Tuesday, 22 February 2011

80s Movies: Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

The fact that Raiders of the Lost Ark doesn't begin with the words "Indiana Jones and the..." is the first sign that yes, this was the first one. Never one to start slowly, Indy ploughed straight into treasure-hunting by looking for the Ark of the Covenant, in which the Ten Commandments were reputedly stored. Not only that, but he actually finds it and it's surrounded by Nazis - and it's not even time for World War II yet. It's a strangely fun adventurous romp through classic treasure-hunting scenery, given the slightly sinister undertones that are hard to escape when your main villains are pre-war Nazis.

Harrison Ford is Indiana Jones, in the role that will probably define his career for a long, long time to come. And he's great, let's be honest. He's mild-mannered enough to be believable as an archaeology professor, but square-jawed enough to become an all-action hero with relative ease. The fact that he can switch effortlessly from one persona to the other - even halfway through a scene - is testament to the strength of the character, to Ford's acting credentials, and to the quality of the film as a whole.

The Plot

Raiders of the Lost Ark is about as good as adventure films get. In a change from most 80s films, it's Indy versus the Nazis, rather than Indy versus the Russians (although, slightly ironically, the 2008 sequel Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull does pit Indy against the Soviets). This is the first film in the series, and it's 1936. Indy must battle the greatest threat of the 20th century in order to beat them to the Ark of the Covenant. In principle that's just a fancy box from the bible, but in practice it turns out to be a bit more dramatic than that.

More importantly though, this is the blueprint for so many other movies - not just the sequels, but modern-day versions like the brilliant National Treasure. There's always a treasure, which I guess you could say is essential. There's always some dodgy villain, too - with henchmen, of course. But on top of that, there's always sidekicks. You rarely get a lone treasure-seeker - even Lara Croft has help in the movies. Indy might not have been the absolute first movie in its genre, but it gave a damn good go to redefining its niche for a new era, and personally I think it did a pretty good job.

The Legacy

Raiders of the Lost Ark launched a legacy that endures to this day. Indy is one of cinema's strongest role models - akin to James Bond and, from the 80s to the present, probably even stronger than James T Kirk or any Star Wars character. The music ranks as one of the greatest film themes of all time - again, comparable with Bond, Star Wars or Superman. Or Back to the Future, for that matter.

Given the mishaps that have happened during the history of the franchise, it's a small miracle that it continues to endure. The most tragic event in the history of Indiana Jones has to be the death of River Phoenix. In 1989, he appeared as the young Indy in The Last Crusade. Four years later, he was dead. It's probably one of the widest held assumptions among cinematic trivia fans that Phoenix would have starred in at least one Indy sequel in his own right, had he lived long enough.

As it is, we had to wait until 2008 for Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. I'm gonna give a moment's defence to this - given that Indy had already found the Ark of the Covenant, the Holy Grail and... well, some weird stones... I don't really know what people expected from Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Personally, I think it delivered everything that could be expected. But that's not what we're here to discuss, so I'll let it slide... let's hope there's another Indy film somewhere down the line, eh?

80s Movies

In February, POPSICULTURE are dedicating the month to a look back at the iconic films of the 1980s - a decade whose films continue to draw massive audiences when they are shown on TV. To follow posts in this series, check the 80s Movies label or sign up to the dedicated RSS feed.

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