It’s hard to believe 40 years has gone by for this priceless treasure of a movie. Raiders of the Lost Ark, which was great then, as it is now.
Raiders of the Lost Ark was conceived by Steven Spielberg and George Lucas while the two were on vacation at the time Star Wars was released in theaters in May 1977. The two filmmakers wanted to collaborate on a project. Spielberg wanted to do a James Bond film, but that did not pan out. Instead, he and Lucas decided to create their own hero and over time, Phil Kaufman helped flesh out Lucas’ story, and later Lawrence Kasdan wrote the screenplay.
When Raiders of the Lost Ark debuted June 12, 1981, it made us realize that Hollywood did not make movies like this anymore. Directed by Steven Spielberg and executive produced by George Lucas, the film was a tribute to the old black and white adventure serials (often done by Republic Pictures) that appeared in cinemas back in the early days of film.
It was an adventure movie set in the 1930s with a touch of the religious and otherworldly—namely the mystical artifact, the Ark of the Covenant, which was sought after throughout the world by the archeologist Indiana “Indy” Jones (Harrison Ford, who was never more dashing) and Nazis led by Indy’s dastardly rival archeologist Rene Belloq (Paul Freeman). The film boasted a handsome and rugged hero, a beautiful, but tough, female lead (Karen Allen), smarts, spunk and pulse-pounding action. It’s why many moviegoers still consider Raiders of the Lost Ark to be the all-time greatest action movie.
What helped Raiders stand out from other action films were Spielberg’s directing which injected so much passion and energy into each scene and the hint of the supernatural when the Ark was finally opened. Basically the film was a Republic serial on a steroid budget as it boasted topnotch production values and effects, which consisted of blue screens and miniatures. One chilling effect that was unique at that time was that of one of the villain’s face melting off when the Ark was opened. The effects crew constructed a mold using a stone skull and gelatin that was melted between two propane heaters. It took about ten minutes for the face to melt, which of course, was sped up in the film to a gruesome effect.
Another star of the film was the film’s composer, John Williams. Already famous for his memorable scores for Jaws, Star Wars, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Williams was picked for Raiders thanks to his association with both filmmakers. Originally, Williams had two distinct themes for the film, and Spielberg suggested he combine the two and viola, that is how we got the famous Raiders March that evokes a feeling of grand adventure and thrills.
The film was wildly beloved when it burst into the scene that summer. Later in 1982, it won five Oscars and was even nominated for best director and best movie of the year, though as usual the Academy Awards voters chose to bestow those honors to less deserving winners (Warren Beatty for his overstuffed Reds, and Chariots of Fire, a real yawn fest of a film that is largely forgotten). As noted before, Raiders of the Lost Ark was based on cheaply made serials, yet it was made on a budget of less than $20 million. However, the film grossed almost $400 million (very high for its time), which proved that audiences still liked good old-fashioned adventures.
Raiders of the Lost Ark and the followup Indiana Jones films dispelled any doubt that Harrison Ford could only be a box office draw for the Star Wars movies. Ford stood out so clearly with his iconic wardrobe, bullwhip and tough-as-nails demeanor, except when it came to snakes! After his role in Indy, Ford went on to become one of the top earning action stars of the ’80s.
At the same time, Raiders helped disprove that George Lucas was a one-trick pony, since he is best known for his Star Wars films, while it cemented Steven Spielberg’s deserved status as one of our greatest film directors.
The sequels were well received for the most part with exceptions. The first sequel, or rather prequel (since it takes place before Raiders), Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom was criticized for being too violent and helped inspire the PG-13 movie rating. The third film, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade was considered by some as the best of the Indy films, though most still think that forty years later, the first one is the best. Unfortunately, the last one, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, which came out in 2008, is considered to be the weakest film, thanks to the obvious use of CG, clumsy antics and Shia LeBeouf, who played Indy’s son, but it still has some terrific moments.
Thankfully, that film will not be the last we have seen of Professor Jones as a new adventure is being filmed for release next year. But given Harrison Ford’s advanced age (he is 78), it is hard to see how the film will convince us he is still a man of action. It’s too bad, there were not more Indiana Jones movies made when Ford was in his prime, otherwise we would not have this dilemma. But keep in mind that the actor wanted to branch out and do other films, plus Spielberg and Lucas were also busy with other projects, which meant that all three getting together to do more Indy films was a logistical nightmare and it still is, as seen by the fact that Steven Spielberg is not directing the fifth film; James Mangold has taken over for the directing duties.
With three sequels released and a fourth sequel currently filming we should take a moment to consider the appeal and influence of Indiana Jones.
The concept of Indy being an outdoor adventurer looking for things of importance no doubt influenced Tomb Raider, Uncharted, the Temple Run video game franchise, the Jumanji films, Brendan Fraser’s The Mummy, and even Dora the Explorer. Lesser known properties inspired by Indy’s film adventures include the cult classic The Rocketeer, the fairly recent Journey to the Center of the Earth movies with Brendan Fraser and The Rock, and TV shows like Tales of the Golden Monkey. There was even an Indy- themed episode of Magnum P.I. starring Spielberg and Lucas’ first choice to play Indiana Jones—Tom Selleck. The actor almost got the part, but had to bow out due to contractual obligations with his TV show.
Raiders of the Lost Ark is so influential that any imagery in media showing a person or people exploring the jungle, with table cards flashing a bold logo is no doubt influenced by Indiana Jones. It even re-popularized the fedora hat that Indy often wore along with his leather jacket. These are just some of the reasons why we celebrate Raiders of the Lost Ark forty years after its release. Simply put, it still holds up as an exciting, innovative and lavish adventure yarn that is timeless. To paraphrase Belloc, who mentioned in the film that if he buried a cheap watch in a thousand years it would become priceless, well in a thousand years we sense that this movie will still be priceless!
Walter L. Stevenson