RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK -- At the AMC Academy, AMC Skyline, Jerry Lewis Cinema, K-B Cinema, K-B Georgtown Square, NTI Landover Mall, NTI Tysons Cinema, Roth's Silver Spring East, Springfield Mall and Towncenter Laurel.
Suppose it were 1936, with Hitler ascendant. Suppose German agents in Egypt were hot on the trail of the lost Ark of the Covenant, which Der Fuhrer wants because possession of the tablets of the Ten Commandments therein would allow him to proclaim himself the True Messiah.
Suppose the American government sent handsome, fearless archeologist Indiana Jones over there to foil the dastardly Nazis.
And suppose somebody took $20 million and made a movie based on such a plot.
It sounds like a rancid turkey with nut stuffing but it works. "Raiders of the Lost Ark" works beautifully, all but flawlessly, for two zippy hours of nonstop entertainment.
"The thing to keep in mind about this film is that it is only a movie," said director Steven Spielberg. Yes, and hot damn! what a movie. Spielberg and producer George Lucas have combined the conventions of the 1930s Saturday afternoon serials with the grandeur of a DeMille epic, without stumbling into the pitfalls of either.
Those old low-budget serial thrillers had solid characters and strong story lines but looked like they were shot in somebody's back yard; DeMille's wooden horsefaces clumped through marvelous palaces in golden deserts. "Raiders" has a clean plot, furious pace, fabulous sets, topnotch play-acting and, halleluja, a sense of fun.
The first collaboration of two of the hottest hands in Hollywood easily could have turned into dreary high-budget camp or just come apart because of way in the suites. But old friends, Lucas, sky-high over "Star Wars" and Spielberg, coming off "Jaws and "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," slipped into harness together without a hitch. They neither tripped over their egos nor degenerated into Alphonse-Gaston taffy pulling, so that "Raiders" stays of course as though a single hand held the helm.
The perilously perfect opening episode is unrelated to the main story but serves to introduce Harrison Ford as the hero and Paul Freeman as a villain and to spell out the rules of the game: 1. No expense will be spared; 2. Finish your popcorn quick before you choke; 3. Continuity will be served up on a need-to-know basis; 4. There will not be a single minute when you can go to the bathroom without missing something; 5. If it looks real, it probably is; 6. This movie don't mean nothing but what it says.
A movie might reach classic status on the basis of a climax as good as the opening of "Raiders". By all but throwing it away under the titles, Lucas and Spielberg serve notice that they are a couple of bold rascals indeed, promising us we ain't seen nothing yet. Then they deliver.
It wouldn't be fair to tell too much about what goes on, but it is not too much to say that Ford brings persuasiveness and wit to his role that never showed in the superficially similar character of Han Solo in "Star Wars". Since all but one of his close escapes are performed within the strictures of present-day physics, the viewer's suspension of disbelief is more willing.
Newcomer Freeman's evil archeologist is a gem so far as his lines allow, and it is to be hoped that he will be resurrected in the sure-to-come sequel, although his dissolution for profaning the Ark is God-damned complete.
Divine reintervention would also be required to bring back two of the best-worst Nazis ever created on screen, snowplow-jawed Wolf Kahler as Dietrich and Ronald Lacey as Toht, such a snake you never saw.
Speaking of snakes, more than six thousand real ones menace. Our Hero and heroine Karen Allen at one point, which is how Lucas and Spielberg top the opening sequence's scores of genuine tarantulas. The Nazi submarine is real, too, hired out of a museum in La Rochelle, France. The sequence could have been done persuasively with cardboard on a sound stage, but that's not the style of this flick.
After going to such lengths to create verisi-militude, our boys did not err by lingering too long over the great props and sets. Most moviemakers, having hired an army of extras to create a panorama such as the laborers digging for the Ark in "Raiders" would have been unable to resist creating extra business for them. Our boys pass over the spectacle before we can fairly drink it in. At no point in the film does the camera lag behind the story; at two hours long the movie is too short.