Thursday 10 August 2023

Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)


Jagten på den forsvundne skat

Da da-da daaaa, da da-daaa, da da-da daa, da da-da daaa daaa daaa…

Okay, a bit silly, it is not so easy to transcribe a theme, I just wanted to set the mood here with one of the most famous John Williams scores ever: That of Indiana Jones. Few things make me smile like that theme.

There is a handful of movies out there where it feels silly to write a review because everybody, and I mean literally everybody, even in some backwater in Yemen, will know about the Indiana Jones movies, if they have not already watched them. What more can I say than has already been written? This is like writing about Star Wars all over again.

Did I forget to mention that I totally love the franchise up until and including “The Last Crusade”.  I have watched “Raiders of the Lost Ark countless times and can recall every scene in detail.

My favorite character is the Gestapo agent Toht, played by Ronald Lacey. He is absolutely perfect and every one of his lines is a classic: “Now, eh heh heh, what shall we talk about?”. Even his name is a play on the German word for “dead”. In our family we can often find a place for an Indiana Jones quote and Toht’s lines are very high on that list. Another classic is “This is how we say goodbye in Germany” to which you answer “I prefer the Austrian way”… but that is a different Indiana Jones movie.

The character of Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) is an interesting one. He is professionally an archeologist, something which is emphasized with him teaching classes at a university, but his fieldwork is not the painstaking excavation of ancient burial sites and structures, but more akin to treasure hunting. Indiana Jones is to some extent modelled on a Howard Carter type of archeologist, the guy who found the tomb of Tutankamun, an action hero adventurer who goes for the really spectacular finds. For this kind of archeologists as for many collectors it is the item itself as a historic celebrity rather than the context and addition to the collective knowledge that is the motivator. This is why Jones rival, Belloq (Paul Freeman) see a kinship with Indiana Jones. They may represent the good and the bad guy, but the difference between them is surprisingly small. There are many hints to that throughout the franchise, especially in this first installment, as if we need to be reminded that it is okay what Indiana Jones is doing.

The most important motivator in that sense is that the alternative is worse. If Jones and his team does not retrieve the artifact, then somebody much worse will and what can be worse than a bunch of Nazis. It is like Oppenheimer’s dilemma: Perform the infamy of building the bomb before the Nazis do. In that context, we are not talking grave robbing, we are not talking sensationalist archeology anymore, we are talking saving mankind.

The artifact in “Raiders of the Lost Ark” is the Ark of the Covenant, which is a perfect item in this context. It is a well-documented historical item, in the sense that it features prominently in the holy texts of three major religions, it has mysteriously disappeared, and it is supposed to be imbued with a supernatural power. Yet, the real scoop is that this is a Jewish artifact, sought after by their arch-nemesis, the Nazis. We are talking epic clash here and are dappling just that bit into superpower territory, something the first three movies managed to do so gently, we are able to accept it.

What makes “Raiders of the Lost Ark” so great, is that it works on every level. We have the high-level context of good versus evil in an epic struggle, but we also have a well-paced action movie that keeps you on your toes. Thirdly, the script is genius. It adds understated humor in surprising places that disarm the pompousness and makes you laugh as a relief. The formula is actually old and was employed to some extent in “Star Wars”, but it is with the Indiana Jones movies it has peaked. Many movies have attempted to copy the formula, more or less shamelessly, but none have come close, not since.

“Indiana Jones, Raiders of the Lost Ark” is one of the best, most successful and most entertaining movies ever. It is brilliant.

Bonus anecdote: The German plane supposed to fly the Ark to Germany is a fiction. There never existed such a plane in reality. It is a mash-up of several different concepts from era. Google it and you find some really spectacular planes. I would have loved to see it fly though... 


  1. This is a top-5 all-time movie for me, and one of the best experiences I ever had in a movie theater.

    1. I can imagine how that was and envy you the experience. The first Indy movie I saw in the cinema was the third one, being too young for the other ones. At that point I was already a long time fan.