Until the bubbling, marvel-making duo known as Lucas-Spielberg, the 1940s Saturday Matinee was in the vaults. Lucas’ 1977 “Star Wars,” fueled by the effects of Industrial Light and Magic, put outsized fantasy on Hollywood’s mind (think “Ghostbusters” and “Back to the Future”). But director Spielberg had a different kind of retro idea. Borrowing from Flash Gordon, slapstick, and making up his share of visual puns, he single-handedly shoved the yarn of old matinee ideals into the special effects century.
Cut away the façade and “Raiders” is a variation on the Superman myth. Mild-mannered, handsome anthropology professor (Harrison Ford) is really an intrepid adventurer who’ll do anything for self, museum and country, in that order. Ford’s Indiana Jones gift is self-parody (“I hate snakes…”), wit, and the kind of laissez faire comic timing that makes celluloid larger-than-life. From the classic cave-escape opening to wild goings-on in the Cairo market (the movie is a riff on the Holy Grail search, with the Ark of the Covenant in its place), Ford makes himself at home with heroism and romance. That’s helped enormously by Karen Allen, who has girl-next-door looks and the feminist hormones of a 1930s-style heroine. It’s me-against-the-world Americana, mischievous but moral. The Nazis are evil, but self-mocking. Rollicking is the word, with snakes, seaplanes, submarines and a rousing John Williams score as a caffeine-charged exclamation point.
Though endearing sequels followed, “Raiders” is still one of a kind entertainment for no other reason than the way it stylishly and spectacularly turns back the clock.