Raiders of the Lost Ark is my favorite film. Like, to the degree that if I were marooned on a desert island and given the option between water and Steven Spielberg’s classic 1981 action blockbuster, I’d go with the latter. The film released before I was born, and I didn’t really discover it until later in my life when my tastes evolved from Beethoven’s 2nd to Die Hard, but since my “discovery” of famed archeologist Indiana Jones, life has always carried a lot more depth and meaning … okay, not really, but the flick is still a lot of fun!
Luckily, during Raiders’ 35th Anniversary, I was able to catch a screening at my local theater. Despite a bad movie screen, the film still dazzled as a grand-scale adventure crammed full of exciting action scenes, dazzling effects, and larger-than-life heroes and villains.
Yet, despite the lavish set pieces and thrilling chases, what really makes Raiders of the Lost Ark stand out amongst the rest are its surprising horror elements, of which there are many. Even in a film featuring perhaps the greatest action sequence ever filmed — the legendary desert chase — Raiders’ climax doesn’t see Indy throw any punches or take on baddies such as Belloq (Paul Freeman) or Toht (Ronald Lacey) mano-a-mano. Instead, Indy, like us, stands by and watches the wrath of God literally melt the faces off the film’s evildoers with shocking brutality.
Indeed, I showed the film to my two daughters a few weeks ago and while each offered a nice dose of enthusiasm for the extended fight scenes and shootouts (mostly to keep me happy), their attention always seemed to peak during the scarier bits such as when Marion finds herself surrounded by mummies and skeletons immediately following their escape from the Well of Souls.
Still, the film’s greatest strength is the titular Ark of the Covenant, which provides a lot of the film’s mysterious/horror aspects. Take, for instance, an early scene in which Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) and Marcus Brody (Denholm Elliott) discuss the object. The scene starts off 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 at the Tanis archeological dig, Indy discovers the location of the Ark using the Staff of Ra. One would think this moment would result in something a little more triumphant, but Spielberg instead has composer John Williams score the scene with a foreboding choir that perfectly sums up the dangers surrounding the artifact.
Another great bit occurs when Indy and Sallah (John Rhys-Davies) unearth the “Lost Ark,” a sequence drenched in shadows and a haunting underscore. You half expect some sort of Conjuring-styled ghostly apparatus to appear at any moment … and while one never does, the scene does a fabulous job establishing the Ark as a force equal parts remarkable and deadly.
Around the hour and a half mark, there’s also a brief 20-second moment in which the Ark burns a Nazi swastika off the cover of a crate while nearby rats wither and freak out amidst its tremendous power. This bit connects the end of ACT II — right after the desert chase — with the beginning of ACT III — right before the bad guys arrive via submarine and apprehend the Ark — and neatly foreshadows the grisly climax.
Of course, nothing else in Raiders of the Lost Ark terrorizes like the aforementioned finale — perhaps the most gruesomely shocking ending of any commercial film catered to a wide audience. Oh, to be able to travel back to 1981 to see reactions to this ending on opening night. Were people thrilled? Appalled? Stunned? Despite all the clues and foreshadowing, it’s likely most didn’t expect that — melting faces, exploding heads, lasers, and terrifying ghosts? Everything in this moment is such a radical departure from the rest of the film, I’d imagine most viewers back then were just as stunned as my young daughters were a few weeks ago, during which they could only watch in stunned silence at the carnage on screen.
As an adventure film, Raiders of the Lost Ark continues to dazzle unlike any other. The film boasts romance, drama, comedy, thrilling action, astonishing stunts, and eye-popping special effects — the film is truly remarkable and actually quite perfect. But it really is the shocking horror aspects that push Raiders high above and beyond its many imitators, where it continues to stand triumphantly as an incredible masterpiece even four decades after its original release.