History, Legacy & Showmanship

It’s Not the Years, It’s the Mileage: Remembering “Raiders of the Lost Ark” on its 40th Anniversary

October 11, 2021 - 12:00 pm   |   by
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A scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)



Scott Mendelson: Raiders of the Lost Ark was a divine combination of two specific variables. First, while Harrison Ford was well-known and well-liked from playing Han Solo, the biggest “movie stars” were the filmmakers, namely director Steven Spielberg and co-writer George Lucas. The notion of a big-budget action-adventure movie from “the guy who made Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind and the Star Wars guy” was itself an unbeatable combo. Moreover, especially forty years later, Raiders of the Lost Ark is a definitive “rip-off, don’t remake” triumph. If you recall, Lucas made Star Wars partially because he was unable to secure the rights to a Flash Gordon movie. Spielberg wasn’t able to direct an actual 007 movie, so he and Lucas went and created what indeed turned out to be the American equivalent, with Dr. Henry Jones Jr. becoming arguably as iconic an onscreen character as James Bond.

Michael Kaminski (author, The Secret History of Star Wars: The Art of Storytelling and the Making of a Modern Epic): It is extraordinary to think of the run that Lucas and Spielberg had during the late 1970s and 1980s, and it was really Raiders that cemented this reputation through one of the first superstar producer-director team-ups of the modern era.

Daren Dochterman (co-host, Inglorious Treksperts): Raiders of the lost Ark is one of the few “perfect“ movies ever made. Spielberg‘s dedication to simplicity yet nuanced storytelling is unmatched even in his career. After the bloated access of 1941, he returns to his true form of efficiency and style. The “magical formula“ of Lucas and Spielberg taking the movie serials of their youth and adapting them into the modern world was a stroke of genius. Putting an “A“ luster on a “B“ subject matter makes an amazing combination. The fanciful storyline and exciting settings are made real by Spielberg‘s imagination. This was really the pivot that turned Spielberg into a powerhouse. He nearly got into director jail after 1941, and this movie sprung him.

Peter Krämer (author, The New Hollywood: From Bonnie and Clyde to Star Wars): George Lucas had a vision of reviving the historical adventure movie, with a touch of James Bond. By the late 1970s, his friend Steven Spielberg had established himself both as a master of suspense and as a filmmaker able to inspire awe in audiences. They were a perfect match.

Eric Lichtenfeld: Raiders is such a clear and high-level illustration of Spielberg’s whole approach to filmmaking: from his visual style to the silent-film-like construction of his action sequences to the themes that preoccupied him for so long.

Gary Leva (director, Fog City Mavericks: The Filmmakers of San Francisco): Raiders is a great example of Spielberg’s ability to internalize large swaths of film history and then make something that simultaneously honors films of the past while creating something that is entirely his own. I watched the Disney classic 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea recently and the sequence where Kirk Douglas and Peter Lorre are running out of the jungle, chased by cannibals throwing spears and shooting arrows, was unquestionably the inspiration for the opening sequence when Indy has to escape with the idol. But was it even conscious on Steven’s part? That film came out when he was seven years old. I’ve never asked him, but my guess is it was such a vivid experience for him as a child that when it came time to shoot that scene, his moviegoing experience as a child was buried in his synapses just waiting to be put on the screen. And luckily for us, we in the audience all got to feel like kids again watching it.

W.R. Miller (author, The Raiders Guide and The Star Wars Historical Sourcebook): The late 70s and early 80s preceded the Internet, and so I relied on various hard copy newspaper and magazine indexes, plus trade papers like Variety and Hollywood Reporter, Comics Buyer’s Guide, Film Collector’s World, Starlog, Comics Scene, Fantastic Films, Mediascene Prevue, and Craig Miller’s Bantha Tracks, to learn what was coming down the pike from Lucasfilm. What was happening with the Star Wars saga? I had to know. But Lucasfilm had other projects in the works. One was something called Raiders of the Lost Ark. From Steven Spielberg and George Lucas. Interesting! A team-up of the makers of Jaws and Star Wars. And then it was announced Harrison Ford would play the lead, Indiana Jones. Han Solo redux. The more I read about the project, the higher my expectations. Music by John Williams! Sound design by Ben Burtt! Special effects by Industrial Light & Magic, who had raised the bar with The Empire Strikes Back. Never mind 1941, More American Graffiti and The Star Wars Holiday Special, Raiders was going to be great. ​And…it was.

Joseph McBride: With Raiders, Spielberg was moving fast and working economically to overcome the reputation for overindulgence he had acquired with the bloated 1941, so Raiders benefits from that zip and efficiency and a certain amount of visual and verbal wit (the latter thanks to Lawrence Kasdan’s screenplay). But Raiders is marred by its racist and neocolonialist viewpoint. It was the perfect film to start off the Reagan era in Hollywood studio filmmaking, a miserable period.

Steven Awalt: Like he did with Star Wars, George Lucas's appropriation of these dusty cultural relics (the adventure serials) and audiences’ general, maybe even vague, notion of them combined to make something that felt entirely new and yet completely familiar.

Jonathan Rinzler: With the Indy films, Spielberg and Lucas created the film-as-Disneyland-ride.

Lee Pfeiffer (co-author, The Films of Harrison Ford; editor-in-chief, Cinema Retro): Spielberg and Lucas were at the forefront of a generation of young filmmakers who would change cinema history. They idolized the legendary film directors who inspired them and they were part of an extraordinary period in the late 1960s and early 1970s when a cadre of “Young Turks” that included the likes of Martin Scorsese, Peter Bogdanovich, William Friedkin and many others were making their first imprint on the film industry while the likes of Hitchcock, Hawks, Huston and Welles were still directing films. The influence of those legends on Spielberg and Lucas was profound. They thought big and they thought outside-the-box. The studios at that time were nurturing to new talent. Even blockbuster films had reasonable budgets for the most part, so the financial risks were rather minimal for the studios. I believe Raiders cost about $20 million. Even accounting for inflation, that was still quite a bargain compared to today when a modest love story can cost tens of millions of dollars.

Saul Pincus: Partnerships between box office giants usually don’t work, especially when the collaborations are genuine. Raiders of the Lost Ark was a promise to audiences as to its filmmakers (and Paramount Pictures) that one plus one would equal three; that’s how it was marketed, and incredibly, that’s exactly what they delivered. It probably helped that Lucas, post-Star Wars, was no longer interested in directing on the floor—the domain that Spielberg excels at dominating like nearly no other filmmaker in history. That they made room for one another is unique enough, but the fact that they were actually compelled by the material they were making is evident, too. They took their audiences seriously, took joy in the worlds they were creating, and used their considerable talent (and ability to surround themselves with other amazing talent) to make us feel their obsessions fully. For me, Raiders is literally the centerpiece and the culmination and ultimate expression of the pre-pubescent filmmaking kid in them both. But the common denominator is really John Williams, whose work on every project by those filmmakers to that point—as on Raiders—rocks the house and counts as the film’s soul; it binds the films by these filmmakers to our hearts forever.

Joseph McBride: Steven Spielberg's reputation as a director of fantasy and action films is only part of his legacy. But it is an important part. Raiders of the Lost Ark is an efficient, lively, entertaining, but somewhat deplorable example of his skill in those genres. Spielberg has a genuine kinetic gift for cinematic action.

Lee Pfeiffer: Spielberg and Lucas were visionaries who dreamed of reinventing cinema by simultaneously paying tribute to the old films they had revered as kids. That included action/adventure serials, which were the inspiration for Raiders. Before they were well-established, they had originally approached producer Cubby Broccoli and told them their ambition was to someday direct a James Bond movie. That obviously never happened but elements of the Bond movies are certainly a major part of Raiders: the elitist villain, the wise-cracking hero, the self-reliant heroine and the exotic locations. Lucas was coming off the blockbusters Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back and could write his own ticket in Hollywood. Spielberg was riding high with the huge success of Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, but he was in a more precarious position than Lucas due to the critical and financial failure of his expensive WWII comedy 1941. The two friends had debated bringing to life a new adventure film based on the old serials they loved and the result was Raiders of the Lost Ark, which apparently has now been renamed Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark. I doubt they thought they would create a character that would become one of the most iconic in screen history.

Steven Awalt: Raiders felt as something of an anomaly to Spielberg's already established voice and style when it came out in 1981. With Duel, The Sugarland Express, Jaws, and especially Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Spielberg showed the world he was both an expert director and highly technical filmmaker, but he'd also revealed a clear sense of personality, voice and even heart. The New Yorker critic Pauline Kael bemoaned Raiders as a large and damnable sidestep for Spielberg, being of an impersonal filmmaking nature she blamed on Lucas. (Kael clearly didn't grasp the voice and biography Lucas brought to American Graffiti and Star Wars, two very popular films imbued with their creator's personal concerns and feelings.). In some ways, she's right, Spielberg didn't agree to work on Raiders as a chance to put pieces of himself in his film as he demonstrably did in The Sugarland Express and Close Encounters. But Duel and Jaws were arguably and at Spielberg's own admission more mechanical exercises in manipulating the form and also his audiences. I think Raiders is an extension of those films' aims. They were all works for hire on which Spielberg still did a consummate expert's job where he could have done a journeyman's work. And he made it all look so easy.

Paul M. Sammon: Coming from the same generation of deep-dyed cinema lovers that eventually became labeled as the Movie Brats, Lucas and Spielberg shared personal and professional commonalities. One was a genuine love for what they were doing. At this point in their careers, these men weren’t turning out run-of-the-mill studio products. They were creating deeply personal projects that revisited, revised and inflated the tremendous enthusiasms they’d had for the films they’d loved during their youth. The duo further exhibited separate but equal strengths. Lucas knew how to be a strong producer and collaborator and how to most effectively market a film directly to its core audience (in this case everyone); Spielberg brought tremendous craft, energy and emotional resonance to his efforts. So, both filmmakers perfectly blended to make Raiders the still influential 80s mainstream milestone it is today.

A scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

Mark A. Altman (co-author, Secrets of the Force: The Complete, Uncensored, Unauthorized Oral History of Star Wars and Nobody Does it Better: The Complete, Uncensored, Unauthorized Oral History of James Bond): Spielberg is at the top of his craft here after the commercial failure and filmic excesses of 1941; it’s leanly directed and brilliantly shot by Douglas Slocombe. The performances are pitch perfect and it’s a remarkable homage to the cliffhanger serials of Lucas’ and Spielberg’s youth as well as the vintage James Bond film Spielberg never got to make.

Mike Matessino: Raiders is tremendously important to the careers of both Steven Spielberg and George Lucas. The Empire Strikes Back was a big gamble on Lucas’ part as he produced it independently and did not feel completely in control of it. His whole company was riding on it, so you can imagine how he felt with the movie being so different from the original and making it a cliffhanger. It was successful, of course, and that solidified Lucasfilm, but with Raiders of the Lost Ark he not only wanted to make sure that it would be brought in on budget, but he was able to make an unprecedented (and now historic) deal with the studio for percentages of the gross from day one, rather than waiting for break-even. For Spielberg, coming off 1941, which was extravagantly made and went over budget, but was not a runaway success, Raiders was the movie where he disciplined himself by promising Lucas that it would come in on-budget an on-schedule. It came in ahead on both counts, actually. This played a tremendous role in the establishment of Amblin Entertainment, which he formed with Frank Marshall, who was a producer on Raiders, and Kathleen Kennedy, who was Spielberg's assistant on Raiders after having been assistant to John Milius on 1941. Their first productions were Continental Divide (written by Lawrence Kasdan), E.T. and Poltergeist, all of which were made inexpensively. So Raiders of the Lost Ark, even though Spielberg later stated that he didn’t feel it was a personal movie to him, is the project where he learned how to be a director/producer, still pursuing his creative ambitions but having figured out how to bring the right people aboard and how to work quickly and efficiently. His career would likely have been very different if it hadn’t been for Raiders.

Michael Klastorin (author, Close Encounters of the Third Kind: The Ultimate Visual History; co-author, Back to the Future: The Ultimate Visual History): By 1980, Spielberg had spent over a decade in the honing of his craft, and along the way had already delivered cinematic triumphs to deservedly earn him the title of “wunderkind.” His reputation and friendships allowed him to attract the creative talents , who, if they weren’t already at the top of their game, were well on their way: Philip Kaufman, Lawrence Kasdan, Michael Kahn, John Williams, Frank Marshall, Douglas Slocombe and an entire crew who represented the best of 80’s filmmaking.

Joseph McBride: The Spielberg films I most esteem are Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Schindler’s List, and A.I. Artificial Intelligence. Those films have hearts, souls, and poetry, all of which Raiders lacks.

Mike Matessino: Just as the original Star Wars began with an action sequence, Raiders continued what George Lucas did in that movie by starting the film with the story basically already in progress. In this case it was the end of an adventure, so in that sense it had a James Bond-like structure, but what it really did was uphold the idea that “action is character.”

Chris Salewicz (author, George Lucas: The Making of his Movies): As with everything that Lucas involved himself in there are plenty of elements of archetypal mythology that consistently provide an unconscious and profound resonance to the film—it always feels much larger than the sum of its parts.

Michael Kaminski: George Lucas' interests were always a bit more odd-ball, and you can see this reflected in the films he helped produce in this period—Kagemusha (1980), Twice Upon a Time (1983), Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (1985), Powaqqatsi (1988), for example, none of which were mainstream hits. But with his instincts placed in the context of Spielberg's uncanny ability to entertain mainstream audiences with sharp characters, engaging directing and a forward-driving pace, Lucas' concept of a gun-slinging archaeologist chasing supernatural artifacts was captured and translated immensely better than he could have hoped to achieve on his own, and gave Spielberg a film to direct that was so much more interesting than his original intention of helming yet another entry in the aging James Bond series. It is fascinating to consider how the energy, momentum and wit of Raiders re-applied to Bond could have totally revitalized that franchise coming out of the Roger Moore era slump, but I'm glad we got the alternative, and I'll bet Lucas is too, whose producing track record would be pretty suspect without the Indy series.

Scott Higgins: Spielberg and Lucas were repurposing (and improving) their memories of Saturday afternoon serial matinees (which they probably saw on TV and in repertory theaters because they missed that era by a few years) and handing a storytelling formula to the next generation. Serials left the story unfinished and turned the audience into virtual filmmakers for a week as they figured out cliffhangers on the playground. Lucas and Spielberg became real filmmakers and returned the favor to generations of viewers who haunted the multiplexes and took that world out of the cinema with them. Raiders is a first-rate film school.

Michael Klastorin: The film fulfilled every promise it aspired to. In two words: it entertained. In a few more words, it captivated, it engrossed, it thrilled, it exhilarated. The only thing it didn’t do was to take itself too seriously, which added to its popularity. Mssrs. Spielberg and Lucas wanted to let audiences share in the best part of their childhood, and one of the reasons they got into the movie business. In the process, they created a character and franchise that continues to do the same for the generations that followed.

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