Raiders of the Lost Ark | Review by Stanley Kauffmann

For Stanley Kauffmann, while the film's thrills did work on him, the frequency eventually irritated him. He criticized the film's reliance on nostalgia and updating older films instead of innovating new ideas.
Harrison Ford in Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

Old Ark, New Covenant

by Stanley Kauffmann

Even before you see Raiders of the Lost Ark, after you’ve read the ads and gotten some sense of the reviews, you know that the picture is offering you a pact: you agree to be a kid again, in return for which Raiders will give you old-time movie thrills expressed in slick modern cinematic terms.

No, thanks.

I won’t pretend that I got no thrills or tingly laughs out of Raiders, but the more it happened, the more it irritated me. (Bernard Shaw said it happened to him when he found himself laughing at certain comedies.) Raiders, as bruited, is the Saturday-afternoon serial in excelsis. It was directed by Steven Spielberg (Close Encounters of the Third Kind), and one of the executive producers and authors was George Lucas (Star Wars)—two of the brightest young successes in Hollywood. But the more spectacular the sweep, the more stunning the special effects, the more ingenious the editing, the more my irritation grew until it toppled over into depression.

A word about the plot, for the topography of my comments. Raiders is set in 1936. The hero is an American archaeology professor, Harrison Ford, whom we first meet in a South American jungle, pillaging a temple full of booby traps and blowguns, just escaping with his life. Then, after an unconsciously droll academic interlude back home, he is commissioned by US secret agents to keep the Germans from recovering the Lost Ark. This ark, said to contain the original fragmented tablets of the Ten Commandments, is buried in Egypt where the Germans are now digging under the guidance of a ratty French archaeologist. (One of the several dozen rational questions that it’s idle to ask: why did Egypt admit detachments of German troops and armored vehicles?)

The US must keep the ark out of Hitler’s hands, for prestige reasons and because Hitler believes in the power of the occult. Our hero sets off, and en route—in one of the coincidences that are the film’s best features, that keep it on the edge of spoof—he meets an old girl friend, Karen Allen, in Nepal. We first see her drinking a Nepalese giant under the table in the tavern that she owns. Germans are tailing our hero, and as Allen joins Ford, the bad guys now chase the two of them to Egypt.

The action in Egypt is so febrile that, if there were not some gags included, the pace itself would be funny. In the sequence just before the finish, the bad guys seize the ark, which arouses the ire of Jehovah in ways that only His prophets Spielberg and Lucas could envision. At the end, when the Lord’s ark is in the right hands—ours, of course—the US government assures Ford that the contents will be carefully investigated; then we see the crate being wheeled away into the anonymity of an immense warehouse. This last high shot is presumably meant to suggest the last shot of Citizen Kane except that this “Rosebud” is not being destroyed: it’s available for sequels, which will doubtless be forthcoming. (And fifthcoming, sixthcoming. . . .)

Raiders is totally different in intent from Close Encounters, a film that in its original—and, I hope, preserved—version was moving and important. From its start, the earlier film, despite some strained domestic sitcom sequences, built the credibility of an approaching cosmic mystery. The last 40 minutes were, I thought and still think, an event in the history of faith, not so much faith in the creatures of outer space as in the means by which they were presented. Spielberg, then 30, a product of what some call the post-literate age, was demonstrating (to quote myself) that “the way to faith seems to be through the transsubstantiation of the 12-track Panavision film.” We made the technology that was making the answers to our questions.

Spielberg is still an immersed cinema zealot, but now he is using his zeal on the subjects of old films in which he was immersed. (I’m omitting discussion of 1941, his intervening film, which was just an arrogant joke that went wrong and long.) Here are some of the points that depress me, ultimately, about this change:

Implied limitations. Spielberg seems to imply that to be at ease in film Zion, to love film, one must be a film buff, a movie fan. Ingmar Bergman once said that he makes a film with full consciousness that it will be shown on a screen that showed a Western the week before and will show a romance the week following, and that he likes this situation. But that isn’t a matter of worship, it’s a recognition of lexical community and common humanity: it’s not to make Westerns and romances. Spielberg heads straight for the bottom of the film pyramid, as if that were where the truest cinema lies, rather than in applying cinematic post-literacy to contemporary society and using the new language for the new world.

Nostalgia. The future is the past—spiffed up with the latest technology. I’ve commented often on the nostalgia of the film world, its worship of the high Hollywood days, its seeping belief that the best has already been.  If that studio work had strict limitations, it also had securities. (Truffaut once said that he would like to have been a studio contract director in the old days, to be handed three or four scripts a year with nothing to worry about but the making of the films.) Raiders is an eloquent testimony of faith in pastness. The fact that it’s set in 1936, that the hero can wear corny 1930s fedoras, that we can see 1936 automobiles and airplanes and old-fashioned unpsychologized villainies—all this underscores a feeling that Spielberg is one more Miniver Cheevy, born (he believes) too late. His ideal, I suppose, is to have been born around 1905 but to have had his present cameras and film stock and Dolby stereo. None of this is as much regard for the past as it is refuge from the present. Nostalgia used to be characteristic of older people; now there are probably more youthful nostalgia addicts than ever before in history.

Innocence. The nostalgia in Raiders is coupled with innocence. (If that’s the right verb.) This, I’d guess, is the influence of George Lucas. One of the most distasteful aspects of Star Wars was its assumption that life is better before sex intrudes. Remember how Carrie Fisher looked? She helped to keep Star Wars sexless, back in that part of our lives when we could really have good clean fun, ray guns, killing without consequences, and so on. One of John Updike’s characters says that in America a man is a failed boy. The only significant error in that remark is that, to judge by the international success of Star Wars, it’s no longer an American monopoly. What’s wanted is, not all that nasty growing up but physical-yet-sexless games in which only bad people die.
What’s depressing me most in all this is the future. I mourn no lost paradise of film. I know that, in a good year, 95 percent of the world’s films were trash, four percent plus were good entertainment, and there was a small fraction of seriously good films. In a good year. But that small fraction seems to be shrinking. Economic and cultural conditions all conduce to shrink it. What’s grim in the film world, as Raiders attests, certainly in the US and gradually becoming so elsewhere, is that the stringency of filmmaking conditions is making the talents with the best possibilities want to revel in the movie-ness of the past. Yeats worried that “The best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity.” But Spielberg and Lucas, as far as ability goes, are among our best, and they are full of passionate intensity.

I don’t want to be a child again, not even for two hours. I reject the Raiders pact.

The New Republic, July 4, 1981


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