When I was a child, my parents would take me to the library every week. I would always pick out a couple of movies on VHS (remember those?) to watch on the weekends, and inevitably there were certain movies that wound up in my rotation, movies that I would check out regularly and watch obsessively, movies that shaped me as a consumer of film and television. One of those movies was Raiders of the Lost Ark, and to this day it remains one of my most beloved movies of all time, a movie that I can watch any time and never gets old to me.
What is it about Raiders of the Lost Ark that caused it to become so indelibly etched in my psyche for so many years?
It could be thanks to Harrison Ford, one of the most iconic and charismatic actors ever, who occupies a place in an immortal canon of action stars, and here delivers an incomparable performance as the bookish, yet brave, charming and heroic Indiana Jones. It’s hard to imagine any actor who could ever fill his shoes in this role. A whole generation of movie characters have been written in the Indiana Jones mold, and yet none can really compare. In an era of films starring brawny action stars like Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone, Jean Claude Van Damme, and Steven Seagal, Harrison Ford stood apart as an action star with personality, who wasn’t built like a truck and didn’t know a martial art.
It could be that I checked out this movie so frequently because of the John Williams score, filled with memorable leitmotifs that swelled at just the right moments; the flare of trumpets that champion the heroism of Indiana Jones, the romantic strings that make up Marion’s theme, and of course, the chilling chorus that accompanies the fantastical theme for the ark itself. In a legendary career filled with iconic scores, John William’s score to Raiders of the Lost Ark might be his most iconic, and each and every swell of music fits the scene perfectly.
Maybe I watched this movie so often because of the perfect cinematography of Douglas Slocombe, cinematography that takes advantage of light and shadow and silhouette in bold, powerful ways. The action direction of Raiders of the Lost Ark isn’t flashy or in-your-face, or distracting like modern shaky-cam can often be. Instead, it’s simple, incredibly efficient, the camera always positioned in the perfect spot to highlight the action of the moment, every shot designed with a real sense of scale and scope in mind so that there’s never any visual confusion.
Maybe I bought a Raiders of the Lost Ark poster (a Drew Struzan classic) because of the screenplay by Lawrence Kasdan, which truly understands the power of setup and payoff, of how to create an effective scene, of how to write characters who are fun and interesting. He understands what types of tropes are exciting to watch (spiders! boulders! snakes! Nazi planes! car chases!), understands the importance of meting out action scenes with great frequency, of giving us spectacle that works on multiple levels.
But perhaps most importantly, I love Raiders of the Lost Ark because Steven Spielberg is a genius, a cinematic powerhouse, a natural filmmaker who just understands how to build dramatic tension, understands all the elements that make a film like this tick, and who empowers those working around him to create great canvasses to use. He understands when to throw in a sudden scare, a mummy or a snake to get the adrenaline going. He understands when to give the hero a punch to the gut, when to give a little victory, when to put a character in peril. He knows the constructs of this genre, and plays them smartly every single time. Spielberg has had greater, more powerful achievements in his career; films like Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan are undeniable, and even latter period Spielberg has its masterpieces and underrated gems. And yet, for its simplicity, verve, and energy, for the sheer enjoyment that I get out of Raiders of the Lost Ark, it’s my favorite film by Spielberg. To me, Raiders is undeniable.