The year is 1936, and in the South American jungle an expedition is being staged to uncover a most precious item hidden away in the depths of a long-lost temple. The man heading this endeavour is Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford), and with his two assistants he believes he is just about to find what he has been looking for - make that one assistant, as the other is a traitor who attempts to foil him only to be foiled himself, Jones being handy with a bullwhip. Once inside, they have a passage to creep down, wary of booby traps such as the one which has taken the life of another explorer as they discover when they see his body impaled on spikes that shoot from the walls. Jones is very good at his job, but what if he should meet his match?
Don't worry, that won't happen in this, the first of the Indiana Jones movies and undoubtedly the best, opening the eighties to a decade of action movies that would at times try to better the relentless setpieces here, but never really did. Steven Spielberg was the man at the helm, at the time coming off the flop of 1941 and seeking a crowdpleaser so when his producer pal George Lucas suggested this as a tribute to the entertainment of their youth, it seemed such an obvious fit that it's little wonder they went together as if intended by the Almighty Himself. Although often glossed over at the time - and since - this was a very religious blockbuster only in a way that Cecil B. DeMille would have never imagined; it was more in debt to The Exorcist in the depiction of its piety.
The MacGuffin everyone was after in Raiders was the Ark of the Covenant, that box which held the Ten Commandments as written in stone by God and handed down to Moses, not the most obvious of inclusions in what looked like an expensive runaround, but one which offered it resonance when the audience was well aware the Supreme Being had a stake in what was going to happen. No surprises there, then, with the era this was set in about to see the Nazis start the Second World War, there was a lot riding on whether the bad guys could get their wish and be led by the magical box which legend has it will lay waste to their enemies. Mixing in the real life interest the Nazis had in occultism with the tradition and importantly, the morality of the word of God was a potent combination.
Indy is the Hammer of the Almighty inasmuch as he is a continual thorn in the side of the evildoers, an itch they cannot scratch, which may not appear to be much use given he didn't need to be there at the climax at all for how it played out other than surviving it as if anointed, but he does uncover the Ark and in a roundabout fashion ensure it falls into the right hands, taking out a few high ranking villains along the way. He doesn't do so alone, as he has to go globetrotting to pick up his ex-girlfriend in Nepal; really he wants a fancy antique she has in her possession in her bar in the Himalayas, but every hero needs his love interest and Marion Ravenwood was his. Sorry Princess Leia, but Karen Allen who played Marion was the best leading lady Ford ever had, matching him both in anxiety and bravery.
Not a bad match, and when they end up in Cairo to sabotage the Nazis' plans to dig up the Ark by getting there first, Indy meets up with another old friend, Sallah (John Rhys Davies), and things begin to fall into place. Everyone, including the filmmakers, liked to point out they were paying homage to the old time serials of the thirties to the fifties that they had grown up with, much as Lucas had with Star Wars, yet it was not wholly past ephemera this was wrapped up in, the location and period of Raiders was crucial, and linked in with its notion of the ultimate malevolence to be vanquished. When Spielberg made Schindler's List, it was regarded by some as partly making up for trivialising the Nazis in this fiction, yet far from doing so, they are actually treated very seriously indeed as a imminent threat to the world.
Sure, there are jokes that relieve the tension, but they do not make light of what this hellish movement was capable of, and the three main antagonists - rival archaeologist Belloq (Paul Freeman), chief Gestapo man Toht (Ronald Lacey) and by the book officer Dietrich (Wolf Kahler) - are never figures of fun, they all make the flesh creep at one time or another. On that subject, Spielberg's propensity for smuggling nightmare fuel into family movies was rarely more evident, for a work with such universal appeal it truly was violent, and that was a theme too. When Belloq compares himself and Jones, the film muses over this too, noting they both succeed over the bodies of many people they kill or have killed; is it possible to still be noble and decent in your own mind as well as everyone else's if you have to resort to such death-dealing tactics? Plenty of the global population were mulling that one over in the years to follow the fictional events of the movie, but you could simply enjoy the expertly delivered action (the truck chase yet to be topped), the wry humour or John Williams' solid gold score, that's how rich this was.
His best films combine thrills with a childlike sense of wonder, but when he turns this to serious films like The Color Purple, Schindler's List, Saving Private Ryan, Munich and Bridge of Spies these efforts are, perhaps, less effective than the out-and-out popcorn movies which suit him best. Of his other films, 1941 was his biggest flop, The Terminal fell between two stools of drama and comedy and one-time Kubrick project A.I. divided audiences; Hook saw him at his most juvenile - the downside of the approach that has served him so well. Also a powerful producer.