I first heard about Raiders of the Lost Ark, not via TV or radio - although I'm sure Hollywood had churned up its media blitz in much the same way it has for War of the Worlds - but by word of mouth.
We had a significant grape vine of friends who related vital information for the still largely desolate landscape of science fiction and fantasy films.
As with Steven Spielberg, we had all grown up with a collection of 1950s films - after which Science Fiction went the way of the Western. In the politically charged 1960s in which I grew up, Science Fiction films seemed to be either a little childish or worse tools for the anti-communist movement - many ignoring the fact that some films like Forbidden Planet which was adapted from a William Shakespeare play - had legitimate literary value.
While we had a handful of programs on TV such as Space Invaders and Star Trek, we largely watched old films longing for a time when a new Science Fiction era would emerge. Most of us watched our favorite films so often, we practically had the scripts memorized. Each time a TV show or movie emerged, one of our gang knew about it and spread the word.
My best friend - whom I renamed Pauly when I write about him - called me up after he had seen Raiders to tell me it was among the best films he had ever seen.
This was high praise from the man who had introduced me to the first Star Wars movie a short time earlier - and had made the same claim for that film, a claim I later came to believe after he and I made repeated pilgrimages to the local theater to see Star Wars.
In fact, Star Wars became the defining movie of our lives, rewarding us for our twenty-something years of holding vigil until the new era of Science Fiction could evolve.
In hearing about Raiders, however, I was more than skeptical. How could two great Science Fiction movies emerge within such a short time after we had waited for so long to obtain one?
In truth, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg had already launched a new era of Science Fiction out of which came a host of great films such as Close Encounters, ET, Star Wars and Raiders that we could later look back upon as a new Golden Age.
My friend, being more savvy than I was (and still is) noted that Raiders was a collaborate effort of Lucas and Spielberg, a combination, he claimed was unparalled.
Raiders, of course, differed sharply from Star Wars in that it dealt with the past instead of the future.
Raiders captured one of the most fascinating times in modern history: 1930s and the rise of Fascism as a viable political entity. Born out of a combination of factors, but particularly a movement call Futurism, fascism excited and appalled the world with its love of machines and machine-like social order. Yet no enemy so resembled the futurist Evil Empire of Star Wars than 1930s Nazism did.
But the 1930s had other fascinations that appeared to counter this machine like movement, as great adventurers set out to discover the remaining secrets of the world. It was the last decade of individual discovery, when people like Indiana Jones wandered the face of the planet seeking knowledge and fortunes.
President Ronald Reagan later caught onto another difference between Star Wars and Raiders when he equated the Evil Empire of Star Wars with communism in the 1980s since the dress and mannerisms of everyone but Darth Vadar seem to come straight out of a Stalin era Soviet Union.
Yet these differences between films were largely cosmetic. While Star Wars placed its hero in a landscape where you needed a space ship to get from scene to scene rather than a propeller driven aircraft, both dealt with the same fundamental spiritual battle - Raiders simply removed the veil and let us see the religious themes more openly.
This aspect of Raiders touched on a particular fancy of my friend Pauly, who had mumbled about the great secrets of our past for most of our lives, talking about the hunt for the grail and other such tales most of us, lacked the background to appreciate. Raiders - and later - The Last Crusade - made clear for us much of what Pauly had been ranting about.
Science Fiction films based on the past have unique advantages - but equally unique disadvantages from the more speculative fiction set in the future.
The chief disadvantage - unless you intend to create an alternative reality and time line - is that everybody knows what happens so that if you're basing a piece on history, we all know who the winner of a historic conflict is. With the Arc and Last Crusade - which featured the Nazi as the historic enemy - we all know they lose in the end, and that their bid to use the arc as a weapon for world conquest must have failed - even during the film's opening credits.
While we instinctively know in Star Wars that the good guys and gals have to win, theoretically anything is possible - as the end of The Empire Strikes Back proves. From the beginning, we have the nagging doubt about the larger outcome which is lost to Raiders. The focus shifts instead of what happens to how does Indiana Jones pull it off.
My friend, Pauly, compared the first Raiders film to Casablanca - and indeed, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas managed to create a mood that allowed us to almost believe we were watching a film that was contemporary to that time. They incorporated many of the film techniques used during the 1930s and 1940s films such as the red line flowing across a map to show us the path of the main characters journey as we saw in some of the road movies with Bob Hope and Bing Crosby.
"It's like they made a 1930s movie in 1980," Pauly claimed.
The historic references permeate the first and third movies, giving them a special flavor the second one lacked. We in the audience stared out at the screen and wanted to believe we were actually watching something filmed before we were born. Temple of Doom paid only lip service to the historic aspect, opening in that era but losing the moment by moment reinforcement the first and last films presented. Temple of Doom threw us a reminder from time to time, but the era was less critical to the plot than in the first and third movies. Frankly, we needed the bad guys to be the Nazis. As the Beatles movie, Help, points out, the conflict from Temple of Doom could have taken place in any era, despite the appearance of the Dragoons near the end.
In viewing the three films recently, I understand why the second film seemed so disappointing to me after I had so celebrated the first - despite the fact that the second film has some of the greatest action scenes ever put into film. The Ark dedicated a significant amount of time and effort in capturing the flavor of the time period, while Temple of Doom concentrated on special effects and continuous action sequences.
In Temple of Doom, Indiana Jones fell out of one disaster into another with nearly no time in-between for a viewer to take a breath. While the movie had ample comic sequences and thrills, it had little character development. Nearly all the subtleties I had lingered over in the first film vanished from the screen with the second such as the "I love you" written on the eyelids of the girl in the classroom.
Temple of Doom also lacked the multiple levels of deceit and distrust -- even for good governments - as well as the differing levels of villains Ark contained.
Even Pauly -- to whom the Spielberg-Lucas team was the Lennon & McCartney of films - Temple was a sore disappointment. Had not The Last Crusade emerged a few years later to redeem his faith in the duo, Pauly might have lost all faith, envisioning the second movie as merely one more sequel gone wrong.
In some ways, The Last Crusade - of which I'll go into more in part three of this diatribe - may provide the richest characterization. In the third film, we meet Indiana's father, we get to see his early efforts, we explore some of the serious religious themes for which Spielberg and Lucas are famous, and more importantly, we return to the persistent and consistent historic support that made the first movie so wonderful. There are some who claim that the third movie is the best of the three, although as with the first Star Wars movie, I'm still partial to the Ark.
Star Wars as a trilogy works significant better than the combination of Indiana movies, even though for me each of the later Star Wars films lost some of the first's original charm. Yet in both trilogies, a bit of the innocence from the first movies are lost in its sequels, and for me, none of the follow up films inspired the fierce loyalty I had for Ark and Star Wars.
Pauly was right. Raiders of the Lost Ark was another Star Wars in that both films captured a certain magic and essential feeling that made them instant classics. Both films still knock me out when I see them, dragging me back in time to those days when Pauly and I got right back on line as soon as the movie was over so we could see them again and again. And, if forced to choose ten films to have when stranded on a desert island or alien planet (presuming I had means to view them) these two would be in that grouping.