The first time I saw Raiders of the Lost Ark, I had recently turned 15. I had lined up at 7 am in the morning, outside The Imperial cinema, in Montreal's East End, with my best friend of the time, Timmy. It was June, 1981, and we knew nothing of the movie, its many plot twists, its future classic status. We only knew it starred Harrison Ford, who we had loved as Hans Solo, and was created by George Lucas and Spielberg.
There was, of course, no Internet back then, no social media, so buzz was from radio and newspapers, and, as we were young teens, from school gossip. There had been a big pr push, some billboards, but we were rather innocent. We entered the cinema around noon, about 33 years ago, to see the first showing in Quebec, bought our popcorn and soda pop, and then quickly became amazed.
I watched Raiders again last night on TV, for the first time in maybe ten years - hell, maybe 20. I've seen the sequels a few times since, as well. I recalled the film fondly, but a new viewing astonished me. Very few things from one's youth remain the same 33 years later. However, this movie, if anything, is funnier, smarter, more stylish, clever, well-plotted and subtle, than I recall.
Karen Allen as Ms Ravenwood is sexier, more nuanced, and Ford is more handsome, complex, and disturbing. Even the smaller roles are handled expertly, and overall there is genuine sense of reverence for the subject matters of history, time, religion, and God. Indeed, given the theme of a Jewish God's revenge against evil empire set in Egypt, the treatment of the Muslim characters is even-handed, not jingoistic, since Indie's best friend in Cairo is a good man, and it is Muslim children who save Indie in a key scene. Hitler is clearly contrasted with the Pharaohs who enslaved the Chosen People, and there is a sense the collaborating Frenchman is prefiguring the Vichy-water subplot in Casbalanca. Denholm Elliot, always a gentle, intelligent character actor, is very fine here; and who can forget the creepy Nazi torturer in his black fedora, in homage to Lorre?
At the time, we marvelled at the breakneck speed of events, the set pieces (the drinking game in Nepal, Indie shooting the man with the sword, the "bad dates" monkey scene, the Nazi with the burnt hand, the bald German boxing airman and the plane rotors, the Ark being hidden at the end in a warehouse), the great sound effects, and the humour and derring-do.
However, this time around I was able to admire the direction's pacing - how the bravura opening sequence is then followed by a slow expositional scene with the government agents and Indie at his college - Speilberg learned from Hitchcock's Vertigo here. Indeed, Raiders wears its loved of cinema on its leather sleeve, as we know - without Casablanca, Citizen Kane, The Maltese Falcon, Lawrence of Arabia, and numerous cliff-hanger reels of the 30s and 40s, it would not have been made.
What impresses me no end in 2014, however, is that this film has solidly taken its place alongside Kane and Casablanca, in my mind, as one of the very greatest of American films - its sense of dramatic beats, comedy, romance, and action has never been rivalled. Belloq's speech about planting a cheap watch in the sand and eventually seeing it cherished as priceless is also true of cinema. Raiders - never cheap - has appeared however as the supremely well-made roller-coaster to end all summer films. I am still thrilled the young man I was got to see it on its first day, all those summers ago.