History, Legacy & Showmanship
Tuesday, 14 June 2016 16:00

The Great Adventure: Remembering “Raiders of the Lost Ark” on its 35th Anniversary

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“The guys who made Jaws and Star Wars have done it again. It’s too good to be true.” — David Ansen, Newsweek

The Digital Bits and History, Legacy & Showmanship are pleased to present this retrospective article commemorating the 35th anniversary of the release of Raiders of the Lost Ark, the immensely popular Spielberg & Lucas action extravaganza that introduced moviegoers to the globe-trotting adventures of Indiana Jones.

Raiders, featuring Harrison Ford as everyone’s favorite archaeologist, opened 35 years ago this week, and for the occasion The Bits features a compilation of box-office data that places the movie’s performance in context, production and exhibition information, a list of the film’s 70-millimeter “showcase” presentations, and an interview segment with a group of Spielberg authorities. [Read on here...]


Harrison Ford in Raiders of the Lost Ark



  • 1 = Rank among top-earning movies during opening weekend
  • 1 = Rank on list of top box-office earners of 1981 (calendar year)
  • 1 = Rank on list of top box-office earners of 1981 (legacy)
  • 1 = Rank on list of top box-office earners of 1981 (summer season)
  • 1 = Rank on Paramount’s all-time list of top box-office earners at close of original release
  • 2 = Rank of the Indiana Jones character on AFI’s list of the 100 Greatest Heroes and Villains
  • 3 = Rank on all-time list of top box-office earners at close of original release (gross)
  • 4 = Number of sequels, prequels and television series
  • 4 = Rank among top-earning movies of the 1980s
  • 4 = Rank on all-time list of top box-office earners at close of original release (rental)
  • 5 = Number of Academy Awards (four competitive + one special achievement)
  • 8 = Number of Academy Award nominations
  • 8 = Number of weeks nation’s top-grossing movie (weeks 1, 6, 9-13, 26)
  • 13 = Number of years Paramount Pictures’ top-earning film
  • 21 = Rank on current list of all-time top-grossing movies (domestic, adjusted for inflation)
  • 30 = Number of months between theatrical release and home-video release
  • 49 = Number of 70mm prints
  • 60 = Rank on American Film Institute’s list of the 100 Greatest American Films
  • 64 = Number of days to gross $100 million
  • 73 = Number of days of principal photography
  • 81 = Number of weeks of longest-running engagement
  • 101 = Rank on current list of all-time top-grossing movies (domestic)
  • 234 = Rank on current list of all-time top-grossing movies (worldwide)
  • 304 = Number of days to gross $200 million
  • 1,078 = Number of opening-week bookings in the United States and Canada
  • 6,500 = Approximate number of snakes used for the Well of the Souls sequence
  • 1.1 million = Number of home video units sold in 1983/84
  • $39.95 = Suggested retail price of original home video release
  • $7,704 = Opening-weekend per-screen average
  • $3.1 million = Box-office gross (2012 IMAX re-release)
  • $8.3 million = Box-office gross (opening weekend)
  • $11.4 million = Box-office gross (1983 re-release)
  • $21.4 million = Box-office gross (1982 re-release)
  • $22.8 million = Production cost
  • $60.0 million = Production cost (adjusted for inflation)
  • $90.4 million = Box-office rental (as of January 1, 1982)
  • $112.0 million = Box-office rental (as of January 1, 1983)
  • $115.6 million = Box-office rental (as of January 1, 1984)
  • $141.7 million = Box-office gross (international)
  • $209.6 million = Box-office gross (original release, 6/12/81-7/15/82)
  • $231.0 million = Box-office gross (as of 12/30/82 when last print is pulled from release)
  • $242.4 million = Box-office gross (original + ’82 & ’83 re-releases)
  • $248.2 million = Box-office gross (original + re-releases, special screenings, and adjustments)
  • $304.2 million = Box-office rental (domestic, adjusted for inflation)
  • $373.0 million = Box-office gross (international, adjusted for inflation)
  • $389.9 million = Box-office gross (worldwide)
  • $642.2 million = Box-office gross (domestic, adjusted for inflation)
  • $1.1 billion = Box-office gross (worldwide, adjusted for inflation)

A scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark



“The guys who made Jaws and Star Wars have done it again. It’s too good to be true.” — David Ansen, Newsweek

Raiders of the Lost Ark is sensational. This awesomely entertaining adventure spectacle succeeds in fusing the most playful and exciting elements of Spielberg’s Jaws and Lucas’s Star Wars in a fresh format.” — Gary Arnold, The Washington Post

“I don’t know how strong is Paramount’s percentage in the distribution of Raiders of the Lost Ark, but of one thing I’m certain — Lucas and Spielberg have just opened up another goldmine.” — Arthur Knight, The Hollywood Reporter

Raiders is a great movie, but there’s too much to it. Ghosts of George Lucas and Spielberg keep parading into view. The storyline on this movie ought to read, Raiders of the Lost Ark have Close Encounters of the Third Kind with Star Wars and Jaws while The Empire Strikes Back in 1941. The movie has heaps of everything — action, comedy, adventure, stunts. It’s razzle-dazzle entertainment. But who needs this much?” — Carol Olten, The San Diego Union

Raiders of the Lost Ark is about as entertaining as a commercial movie can be.” — Gene Siskel, Chicago Tribune

“It’s a humdinger and is an action-packed love letter to the serials and Edgar Rice Burroughs’ adventure novels of the past.” — Ralph B. Patterson, (Little Rock) Arkansas Gazette

Raiders of the Lost Ark is the stuff that raucous Saturday matinees at the local Bijou once were made of, a crackerjack fantasy-adventure that shapes its pulp sensibilities and cliffhanging serial origins into an exhilarating escapist entertainment that will have broad-based summer audiences in the palm of its hand. Even within this summer’s hot competitive environment, box-office prospects are within the top rank.” — Stephen Klain, Variety

“The opening sequence, set in South America, with Indy Jones entering a forbidden temple and fending off traps, snares, poisoned darts, tarantulas, stone doors with metal teeth, and the biggest damn boulder you’ve ever seen, is so thrill-packed you don’t have time to breathe — or to enjoy yourself much, either…. Seeing Raiders is like being put through a Cuisinart — something has been done to us, but not to our benefit…. Kinesthetically, the film gets to you. It gets your heart thumping. But there’s no exhilaration in this dumb, motor excitement…. John Williams’ pounding score could be the music from any old Tarzan movie, though with a fuller orchestra and at ten times the volume. Like just about everything else in the picture that misses, the klunky music can be said to be intentional — to represent fidelity to the genre. Yet, with the manicured wide-screen images and the scale of this production, klunkiness sticks out in a way that it didn’t in the serials.” — Pauline Kael, The New Yorker

Raiders of the Lost Ark is as wondrous and delightful as we like to pretend the movies of yesterday were. The adventure epic raises pulp movie-making to the level of an art form.” — Philip Wuntch, The Dallas Morning News

“Now, you have to wonder about two guys who want nothing more in life than to spend $20 million recreating the fantasies of their adolescence in hitherto unknown perfection. That’s essentially what Spielberg and Lucas have accomplished in Raiders. All the while marveling at the trumpeting triviality of it all, I found myself utterly exhilarated by this shrewdly sophisticated boys’ adventure.” — Pat Dowell, The Washington Times

“Pooling their talents for the first time on-screen, the creators of Star Wars and Close Encounters have turned out what is far and away the wittiest, most exhilarating and outrageous cliffhanger in the history of movie serials…. Many young filmmakers rob from past film classics, but few do it as cleverly and affectionately as Spielberg and Lucas…. If this is a movie made by people who know nothing of the world but movies — the most common and, I think, fallacious criticism of the Spielberg-Lucas school of filmmaking — it’s also a movie that resourcefully uses those classic influences to create its own magic.” — John Hartl, The Seattle Times

“The intricate stunts keep the kids gasping, and the adults do get a lot of laughs. But the predictability of it all, even touched with parody and love for all those old movies on which Lucas and Spielberg cut their teeth, brings diminished returns. I realize I’m expressing a minority point of view, judging from the cheers in the audience and the look on the face of a 12-year-old boy who sighed, ‘It’s wonderful!’ But I think Lucas and Spielberg missed the chance to deepen their adventure by creating something other than stock villainous Nazis.” — Judy Stone, San Francisco Chronicle

“The new collaboration by George Lucas and Steven Spielberg is such a smashingly well-done movie that it makes virtues out of juvenility and superficiality. No one need apologize for enjoying Raiders of the Lost Ark, because it is masterful cinema.” — George Anderson, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

“Just when you’ve begun to lose hope in the magic of movies to entertain and enthrall, along comes Raiders of the Lost Ark. It thrills and scares and enraptures all in one splendid swoop. Here is film making at its best…. My advice is to rush out to see Raiders of the Lost Ark. The movie is destined to become a classic, since it wins your heart as it grabs your attention.” — Donna Chernin, The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer

Raiders of the Lost Ark may not awaken the slumbering movie industry from its box office malaise. But if it doesn’t, nothing can.” — Jack Mathews, Detroit Free Press

“Director Steven Spielberg and producer George Lucas give us action and adventure in droves. But that’s about all they give us. The story is a simple one…. Star Wars fans may be somewhat disappointed to learn that Raiders of the Lost Ark doesn’t contain much in the way of special effects, though its supernatural finale is visually powerful.” — Owen Hardy, The (Louisville) Courier-Journal

Raiders of the Lost Ark is this summer’s out-of-the-body experience, a movie of glorious imagination and breakneck speed that grabs you in the first shot, hurtles you through a series of incredible adventures, and deposits you outside the theater two hours later — breathless, dizzy, wrung-out, and with a silly grin on your face.” — Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times

“Two hours of non-stop thrills condensed into one giant, fun-filled entertainment.” — Rex Reed, syndicated columnist

Raiders of the Lost Ark is one of the most deliriously funny, ingenious and stylish American adventure movies ever made.” — Vincent Canby, The New York Times

“Hurrah and hallelujah! It’s hats-in-the-air, heart-in-the-mouth time at the movies again.” — Sheila Benson, Los Angeles Times

“There’s a lot of fun and action, but nothing to chew on afterward.” — David Denby, New York

Raiders has it all — the best two hours of pure entertainment anyone is going to find — a blockbuster on the order of Star Wars and Jaws.” — Richard Schickel, Time

“Spielberg has directed it all brilliantly, finding his own way to tell a 1930s story in 1981’s visual language…it’s the best movie he has ever made.” — Bernard Drew, Gannett News Service

Raiders contains within five minutes more screams, thrills and action than can be accomplished by most movies in two hours.” — Ron Base, Toronto Star

“A frantic, frenetic, fantasy frolic that is sure to be one of this summer’s biggest box office hits.” — Gene Shalit, The Today Show

“Remember when movies used to promise a thrill a minute? Well, Raiders nearly doubles that ratio. It makes you feel like you’re beating the speed limit just sitting still.” — Michael Sragow, Rolling Stone

“[Raiders of the Lost Ark is] no more substantial than cotton candy, but it’s easily the best piece of entertainment Hollywood has produced in 1981.” — Bruce McCabe, The Boston Globe



Raiders of the Lost Ark was filmed in 73 days, fifteen days ahead of schedule. Principal photography commenced on June 23rd, 1980, in La Rochelle, France. Several weeks of studio work was done at EMI Elstree in London. This was followed by a month of shooting in Tunisia before wrapping on October 3rd, 1980, in Kauai, Hawaii. Although not counted on the official principal photography schedule, the production also included several days of second unit work. Visual effects were produced at Industrial Light & Magic in Marin County, California. In addition, there were a couple of days of additional photography, in January 1981, in San Francisco and Stockton, California.

The idea for Raiders was told by George Lucas to Steven Spielberg on a beach in Hawaii during a May 1977 vacation following the completion and release of Lucas’s Star Wars and the completion of principal photography of Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

Raiders was test-screened on May 9th, 1981, at the Northpoint in San Francisco.

Paramount’s originally-scheduled release date for Raiders was June 19th, 1981. Shortly before release, so as not to compete during opening weekend with expected hits Superman II and The Cannonball Run, the studio moved up the release by one week where instead the opening-weekend competition was Clash of the Titans and History of the World Part I.

Raiders 35 mm filmRaiders was screened at the Cannes Film Festival in May 1981. As well, Raiders was screened as a sneak preview in several markets one week before release. And in lieu of a formal premiere, there were a series of invitational and charity previews in the days ahead of its June 12th release.

Two original documentaries were produced in 1981: The Making of Raiders of the Lost Ark (for public television) and Great Movie Stunts: Raiders of the Lost Ark (for network television).

Raiders included footage from Lost Horizon (1973) and The Hindenburg (1975).

By the close of its theatrical release, Raiders had become the highest-grossing film in the history of Paramount Pictures, a position it held until dethroned thirteen years later by Forrest Gump.

The longest theatrical engagement of Raiders is believed to have been an 81-week run in San Jose (25 weeks at the Century 21 followed by a 56-week moveover run at the Century 25). The longest, continuous engagement in a single-screen theater is believed to have been a 58-week run at the Cinema Grossmont in the San Diego suburb of La Mesa.

Raiders was released to the home video market in December 1983, thirty months after initial theatrical release, and became the first home video release to sell over one million units. The Beta and VHS editions retailed for the then-low price of $39.95 and the videodisc editions for $29.95. Its first letterboxed edition was on a remastered LaserDisc release in 1992. It was subsequently released on DVD in 2003 and on Blu-ray Disc in 2012.

Raiders had its cable television premiere broadcasts during November 1984.

Raiders had its network television premiere broadcast (on ABC) on September 28th, 1986.

Raiders was Steven Spielberg’s fifth collaboration with composer John Williams and third with editor Michael Kahn.

Richard Amsel, famous for his numerous TV Guide covers, was the artist who painted the artwork used on the film’s promotional material.

Indiana was the name of one of George & Marcia Lucas’s pet dogs.

Raiders of the Lost Art was MAD Magazine’s spoofy take on Raiders.

Raiders was re-released during the summer of 1982 and spring of 1983. The re-release was promoted as “The Return of the Great Adventure.” There was an IMAX re-release during 2012.

Tom Selleck was originally cast in the role of Indiana Jones, but a commitment to CBS for the Magnum, P.I. television series prevented him from accepting the role. Shortly after Harrison Ford was cast and production began, a Writers Guild strike delayed the production of network television shows, a break which, ironically, would have enabled Selleck to have done Raiders. Selleck later would do a Raiders-esque episode of Magnum, P.I. as well as the similar adventure film High Road to China (1983)

The Star Wars connections are endless: The canyon where Indy threatens to blow up the Ark and subsequently surrenders to Belloq and the Nazis was the same Tunisia location where R2-D2 was captured by the Jawas. Numerous crew members worked on both productions. As a joke, images of Star Wars characters R2-D2 and C-3PO were included among the hieroglyphics in the Well of the Souls set. The registration letters on Jock’s plane were OB-CPO (as in Obi-Wan Kenobi and C-3PO). And, in addition to Harrison Ford, Star Wars actor William Hootkins (Porkins) appeared in Raiders (as Major Eaton).

The classic “Wilhelm” scream sound effect can be heard during the truck chase sequence.

The submarine featured in Raiders was used in Das Boot (full scale) and Spielberg’s 1941 (miniature model).

Actors Vic Tablian and Pat Roach each had a dual role in Raiders. Tablian played the Peruvian porter Barranca as well as the Monkey Man who attempts to poison Indy and Sallah. Roach played the Giant Sherpa in the Nepal sequence and the German mechanic Indy fights near the Flying Wing.

Producer Frank Marshall played the part of the pilot of the German Flying Wing.

In 1989, the leather jacket and fedora worn by Harrison Ford were donated to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.

In 1999 Raiders was selected for preservation by the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress.

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