Let’s Talk About ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’ (1981)

Indiana Jones. If you say that name to anyone, they will know who you are talking about. He’s an instantly recognizable character, and his name is not even in the title of the film. It may have been retroactively added to later home media releases, but personally I think Raiders of the Lost Ark works brilliantly on its own. It feels like a nice homage to the type of film and character George Lucas and Steven Spielberg had set out to create, i.e., their own James Bond.

What Indy Means to Us

It’s confession time. Until a few years ago, I had never seen Raiders of the Lost Ark in one full sitting. I had, however, seen all the films numerous times on TV in short spans. Of course, you can’t really immerse yourself into the world Spielberg and Lucas created when there are commercial breaks and you’re flipping back-and-forth between channels. In fact, the only Indy film I had seen in whole was Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, in theaters, when I was a young lad. I remember being rewarded with the theatrical experience after doing a hard day of yard work. It’s been over a decade since that day, but I still remember where I was when I was told I was going to see Indiana Jones. It doesn’t matter what age you are, Indiana Jones is timeless.

– Marmaduke Karlston

As a kid, going to the movies was an event. A treat. I always loved going and, being a child, I was pretty easily impressed. There were two movies, though, that hit me like a ton of bricks and would stick with me as personal favorites for the rest of my life. The first, of course, was the original Star Wars. The second, though, was Raiders of the Lost Ark. From the very first crack of Indiana Jones’ bullwhip, I was sucked in. It combined action and adventure like my young eyes had never seen before with my already-ingrained love of history (both ancient and World War II.) And, being a good kid who was taken to Sunday school by his parents every week, the parts of the Old Testament that it used for source material were already familiar to me. On top of all that, for about two years after I watched it I wanted nothing more than to be a stunt man (or an archaeologist) when I grew up. The movie was a proverbial thrill ride and I went back to see it in the theater at least a couple more times. To this day it’s not only my favorite adventure film, it’s one of my favorite films, period. With both Spielberg and Ford at the top of their games, how could it not be?

– DryButSoupy

This film is by far one of my favorite films from the eighties. Harrison Ford was on fire at this time and I don’t care how you try and make it, there cannot be anyone else in that role. Everything he does is so on point it is ridiculous. Indiana Jones was the character he was born to play. He was great as Han Solo, but Indy is where he really shined. You can really see why all the ladies loved him when he taught class. Man crush aside, Indy was the character all young boys wanted to be back then. He was charming, charismatic, and knew how to handle himself in a fight (or when not to fight and just shoot the guy). Sure he was based on Allan Quatermain and Doc Savage, but we’ll let that slide. I love this movie, and, I get flack for saying this but, I pretend Temple of Doom and Crystal Skull never happened.

– K. Alvarez

Background on Raiders

In 1973, George Lucas wrote The Adventures of Indiana Smith, what would later become Raiders of the Lost Ark. However, it wasn’t until 1977, after the opening of Star Wars, that the film in its current form started to come together. In an excerpt from a 2008 Vanity Fair interview with Steven Spielberg, the director explained how he first heard of Indiana Jones:

[George] had called me up and he said, “Do you want to come to Hawaii? I need to get away for the opening of Star Wars. Do you want to join me?” So I got on a plane, and joined him and his wife, and we were in Hawaii, and we were just waiting for the grosses. Waiting for the morning shows to be reported, because I think the movie opened at 10 o’clock in certain theaters. We got word about three in the afternoon or so, or four in the afternoon. The sun was still up. I remember George got word that all the 10-o’clock-in-the-morning shows had sold out all across the country. And at that point George was the most giddy I had ever seen him in all the years prior to that that I had ever seen him. He was just beside himself, with relief more than anything else. He had been inward for a long time, waiting for those numbers, and then he turned to me, he said, “So what are you going to do next?” And I told him that I wanted to, for the second time, approach [film producer] Cubby Broccoli, who had turned me down the first time, to see if he would change his mind and hire me to do a James Bond movie. And George said, “I’ve got something better than that. It’s called Raiders of the Lost Ark.” He pitched me the story, and I committed on the beach.

The Set Pieces

They do not make blockbusters like Raiders of the Lost Ark anymore. The kind that sweeps you immediately into the narrative and fills you with a sense of excitement and wonder. I think a lot of that can be owed to the film’s action set pieces. Raiders is almost non-stop action, but in all the best ways. No scene ever feels forced or unnecessary. Whether it’s Indy escaping the boulder, fighting the brute mechanic around the plane, or shooting the man with the huge sword, the film never stops moving forward. It never takes a moment to rest. And that’s what makes it a perfect escapism film. The adventure never stops until the credits roll.

Shooting on Location & Practical Effects

What makes a lot of the scenes mentioned above work is their reliance on practical effects. The contemporary blockbuster is green screen and CGI, where Raiders is realistic practical effects and astounding set pieces. I can watch this film and know that they were actually on location (or somewhere made up to look like it). When Indy is digging around in the sand or being chased through the maze of downtown Cairo streets I know he is actually there. I think the audience can feel more attached to the characters and the narrative when there is not any CGI trickery that might pull you out of the immersion.

Plus, that face melting scene at the end is a horror-inducing accomplishment. The fact this was achievable in 1981 with practical effects blows my mind! It is so great that I will accept the horrible fire lightning that accompanies the scene.

Light, Shadows, and Maps

There are two series mainstays that appear in every Indiana Jones film: 1) The use of light and shadows, either casting the silhouette of Jones against a background, or something similar; and, 2) the “airplane map” that allows the film to show rather than tell where Indy and company are traveling to next.

It’s the use of light and shadows, however, that truly do some amazing work in the film. For instance, the image above of Marion seeing the silhouette of Jones does most of the work in the scene. The audience knows Indiana Jones has arrived, and there’s a good chance Marion knows who’s walking through her door before she turns around. However, sometimes, like when Sallah and Indy are lifting and moving the Ark, the light casting their shadow on the wall is a just a damn nice scene to look at.

The Legacy of Indiana Jones

Raiders of the Lost Ark not only dominated the box office the year it was released, but it also made a huge showing at the Academy Awards. It was nominated for nine awards, including Best Picture and Director, and won five for Best Art Direction, Best Film Editing, Best Sound, Best Sound Effects Editing, and Best Visual Effects.

However, there have been plenty of films that have garnered critical and box office acclaim only to have ended up forgotten over the decades. So what does Raiders of the Lost Ark have that has led it to find new fans year after year? Well, I think there is truly no better action hero than Indiana Jones. He is someone you believe you could be. I mean, skin him down to the bones and he really is just a history professor with a knack for hunting down priceless artifacts. All it takes is to raid our grandfather’s closet for a fedora and leather jacket, and we’re halfway there. It’s knowing how to shoot guns, crack whips, and escape death that keeps us from reaching the high bar Indiana Jones has set.

What are your fond memories of Raiders of the Lost Ark? Do you have a fun fact or piece of trivia on the film? Share it in the comments below!

Author: Marmaduke Karlston

"Wait a minute. Wait a minute Doc, uh, are you telling me you built a time machine... out of a DeLorean?"