An iconic, whip-swinging hero was born when Harrison Ford, fresh off the set of Empire Strikes Back, signed on for one of his many iconic roles. Raiders of the Lost Ark is an iconic classic of the blissful 1980s period. Generations above me hold nostalgia for the days they shared together, watching this on the big screen. No doubt my generation and those that will follow are waiting with bated breath to see how much of an impact the first of the Indiana Jones will have on their minds. Representing the Hollywood dream, a time when creatives could power through and offer up something truly incredible, Raiders of the Lost Ark is a milestone achievement. But there is something deeper, beyond its quips and catchphrases lies the real meaning and a presence of genuine danger.
That is something Raiders of the Lost Ark can offer. Many modern pieces of adventure and exploration lack bite. They are toothless rehashes of the ground Jones and company tread through before. PG films have dialled it back to entertain a more active and wider audience. We cannot argue about markets, because the times, as Bob Dylan often said, are changing. We are far away from the days where a film could have a fedora-wearing Nazi threaten a woman with a burning poker. But those horrific moments and the surprisingly great shootouts that follow them are what embody the character of Indiana Jones.
Only Ford could bring such a character to life. Cool and collected, yet inherently clumsy too. His initial breach into a temple sees him navigate a booby-trapped floor. He, nor Steven Spielberg, make a spectacle of this. He dithers around the traps, loses his footing slightly. There is not an immediate danger present, for we know this character couldn’t die so early; but we are shown a man that could slip, trip or stumble his way through danger. It is luck keeping Doctor Jones alive, not skill or mastery of adventure. But that presents a very real spectacle that Spielberg can adapt to a variety of locations and situations. Effectively, Jones is an idiot. He bumbles through caverns and caves, and it is blind luck that he is not killed, maimed or startled sooner. Belloq (Paul Freeman) serves as the perfect villain here. He craves the glory but does not maintain the risks Jones takes. We can like and latch onto Jones because he is risking his life for some statue or scroll out there.
From the coward’s way out to the dull sighs he offers when faced with dangerous Germans or men wielding swords, it is clear Jones is there for the history, not for the experience. He is also a sex symbol, but that is perhaps because Ford was considered the brooding face of Hollywood. Jones’ lectures are populated predominantly by women. He has charisma, bravery and good dialogue. That is all he needs, but the way Spielberg handles it is a projection of himself. Jones is the Nazi-punching, quick-witted charmer. Nothing wrong with punching a Nazi or too, but when Jones becomes the object of everyone’s desire, it starts to lose some of the stronger narrative elements. Action stars are always saddled with a love interest, but Indiana Jones doesn’t particularly need one. It’s why they were interchangeable throughout the series. Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen) is a strong pairing and a solid character, but it is just a case of the damsel in distress. It is not its inclusion that is problematic, but its intent in the first place. Had it not been for Ravenwood, we would be left alone with Jones for much of the film. He is not a strong character by himself, despite Spielberg attempting to make him so. It is the likes of Allen, Denholm Elliot and John-Rhys Davies that bring life to the character, Ford is merely a host for their spiel of information.
Raiders of the Lost Ark is a great time though. For all its deeper meanings and desire to prophecies the leading character, there is no escaping the entertainment value of this first adventure. He knows the history he is searching for but falters when needed most. “The power of God, or something…” he trails off when explaining why Belloq is charging through to Cairo with the Nazis. He is as clueless as we are, and there is something slightly endearing about that. Raiders of the Lost Ark is a valuable bit of entertainment that has more than a few moments of artistic integrity, but it holds within it a character that is held in the hearts of many because of nostalgia, not because of strong writing. Still, there is only so much depth we need to a man that is chasing after lost relics of old, and that is whether or not he gets the girl, and punches the right man.