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Raiders of the Lost Ark is the kind of movie only the most jaded can’t enjoy. Unfortunately, though, the Special Edition DVD release still doesn’t provide the deluxe treatment the movie so richly deserves. Maybe the fairly inevitable Blu-ray release will fix that some time down the road.

1936: The Ark of the Covenant

The menus are virtually identical to the previous edition, but it bridges the gap to Crystal Skull
The menus are virtually identical to the previous edition, but it bridges the gap to Crystal Skull

Of course, this is the one that introduced the world to Henry Walton Jones, Jr., better known by his professional name: Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford, Star Wars).

It’s 1936 and this professor of archaeology at Marshall College has just returned home from a particularly precarious expedition to find and retrieve a golden fertility idol from a Chachapoyan temple. Foiled by his long-time nemesis, Rene Belloq (Paul Freeman, The Long Good Friday), Indy’s itching to follow the idol to the only place Belloq can sell it, Marrakech.

In short order, that itch is scotched by something much, much more significant. A couple pencil-pushing government agents question Dr. Jones about a curious communiqué between Indiana’s friend, Abner Ravenwood, and the Nazis.

Whoosh! Before you can say “buttered popcorn,” Indy’s off to Cairo on a mission to find the Ark of the Covenant before the Nazis — and Belloq — seize it and use it as a weapon in their quest for world domination.

Aiding and abetting the professor / archaeologist is an old flame, Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen, The Perfect Storm) who knows not only how to pack light but also how to pack a punch. There’s also Indy’s good friend, Sallah (John Rhys-Davies, The Lord of the Rings), who is still quick to let Indy go into dangerous territory first.

So Why Is It Great?

Even though Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind were huge hits, they went drastically over schedule and over budget. 1941 suffered from similar problems and, more painfully, it was director Steven Spielberg’s first major flop. For Spielberg, Raiders of the Lost Ark was an opportunity to rebound and turn in a movie on time and on budget.

Wow! What a rebound! Made in an off-the-cuff fashion that ultimately served as the foundation for the charm of the entire series, the movie is not perfect. And that is by design.

Indiana Jones is a purely human character who, for one reason or another, always finds himself in insurmountable circumstances, but he has the tenacity to keep at it until he gets what he wants. And even then, he only gets to keep it briefly, before somebody — or some circumstance — steals it away.

Only rarely do things go smoothly for Indy. Unlike James Bond, which served as a key point of inspiration, Indy is faulty and he’s not always right. Only now, after decades upon decades of Bond movies, is the Bond character starting to show that same sense of vulnerability, albeit under a more brutish exterior, through Daniel Craig’s take on the character.

And that vulnerability, which makes Indy such an endearing character, goes hand in hand with the imperfect nature of the movies themselves. Perhaps the most amazing thing about Raiders — and the other two original Indy movies — is that, unlike the original original Star Wars trilogy, they’ve survived the hands of George Lucas. Done in the far more creative days of cinema, before computer-generated imagery came to the forefront and replaced real people doing real things, the movie is presented on DVD pretty much untouched. Upon the initial box set release on DVD, it was reported that a couple dozen or so “digital tweaks” were performed on the series, but they are of truly minor character.

The biggest case in point: you can still see the telephone pole that was lodged in the bottom of the truck that exploded at the climax of the basket chase sequence. And, if you look really, really closely, you can still see the seat that secured Indy to the front of the truck during the perilous truck chase sequence.

That is filmmaking by the edge of your seat.

Couple that movie-making spirit with John Williams’ unmatchable Raiders march, a great script, great characters, and a leading actor in the role he was born to play, and you’ve got the movie Time magazine succinctly hailed as a “movie movie!”

Indyfacts: Recollections from the Mattsonian Archives

  • At one point George Lucas said there’d be six Indy movies. But, just as the Star Wars series shrank from 12 movies to nine, then settled on six, that claim is now nothing more than film lore and now all the stories revolve around the original plans calling for only three movies.
  • Raiders was not shot in Cairo. Instead, just about everybody (except for Steven Spielberg) got sick while filming in Tunisia — at the same locations used in Star Wars.
  • On the other hand, this author has been to Cairo. And he has met producer Frank Marshall, who gave him the handle of “The Cairo Guy.”
  • In Denver, a sneak preview at the Century 21 “movie palace” was one of those rare movie-going experiences that will be treasured forever. The sold-out audience ate up the adventure and the roof nearly blew off the theater when the crowd erupted in cheers and applause after Indy shot the big, nasty swordsman.
  • Raiders topped Superman II at the summer box office and it became the year’s biggest draw.
  • The movie, Steven Spielberg, and John Williams’ magnificent score all lost out to Chariots of Fire at the Oscars in 1982.
  • In October 1983 Raiders debuted on VHS (that’s an antiquated videotape format for younger readers unfamiliar with those letters) at the unheard of lowball price of $39.99, featuring glorious pan and scan with full-throttle two-channel stereo. Ah, and it even included a rare bonus feature: the teaser trailer for Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.
  • If the recollection is correct, Raiders was the first VHS release to sell one million copies.

DVD Extras

The first surprise: the new Special Edition DVDs, which are available for the first time as individual titles or in a new box set, kick off with the first Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull trailer. Unfortunately, it’s not readily accessible as a menu option.

The first disappointment: the menus are virtually identical to the previous edition, with the main exception of a new Special Features option.

The next surprise: a splendid new THX prelude that has eye-popping CGI and house-thumping surround sound.

The next disappointment: the special features on the Raiders disc aren’t all that special. In terms of pure marketing, though, the new features offer a nice, contemporary bridge between The Crystal Skull and the original adventures and seem to aim mostly at newer fans.

What everybody wants, really, really wants is a yak track with Spielberg, Ford, and Lucas, but it’ll probably never happen. While Lucas has gabbed on the Star Wars DVDs, Spielberg, unfortunately, seems content to let his work speak for itself.

With that said, what is on the Raiders disc is roughly 30 minutes worth of pretty standard retrospective fare.

There is a new Introduction by Steven Spielberg and George Lucas (7.5 minutes) that at least sets the stage for those less in the know.

The Indy Trilogy: A Crystal Clear Appreciation (11.5 minutes) features comments from many of the Crystal cast and crew, including series newbies Jim Broadbent, Ray Winstone, John Hurt, Cate Blanchett, and Shia LaBeouf. It’s mostly fluff, but there are some good photos and archival footage.

Perhaps the biggest disappointment regarding both of these features is that many of the comments have already appeared in featurettes on the Indy Web site and, in other cases, the new footage merely reiterates many of the comments from the supplemental features disc in the original box set.

Another feature is The Mystery of the Melting Face (8 minutes), which is a technical look at the effects behind Toht’s melting face during the film’s climax. In order to make this as fresh as possible, the featurette follows a new team of effects geeks as they recreate the effect.

Snakes Alive! The Well of Souls Storyboards (4 minutes) is the typical split-screen presentation of the storyboards related to Indy and Marion’s escape shown above the actual movie footage.

The disc also includes an extensive set of photo galleries broken out in groups as Illustrations and Props; Production Photographs & Portraits; Effects/ILM; and Marketing. In all fairness, these are actually more fun to page through than the typical assemblage of images, particularly given the opportunity to gaze at some of Jim Steranko’s gloriously pulpy concept art.

Also on tap is LEGO Indiana Jones: The Original Adventures Game Demo. Well, there’s a difference between a “special feature” and a “commercial.” This is clearly the latter. On the disc is the video game trailer and, via DVD-ROM, a link to the Lucas Arts Web site for access to the game demo download which, at press time, was still listed as “coming soon.”

Picture and Sound

The audio and video are virtually identical to the previous box set, released in 2003, and the discs include the same chapter stops. There’s nothing wrong with that, though. Both are exceptional. The video is pristine; the movies have never looked better at home than on the DVD format. And they’ve never sounded better, either, with the Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound track providing plenty of bass to John Williams’ score, rolling boulders, and swirling demons.

The audio is also available in French and Spanish 2.0 Surround. Subtitles in English, French, and Spanish are also on tap.

How to Use This DVD

Watch the introduction by Steven Spielberg and George Lucas then dig right into the movie (pun intended).

After that, jump over to the photo galleries. And if you need a glimpse of what’s to come, check out The Indy Trilogy: A Crystal Clear Appreciation, the interviews, while fairly superficial, are done with the cast in costume. Then start hoping the Indy gang gets it together for a much more comprehensive Blu-ray set some time down the road.