This has been my number one favorite movie for almost forty years, no surprise considering my love of classic cliffhanger serials. Every kid has an actor/ character that that defines their formative years for them; whether it is Sean Connery as James Bond, Clint Eastwood as Dirty Harry Callahan, Mark Hammill as Luke Skywalker or Sylvestor Stallone as John Rambo. For me it was Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones.
He was like no action hero I had ever seen before. Connery and Eastwood shrugged off pain and seemed almost superhuman with the ease that they dispatched their enemies while exuding enough coolness to make Fonzie feel inadequate. But Ford? Not on your life. Indiana Jones was a true failure, he braved horrendous deathtraps and vile human beings only to lose the sought after treasure once he had it, over and over again. And pain? When he got shot or punched, he felt it, and showed it. But to his credit he never quit, each set back just spurred him on to keep going, the more the odds turned against him, the more determined he became (to bring up Stallone again) Indiana Jones is the Rocky Balboa of archeology.
With four films under his belt, the character is one of Ford’s most popular roles, probably second only to his Han Solo from Star Wars. The first film is still the best. The plot is fairly simple, set in the late thirties, Jones is contacted by the US Government to track down the lost Ark of the Covenant before the Nazis do and use it’s supposed mystical powers to psychologically win battles before they start.
This rather straightforward plot is really just a prop to hang a series of action set pieces that get more outrageous and genuinely exciting as the film progresses; from a fist fight in a burning bar, to a chase in a crowded street market where a giant with a sword proves no match for a pissed off hero with a gun (when I saw this in the theater at fourteen everybody cheered and clapped at that scene), to a wild truck chase where the combatants switch back and forth over who has control of the vehicle, before finally ending up on an island where the Ark is opened and all hell literally breaks loose.
But if the film was just a bunch of action scenes strung together it wouldn’t be the great film that it is (like The Transporter which tried to top the truck scene and failed). The secret are the characters which we come to like and care about; Ford’s laconic adventurer, Karen Allen’s fiesty tag along and John Rys-Davies sly sidekick combine to create a dysfunctional family that you root for to win. And then they throw in some the most despicable villains; Paul Freeman’s smug archeological rival and Robert Lacey’s Lorre-esque Gestapo agent are so sleazy and sadistic you can’t wait to see them get their faces melted off during the climax (hope I didn’t spoil the ending for anyone).
The chemistry between Ford and Allen is palpable and in a throwback to the screwball comedies of the thirties they spend almost all of their screen time bickering like an action version of Woody Allen and Diane Keaton. Only in an Indiana Jones movie can you have the two leads trapped in a cobra filled tomb and they spend more time arguing over who’s fault it is than they do trying to save their lives.
But the most important part of this film is the bullwhip. In the age of bigger and bigger guns, who would use a whip as their main weapon? Indiana Jones, that’s who. And yeah, he kicks major ass with it.