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 both genre-defining and immortal. Raiders of the Lost Ark helped to define my childhood alongside Star Wars, James Bond and Superman. Aged twelve, I begged my mum and dad to buy me a leather jacket just like Indy’s, and I longed to own a battered and worn fedora hat. Indiana Jones introduced me to the wonders of history and the mythic tales of long-lost artefacts, religious icons and spooky stories; he encouraged me to be brave in exploring new places and ideas and never stop looking for an answer to the unknown. Indiana Jones was my hero, teacher and guide for many years, and as I aged, my love of the film series only increased. Even now, Indiana Jones transports me back to my childhood and its sense of wonder and adventure.
Of the four Indiana Jones films Speilberg and Lucas gifted us, Raiders of the Lost Ark stands head and shoulders above the rest; without Raiders, there would have been no Temple of Doom, Last Crusade, Kingdom of the Crystal Skull or Dial of Destiny. Raiders of the Lost Ark was the spark that gave birth to a legend as two influential directors joined forces. In 1973, George Lucas pondered two possible stories as he worked alongside his film school friends Coppola, Scorsese, De Palma and Spielberg. Both stories had sat in his imagination since his teens, and both were built upon the matinee serials he enjoyed as a child. The first took his love of Flash Gordon and Japanese mythology and expanded them into a sweeping space opera of rebellion, religion and empire, while the second explored the adventures of an archaeologist who travelled the world uncovering long-lost artefacts. Following the completion and critical success of American Graffiti, the space opera would win the battle. But that didn’t mean the archaeologist was consigned to the shelf. Lucas continued to work on the idea, building the story under the character name of Indiana Smith.
Lucas had agreed to a filming partnership with Steven Spielberg in 1977. It was here Lucas sold Spielberg the idea of an archaeologist, a mythical ark and a bunch of evil Nazi treasure hunters. The pair had all but agreed to the movie, with Spielberg directing and Lucas producing back in 77. Still, it wasn’t until much later that Spielberg and Lucas would find the time to build upon the initial idea with the help of the screenwriter Lawrence Kasden. However, nearly every major studio turned down Raiders of the Lost Ark due to doubts over the proposed $20 million budget. That is, all but one, Paramount Pictures’ President Michael Eisner saw the potential but demanded rights to any sequels. Lucas agreed with the caveat that any sequel Paramount wanted would have to have Lucasfilm attached, and with that, Raiders had the green light.
Spielberg was quick to suggest Harrison Ford when casting choices came into view, but 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, but Magnum P.I.’s filming schedule and his associated contract would ultimately stop Selleck’s casting in its tracks. As a result, Harrison stepped in with a boyish charm, a cheeky smile and a truckload of charisma.
On set at Elstree Studios (Harrison Ford, Douglas Slocombe and Steven Spielberg)
Raiders of the Lost Ark was a quick and dirty shoot of just 12 weeks to keep things on a budget. To achieve this, Spielberg asked for over 6000 storyboard images, each establishing how the film would look on the big screen and large-scale models of all significant external sets enabling him to plan each shot before leaving the studio. The result was a pressured but smooth twelve-week shoot that progressed on time and surprisingly under budget despite a few accidents and crew sickness.
On set (George Lucas and Harrison Ford)
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 while John Williams’ sublime and energetic score became one of the most recognised film scores ever. Raiders of the Lost Ark opened in US cinemas on June 12th 1981, earning $8,305,823 on its first weekend. However, this figure would increase by the end of its global run to $389,925,971. Raiders would win five Oscars and one BAFTA, cementing four sequels from 1984 to 2023 alongside The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles on TV.
Raiders of the Lost Ark continues to provide the template for action and adventure movies forty years after its release, with its cultural impact felt throughout the landscape of modern cinema. It remains unique, enthralling and electrifying, a whip-cracking masterpiece that is a testament to the creative genius of Lucas and Spielberg. 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