Raiders of the Lost Ark was the first Steven Spielberg film I saw on the big screen, at The Astra cinema, Barrow-in-Furness in July 1981. I was 9 years old. And it changed my life.
I didn't know anything about the film before I saw it. It was school holidays and I went with my brother and his older friends and I loved it. My friend Leo's dad gave us a lift home and in the car when the dad said 'How was the film boys?' Leo gave him a beginning to end rundown of the entire film. Leo was the first film critic I had ever met. And he didn't prefix it with shouting 'Spoilers!' because this was before everything had gone to bollocks land.
Han Solo starred as Indiana Jones. What a name! And an archaeologist who like James Bond would effortlessly trot the globe, comfortable in any culture, unfazed by strangeness and scared only of snakes. He was stubbly, dusty, with leather jacket, brown trousers and leather shoes. The whip was a stroke of genius, giving him an instantly definable superpower as well as a trademark. This was no brainless gunslinger - except when expediency and brevity demanded it.
We start in Peru - actually shot in Hawaii - with an iconic treasure hunt in an ancient temple - where Forrestal bought it. Just that detail by the way is an example of how the film continually provides a backstory that grounds Indiana Jones in a real world. Belloq his rival has been competing with him for years. His University boss Marcus knows him well and his fame has spread to the US government. We're starting in media res with this guy - the origin story that hamstrings so many hero stories these days can wait. Once given the task of seeking the Ark of the Covenant, he is off to find Ravenwood (like Forrestal, he's also bought it) and teams up with his daughter Marion, a former flame.
Spielberg had been burned by the cost and over runs of 1941 - which was released while shooting was starting in La Rochelle, France - and was dead set on proving that he could bring in a successful movie under budget and on schedule. The fact his buddy George Lucas was effectively financing the film further encouraged him to economize.
Gone are the elaborate special effects and the wastefulness of 1941. Spielberg story-boarded the film completely and only shot a handful of takes for each set up. Special effects were limited and mostly old school. The inspiration was the Saturday morning matinees and B-Movie adventures. Already with Duel, Spielberg had proven an economic story-teller and once more there is a snap to scenes, whether we're getting exposition alongside two baffled G-men - one of them Porkins from Star Wars - or a bar fight in Nepal. But despite the modesty of the budget and the penny-pinching atmosphere of the production, Raiders is expansive in its variety of locations and its exotic ambition.
With the move to Cairo and the dig at Tannis, a dark tone is introduced with the apparent death of Marion and Indiana Jones temporarily indulging in a suicidal drinking session, a remnant of an earlier darker incarnation of Spielberg's for the character which had taken its inspiration from Humphrey Bogart in The treasure of the Sierra Madre. John Rhys-Davies as Sallah is a brilliantly colourful character - a Gilbert and Sullivan loving digger who add some lovely comic touches. Spielberg had spotted him in the TV mini-series Shogun.
The magic of the Ark turns the film almost into a Biblical movie - helped by yet another unbelievably beautiful John Williams score. Already silhouetted against the sunset as he sheds his local robes and dons his hat once more, Jones is an iconic figure. His accompanying march - a kind of Colonel Bogey theme - relentless and jolly, is equally uplifting and exhilarating.
Like Chief Brody in Jaws, Indiana overcomes his greatest fear - snakes - and the rest of the film is a headlong chase sequence, with occasional pauses to catch our breath. Re-watching the film reminded me of listening to a Beatles album where every song is your favourite Beatles song. The fight with Pat Roach on the airstrip; the truck chase through the desert; the scene with Marion - 'It's not the years, honey, it's the mileage' - the u-boat, the head melting finale. And as with Jaws, what's this gore doing in what should be good clean fun? The death by propeller and head explosions via Yahweh! The film originally received an R rating in the US, requiring some tricks to soften the gore and lower what would have been a disastrous certificate. It's sequel would effectively force the creation of the PG-13 rating.
Harrison Ford effortlessly endowed a lazy charisma to Indy, a man who doesn't know martial arts, isn't a playboy and isn't necessarily the smartest man in the room - but he does know how to take a punch and how to make it up as he went along. The bromance much of the audience would have with Indiana is seen in the film itself. As he's teaching at university, a besotted girl has written a love note on her eyelids, but there's also a young lad who leaves the apple on the teacher's desk.
Raiders of the Lost Ark marks a high points in action cinema. Looking back on it now, it wasn't simply the stunts and the set pieces, it was the mythos the film played into. It felt at once wholly original and at the same time something we'd always known - again like a Beatles song. There was this balance as well in terms of tone. This was fun adventure without ever feeling trivial. You really cared about Marion and Indy and you cared when you saw that the government were burying the Ark in some warehouse. And of course, the Nazis added a weight to everything. This is supposed to be 1936 - two years before Kristallnacht and three before the invasion of Poland, but also the year the Italians invade Ethiopia and the Spanish Civil war breaks out. Casablanca's Rick is still on the side of the angels, before having his heart broken by Ilsa Lund.
When I saw Raiders it was before VHS was available to us and DVD and streaming were in the still distant future; so I bought the Campbell Black novelisation and read and re-read it. Films existed in a different way. There weren't that many of them for a start. They swelled out to occupy months and years. They had to be experienced via novelisations and comic books and re-tellings, until they came on television. Raiders of the Lost Ark received its UK premiere on ITV on Christmas Day, 1984: three and a half years after I saw it for the first time. By the time I watched it again, I was 13 years old. In fact on my thirteenth birthday, I'd gone to the cinema to see Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom which had been released in June of that year.
Spielberg directed another film between the two Indiana Jones movies. Just as he had started shooting Raiders before 1941 was released, so he was working on the script with Harrison Ford's wife, Melissa Mathison as he was shooting the Indiana Jones movie.
The film would return Spielberg to the suburbia of his youth and the UFOs of Close Encounters. It would be his most autobiographical film to date and would mark yet another leap forward: that film would be E.T.: the Extra-Terrestrial.
John Bleasdale is a writer. His work has appeared in The Guardian, The Independent, Il Manifesto, as well as CineVue.Com and theStudioExec.com. He has also written a number of plays, screenplays and novels.