Friday 29 July 2011

30 reasons why I love
Raiders Of The Lost Ark

Whenever people ask me what my favourite film of all time is, I like to appear intellectual and tiresome by banging on about how it's impossible to have one favourite film and going on to list about fifteen possible candidates. Having watched Raiders Of The Lost Ark again the other day, though, I may have to concede that it is in fact The One. There is literally nothing wrong with it.

I first saw it when I was about eight years old, which is about as impressionable an age as you can be, so maybe that's got something to do with it. Nearly *cough*ty years later, though, it still feels like the ultimate treat to sit down and watch it again and bathe in its classic story, faultless script, note-perfect performances and slick direction.

Raiders was released in the UK 30 years ago tomorrow, so by way of celebration, here are 30 reasons why I love it more than any other film. Except maybe Back To The Future. Or The Empire Strikes Back. Or... oh, balls.

1. The poster
This design, by Richard Amsel, is one of only two film posters adorning the walls of my house, and along with the subsequent work of Drew Struzan provides all the arguments necessary when banging on about the unbelievable shitness of today's blockbusters' posters.

2. The title
"Raiders Of The Lost Ark" immediately conjures up good old-fashioned adventure and mystery, it's got a lovely rhythm to it (unlike its sequels, which trip over themselves on the way out of your mouth) and it can easily be shortened in casual conversation to a single, unmistakeable word. It's a sign of how great it is that even though George Lucas nonsensically renamed it Indiana Jones and the Raiders Of The Lost Ark, LITERALLY NOBODY ever calls it that. Power to the people!

3. John Williams' score
"Washington Ending & Raiders March"

We're all aware that this is officially the greatest film score ever written, right? Good. Just checking. Also, you may as well play this clip while you're reading the rest of this post.

4. Indy's introduction
Spielberg gives more than a gentle nod towards James Bond's introduction in Dr. No, teasing us with obscured shots of Indy before that full, dramatic reveal. Before we've even seen his face we know he's intrepid, cautious, methodical and shit-hot with a bullwhip. It's also clear that he's got bloody good hearing.

5. The barely-perceptible head tilt
when Barranca cocks his pistol
how to make gifs
This is exactly the kind of thing I'm talking about.

6. Harrison Ford
Having already created one of cinema's most enduring heroes with body warmer-wearing pirate Han Solo, Ford went on to be surely the perfect Indiana Jones. Sorry Tom Selleck, but I just don't see it. Ford blends exactly the right amounts of humour, rage, expertise, confusion, resourcefulness, smarts and heroism to make Jones such a realistic, fallible, lovable icon. It seems unbelievable that the perfect script could come along for the perfect actor at the perfect time, but that's what makes some movies magical, and for generations of impressionable kids turned cynical grown-ups, Harrison Ford is Indiana Jones.

7. Indy's costume
Designed by comic book artist Jim Steranko with the help of the film's costume designer Deborah Nadoolman, Indy's costume is both practical and effortlessly cool. The hat, the whip and the jacket are now forever associated with Indiana Jones, and the whole ensemble is even greater because YOU WILL NEVER BE ABLE TO CARRY IT OFF YOURSELF.

8. The reveal of the spiders
Forget snakes. Spiders properly give me the willies, making this scene almost unwatchable as a child. Compare it with Crystal Skull's CG ants and weep for the past.

9. The boulder dash
The first set-piece of the film sets the tone of the whole series in style. It may be completely ludicrous - how did the Hovitos ever get that rock up there in the first place? - but if you can suspend disbelief and go with it (and if you can't, you're watching the wrong film), the next hundred minutes are going to be right up your passage.

10. The maps
I used to follow Indy's travels with an atlas whenever I watched Raiders, leading to several tedious dinner-table conversations with my parents about when we might be able to visit the tiny Greek island of Anafi, where I firmly believe the Ark was opened. Wikipedia reckons it was Kasos, but that's balls. Even their own entry for Anafi suggests the island was so named because An Ofis means 'without snakes', HELLO.

11. Marion Ravenwood
Giving Indy and Marion a history immediately does away with all that pesky getting-to-know-each-other nonsense that's bad enough in real life, never mind in films. It also allows Marion to be angry, devious and selfish before realising what she's got involved in, making her far more interesting than Indy's other squeezes. Of course it helps that she's unconventionally gorgeous and packs an amazing right hook.

12. Marion's amazing right hook

13. The fight in Marion's bar
Like all of Raiders' fight scenes, this one is choreographed to perfection, but unlike all the others there's no music under it, somehow lending it more menace and realism. It's packed full of perfectly judged visual gags too, and the fire trail across the bar never fails to impress, despite being completely unrealistic. Since when does booze flow in a nice thin straight line like that? Since never, that's when. Fortunately the payoff with the whisky bottle is brilliant enough to forgive it.

14. All those baskets
So he's chasing these guys through the streets, right, and they're carrying his girlfriend in a basket, yeah, and he keeps losing them, but then he thinks he's got them, right, he runs to the end of the street, right up to the camera with this look on his face like, "shit", then the camera pulls back and the whole place is CHOCKAFULL of identical baskets, man!!! Skill.

15. The bit with a tiny glimpse of a semi-naked lady
I'm sure you can imagine the effect this shot had on an eight-year-old boy. What makes it extra special is that it appears exactly one hour into the film, making you wish there was somebody out there judging the relative merits of films by freezing the frame every 30 minutes.

16. Shots like this
Quick shout out to cinematographer Douglas Slocombe. Top work, Do-Slo!

17. René Belloq
Like the Bond films, Raiders has a serious, intellectual villain and a psychotic henchman. As the former, Belloq is as passionate, dedicated and determined as Indy, but just a little bit mad. He's not a Nazi, he's in it for himself, so it's easier to identify with him as a flawed human being, especially as he feels genuine affection for Marion, not just a villainous lust. And Paul Freeman plays him exceptionally: watch his reaction as the entrance to the Well of Souls is sealed shut. He's heartbroken that it might mean Marion's death, but equally he could be mourning Indy, his only equal.

18. Major Arnold Toht
Raiders' more cartoony villain, played with squirming, sweaty glee by British actor Ronald Lacey, is a bad guy for the ages. Coming across like a clammy Nazi toad, he may be a remorseless bastard but he's not without a sense of humour. His sick chuckle at the aforementioned Well of Souls sequence is in deliberately marked contrast to Belloq's reaction, and his coathanger party trick never fails to raise a smile.

19. The Toht-hanger
What a card.

20. The stunts
Not only are the stunts in Raiders astonishing, but they're all done for real by a team that now reads like a who's who of the late 20th century's greatest stunt performers. Vic Armstrong, Martin Grace, Richard Graydon, Peter Diamond, Wendy Leech, Rocky Taylor... Anyone who ever watched the 'making of' documentaries about any '80s or '90s action film will recognise those names, and they all came together for Raiders. It's like The Expendables, only 100% less shit.

21. The sound effects
Ben Burtt's sound effects for Star Wars were amazing, but because nobody knows what a lightsabre sounds like we take them for granted. His hyper-real representations of gunshots, bullwhips and punches in Raiders, however, played as big a part in setting the film apart from the standard action-adventure as the script, the performances and the score. The Academy were so impressed they gave Burtt a Special Achievement Award for his sound effects editing.

22. The plane fight
Indy's fight with the world's biggest Nazi on and around the Flying Wing is one of the greatest fights in cinema history. The fight itself is perfectly blocked and choreographed, it's brutal yet funny and it shows Indy's capable of outsmarting an enemy when he's clearly physically inferior. Ben Burtt's sound effects come into their own again, and the unforgettable conclusion is horrifying, massively satisfying and troublingly hilarious.

23. "I don't know, I'm making this up as I go"
Raiders Of The Lost Ark's best line. It's genius, but I can't help thinking that it needs the word "along" attached to the end.

24. The truck sequence
Almost everything great about Raiders comes together in this scene. Harrison Ford is vulnerable, tenacious, resourceful and very angry, John Williams' score is perfect driving-over-Nazis music, the over-the-hood-and-under-the-truck stunt is both ingenious and performed with unbelievable skill by stuntman Terry Leonard, and Indy keeps his hat on throughout. The final shot of the squished soldier's arms and legs popping up is the kind of perfect visual touch Spielberg used to drop in his sleep.

25. The drive off the cliff
A combination of live action and matte painting make this shot surreally astonishing. And I love that we never see the truck explode in a Nazi fireball: in fact I'm fairly sure that somewhere in North Africa, those guys are still falling.

26. The mirror gag
The cutaway shot of the ship improves this gag by about one zillion percent.

27. This costume change
This little piece of silent comedy relies entirely on Ford's body language to work, and he pulls it off consummately. It's also the scene in which he's a more handsome bastard than at any other time in his life.

28. The melty faces
The scene even more responsible for a worn-out pause button on the VCR than Marion's naked back is so well-executed that it's a wonder Raiders made it as a PG. A more satisfying fate for Herr Toht would be hard to imagine, and the fact that it was all done with a practical model rather than CGI makes it all the more special. Although to be honest they could have gone the extra mile and actually melted Ronald Lacey with a blow torch.

29. The warehouse

30. Steven Spielberg
It's impossible to overestimate the effect Spielberg had on my formative years. As a director and a producer he was responsible for so many films that I loved then and intend to continue loving until I lose my marbles and forget my own name. With Raiders, though, not only was he at his best - nothing from the rest of his filmography matches it for effortless skill, flawless structure and throwaway moments of pure genius - but he gave me a film that felt like it was made just for me. The fact that so many other people feel the same way just goes to show how perfectly crafted it is.

More than that, though, Steven Spielberg and Raiders Of The Lost Ark made me realise that I loved film; something that could delight, terrify and amaze me in equal measure, and which would continue to thrill me to the point where I had to spew my thoughts about it to anyone who stumbled across my small corner of the internet.

So there you go: all this is his fault.


  1. Sir, I love you for writing this post. However, I was planning to do exactly the same thing at one point because it's also my favourite film. So it's bittersweet. And it has made me HATE you.

    Bye. :D

  2. Yes it is good we have the internet now .We can say the things we have always wanted to say.I have the Rainders of the lost Ark book and DVD.

  3. Only 30? You slave to convention, you!

    31) The whole business with the Nazis getting the Ark's location wrong - a genius piece of plotting that is also (because of Toht's burnt hand) a really sick joke.

    32) Indy's fabulously normal and boring University day job, which anchors the adventure with a realism and wit than none of his imitators have ever really understood. See also 33.

    33) Denholm Elliott.

  4. 30? Pah. Try my 88 reasons why I loved Back To The Future:

  5. I'm sure we could all pick 30 different magic Raiders moments. I'm amazed that it is 30 years old. I enjoy seeing the film again and again even though I know it almost frame by frame. As you have written, it is perfect in every possible way.

    Not only was Ford a hero on screen, he is a real life hero too.

    On July 31 2000, 20-year-old Sarah George and her friend Megan Freeman, 22, set out on a five-hour hike of Table Mountain in Idaho Falls. But, when they reached the summit, George was so overcome by dehydration and altitude sickness she could hardly take any more steps. A passing hiker phoned in a call for help using his cell phone, and faster than you could say Air Force One, Ford, who volunteers his services to mountain rescuers, hopped into his trusty Bell 407 helicopter and raced to the scene.

    As Ford was en route, two other hikers helped Freeman move George more than two miles from the Table Mountain summit to a meadow, where Ford landed his chopper. With the help of an on-board medic, a surprised George was loaded and lifted out. (Unfortunately for Freeman, there wasn't room in the whirlybird for her, and she had to hike out.)

    "He was wearing a T-shirt and a cowboy hat," George told the Associated Press, not realizing it was Ford until the emergency medical technician pointed him out. "He didn't look like I'd ever seen him before."

    Ford, who lives part-time in nearby Jackson, Wyoming, occasionally loans his flying skills and chopper to local police for rescue missions. His Bell helicopter saves the local sheriff's department over a $1,000 an hour it would cost to hire a pilot."

  6. How can you leave out the Harrison Ford improvised shoot the sword guy scene???

  7. What an awesome post! I do love this movie and it's one of those movies I wish I could see on the big screen. I agree with the commenter above that the gun vs. sword scene is one of the major highlights!

  8. Oh yeah! And there's still so much more:
    - the student with "love you" on her eyelids
    - Indy shooting the fancy sword guy, of course!
    - music and cinematography in the scene where the light-beam reveals the location of the arc; gives me goosebumps when I just think of it
    - and of course the love scene on the ship
    Ah, that did it. I have to watch it tonight :)

  9. Close! For a second there I didn't think that you were going to mention melting Nazis! But you didn't mention the brilliant shadow acting that goes on.

    Ace review though, and a fantastic score to read by.

  10. In a word - awesome. In two words - really awesome. But I'm going to deduct points because you didn't mention the monkey.

  11. Yes yes all of those things you all mentioned are very good. Next year I'll write 31 more reasons and promise* to include all of them.

    *Not an actual promise

  12. absolutely spot on, every point!