Review of Raiders of the Lost Ark

Review of “Raiders(ˈrādər) of the Lost Ark”

By Roger Ebert

Steven Spielberg’s “Raiders of the Lost Ark” plays like an anthology(anˈTHäləjē) of the best parts from all the Saturday matinee(ˌmatnˈā) serials(ˈsirēəl) ever made. It takes place in Africa(ˈafrəkə), Nepal(nəˈpôl), Egypt(ˈējəpt), at sea and in a secret submarine(ˈsəbməˌrēn) base. It contains(kənˈtān) trucks, bulldozers(ˈbo͝olˌdōzər), tanks, motorcycles, ships, subs, Pan Am Clippers(ˈklipər), and a Nazi(ˈnätsē) flying wing. It has snakes, spiders(ˈspīdər), booby(ˈbo͞obē) traps and explosives(ikˈsplōsiv). The hero is trapped in a snake pit, and the heroine(ˈherōən) finds herself assaulted(əˈsôlt) by mummies(ˈməmē). The weapons range from revolvers(rəˈvälvər) and machineguns to machetes(məˈ(t)SHedē) and whips((h)wip). And there is the supernatural, too, as the Ark of the Covenant(ˈkəvənənt) triggers an eerie(ˈirē) heavenly fire that bolts through the bodies of the Nazis.

The Saturday serial aspects of “Raiders of the Lost Ark” have been much commented(ˈkäment) on, and relished(ˈreliSH). But I haven’t seen much discussion of the movie’s other driving theme, Spielberg’s feelings about the Nazis. “Impersonal,” critic(ˈkridik) Pauline(pôˈlēn) Kael called the film, and indeed it is primarily(ˌprīˈmerəlē) a technical exercise, with personalities so shallow they’re like a dew(d(y)o͞o) that has settled on the characters. But Spielberg is not trying here for human insights and emotional complexity(kəmˈpleksədē); he finds those in other films, but in “Raiders” he wants to do two things: make a great entertainment, and stick it to the Nazis.

We know how deeply he feels about the Holocaust(ˈhäləˌkôst). We have seen “Schindler(ˈSHindlər)’s List” and we know about his Shoah(ˈSHōə) Project. Those are works of a thoughtful adult. “Raiders of the Lost Ark” is the work of Spielberg’s recaptured(rēˈkapCHər) adolescence(ˌadəˈlesəns), I think; it contains the kind of stuff teenage boys like, and it also perhaps contains the daydreams of a young Jewish(ˈjo͞oiSH) kid who imagines blowing up Nazis real good. The screenplay is by Lawrence(ˈlôrəns) Kasdan, based on a story by Philip Kaufman, George Lucas and an uncredited(ˌənˈkredədəd) Spielberg, whose movie is great fun on the surface – one of the classic entertainments – and then has a buried(ˈberēd) level.