Thursday, June 9, 2011

Ark & My 1981 pan of 'Raiders of the Lost Ark'

4:33 PM, June 8, 2011 ι

I had been reviewing movies professionally for less than two months on June 12, 1981, when I took on Mel Brooks' "History of the World, Part I'' ("a massive farce that is his most uproarious since "Blazing Saddles'') and the original "Clash of the Titans'' ("classic Saturday matinee fare aimed squarely at an audience of 10-year-olds'').

In that same day's paper, there was also my lukewarm review of a Paramount release that I caught the week before at a Friday night sneak preview at the long-gone Loews Showboat Quad in Edgewater, N.J. (in those bygone days the previewed movie was free with admission to the movie playing regularly on the screen at the time, in this case "The Sea Wolves'' with Gregory Peck and David Niven).

The movie I later came to regret dissing was "Raiders of the Lost Ark,'' and the occasion my review today of the Steven Spielberg-produced "Super 8'' today lends a special poignance to this old review. I was even tougher on the first two sequels, but finally came to my senses in time for my review of uh, "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skulls.'' What can I say -- I was smitten with Karen Allen. Anywhere, here's the original review, followed by my capsule reviews of two other titles that appeared that same day.


The year is 1936 and Indiana Jones, an American archeologist in a leather jacket and a snap-brim hat, is searching the jungles of Peru for a golden idol.

Of course, the cavern that houses the idol is booby-trapped with scorpions, poison darts, sliding spiked walls, and a giant boulder that nearly crushes Jones. With a lot of pluck and ingenuity, he narrowly escapes with the treasure, only to be confronted by a tribe of hostile Indian warriors working for his villianious French archrival.

This spectacular sequence is only the prologue to "Raiders of the Lost Ark,'' a breathtaking attempt by Steven Spielberg and George Lucas to revive the cliffhanger genre. "Raiders'' makes for a very entertaining junk-food movie that will be forgotten long before either man's previous work.

"Raiders'' is almost totally derivative, a technically proficient but empty-headed homage to movie serials of the 1930's and 1940's that has absolutely nothing of its own to say. While the film is a great deal of fun, it lacks the creative sparkle of Spielberg's earlier efforts, especially "Close Encounters of the Third Kind.'' Perhaps Spielberg's caution tems from the failure of "1941,'' a highly original black comedy about Los Angeles right after the attack on Pearl Harbor.

It's probably even more unfair to compare "Raiders'' unfavorably to "Star Wars,'' but the temptation is there, since "Star Wars'' director Lucas co-produced "Raiders'' and collaborated on the story. The new movie also stars Harrison Ford, the swaggering Han Solo of "Star Wars'' as the whip-wielding, vaguely Jimmy Stewart-like hero, Indiana Jones. "Raiders'' is a much more modest undertaking, an old-fashioned adventure story that eschews science-fiction prytechnics until the very end. Kids will probably love it, but its campy humor is much less satisfying for adults than "Superman II,'' which will open next week.

The premise is deliberately hokey. Army intelligence sends Jones -- or Indy, as he's known -- to find the Ark of the Covenant, a gold-encrusted chest containing the broken tablets of the Ten Commandements. It seems the Germans are on the verge of digging up the Ark, which the occult-obsessed Hitler believes will endow him with mysterious powers that will make him invincible.

This is obviously a fiom that requires total suspension of disbelief. According to legend, the Ark actually contains a second, unbroken set of tablets. If you carp about tht you might begin questioning what hundreds of armed, uniformed Nazis are doing running around in Egypt, six years before they invaded that country. "Raiders'' is set in a world that's totally oblivious to history, politics or religion.

The situations and characters are straight out of "The Perils of Pauline'' and the other old serials. A giggling Gestapo sadist (Ronald Lacey) threatens people with white-hot pokers and effects a third-rate nighclub comedian's imitation of Peter Lorre. Wolf Krahler is your standard-issue Nazi captain, complete with scar and Wagner playing on his record player. John Rhys-Davies is more fun as a compendium of all those jolly Arabs that Thomas Gomez used to play in Hollywood's Arabian Nights epics. Paul Freeman hams it up as Indiana's devious French rival, who has teamed up with the Nazis and sneears that Jones is "going to give mercenaries a bad name''

Publish Post

Ford is pleasantly self-effacng -- if hardly memorable -- as Indy, who explains his quest thus: "I'm just making this up as I go along.'' But then the only thing resembling a flesh-and-blood character in [Lawrence Kasdan's] screenplay is Marion, a wisecracking scientist's daughter whom Indie had jilted 10 years earlier. Karen Allen, who played the coed who became involved with Donald Sutherland in "Animal House,'' is delightfully spunky as Marion. Whether she's belting Indy in the mouth at their reunion at her bar in Nepal or trying to escape from the French villain by drinking him under the table, Allen is in control, delivering the corny dialogue with total aplomb.

For the most part, Spielberg handles the cast muchless well than the machinery and stunts in the marvelously executed action sequences. He pulls out all the stops in the opening, as well as in another standout scene which has Marion trapped in the cockpit of a grounded Nazi Flying Wing airplane while flames race toward a nearby gasoline truck. Meanwhile, Indy and a bare-chested German are fighting it out beneath the plane's whirring props.

By this point, Indy has escaped death so many times -- and with so little effort -- that it's a little hard to take the danger very seriously. In the old time serials, the cliffhanging situations came at the end of each weekly episode; stringing them together in one movie lessens their impact.

As with "1941,'' this film suffers from Spielberg's excesses as a director. While spoofs generally involve exaggeration, Spielberg goes in for overkill. Take the scene -- shades of "Gunga Din'' -- where Indy and Marion have a close encounter with thousands of writhing and hissing snakes in an underground chamber. One good cobra is a lot scarier, as anyone who's seen "Lives of a Bengal Lancer'' can attest.

But then, "Raiders'' doesn't even attempt the gut-wreching terror Spielberg evoked with "Jaws.'' This film is strictly a Saturday afternoon lark, laced with an abundance of hamfisted humor. There is only one truly moment in the film, a very clever surprise that Spielberg uncorks when Indiana is confronted by a black-robed Arab with a gigantic scimitar.

The rest is mostly demolition-derby wit, with Indiana killing off enough Germans to make World War II seem anti-climactic. "Raiders'' has tremendous brio, greatly enhanced by eye-popping sets, Douglas Slocombe's crisp cinematography and John Williams' pounding score.

By the time Spielberg uncorks the Ark, audiences may be too exhausted to be dazed by his curious climax, a sort of screwy cross between "Close Encounters'' and "The Ten Commandments.''

"Raiders of the Lost Ark,'' which opens today at area theaters, is rated PG. Scores of actors are blown up, shot, impaled, crushed and incinerated, but Indy barely gets to kiss Marion.

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