by Tom Milne
First we see the painted mountain of the Paramount Pictures trademark. Then a real mountain of precisely the same configuration in Peru. And for the space of these two images, at least, it looks as if, in Raiders of the Lost Ark (Empire, A), Steven Spielberg is going to play the same exhilarating game with Hollywood history as he did in his sadly underrated 1941.
Disillusion, alas, sets in with the opening sequence. The year is 1936, and hacking his way through the steamy jungle in quest of a fabulous lost temple, archaeologist Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) runs a nonstop gauntlet of hazards, which encompasses treacherous companions, preying tarantulas, murderous booby-traps, chasm crossings and collapsing caves, emerging only to be confronted by a grinning Nazi, who has mobilised an army of native headhunters to spray him with poisoned darts. Escape? That’s easy, a seaplane is lurking to hand.
All this, as Spielberg is only too well aware, is pure dross left over from a yawningly long line of jungle adventures culminating in the truly awful ‘Green Hell.’ But instead of refurbishing the clichés through satire, or through the sort of inventive camera choreography which made the dance-hall sequence in 1941 such a joy to watch, he presents them unashamedly as limp clichés designed to arouse knowing laughter.
At the same time, though, he ensures that audiences are kept on the edge of their seats by resorting to the oldest trick in the suspense book. As any producer of cheap thrillers or horror movies knows, all you have to do is keep your hero in close-up, then assault him with sudden menaces materialising from off-screen. The aesthetic effect is nil, but the audience’s taut nerves are bludgeoned into submission.
Using this device systematically throughout the opening sequence—and rather too often for comfort thereafter—Raiders of the Lost Ark in fact looks less like a Spielberg film than an uneasy compromise masterminded by its producer, George Lucas, whose own conception of film-making (American Graffiti, Star Wars) has resulted in epics as glitteringly efficient, and as basically uninteresting, as pinball machines.
Ploughing stolidly through an absurd yarn whereby Indiana Jones bravely battles the Nazis for possession of the Ark of the Covenant, a lost relic endowed with supernatural powers, the film simply drones on and on. It creates a Hawksian heroine (Karen Allen), then forgets to let her be Hawksian; it indulges some spectacular destruction which looks like any other spectacular destruction; and it climaxes with a mystical apotheosis which looks as if it had been cribbed from Close Encounters. Children may well enjoy its simple-mindedness, untroubled by the fact that it looks so shoddy and so uninventive; in which case the calculated violence seems mis-calculatedly excessive.
The Guardian, 2 August 1981