…and explains why it will always be RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK and not INDIANA JONES AND RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK. He also does a wonderful job of articulating how many orders of magnitude greater RAIDERS is to all its sequels, as well as giving a lot of penetrating insights into the virtues and flaws of the sequels.
Here’s a small taste of the essay, but do read the whole thing (bearing in mind for those who have not yet seen INDIANA JONES AND THE DIAL OF DESTINY that there are spoilers):
Yet, like Die Hard, Raiders stands alone, notwithstanding its many sequels and imitators—not to mention Lucas’ efforts to rebrand it Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark, as if they were all comparable slices of a homogenous Indiana Jones Product. (Lucas did the same thing with Star Wars in 1981 by adding the subtitle Episode IV: A New Hope. In the case of Raiders, this franchise-crafting revisionism belies the reality that Indy is himself one of the “raiders” in question—almost a bit of “Han shot first” whitewashing.) Happily, whatever the box art may say, Spielberg refused to change the onscreen title, which remains Raiders of the Lost Ark.
Part of the credit for Raiders’ singular achievement belongs to the screenwriting contributions of Lawrence Kasdan (who also co-wrote the best Star Wars movie, The Empire Strikes Back). Allen’s Marion, too, is a far more engaging romantic interest than the off-putting leading ladies of the sequels. The master stroke, though, is the inspired choice to build the story around Nazis hunting for the Ark of the Covenant. Iconic good and iconic evil: what’s more, iconic antisemitic villains versus an actual icon of the covenant deity of the Jewish people. Indy may be no one’s idea of a role model—as noted by his archnemesis, Paul Freeman’s unprincipled, refined René Belloq, Indy has more in common with him than he’d like to admit—but the plot isn’t Indy versus Belloq, or even Indy versus the Nazis.
By the numinous moment (witnessed by no one but a few rats) that the wooden surface of a crate bearing the stamp of a swastika and Nazi eagle spontaneously begins smoking and blackening, the abominable image blotted out by the transcendent power within, the jig is up. Indy can go around punching Nazis, dragging in the dust behind trucks, stowing away on U-boats, and waving around rocket launchers all he likes. In the end, Raiders comes down to the Third Reich versus God. Eight years earlier, The Exorcist offered a gut-wrenching morality tale about, among other things, the spiritual dangers of messing around with Ouija boards and demons. The climax of Raiders offers a complementary warning about trifling with the no less terrible power of the holy.