The year of my birth, 1981, was among the worst in cinema history, something I've only become strongly aware of in the last few weeks; yet it's also the year that produced my second-favorite movie of all time.* And while it is undeniably the case that the world does not need another review of Raiders of the Lost Ark, a film which has been as thoroughly analysed down to its smallest gestures as anything else in more than a century of filmmaking, it is also the case that as I'm writing this, it is my birthday, and I couldn't think of a better present for myself than to gush in public about something I dearly love. And another fanboyish rave for Raiders is also something the world does not need, but to hell with the world.

Famously (everything involved with the film's production is "famously"...) the film was born from a conversation that superdirector Steven Spielberg and superproducer George Lucas had once in the late '70s, when they were just hanging out as ridiculously powerful Hollywood types do. Spielberg confessed his desire to make a James Bond picture; something formulaic, generic, and completely fun and stylish. "I have something better than James Bond", replied Lucas; and for as completely different as were the paths that the British superspy and American adventurer Indiana Jones, a deliberate throwback to '30s adventure movies and matinee serials, ended up taking, it's pretty damn easy to see what he meant. There didn't end up being enough Indiana Jones pictures for there to be an Indiana Jones formula, and what little formula came into being is so thoroughly invalidated by the second film in the franchise as to make the comparison difficult even as an intellectual exercise. But look at the basic ingredients: an opening sequence totally divorced from the main plot, which thus serves no only to get the audience riled up right at the start, but to promise that this kind of thrilling adventure happens to Indy all the damn time; there are a lot of locations that get visited more to fill up the film's exotic travel budget than because there's any reason specific to that location that makes it an essential destination for the plot (did Abner Ravenswood have to live in Nepal? Absolutely not, any more than Ernst Stavro Blofeld had to hide his lair in a Japanese volcano), there's a girl who the hero seems happy with but could be easily disposed of in-between films without the audience much noticing or caring - as, indeed, she was - and at least at first, the character was pitched as such a generic Everyhero that he could have a new, equally valid adventure every other year without going stale, plus he could be played by a changing cast of superstars just as easily as Bond could.

Now, of course, we know better, but when the film first entered pre-production, Harrison Ford wasn't attached yet; in fact, there seems to be some indication that his role of Han Solo in the Star Wars films specifically ruled him out for the role, George Lucas heroes being carefully sequestered in their own separate series. Famously (that word again!), the part was first cast with Tom Selleck; famously, the producers of Magnum, P.I. refused to let their star out from his contract long enough to shoot a feature, which makes for the most fortuitous bit of executive pettiness on record. For there really can be no thought of Indiana Jones without Harrison Ford playing him; there could be an Indiana Jones, but not the Indiana Jones, and too much of the character's personality is tied up in Ford's very particular choices as to just how sardonic, just how much of a wounded romantic, just how much of a history nerd, and just how much of a charismatic rogue the hero ought to be, for any of us to honestly say that we can judge what the films would have looked like with Selleck or anyone else.

Raiders of the Lost Ark is a simple quest movie; its MacGuffin is one of the two most famous lost artifacts in history (they got to the other in the third movie), and the whole plot breaks down into the tiniest, most digestible concepts: Indiana Jones is an archaeology professor who is hired by the U.S. government in 1936 to find the Ark of the Covenant before the Nazis can. In order to find its resting place, he has to find his old mentor; instead, he learns that his mentor is dead, and only that man's daughter, and Indy's ex-lover, Marion Ravenswood (Karen Allen) has the sub-MacGuffin that points the way to the Ark's location. While the two of them hunt for the Ark, they fall back in love.

The rest isn't all details; the rest is action setpieces. One of the utmost pleasures of Raiders of the Lost Ark, in 1981 or even more in 2011, is its brutal simplicity: we need too know, at most, three things about the Ark (it is lost; it can help the bad guys win WWII before it even starts; it is a for-real paranormal God box and not just an important relic), and they are communicated in extraordinarily clear words in the script that Lawrence Kasdan wrote from a story that Lucas co-conceived with Philip Kaufman, which genealogy should remind us all if we need the reminding that George Lucas is not a lone genius. Virtually all of the plot we need to know for the entire rest of the movie is expressed in its third proper scene (I take the gloriously overwrought opening sequence to function as one very long scene set across a whole lot of locations), and the little bits of info we need to know that don't somehow make it are placed in really obvious spots and presented to us in sneakily fresh, clever ways. Probably the most important exposition of the whole film after that scene is the "radio for speaking to God" speech given by the evil French archaeologist RenΓ© Belloq (Paul Freeman), which is so effortlessly made to do quadruple duty - explaining the background mythology, acting as character piece for Belloq, who we haven't really gotten to know yet, deepening our feelings about Indiana, and giving us a chance to take a few nice long breaths for just a minute after a pretty insane stretch of action - that it doesn't even register that we're being talked at.

The whole script is like that; breathtakingly efficient, immaculately constructed. It is as lean and free of waste as any American script of its generation. Do we need to know that Indiana Jones is afraid of snakes? Then let us put a single gag in the opening scene that gives the audience a chance to pull out of the incredible momentum that they've just been through. Then, when snakes return as a plot point, we can just have him say, "Snakes... why did it have to be snakes?", and it will communicate in one sentence an entire scene's worth of emotional content, particularly since we have gotten to know Dr. Jones so very well by now that we can just about guess what he's thinking even before he says it. Also, it helps if Harrison Ford delivers that and every other line with exactly no flaws whatsoever.

There are few notable structural mistakes: the only one that has ever actually bothered me is that there's no sufficient moment to pull Indiana from his mourning over what he mistakenly believes to be Marion's death, to his glib, smug triumph at learning that the Nazis are digging in the wrong place. Everything else is either gotten through quickly enough that it doesn't register, or put over with enough brio by Spielberg that it's hard to care.

Oh, Spielberg! who was, along with Ford, and composer John Williams (the Indiana Jones theme or "Raiders March" as it is properly known, is one of the half-dozen best things he's ever put into a movie), one of the key reasons Raiders is what it is, even if it was at heart just a hack project for him - as the Indiana Jones film have always been his "ones for George" rather than the movies that he makes out of a need to express something within himself. He came to the project with something to prove: he was fresh off of the failure of the costly, overblown action-comedy 1941, and wanted to prove to himself and Hollywood that he could bring in a movie under-budget and on-time (Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind had also been bloated disasters on set, but they made so much money that nobody cared). He and Lucas had a secret schedule that got the film wrapped up early, and in order to keep to that rigorous schedule, Raiders was an absolute no-bullshit movie, with every shot set-up chosen deliberately and for significant purpose; it was the most ruthlessly efficient movie made by a filmmaker who was then at the very pinnacle of his powers as a visual storyteller - and whatever problems people have had with Spielberg over the years (too sentimental; too commercial; he dictates the audience's emotions too heavily), there is no denying that he was one of the very best creators of a specific type of mainstream Hollywood fare in all of cinema history. Rare indeed is the populist filmmaker who knew how to communicate feeling through imagery, particularly the epic scope of the anamorphic widescreen frame (I would defend, in a knifefight if necessary, Spielberg as being the best director of the 2.35:1 aspect ratio in American history; and Raiders, shot by the underappreciated Douglas Slocombe, is one of his absolute best efforts in that area).

But we were talking about efficiency; Raiders is a singularly driven movie in which everything is done on purpose, and that means it's nearly two-hour running time is made up of virtually nothing but forward momentum, making it one of the most breathless, headlong adventure movies ever. The dialogue scenes crackle with potential energy; which leaves the action scenes (of which there are several, including four major setpieces that all go on forever and all seem to end almost immediately, so perfectly are they assembled) nowhere to go but overdrive. This was Spielberg's third film with editor Michael Kahn, and the one where they really started to gel together - here, storytelling and precision editing as as closely unified as anywhere else in Spielberg's career, sometimes in invisible ways (the famed rolling boulder sequence is one of the best-assembled moments in action history - in every way conceivable, really, but particularly in its editing), and in really showy ways, like the absolutely gorgeous cut when Indiana announces that he's making things up as he goes along, and then immediately appears on a white horse that came from nowhere, one of the vanishingly few moments in Spielberg's career where he indulges in such self-aware meta-filmmaking.

The whole thing is blessedly direct, active, urgent cinema; it is constantly exciting even when standing still. It self-consciously apes the style of '30s movies with the budget and scale of a major Hollywood A-list picture, one of the earliest Designated Blockbusters back when tentpole pictures were rarer and summer usually had just one or two major popcorn movies, and frequently seems to know how iconic its going to become - the introduction of Indiana Jones is a justly celebrated bit of slight-of-hand, perfect lighting and sound design, and calculated myth-making, but Marion's introduction is just as great, a nice little joke sequence that tells us the character is hard-as-nails in a way that makes it feel, oddly, like we already knew that about her (one of the other flaws in this nearly flawless movie: Marion's descent from kickass self-made woman to damsel in distress over the course of the movie; it's practically a scene-for-scene regression into feebleness). Even in his post-1941 humility, Spielberg had self-assurance to spare; nobody who wasn't supremely confident could have made their film so knowing about how cool and wildly effective it was. Raiders of the Lost Ark swaggers; but since it has the goods to back it up (the best character, best setpieces, best score, and best dialogue of any action-adventure in at least a couple of decades; it has not since been surpassed in any of these areas), the swagger isn't arrogant, but merely earned. This is the ne plus ultra of blockbuster filmmaking: a grandiose crowd-pleaser that relies on top-notch craftsmanship and artistic excellence rather than on marketing and star power, to transport and entertain and delight its audience. It is an elegant movie for a more civilised age.

Reviews in this series
Raiders of the Lost Ark (Spielberg, 1981)
Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (Spielberg, 1984)
Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (Spielberg, 2008)

Not yet reviewed
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (Spielberg, 1989)

*No. 1 is Casablanca.