1981 was a weirdly, historically great year for action movies, which means it’s a tough one for the purposes of this column. Because how am I supposed to pick? The year saw the release of three basically perfect action-movie masterpieces—all iconic, all vastly influential, all from some of the best directors ever to play around with the genre. Steven Spielberg’s Raiders Of The Lost Ark, the year’s biggest hit by far, remade action cinema into broad and accessible popular entertainment, giving it a fun and lighthearted tone without skimping on the violence, changing the perception of what these movies could do. George Miller’s The Road Warrior introduced the dusty punk-rock desert-apocalypse aesthetic that virtually every other dark-future movie would attempt to copy, and it raised the stakes on vehicular mayhem. John Carpenter’s Escape From New York presented a fun dystopian premise—the island of Manhattan transformed into a free-range prison where authorities would never venture unless, say, the president’s plane crashed there—and with Kurt Russell’s Snake Plissken, it gave the world its clearest ’80s action-hero archetype, a gravelly and sardonic cynic with muscles and flowing hair and stubble and no tolerance for authoritarian bullshit. These movies were all tremendously important, and they all fucking rule. So how do you pick?
I had a hard time with this one. I thought about judging The Road Warrior based on its 1982 American release date, just so I could write about both movies. But that would be cheating, and it would also mean that I couldn’t write about First Blood. So I went with Raiders. Great cases could be made for all three movies, but Raiders gets the nod for a few key reasons. It’s the biggest, fastest, silliest movie of the three, and size, speed, and silliness would all be important qualities in the ’80s action movies that would follow. It’s canonical in ways that go beyond action movies. You could make a case that it’s the best movie Spielberg ever made; you could even make the case that it’s the best movie anyone ever made. And it’s the movie my dad showed me when I started to care about action movies. In the grand scheme of things, it matters the most.
The Road Warrior and even Escape From New York had more direct imitators, while only a few notable movies—Romancing The Stone, I guess?—even tried to be Raiders. But the movie’s tone—antic, funny, never too serious even though the stakes were high—would go on to echo throughout action movies. You can see it in Mel Gibson’s Lethal Weapon banter, in Jackie Chan’s intricately goofy stunt spectaculars, and in Arnold Schwarzenegger’s tendency to punctuate every killing with a one-liner. And it changed standards for stunts, for grand-scale escape scenes, and for the level of pure entertainment that the world could expect from a movie like this. This is a movie where a Nazi monkey sieg-heils a German officer, and it still got nominated for Best Picture. It broke the mold.
There were precedents, of course. George Lucas, who wrote the movie, built it out of the same Saturday-morning serial memories that he’d used to create Star Wars. (Star Wars didn’t get an entry in this column because it’s not grounded in anything resembling reality, whereas Raiders sort of is. In Raiders, people get punched and shot, and it looks like it hurts. That’s where I drew the line.) And Spielberg adapted some of the tone from the James Bond movies, though he nailed it better than any Bond movie ever had or ever would. But Raiders was still very much its own thing.
In my favorite scene from the movie, Indiana Jones is trying to steal a Nazi bomber, and he ends up fighting a wrench-wielding Nazi mechanic. While he’s doing that, a bigger Nazi, a mustachioed muscleman played by the former pro wrestler Pat Roach, sees the fight and immediately smiles. He gets to fight someone! So he takes his shirt off, then calmly walks out and proceeds to beat the shit out of Indy. Indy stays in the fight, mostly by pulling dirty Ric Flair tricks—throwing sand in the strongman’s eyes, pointing down at his shoes like they’re untied—but he’s clearly getting his ass beat. While this is happening, though, all hell is breaking loose. Indy’s girlfriend Marion, trapped in a gun turret, is machine-gunning every German in the area. Stuff is blowing up. Other soldiers are running to see what’s going on. None of it bothers the strongman. He’s got a good fight going, and he’s not going to let anything interrupt it—at least until a propeller plane chops him into pieces, spraying the swastika on the plane’s tail with blood. It makes no sense for this guy to continue fighting rather than, say, running for safety or just shooting Indy. But that doesn’t matter to him. This fight is what he believes in, and he’s going to see it through.
The sheer, dizzy visual wit of a scene like that—the nonsensical embrace of chaos—was a new thing. Compared to that, most of the movies I’ve covered in this column were tight, grim, composed things. The body counts were, by and large, way lower. But watching Raiders, you don’t really think about all the characters dying—unless, that is, those characters are literally having the faces melted off of their skulls. Instead, you admire its sense of grand-scale fun. That amazing opening scene—the one where Indy escapes spikes, arrows, pits, boulders, tarantulas, temple collapses, treacherous jungle guides, and poison-tipped darts—ends with a pilot making fun of Indy for being creeped out by a snake. Details like that, or the Nazi monkey, or the giant mechanic who just wants to fight, are what made Raiders truly great.
Raiders is as head-over-heels in love with movies as any Tarantino movie, and the sheer filmmaking is a thing to behold. Spielberg made the paramount logo fade into a real mountain peak, and he kept Indy’s face in shadow until the first jungle guide tried to pull a gun on him. And that command of the camera extended to the action scenes, too. Consider, for example, the one chase scene, which can hold its own against the final Road Warrior chase. The scene’s geography makes its own internal sense. Indy does ridiculous things, but he never does anything impossible. When one Nazi climbs over the roof and sends Jones plunging through the windshield, he still finds a way back onto the truck. He hangs on the hood, slips down under the hood, grabs the undercarriage until he can hook his whip onto it, and then climbs the whip until he’s on the back of the truck again. And then he climbs back into the cab and kicks the Nazi out again. It’s great, kinetic, thrilling, dangerous visual storytelling. For a scene like that to work, the stuntmen, cinematographers, editors, and second-unit directors all have to be completely locked-in. And throughout Raiders, all of them were.
Also important: Throughout that chase scene, at least up until he gets shot, Indiana Jones is smiling. Harrison Ford—who only got the Indy role when Tom Selleck was forced to drop out because of his Magnum, P.I. responsibilities—couldn’t be more perfect for the part. He’s tough and stoic but also kind of an asshole. His ex hates him, and his rival makes fun of him. He gets beat up and hurt, but he’s a gung-ho motherfucker who can only bring himself to quit when he realizes that he’s about to blow up the Ark Of The Covenant with a bazooka. Slimy French rival archaeologist Belloq gives him one of those bad-guy I’m-just-like-you speeches: “I am a shadowy reflection of you. It would take only a nudge to make you like me, to push you out of the light.” And you believe Belloq.
Jones is hunting glory, not trying to help the world. But he’s capable of excitement and wonder, and he survives because he’s got the common sense to not stare at the wrath of God as it appears. He figures out that the story is bigger than him. He’s humbled, and because of that, he makes it. Karen Allen, as Marion, is spirited and tough, things that would be sorely missing in the love-interest department in Temple Of Doom three years later. The assorted Nazi villains are all creepily iconic in one way or another. But Ford as Jones was the movie’s real masterpiece of casting. At this point, Tom Selleck is probably the only person who wishes that Tom Selleck had been able to keep the role.
The movie’s ending, where God pretty much shows up to kill all the bad guys, should be cheap, but it’s not. Throughout, the movie establishes the supernatural as a real threat. Jones is after the Ark for its historic importance, but the Nazis want it because Hitler believes he can use its power to rule the world, and the Americans want it because they believe Hitler can use its power to rule the world. On top of that, those face-melting effects are so vivid and disgusting that they’ve imprinted themselves deep in the nightmares of a few generations of kids. They survive as Twitter memes, perhaps our easiest indication of continued relevance.
Raiders isn’t quite a perfect movie. There are a few too many white actors (including a debuting Alfred Molina) in some form of brownface, and we have to wonder about things like how Indy stayed on top of a Nazi submarine for as long as he did. But it’s about as perfect as an action movie can get. Even in a year like this one, it has to win. There’s no other way.
Other notable 1981 action movies: As discussed above, The Road Warrior and Escape From New York are the 1A and 1B of this category. Almost any other year, either one of them would’ve won; they definitely would’ve both stomped the fuck out of The Octagon if they’d come out a year earlier.
But even beyond those three movies, 1981 was a big one for action movies. Walter Hill made his clearest Vietnam allegory when he stranded a bunch of idiot National Guardsmen in the Louisiana bayou, pitting them against pissed-off Cajun locals, in the great Southern Comfort. John Boorman helped pave the way for Conan The Barbarian with his commendably bloody but otherwise unwatchably boring Arthurian retelling Excalibur. Cannon Films inaugurated its stupidly fun Ninja trilogy with the boneheaded and lovable Enter The Ninja. Chuck Norris took his vengeance on the Mafia in An Eye For An Eye. And people seem to think that For Your Eyes Only was one of the best Roger Moore Bond movies. (I haven’t seen it in years, and I’m not going to make the same mistake I did when I said that The Man With The Golden Gun was a good one despite not having seen it since I was 9.)
Hong Kong martial arts movies were still in their long boom period, and 1981 had movies like The Prodigal Son and The Masked Avengers. And on the periphery of action cinema, cool things were happening. Michael Mann figured out economical ways to tell crime stories with Thief, his first movie. Sean Connery brought High Noon into space with Outland, a better movie than anyone remembers. In Road Games, an impossible-to-track-down but supposedly amazing Australian thriller, a truck driver hunts down a serial killer. And while Fort Apache, The Bronx is more of a Serpico-style corrupt-cops thriller than an action movie, it does have a scene where Paul Newman smokes a cigarette and chews on a toothpick at the same time, which is some superhero shit.
Meanwhile, Nighthawks worked as a sort of bridge between the ’70s action movie and the ’80s one. It has beards and long leather trench coats and a grainy color palette and a loose pace, like the ’70s movies. But it’s also a buddy-cop movie with a version of Sylvester Stallone who never takes off his aviator shades, and it has Rutger Hauer, making his first English-language movie, as a cackling, scenery-chewing Euro-terrorist villain. It’s fucking awesome, and it would be a sign of more fucking awesome things to come.
Next time: The Vietnam war comes home, and Sylvester Stallone gets one of his two most iconic roles, with First Blood.