Raiders of the Lost Ark at 40
The greatest action-adventure story of them all.
Looking back, 1981 was not the pivotal year of movies that would shape my cinematic sensibilities. For Your Eyes Only and Superman II were there, of course. However, I was too young and unsophisticated to understand or really enjoy The Cannonball Run or Stripes. Moreover, it was a year before Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan, Tron, and Blade Runner — movies that would mean the world to me.
No, the only important movie of that summer was the one that broke all the records and introduced the world to Indiana Jones — Raiders of the Lost Ark.
I was about to turn 13 in the Summer of 1981 — finally, a teenager. My family was on vacation and in an unfamiliar Florida town. My father knew about this new film coming out starring the cool guy from Star Wars. I knew nothing.
We entered the movie late. The lights were already down, and somehow we found seats in an incredibly crowded theater. It was years before I knew how Raiders actually started. I think we sat down right when Alfred Molina spit and said, “Poison. Still fresh three days.” I had no idea what I was getting into. The following line has been stolen by screenwriters for decades, “If they knew we were here, they’d have killed us already.”
Then we get one of the most significant introductions in movie history. A betrayal. A cocked pistol. A realization. A whip crack. A shocked expression. A wayward shot fired, and the gun falling into the river. And then the reveal of Indiana Jones from shadow into half shadow. All told in as few shots as possible.
From this point forward, I was hooked. I’d entered into a world I’d never heard of before with a lead character who brandished a whip and could navigate booby traps in an ancient tomb. I did not grow up watching Saturday matinee cliffhanger serials, so I had no idea for the inspirations behind the movie. It didn’t matter. This was an adventure film far different from the James Bond movies I’d seen up till then.
The origin of Raiders of the Lost Ark goes back to a Hawaiian trip George Lucas and Stephen Spielberg took right after the release of Star Wars. Lucas was adamant his movie would be a flop, and Spielberg was lamenting not getting the chance to direct a Bond film. So while they built sandcastles, Lucas pitched his idea for an archaeologist adventurer. They pulled ideas from their childhoods watching matinee serials as well as movies like The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and characters from books like Alan Quartermain and Professor Challenger.
With screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan, Lucas and Spielberg started shaping the story. It would take the audience all over northern Africa via trucks, tanks, and a Nazi flying wing. There would be spiders and snakes, mummified corpses, and daring escapes. With one goal… to find the Ark of the Covenant.
Everyone who loves movies has probably heard the story about how Tom Selleck was the first choice for Indiana Jones, but he could not get out of his Magnum, PI contract. Today, Harrison Ford is synonymous with the character. The rest of the actors are perfectly cast, from Karen Allen to John-Rhys Davies and Paul Freeman.
Looking back on the movie, while Ford is the superstar, Karen Allen’s Marion walks the line between tough-talking, hard-drinking counterpart to Indy and the cliche damsel in distress. Indiana Jones wasn’t a superhero in Raiders, and Marion helps keep him grounded. Of course, he can be hurt, and it’s played for a pretty good gag in the movie. I like that he’s a little battered, but he’s not a coward. He has charisma, but not machismo. He’s smart and athletic.
Raiders premiered on June 12, 1981, forty years ago today. The early 1930s setting was just fifty some odd years before the movie’s premiere, and now we as an audience are practically that far away from when it hit theaters. Watching Raiders in 2021, everything looks fantastic. With a period setting, it doesn’t feel of its time but timeless. To me, Raiders has that same eternal quality as another period movie, Casablanca. Obviously, they are not the same kind of film. However, both can be watched at any time, and you are instantly transported.
Watching it again, I noticed how the script pulls the James Bond trick at the beginning, where the last adventure concludes, and we are catapulted into the next. The forbidden tomb sequence with a pre-famous Alfred Molina, wall spikes, skeletons, spiders, a giant pit, a giant boulder, and a daring escape via a floatplane sets the stage. It is far more thrilling than most action and adventure-type movies, and that’s just the opening ten minutes.
From that point on, we get straight to the story and action set-piece after action set-piece. The movie is unrelenting, from the bar fight in flames to the Cairo chase to the flying wing fight. Anytime the film slows a bit, the story is still moving forward.
For today’s audiences, the lack of CGI brings a sense of realness missing in movies of the 21st century. The truck chase scene is incredible because it was all really done with stunt performers. The cobras in the pit are truly scary because the actors are reacting to real snakes and not against the invisibility of the green screen. It all feels dangerous and exciting.
In a movie filled with outstanding visuals, the one that always sticks out is the Nazi coat-hanger. I mean, sure, the melting faces part is memorable but nowhere near as menacing.
Speaking of the climax, the whole wrath of God, exploding heads, and melting eyeballs were really the first horror-type special effects I’d seen, and they blew me away. The bad guys always get it in the end — especially Nazi bad guys.
I would be remiss if I did not mention the John Williams score. Along with the “Imperial March” for The Empire Strikes Back just a year prior, the “Raiders March” is iconic and instantly recognizable.
For forty years, Raiders of the Lost Ark has held the title of greatest adventure film ever made. The undisputed champion.
May audiences forty years from now experience it with the same awe and excitement I did.