The Raiders of the Lost Ark is my favorite movie. Like, since if I was stranded on a desert island and had a choice between water and Steven Spielberg’s classic action blockbuster 1981, I would go with the latter. The movie came out before I was born, and I only really discovered it later in my life, when my tastes evolved from Beethoven 2nd at Die hard, but since my “discovery” of famous archaeologist Indiana Jones, life has always had a lot more depth and meaning … okay not really, but the movie is still a lot of fun!
Fortunately, during Raiders’ 35th birthday, I was able to attend a screening in my local theater. Despite a bad cinema screen, the film has always dazzled as a full-scale adventure filled with thrilling action scenes, dazzling effects, and larger-than-life heroes and villains.
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Yet despite the lavish settings and thrilling chases, what really makes The Raiders of the Lost Ark among others, its surprising horror elements, of which there are many. Even in a movie starring perhaps the greatest action sequence ever to be filmed – the legendary desert chase – Raiders’ the climax doesn’t see Indy throwing punches or taking on villains like Belloq (Paul Freeman) or Toht (Ronald Lacey) mano-a-mano. Instead, Indy, like us, stands tall and watches the wrath of God literally melt the faces of the film’s evildoers with shocking brutality.
Indeed, I showed the movie to my two daughters a few weeks ago and while each offered a nice dose of excitement for extended fight scenes and shootouts (mostly to please me) their attention still seemed at its height during the spookiest times such as when Marion finds herself surrounded by mummies and skeletons immediately after their escape from the Well of Souls.
Still, the movie’s biggest strength is the titular Ark of the Covenant, which provides many of the mystery / horror aspects of the movie. Take, for example, an opening scene in which Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) and Marcus Brody (Denholm Elliott) discuss the object. The scene begins with Indy celebrating the opportunity to go after the Ark but changes its tone when Marcus warns Indy not to take this particular quest lightly.
Later, in the map room of the Tanis archaeological dig, Indy discovers the location of the ark using Ra’s staff. You’d think this moment would end in something a little more triumphant, but instead Spielberg asked composer John Williams to mark the stage with an ominous choir that sums up the dangers surrounding the artifact perfectly.
Another big moment occurs when Indy and Sallah (John Rhys-Davies) unearth “The Lost Ark,” a shadow-soaked streak and haunting underscore. You half expect some sort of Conjuring– Ghostly-styled device that pops up anytime… and although it never does, the scene does a fabulous job establishing the Ark as a force that is both remarkable and deadly.
Around half past one, there is also a brief 20-second moment in which the Ark burns a Nazi swastika on the lid of a crate as nearby rats wither and panic amid its enormous power. . This piece connects the end of ACT II – right after the pursuit of the desert – with the beginning of ACT III – just before the baddies arrive by submarine and apprehend the Ark – and perfectly foreshadows the macabre climax.
Of course, nothing else in The Raiders of the Lost Ark terrifies like the aforementioned finale – perhaps the most horribly shocking ending of any commercial movie aimed at large audiences. Oh, to be able to go back to 1981 to see the reactions to that ending on opening night. Were people delighted? Dismayed? Dazed? Despite all the clues and foreshadows, it’s likely that most didn’t expect it: molten faces, exploding heads, lasers and terrifying ghosts? Everything right now is such a drastic departure from the rest of the movie, I imagine most viewers back then were as stunned as my young daughters were a few weeks ago, during which they could only watch in stunned silence the carnage On screen.
As an adventure film, The Raiders of the Lost Ark continues to dazzle like no other. The movie features romance, drama, comedy, thrilling action, amazing stunts, and mind-blowing special effects – the movie is truly remarkable and in fact quite perfect. But it’s really the shocking horror aspects that push Raiders far beyond its many imitators, where it continues to stand triumphantly as an incredible masterpiece, even four decades after its original release.
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