Steven Spielberg has helmed many a masterpiece, but for sheer thrills and spills, it really doesn't get any better than Raiders of the Lost Ark. Back on a limited release in glorious IMAX before its Blu-ray debut, now is the chance for those of us introduced to the film on the telly at Bank Holidays to finally see it on the big screen (for one week only).
The story, as if you didn't know, is pretty straightforward. In the mid-'30s, Archaeology professor/tomb raider Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) gets wind that the Nazis are on the trail of the Ark of the Covenant. Yep, that one the Hebrews carried through the desert. Naturally, he goes out to get it first, picking up old flame Marion (Karen Allen) en route.
Raiders doesn't mess about, opening with the finest pre-credits scene in cinema. That Paramount mountain fades into a Peruvian backdrop and Indy and some ill-fated cohorts traipse through the woods and a rather cobwebby tunnel in pursuit of a golden relic. He gets past tarantulas, treachery and a tumbling ball - all set to John Williams's peerless theme - before arch rival Belloq (Paul Freeman) takes what was once his.
The rest is basically a sequence of equally terrific set-pieces strung together with such skill that it doesn't feel like a load of set-pieces; it's seamless. There's also a breathless, briskness of spirit that belies the not-exactly-brief runtime.
On the way to the face-meltingly memorable final reels, Indy encounters spiders, snakes, skulls and much more besides. It's all probably blasphemous and definitely ridiculous - but playing it straight despite the smiles means it completely gets away with it.
The key is that Raiders of the Lost Ark takes its plot with the seriousness that it needs to work, but is spilling over with enough one-liners and sight gags to make it work, with special mention of a Sieg-Heiling monkey, quickfire solution to a standoff and Gestapo agent Toht's (Ronald Lacey) nunchucks/coat-hanger contraption.
Do the effects stand up? All the physical stuff hasn't aged a day, of course. There's a small moment at the end that's a shade too Ghostbusters, but you're far too wrapped up in the scene to care in the slightest.
At the centre of Raiders is, of course, Indiana - the perfect everyman action hero. Bond may be suave but he's a complete arsehole. Arnie and Stallone's biceps and Jason Bourne's confused face always struggle to provoke an emotional response. Indy is a flawed, fabulous hero - at home in a schoolteacher's three-piece suit as he is in a fedora, whip-slinging away.
When old movie series are revived with the same old characters, there's usually some clumsy references to the ageing of the leads. The beauty of Indiana Jones is that he was always a cantankerous old-before-his-time grump. As he tells Marion: "It's not the years, it's the mileage."
Raiders doesn't bore or patronise the viewer with backstory or flashbacks. We get a few words about Indy and Marion's past, because that's all we need. You could complain that there's a fair amount of cheese, especially in the dialogue ("You and I are very much alike... I am but a shadowy reflection of you"), but every cliché is completely earned by the charm of the piece, and it's all pieced together perfectly - jigsaw-like.
The inferior Temple of Doom followed before the return-to-form of The Last Crusade, while the dust is still settling over The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. But back when Indy first picked up a whip, that was all to come.
Jaws might have been the first proper summer smash and Star Wars may have set a million movie franchise in motion, but Raiders of the Lost Ark outdoes them both, and pretty much every blockbuster since, to make the ultimate popcorn classic.