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Raiders of the Lost Ark 4K

by Glenn Erickson Jun 07, 2022

4K discs are selling like hotcakes so it’s only natural for studios to give Home Theater fanatics the biggest vintage blockbusters. George Lucas and Steven Spielberg’s hyper-efficient, no-loitering juggernaut is a return to the joys of serial action thrills, one ‘did you see that?’ bravura sequence after another. Harrison Ford’s Indiana Jones is pitted against Paul Freeman’s villainous Belloq, and the might of Jehovah combats the Nazis. Accept the proposition that Adolf Hitler was ‘nuts about the occult’ and everything else will make logical sense. The picture hasn’t dated at all — it overflows with Gee-Whiz excitement that makes Marvel exploits play like weak tea.


Raiders of the Lost Ark 4K
4K Ultra HD + Digital / Steelbook
Paramount
1981 / Color / 2:35 widescreen / 115 min. / Street Date June 14, 2022 / Available from / 30.99
Starring: Harrison Ford, Karen Allen, Paul Freeman, Ronald Lacey, John Rhys-Davies, Denholm Elliott, Alfred Molina, Wolf Kahler, Anthony Chinn, Pat Roach, Tutte Lemkow, George Harris, Terry Leonard.
Cinematography: Douglas Slocombe
Production Designer: Norman Reynolds
Art Director: Leslie Dilley
Costume Design: Deborah Nadoolman
Special Makeup Effects: Christopher Walas
Film Editor: Michael Kahn
Original Music: John Williams
Screenplay by Lawrence Kasdan story by George Lucas, Philip Kaufman
Produced by Frank Marshall
Directed by
Steven Spielberg

Well, we finally get a chance to write a bit about Raiders of the Lost Ark. Steven Spielberg’s team-up with George Lucas is something of a miracle, the rare movie that most everybody likes most all of the time. The Indiana Jones franchise has been shaky but undeniably successful. Lucas lined up ace writing talent to fashion a retro-adventure serial hero to fit any occasion. Lucas initially hadn’t planned on casting actor Harrison Ford, but with his winning smile and just enough acting skill to mumble out sarcastic quips, Ford became a reliable action icon for the Ronald Reagan years.

George Lucas wanted to strike gold again after Star Wars, and after the disappointment of 1941 Steven Spielberg surely liked the idea of a blockbuster that would give him a piece of ‘the gift that keeps on giving,’ a marketing bonanza franchise. Back on Close Encounters, when Star Wars had just opened in thousands of theaters, Spielberg ended a phone call and seemed somewhat dazed. He’d just been told that Lucas’s film had already broken even, and his participation points were earning him big $$, even while he slept. I forget what the exact amount was.

Although it has the reputation of a debacle, 1941 was a minor bump in Spielberg’s path and didn’t slow his career progress. As a Wunderkind director, I remember Spielberg being referred to by Columbia production chief John Veitch as ‘that kid who’ll soon learn to stop being such a problem and come into line.’ No, Spielberg possessed a populist movie-joy radar that tapped directly into the desires of the mass audience. From Raiders of the Lost Ark forward he stopped being just a director and became an industry institution more powerful than any mere movie studio.

I also personally heard Steven say, “I’m not going to live long enough to make all the movies I want to make.”

 

Ramble of the Lost Ark?

The last thing the universally-known Raiders of the Lost Ark needs is a normal review. It’s so much fun that we’ll just jot down some notes and observations before reporting on the disc quality.

 

As soon as Star Wars hit the world’s media strained to rationalize its outsized appeal. Magazines compared it to Buck Rogers but also to Errol Flynn swashbucklers, old fashioned Golden Age entertainment of the kind that had disappeared in the auteur-driven ’70s. Star Wars recreated the appeal of two-reel serial thrills, non-stop action stories told in twelve chapters, that invented the concept of the Cliffhanger. To deepen his saga of Luke Skywalker, for his second SW adventure Lucas gave the series the shape of a German expressionist epic, like Fritz Lang’s Die Nibelungen: interior character conflicts added depth and seriousness to the action thrills.

By contrast, Raiders is fashioned from the mold of American serials, where the characters are mere ciphers for audience indentification. Everything is exterior, and expressed in action terms. The action set pieces are everything. Raiders fulfills the promise of what ’70s critics were calling ‘rollercoaster movies’ — fun events that take the audience on a ride. Kids would finish watching the 11am showing of Raiders and get right back in line for the 1:30pm show.

By this method the Spielberg & Lucas entertainment machines would methodically gather every loose recreational dollar in the known universe.

 

If George Lucas or Steven Spielberg ever ask you to discuss a film idea, drop everything and start talking. Filmmaker Philip Kaufman (The Right Stuff) spent a few days giving Lucas ideas for Raiders and ended up with screen credit (and a presumed residual income). We’re told that Kaufman introduced the idea of the Ark of the Covenant, imbuing the Old Testament relic with supernatural powers that made it a must-have for Adolf Hitler.

We remember the Ark from the superior Gregory Peck Bible picture David and Bathsheba, where its ‘magic’ is given a touch of ambiguity. Not so in Raiders. A dead-on replica of Peck’s Ark, this golden box is a powerhouse for mighty Jehovah’s lightning, brimstone and fire, as seen in Robert Aldrich’s Sodom and Gomorrah and especially Kiss Me Deadly. Spielberg and Lucas also invoke the special effects showmanship of Cecil B. De Mille. Instead of parting the Red Sea, we BEHOLD the power of the Word of God: a scary dread of “what’s in the box?,” a light show with billowing clouds, and a smorgasbord of gruesome comeuppance for the villains. Cue Chris Walas’ tricks with melting wax and Cronenbergian exploding heads. Something for everyone!

Raiders grants the wish of every ’50s kid that patiently sat through 70 minutes of old-fashioned movie scenarios — talking scenes — to get to the ‘good stuff.’ We’d tune in to see the ending of Charge of the Light Brigade or skip the opening of King Kong. Following the ADD rules of old serials, Raiders uses a minimum of exposition to get the action rolling. From then on it’s ALL good stuff, non-stop. Much of the movie’s charm comes from recognizing its own impossible pell-mell pace: when Indy and Marion take a brief ‘7th-inning stretch’ to daub his wounds in the cabin of a boat, we laugh because they’ve been ‘actioning’ for days non-stop.

The show leaps from the Peruvian Amazon to Nepal and then to Egypt. It gets a pass for cultural insensitivity because it’s a direct homage to old-fashioned adventures of the colonial-racist kind. Spielberg would run into a bit of that trouble on his next Indiana Jones picture Temple of Doom, which perpetuates seriously negative ideas about fiendish cults in India. The Sherpas and Arabs of Raiders are a nice mixed bunch of helpers and villains; John Rhys-Davies’ Sallah sings Gilbert & Sullivan, as if Gunga Din had lived to ‘assimilate’ an enthusiastic British identity.

The standard types are certainly present — nasty Arabs with eye patches, treacherous Peruvian guides, and an inexhaustible supply of brawny Aryan goons for Indiana to best in combat. Spielberg makes a joke of John Milius’s ‘Boys’ Adventure’ honorable combat ethic: when challenged by a formidable, scimitar-wielding opponent, the exhausted Indiana answers with an offhand shot from his pistol.  No Raisuli action today, thankyouverymuch.    (We’ve read the amusing story about the planned action scene that the single gunshot replaced.)

 

In future installments Indy would be given new girlfriends, a father (Sean Connery) and a substitute son; Lost Ark gives him the marvelous Karen Allen as a highly unlikely adventurer’s frail. Marion Ravenwood can hold her liquor, can take some of the same kinds of punishments Indy takes, and has enough spirit to try to seduce the villain René Belloq (Paul Freeman of The Long Good Friday & The Dogs of War). Class-act Brit thesp Denholm Elliott (A Room with a View) is a fellow academic, and the interesting Ronald Lacey (Macbeth, Zulu Dawn) a goblin-like Gestapo agent named Arnold Toht, with a nasty snicker maybe derived from Peter Lorre.

Raiders’ non-stop onslaught of ‘good stuff’ is a chain of action set-pieces that grow in excitement and intensity. They’re carefully orchestrated to maintain just enough credibility not to alienate the audience. We expect serial-style action heroes to perform Herculean feats one after another without rest; Indy’s only ‘impossible’ feat seems to be riding a submarine halfway across the Mediterranean without being detected. By that time he’s accomplished enough miracles to earn a freebee. When Spielberg said he wouldn’t live long enough to make all the movies he wanted to make, we didn’t know that he’d bridge the gap by remaking dozens of bits of his favorite pictures — Raiders is packed with clever, well-integrated ‘nostalgia homages.’ We felt the connections even if they weren’t immediately obvious. Much of this offhand list is obvious:

The Peruvian treasure vault’s ‘mechanical’ maze: Land of the Pharaohs
Carl Barks’ Uncle Scrooge comic “The Seven Cities of Cibola” (1954) is practically a blueprint for the Peruvian treasure vault, and even has a rolling boulder trap.
The rolling ball trap: Journey to the Center of the Earth
Indiana’s costume is rumored to be inspired by Charlton Heston’s in The Secret of the Incas. Does Heston carry a whip, though?
Nazi archeological activity in North Africa is really sinister preparation for war: Five Graves to Cairo
The sun-alignment showing the path to the Well of Souls: Journey to the Center of the Earth
The loudly-groaning opened Ark unleashes a pillar of fire: Kiss Me Deadly
The horror wraiths from the Ark: Darby O’Gill and the Little People
‘Don’t Look Back!’ at the Wrath of God: Sodom and Gomorrah
The Ark ‘buried’ in a secret government warehouse: Citizen Kane.

 

The most iconic action scene with ‘classic’ serial DNA is Indy’s ordeal trying to hijack the Nazi treasure truck in motion. ‘Yakima Canutt’ is written all over this gleefully violent series of Nazi-maiming stunts. Indy is shot in the arm (harmless flesh wound) and we feel his pain as various enemy bruisers bash him about. He uses his signature whip — an all-purpose get-out-of-jeopardy prop — to do Canutt’s drag-under-the-wagon trick.

A welcome, totally superfluous extra action set piece is Indy’s struggle with the experimental Nazi airplane. The fanciful full-sized prop was designed by the late great Ron Cobb, who has a Raiders credit. The show’s violence ups the ante beyond anything the MPAA would have approved in ‘the old days:’ some obscuring fire was added to a gore shot or two, to obtain a PG rating.  As in many war movies, full advantage is taken of the fact that there’s no anti-defamation lobby for actors wearing Nazi uniforms. Spielberg shoots them, runs them over, skewers ’em, mangles ’em and burns them up with giddy abandon.

 

The chases and mishaps in the Cairo streets are the only ‘ordinary’ thriller material in the show, what with ‘Marion in a basket’ getting lost in a sea of baskets, Alfred Hitchcock- style. I guess nobody mourns the Nazi Monkey, but everybody loves Indy’s abbreviated response to that swordfight challenge. Sometimes the best way out of a string of ordinary gags is a tip-top sadistic joke.

The most brilliant, original narrative gimmick: the Nazis can decode part of the medallion because Arnold Toht has half of it burned into his palm. That they reveal this fact when he ‘heils Hitler’ is a masterful example of cinematic storytelling. I think that gag was credited to Lawrence Kasdan.

Seeing the film new in 1981 left me a bit uncomfortable with the finale’s cavalier use of a religious symbol (the Ark) as a vengeful super-weapon, even though the Old Testament Jehovah was fond of over-the-top violence. Spielberg drenches it in glitzy Cecil B. De Mille awe — heavenly music, unmotivated lighting effects. He’d do the same thing with The Holy Grail two sequels down the line, a weak development in a weak script. This Ark looks exactly like Gregory Peck’s Ark in David and Bathsheba — which presents it as a relic of faith, not a Holy Weapon of Mass Destruction. I guess I’m a bit wary when filmmakers co-opt religious symbols and icons for their movies, even when the result isn’t offensive. I’ve read zero mention of this issue elsewhere so I guess it’s just me.

 

Spielberg has said that he had to keep on his toes to stay on budget. The action scenes and special effects were carefully planned. A separate crew was assigned to film the Truck Chase scene, which might be a first for the director; on 1941 Spielberg had fun shooting all those miniatures first-unit, adding months to the shooting schedule. The clever editing gives Raiders incredibly smooth travel-transitions, those animated maps and ILM’s motion control airplanes backed by John Williams’ ‘big adventure’ cues.

We love spotting re-purposed stock shots from earlier pictures. I noticed shots of an airplane from Lost Horizon ’73 and a view of the Washington Monument from Tora! Tora! Tora!  I’m told that a street scene from The Hindenberg is a stock shot as well. Perhaps the biggest budgetary coup was the opportunity to borrow the functioning U-Boat from Wolfgang Petersen’s Das Boot. Raiders was in no way a cheap picture, yet some of its epic qualities must be chalked up to typical Spielberg good timing.

A couple of odd notes relating Raiders to 1941: when Indiana climbs onto the U-Boat deck, he dances about with much the same motions as John Belushi’s Wild Bill Kelso’s equally unwelcome visit to the Japanese sub. In the fight on and around the futuristic Nazi airplane, the plane ends up rotating in a circle, with one wheel locked and the other free. As soon as we saw that I was reminded of the gag in 1941 where the little plane with Nancy Allen and Tim Matheson, its engines roaring, spins like a top just a few feet away from Warren Oates, a dozen extras, and half the crew. It looks wild enough in the movie, but in real life it seemed really risky — just nuts.

Audiences love the gag when the Gestapo Major Toht produces a little wood-and-chain item that resembles a miniature nunchuck — and it turns out to be not a torture device, just a coat hanger. I witnessed that exact bit of business used to introduce Christopher Lee’s menacing Captain von Kleinschmidt in 1941, but Lee’s more sober interpretation of the gag didn’t make the final cut. Lawrence Kasdan was on the sub interior set that night but it’s likely that Spielberg just kept the funny gag in his back pocket for future use.

 


 

Paramount’s presentation of Raiders of the Lost Ark gives this favorite popcorn picture a sterling 4K Ultra HD + HDR encoding. We can admire Douglas Slocombe’s handsome lighting effects and Norman Reynolds & Leslie Dilley’s expressive interiors — the Nepalese inn, the ‘Well of Souls’ with the statues and snakes, and the Map room with the miniature city (but no Ferris Wheel). The show knocks us out with its 20-odd killer action sequences, any one of which might have served as the sole ‘bravura’ set piece in a movie from ‘the old days.’

On a big screen the sharp & accurate 4K image recreates the show just as it was in theaters 41 years ago. The English track comes with Dolby Atmos; a high-end home theater projection situation would essentially be a theatrical experience.

The one disc in the Steelbox package is the 4K UHD pressing, with no Blu-ray backup copy. An insert gives purchasers a digital code as well. One surprise is that there are no extras to speak of, just three trailer encodings. The curious will have no problem sourcing reams of digital documentation, criticism and adulation for the film online. Even the Wikipedia entry has sidebar discussions of the film’s ‘Rejection of Naziism’ and ‘Masculinity and Colonialism.’ At one time or another, all of us have experienced insecurity over our colonial masculinity, no?

The only irksome thing about Paramount’s splendid Blu-rays and 4K UHD releases, is the gauntlet one must run to get the movie running. We must click 12 or 13 times to pass up disclaimer cards in multiple languages, then watch a logo, then see another security disclaimer, then the menu and yet another FBI card before the movie proper begins. Once you’re past all that, it’s a home video experience we’d never have dreamed possible 25 years ago.

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson


Raiders of the Lost Ark 4K
4K Ultra HD + Digital rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Teaser trailer, Trailer, reissue trailer, insert mini-poster.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English, French (feature only)
Packaging: One 4K Ultra HD + Digital code in metal steelbox packaging
Reviewed:
June 4, 2022
(6723ark)
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About Glenn Erickson

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Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.