever increasing series of puzzles and dangers. Indiana Jones relies on his background knowledge and expertise in history and archeology to overcome many pitfalls both figuratively and quite literally at times. He is quite well-versed in old fashioned fisticuffs and is not above using a gun when needed. His use of brains, brawn, and no small amount of luck make him the iconic character that he is.
Raiders of the Lost Ark went on to be nominated for eight Academy Awards, including best picture. Its innovative practical effects as well as its set design and sound are superb. The film’s score is by John Williams and is unforgettable. Along with Star Wars, this franchise was always one of my favorites growing up. This movie is rated PG, but please be warned: the rating system was different at the time and it’s closer to PG-13 for modern audiences (mostly due to some violence with in the film). Raiders of the Lost Ark is available at the Union University Library.