Steven Spielberg is a once-in-a-generation talent. From his early days directing episodes of Night Gallery and Columbo all the way to West Side Story and The Fabelmans, Spielberg is a genius behind the camera. He is also the father of the modern blockbuster, and there’s one movie that is often singled out when discussing Spielberg’s commercial cinema oeuvre: Raiders of the Lost Ark.
Starring Harrison Ford as the intrepid archeologist Indiana Jones, Raiders follows the fedora-wearing daredevil in a race against the Nazis to recover the legendary Ark of the Covenant, which is said to make any army invincible. The film is a near-universally beloved classic, appearing on multiple “Best of” lists and considered a groundbreaking entry in the adventure and action genres. Yes, nearly everyone loves Raiders of the Lost Ark … except me.
See, I have never cared for Raiders of the Lost Ark. I have watched it several times, especially because, on paper, it should be the perfect movie for me. As a child, I wanted to be an Egyptologist; I love fedoras and whips (don’t ask); and Spielberg is one of my favorite directors. And yet, Raiders remains elusive and foreign to me, a taste I never acquired. In fact, I have come to dislike it over time. Here’s why.
It all started with a birthday party …
I can trace back my dislike for Raiders of the Lost Ark to middle school. “David,” my little friends told me, “you must watch this movie about this history man who outruns big rocks and kills Nazis.” I’m not going to lie; “the movie about the history man who outruns big rocks and kills Nazis” is one hell of a pitch, so watching Raiders of the Lost Ark became a priority for me. I distinctly remember going to Blockbuster (remember them?) looking for it, only to find there weren’t any available copies for rental.
Thus began my love-hate relationship with this movie, as I, for one reason or another, found myself unable, then unwilling, to sit down and simply watch it. When it came on the television, it had already started — I can’t very well watch half of a movie, can I? When it was available on Blockbuster, I wasn’t in the mood for it. Slowly, Raiders became like a mythical piece of entertainment — it was too important to watch on any average Friday night, but not important enough for me to abandon my previously established plans and, you know, actually watch the damn thing.
It took nearly a full year for me to watch it, and I tell you, I was excited. I finally chose the perfect occasion to watch Raiders: my 11th birthday. I even bought my first fedora for the watch party and invited some of my friends for what I was sure would be a wonderful viewing experience. Except it was not.
The movie starts great, with the already teased boulder scene that made me and my prepubescent friends squeak with excitement. With such a powerful beginning, my young mind thought things could only get better, proving that children will think the stupidest things. Because Raiders didn’t get better for me; quite the opposite, in fact. And as each of my friends became lost in its spell, I only became angrier. Its spell wasn’t working on me, the birthday boy. This movie should’ve been good for me — I chose it! But all I got from it was confusion and disappointment, and when it ended, I applauded because it was over, not because I enjoyed it. It was my party, and could I hate one of the most popular movies ever if I wanted to.
What we have here is a classic issue of “never meet your idols.” I had let so much time pass that I built the film into something it wasn’t. I nearly canonized it in my mind, and the more time passed, the higher my expectations became. Imagine my surprise when I discovered this supposedly incredible film was nothing more than a high-quality B-movie with better action, but an equally nonsensical plot as what you find in the average science fiction double feature.
First impressions last forever
My party ended, I left middle school and grew in age, if not necessarily in height, but my dislike for Raiders of the Lost Ark remained. Subsequent watches revealed new things, and the more I understood about cinema, the more I could appreciate Raiders‘ strengths — the admittedly incredible score, the rather impressive practical effects, the symbolism, etc.
However, age also solidified my initial opinion of the film, one which I quickly realized most people didn’t share, and I just couldn’t understand why. To me, Raiders was a decently entertaining movie, but far from the adventure masterpiece everyone claimed it was. And with each new rewatch, my opinion went from “It’s fine” to “It could be better” to “Are we watching the same damn movie?” To me, it seemed like we weren’t.
Harrison Ford isn’t that great as Indy
Maturity and self-awareness made me realize that one of the main reasons for my dislike of Raiders of the Lost Ark is that I don’t find Harrison Ford appealing as an actor. I enjoy the roles where his gruff, rough, borderline unresponsive persona is well-utilized, antiheroic turns like Blade Runner or my personal favorite, What Lies Beneath. But when a movie like Raiders of the Lost Ark tries telling me this guy is the epitome of charm and a hero worth rooting for, I just don’t buy it.
Ford has a very distinct on-screen image, one I don’t gravitate toward. Every choice he makes for Indiana Jones, I find unpleasant. What others see as devilish charm, I see as annoying hubris. When others say, “That’s a real man’s man,” all I can think is, “Jesus, what an ass.” The flaws with Indiana Jones’ character become more apparent with each new sequel, as he becomes more distant, less of a character and more of an icon. To me, Indiana Jones lacks what makes Spielberg’s heroes so strong: humanity. Although he’s far from perfect, Jones isn’t meant to be relatable — he’s the guy men want to be, and women want to be with, an idea of heroism rather than an actual hero.
Spielberg has always found strength in the unseen and the unsaid — whether it’s hiding the shark for most of Jaws or lingering on Meryl Streep’s face as she fights an internal battle in The Post. However, none of this restraint is present in Indiana Jones, a character who’s all about what’s on the surface rather than what’s underneath because there’s nothing underneath. Roger Ebert once said that movies are “machines that generate empathy,” and that’s my biggest problem with Indiana Jones. I don’t feel empathy, or even sympathy, for him, not even when Raiders ends and he seemingly learns from his mistakes, because I know there are four (!) other movies of him doing the same shit over and over again.
Nostalgia can only go so far
Indiana Jones is a character that thrives on nostalgia, but as nearly every major reboot has proven, nostalgia is feeble at best and dangerous at worst. Romanticizing anything means depriving it of the realism needed to preserve its validity. Jones, and by extension, Raiders of the Lost Ark, are cinematic totems that live and die with audiences’ fondness for them. Even when rewatching the film, they’re not necessarily seeing it, but rather replaying the memory they have of it.
This argument can, of course, also fit me — I’m not watching the film but rather reliving my hatred for it. Yet, there’s a middle point between my dislike for Raiders of the Lost Ark and your passion for it, the gray area where most movies exist. To me, that’s where Indiana Jones belongs. This franchise has lived someone else’s life for far too long, experiencing glory and acclaim it was never meant to have. There’s nothing inherently wrong with it — more power to you for grifting your way to the top, Raiders of the Lost Ark. But I tell it like it is, and in the pantheon of cinematic masterpieces, the only fedora present should be Rick Blaine’s.
Raiders of the Lost Ark is streaming on Disney+, Paramount+, and for free on Pluto TV.