Movies We Still Care About – 1981

(For an explanation of this, read the Introduction.  Other posts in this series can be found here.)

(This post was edited on April 6 to discuss Raiders of the Lost Ark’s role in the development of the fun action movie sub-genre, and to include Stripes in the Other Notable Movies section.)

Movies We Still Care About

  • Raiders of the Lost Ark

Other Notable Movies

  • Superman II
  • Clash of the Titans
  • The Great Muppet Caper
  • The Evil Dead
  • Stripes

Best Picture Nominees:

  • Chariots of Fire (Winner)
  • Atlantic CIty
  • On Golden Pond
  • Raiders of the Lost Ark
  • Reds

Top Grossing Films (US)

  1. Raiders of the Lost Ark
  2. On Golden Pond
  3. Superman II
  4. Arthur
  5. Stripes
  6. The Cannonball Run
  7. Chariots of Fire
  8. For Your Eyes Only
  9. The Four Seasons
  10. Time Bandits

Rotten Tomatoes Top Movies

  1. The Evil Dead (98%)
  2. Das Boot (98%)
  3. Raiders of the Lost Ark (95%)
  4. Diva (96%)
  5. An American Werewolf in London (91%)
  6. Blow Out (90%)

In the introductory post to this series, I mentioned that various factors can skew the Rotten Tomatoes rankings, and that seems to have happen here.  If you look at that Rotten Tomatoes list, #1 is a microbudget amateur film that would have been forgotten if it didn’t spawn two popular sequels.  #2 is a foreign film beloved by cinephiles but not known to a widespread American audience.  I’ve never even heard of #4 and have barely heard of #6.  And #5 is a cult film that is unknown to modern mainstream audiences.

Movies We Still Care About

Raiders of the Lost Ark

This is the best action spectacle movie of all time.  Like Star Wars, this is at the highest level of mythology for modern film.  Everyone knows Indiana Jones.  The hat, the whip, the ark, fear of snakes, etc.

It’s a spectacle movie because it isn’t structured like a normal film.  There’s no character development – Indy is exactly the same at the end as he is at the beginning.  And rather than the traditional three acts with rising action, it’s an episodic string of distinct action sequences.  In a lesser film, the audience would be bored and confused, even if they didn’t have enough film theory knowledge to explain why they felt that way.  But Raiders is so awesome that nobody cares about its lack of structure or character growth.

In fact, nobody cares that Indiana Jones is entirely superfluous to his own movie, as explained on The Big Bang Theory:

Raiders of the Lost Ark was a deliberate attempt by George Lucas and Steven Spielberg to recall the Saturday morning movie serials that they loved as kids.  Those were in turn based on radio serials.  Which were based on pulp/dime novels.  Which were inspired by the late 19th century adventure novels by authors such as Edgar Rice Burroughs and H. Rider Haggard.  Haggard’s character Allan Quatermain specifically is considered to be the template for Indiana Jones.  This came full circle in 1985 and 1986 with the Richard Chamberlain movies King Solomon’s Mines and Allan Quartermain and the Lost City of Gold.  These movies are blatant rip-offs of Indiana Jones, even though the character of Allan Quartermain predates Indy by a century.

 Raiders is important for the development of cinema as an art-form, as it established the sub-genre of the Fun Action Movie.  You can generally split action movies into those that are intense, and those that are fun.  These easiest way to see which category a film belongs in is to ask yourself if you would want to be the main character.  Would you want to be Indiana Jones, traveling the world having fantastic adventures and punching Nazis?  Of course you would.  Because the most important thing about Indiana Jones as a character is that even when things go wrong, when he’s captured, beaten up, or exhausted by a string of fights, he still absolutely loves being Indiana Jones,

Look at the bringing a gun to a sword fight scene.  He’s fatigued and exasperated, yet every single person watching the movie can live vicariously through him and would delight in being Indy in that situation.

(Side-note: That scene was ad-libbed.  The script called for Indy to get into an elaborate sword fight. But Harrison Ford was sick that day, and didn’t feel like doing it.  So he used his gun instead, Steven Spielberg realized that was much better, and cinema magic was born.)

In the 70s, action movies had taken a gritty turn, as exemplified by films such as The French Connection.  And prior to the 70s, action wasn’t quite so dark, but still was more dramatic than fun.  Films like The African Queen, North by Northwest, and John Wayne westerns.  Some excellent movies, but that sense of playfulness was mostly absent.

There were a few fun action movies before Raiders, such as The Adventures of Robin Hood, James Bond films, and Star Wars.  But  It was really Raiders that brought this feeling of fun into its own, and sparked countless imitators trying to capture that high-spirited adventure.

Raiders expanded the medium, such that from the 80s through today and into the future, we are able to experience both fun action movies and intense action movies, and as fans we are all better off.

Also, if you ever get the chance to see the shot-for-shot remake of Raiders made by twelve-year-olds, do it.  It’s amazing.  Unfortunately I couldn’t find it online.  (I saw it 15 years ago on a VHS tape owned by someone who knew one of the guys who made it.)  The best I could find is the first 10 minutes with no audio.  (If any of you can locate the full version online, please link to it in comments.)

The official website for the Raiders remake is here, though unfortunately it doesn’t have the full movie.

Other Notable Films

Superman II

“Kneel before Zod.”  That’s all that needs to be said for this.  And all that really should be said.  Because aside from a great villain, this film is an incoherent mess that is much better in your memory than in reality.

Clash of the Titans

“Release the Kraken!”  This is a special-effects spectacle movie whose effects were amazing in 1981, but really don’t hold up today.  And without that to carry it, there’s not much point to watching this.

The Great Muppet Caper

I talked about this in my write-up of The Muppet Movie in the 1979 entry.

The Evil Dead

I love Evil Dead 2 and Army of Darkness.  But the original Evil Dead isn’t in the same league.  It’s notable to see the clever techniques that Sam Raimi used to stretch his limited budget while still having a unique feel.  But the story’s generic, and the humor from the later films is lacking here.  Plus the entire events of Evil Dead are re-done with much better acting, humor, and production value in the first 10 minutes of Evil Dead 2.  So you can just watch the sequel and skip the original.

Stripes

Stripes continues the Laid-Back Comedy tradition developed by Caddyshack, featuring Bill Murray, John Candy, and Harold Ramis being Bill Murray, John Candy, and Harold Ramis.  While it doesn’t still enjoy widespread appeal after 33 years, it does have a small but devoted following of some who consider it among the all-time great comedies.  It’s certainly worth checking out or revisiting if you’re a fan of Murray/Candy/Ramis.

– – – – –

Do you disagree with any of these choices, or think that I missed something?  Leave a comment below.

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3 thoughts on “Movies We Still Care About – 1981”

  1. You’ve *got* to stop saying that there’s no reason to see certain movies, even if you don’t personally appreciate them. It’s condescending and incorrect to suggest there’s no reason to watch them when you even have objective data that they’re some of the best-loved movies of that particular time. If they weren’t, they wouldn’t have made your list to discuss in the first place.

    Why watch Clash of the Titans if not for the special effects? Because it’s a good story! It’s a modern telling of a classic Greek myth! There’s value in that.

    Why watch The Blues Brothers? Because if you don’t, you miss out on a ton of pop culture references that still show up today. You miss out on 2 white guys who were raised in blues culture breaking the racial stereotypes that existed in the early 1980s. You miss cameos by most of the world’s best blues musicians who were living at the time.

    It’s hard to want to continue to read this blog when you effuse praise on the few movies that you personally enjoy from your youth and basically poop on genuinely enjoyable movies that you personally find irrelevant.

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  2. Rachael – That’s a fair point. I’m looking at movies we still care about after 34 years. That’s a very high bar, as evidenced that I’m only finding a handful of movies per year that I think fit this category.

    It’s no shame for a film to not quite live up to the best few movies of the year. And I shouldn’t act like failing to meet that very high standard makes a movie a steaming pile of crap.

    In writing this series, I don’t mean to suggest that people are somehow *wrong* for liking the movies that they like. That would be ridiculous.

    I don’t think that movies like The Blues Brothers and Clash of the Titans still enjoy the widespread popularity that they once did. But if you are among the people who still has a fondness for them – if you enjoy watching them/remembering them, and they make you happy – then obviously you should continue to like them.

    I will try to be more careful about my tone and avoid being so dismissive about movies in the future.

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