Raiders of the Lost Ark at 40: A whip-cracking masterpiece

Raiders of the Lost Ark is not only one of the best action and adventure movies ever made, but it’s also one of the most culturally significant. Its place in the history of cinema, genre-defining, its place in the hearts of fans, immortal. In many ways, Indiana Jones defined my childhood alongside Star Wars, James Bond and Superman. For years, I begged my mum and dad to buy me a leather jacket just like Indy’s while constantly wishing I owned a fedora style hat. Aged eleven, Indiana Jones introduced me to the wonders of history and the mythic tales of long lost artefacts. While at the same time encouraging me to be braver in exploring new places and ideas.

Indiana Jones was my hero, my teacher and my guide for many years. And although my hero-worship of the character may have diminished with age, my love and admiration of the film series only increased. Even now, Indiana Jones transports me back to my childhood and the sense of wonder and adventure it held. Each beautiful film in the series wrapped in boundless energy, humour and adventure.

But, out of all the stunning Indiana Jones films Speilberg and Lucas gifted us, it’s Raiders of the Lost Ark that stands head and shoulders above the rest. After all, without Raiders, there would be no Temple of Doom or Last Crusade. Raiders of the Lost Ark was the spark that ignited a whole host of films, from Goonies to Jurrasic Park and Captain America. And without it, the landscape of modern cinema would have been a far less adventurous, engaging and magical place.

“Dr. Jones. Again we see there is nothing you can possess which I cannot take away”.


But, how did Raiders of the Lost Ark come into being? And what brought two of the worlds most influential directors and creators together? Our story starts a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away. In 1973, George Lucas found himself pondering two possible stories for the big screen as he worked alongside his film school friends Coppolla, Scorsese, De Palma and Spielberg. Both of these stories had sat in his imagination since his teens, and both built upon the matinee serials he enjoyed as a child. The first of these ideas took his childhood love of Flash Gordon and expanded it into a sweeping space opera of rebellion, ancient religion and oppressive empire. While at the same time, the second explored an archaeologist who travelled the world uncovering long lost artefacts.

On completing his break out movie American Graffiti, the space opera (Star Wars) would win the battle for Lucas’s attention. But, that did not mean the archaeologist was consigned to the shelf; in fact, Lucas continued to revisit the idea, building the story further while initially naming his character Indiana Smith. However, Star Wars was now all-consuming for Lucas, and work had already begun on The Empire Strikes Back, leaving little time for him to direct Indiana’s adventures.


Luckily, Lucas had already agreed on a filming partnership with Steven Spielberg. This arrangement dated back to a phone call with Speilberg in 1977 where Lucas sold him the idea of an archaeologist, a mythical ark and evil Nazi treasure hunters. In just six months, the pair had all but agreed to the movie, with Spielberg directing and Lucas producing. And by early 1978, the project had moved to screenplay development in securing studio funding. Enter Lawrance Kasden, who was also working with Lucas on early drafts of The Empire Strikes Back.

“Snakes. Why Did It Have To Be Snakes?”

Indiana Jones

Kasden’s screenplay was electric; however, that did not stop nearly every major studio from turning down Raiders of the Lost Ark. The reason, a high level of doubt that the $20 million budget would not balloon due to location shooting. Unfortunately, there was also no way of Lucas funding the project himself, with The Empire Strikes Back eating cash at the newly formed Lucasfilm. Thankfully, Paramount Pictures’ President Michael Eisner saw the potential while demanding rights to all sequels. Lucas agreed with the caveat that any sequel Paramount wanted would have to have Lucasfilm attached. Meanwhile, filming would centre on Elstree, London and Tunisia, ensuring the film came in on budget.

In casting Indiana, Spielberg was quick to suggest Harrison Ford. However, Lucas was far less convinced, worrying that Ford would become associated with the new Lucasfilm as the go-to hero. Therefore, after multiple screentests, Lucas and Spielberg opted for Tom Selleck. However, Magnum P.I.’s filming schedule and his associated contract would ultimately stop Selleck’s casting in its tracks. The result was a fate driven decision that would eventually lead to the massive success of Raiders, as Harrison stepped in. That is not, of course, direct criticism of Selleck, as I am sure he would have made the role his own. But, Sellick also carried a masculine presence rooted in the traditional 70s action hero. While, in contrast, Harrison brought a boyish charm, a cheeky smile and a truckload of charisma.

On set at Elstree Studios (Harrison Ford, Douglas Slocombe and Steven Spielberg)

But the genius of the casting choices made did not stop there. Ford was joined by the brilliant stage actress Karen Allen, who was not the first choice for Marion but undoubtedly the best. At the same time, British actor Paul Freeman would bring Belloq to life with a delicious air of superiority. Meanwhile, other key roles would also go to actors known for their stage work, including the brilliant Denholm Elliott and John Rhys-Davies. But, maybe the most surprising yet ingenious casting would sit with Ronald Lacey as the Gestapo inspired Toht. Lacey had all but given up on acting after years of disappointment, turning his hand to becoming an agent instead. But, in his casting, Raiders of the Lost Ark would relight the dying embers of a career he thought was all but lost.

Raiders of the Lost Ark was to be a quick and dirty shoot of 85 days (just over 12 weeks). To achieve this, Spielberg asked for over 6000 storyboard images, each one establishing how the film would look on the big screen. Meanwhile, at Elstree, large scale models were built of all major external sets, enabling Spielberg to plan each shot before leaving the studio. The result was a smooth shoot, one that, despite a few accidents and crew sickness in Tunisia, progressed on time and surprisingly under budget.

On set (George Lucas and Harrison Ford)

Meanwhile, the legendary British director of photography Douglas Slocombe (The Italian Job, The Lavender Hill Mob) brought Norman Reynold’s (Star Wars, Empire of the Sun) intricate Elstree sets to life in glorious colour and rich detail. But, the icing on the cake had to be John Williams sublime, energetic and nuanced score. A score that will forever be one of the greatest and most recognisable soundtracks ever produced among his extensive catalogue of movie music perfection.

Raiders of the Lost Ark opened in US cinemas on June 12th 1981, earning $8,305,823 on its first weekend. However, by the end of its global run, this figure would increase to $389,925,971. On top of that, it would go on to win five Oscars and one BAFTA, its success cementing a further three sequels from 1984 to 2008 alongside The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles on TV. But, Indy’s story is far from over, and with a fifth instalment currently shooting in the UK, the journey is set to continue in the capable hands of director James Mangold.


Raiders of the Lost Ark continues to provide us with the template for action and adventure movies forty years after its release, its cultural impact felt throughout the landscape of modern cinema. However, few films have managed to match Raiders of the Lost Ark in sheer entertainment, power, fun and imagination. And therefore, forty years on, it remains unique, enthralling and electrifying, pulling in new fans with each year that goes by. Raiders of the Lost Ark is a whip-cracking masterpiece, a testament to the creative genius of Lucas and Spielberg. But, even more than that, it’s an adventure we can all enjoy no matter our age. Do I still wish I was Indiana Jones, forty years on? Hell, yes!.

Director: Steven Spielberg

Cast: Harrison FordKaren AllenPaul Freeman, John Rhys-Davies, Denholm Elliott, Ronald Lacey, Alfred Molina 

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