Second Union

Second Union

FRANCHISE REWIND: Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

“Snakes. Why’d it have to be snakes?”

Raiders of the Lost Ark, 1981 (Harrison Ford) Paramount Pictures/Lucasfilm

When Raiders of the Lost Ark was first released, I didn’t want to see it. It didn’t interest me. Based on the poster art, I thought it was a western, and I wasn’t into westerns at the tender age of nine. I didn’t realize that it was a joint operation of Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, and I didn’t know that Han Solo was the star of the movie. That was his name—at least to me: “Han Solo.” My mother actually had to drag me to the theater to see Raiders of the Lost Ark.

What is this? South America? Chopping through the thick with a machete? Fragments of a deteriorating map? A guy in a hat? Another guy in a hat tries to renege on the deal, but then the other guy flicks a bullwhip at him, and the gun leaps from his hand. The guy in the hat turns, the music surges, and it’s … Han Solo! I think that was the moment I figured out that these people were actors, and that they went from movie project to movie project. I turned to my mother and asked, “Is that Han Solo? Why is Han Solo in this movie?”

George Lucas understood the elements or “non-submersible units” (as Stanley Kubrick would describe them) of his story, but not having the chops to complete a screenplay, he turned to Philip Kaufman and Lawrence Kasdan to flesh the whole thing out: chases, explosions, visual effects, jungles, deserts, and the man with the hat and bullwhip. As I noted in my Jaws review, the b-movie aesthetic had been given a rather expensive face-lift, $20 million in this case, but Raiders made close to $400 million at the box office.

Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) is a continent-hopping archaeologist and professor; he’s the perfect combination of brains and brawn, and the subject of many a young female (and possibly male) fantasy. He is prevailed upon by the Government to track down something called the Ark of the Covenant, the legendary last resting place of the Ten Commandments. What remains inside the Ark (really more of an ornate, golden trunk) is the source of Godly (the Hebrew God, that is) power that has the potential to destroy everything within its field of vision.

Hitler, being a scamp, wants to get his Nazi hands on the Ark so he can capture the world. Indy has to go to his old girlfriend, Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen) to find the headpiece to the Staff of Ra so that he can isolate the location of the Well of Souls (somewhere in Egypt), which was where the Ark was supposedly buried. Meanwhile, he’s got Nazis (led by rival archaeologist René Belloq, played by Paul Freeman) on his tail. Raiders was one of the more strongly influential movies of the ’80s.

Rip-offs could never quite duplicate the spirit or financial success of the franchise, because, like all of these first franchise movies, it was like catching lightning in a bottle. These were happy accidents that were never planned, and you can’t plan success any more than you can plan failure.

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