As a standalone movie, judged apart from its lesser sequels, Raiders of the Lost Ark is a pure, unfiltered dose of joyful escapism. Rarely has the medium of film been so successfully used for the purpose of pure entertainment. Free from director Steven Spielberg’s tendency for suburban navel-gazing, cute kids and distant parents, as well as producer George Lucas’s later bloated mythic pretensions, Raiders tosses overboard every piece of narrative flab as the story hums along like a well-tuned V-8 engine.
As the half-academic/half-soldier-of-fortune Indiana Jones, Harrison Ford steps cleanly away from Han Solo in a laconic performance that seems to distill the good parts from every movie Humphrey Bogart ever made. Back in the day, Ford was still capable of acting like he gave a damn in a film that had no ambitions beyond simple crowd-pleasing. He’s certainly given more textured and layered performances, but I’d hesitate to describe them as “better.”
One of the key factors that elevate this film above the two that followed was the presence of Karen Allen as Marion Ravenwood, still the most successful “Jones Girl” by a country mile. The female characters in the sequels, Kate Capshaw and Alison Doody, were both written and played too modern to mesh with either the period or the genre the movies were trying to emulate. Marion echoes leading ladies from classic black-and-white B-movies. In earlier days, the role might have been played by Lauren Bacall. Yes, the performance is somewhat mannered and not perfectly naturalistic, but I choose to see that as a choice, perfectly consistent with the rest of the Saturday-afternoon serial milieu.
As Belloq, Jones’s adversary, Paul Freeman brings a level of depth and moral ambiguity that makes the character a far more formidable villain than the cardboard cutouts that Jones fought in the two subsequent movies. Raiders also has Jones fighting the bad guys he’s supposed to be fighting, namely Nazis. Fortunately, Spielberg realized his mistake in the second film and brought them back for the third.
Raiders finds that delicate balance between action, humor and just enough drama to make us care what happens to these people, a balance that neither sequel found again. The schizophrenic second film bounced uneasily between darkness and slapstick, while the third seemed like a juvenile TV movie compared to the original.
Part of that problem stemmed from the treatment of two characters that carried over from the first, namely Brody (Denholm Elliott) and Sallah (John Rhys-Davies). Here in Raiders, they have some substance as Indy’s equals and valuable allies. By the third film, they are reduced to comic relief (and lame comic relief at that), playing second fiddle to Indy’s daddy issues.
Of course, if you want to own the original on DVD, you’re stuck with the other two. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade has its charms and merits and it’s certainly a thousand percent superior from the depressing and disposable Temple of Doom, but Raiders is essential viewing for anyone who loves pure escapism from his or her movies.