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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“As soon as Indy stepped out of the shadows in that first scene and revealed himself to us with that badass confidence and intensity, I feel like in that moment, Harrison Ford truly became a movie star of the highest order.” – Charles de Lauzirika, producer/director of Dangerous Days: Making Blade Runner

The Digital Bits and History, Legacy & Showmanship are pleased to present this multi-page retrospective article commemorating the 40th anniversary of the release of Raiders of the Lost Ark, the Lucas & Spielberg action classic that introduced moviegoers to the globe-trotting adventures of Indiana Jones and spawned a franchise of sequels, prequels, games, and theme park attractions.

Raiders, featuring Harrison Ford as everyone’s favorite cinematic archaeologist, was the most successful movie of its year of release and for a period of time the third highest-grossing motion picture of all time. The Oscar-winning movie also starred Karen Allen as heroine Marion Ravenwood, Paul Freeman as archvillain Belloq, Ronald Lacey as villain Toht, John Rhys-Davies as sidekick Sallah, and Denholm Elliott as colleague Marcus Brody.

In 1999 the Library of Congress selected Raiders of the Lost Ark for preservation in the National Film Registry as being “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant,” and earlier this year, Raiders and the other movies in the series were released for the first time on 4K UHD (reviewed here). [Read on here...]

Raiders was released to movie theaters forty years ago this summer, and for the occasion The Digital Bits features a twenty-one chapter interview/Q&A/oral history-style segment with a diverse group of sixty-five historians, scholars, pop culture authorities, and a dissenter or two, all of whom reflect on the movie (and franchise) four decades after its debut, plus a package of statistics and box-office data that places the movie’s performance in context, along with passages from some of its original reviews, and a reference/historical chronology of the movie’s coveted 70-millimeter showcase presentations.

A scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)


The Epic Raiders Interview


Mike Matessino (restoration producer of numerous John Williams/Steven Spielberg soundtracks): A movie like Raiders of the Lost Ark is worth celebrating any year at any time because it is a template for not only the action genre but for cinematic structure in general. It’s a movie that itself celebrates everything that is fun about the movies in the classic sense. Dare I say, “it’s not the years, it’s the mileage.”

Scott Higgins (author, Matinee Melodrama: Playing with Formula in the Sound Serial): Raiders remains an elegant, rock-solid piece of craft and a source of joy.

Eric Lichtenfeld (author, Action Speaks Louder: Violence, Spectacle, and the American Action Movie): Raiders deserves to be celebrated because it helped us recover the exuberant spirit of the serials—think 1940s pabulum like Don Winslow of the Navy, Spy Smasher, Jungle Girl and others—but married it to very high quality, even sophisticated, filmmaking.

Julie Kirgo (essayist, Twilight Time): Of course, Raiders is an action-adventure picture: a real boys’ own movie-movie. But it also has the genre-busting advantage of being a modern-day screwball comedy. It can boast all the elements, especially in its focus on a sparring couple—gorgeously incarnated by Harrison Ford and Karen Allen—who begin at odds, then find their way back to each other via a series of escapades during which he can safely reveal his emotionality (those are real tears when Indy thinks Marion has perished in a horrifying basket mishap) and she can prove herself as game and clever as he is. Adding to our pleasure is some supremely satisfying banter that sits at a surprisingly sophisticated level. Think of that: Raiders of the Lost Ark is sophisticated, and smart, and even romantic. And those are qualities that, maybe even more than thrills and chills, will always keep us coming back for more.

Zaki Hasan (co-host, The MovieFilm Podcast): Raiders truly is a perfect movie. Whether you were there in the theater during the initial run or saw it first on television or home vid, it’s an instantly transporting experience that permanently sets your compass upon viewing as to what a four-quadrant blockbuster is “supposed” to look and feel like.

Steven Awalt (author, Steven Spielberg and Duel: The Making of a Film Career): Raiders of the Lost Ark is such a superb film from first viewing through as many times as you could wish to watch it. You can plainly see the finely tuned machinery working in the plotting and within each set-piece and yet somehow the film still plays in so fresh even after watching it annually for forty years.

Van Ling (director, Cliffs of Freedom; home media special features producer, The Abyss, Terminator 2): To me, Raiders of the Lost Ark is almost the perfect movie…pure cinema, full of laughs, great dialogue, a wonderful cast, thrills, emotion, drama, action, scares, you name it. It was the kind of movie that made you fall in love with movies all over again, and really reached across all demographics and genres; for the folks around me who were not interested in things I loved, like science fiction/space fantasy or superheroes. It was a film you could actually enjoy with your parents and grandparents.

Dan Madsen (author, The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles: On the Set and Behind the Scenes; president, The Official Lucasfilm Fan Club): Forty years ago, I was a teenager completely enthralled watching Raiders of the Lost Ark in a darkened theater. Never did I think that years later I would be running The Official Lucasfilm Fan Club and spending a week on the set of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade interviewing Harrison Ford, Steven Spielberg and the entire cast and crew! The Indiana Jones saga has played a huge part in my life and Raiders is one of my favorite films of all time. In my opinion, it is a perfect movie in every way!

Mark O’Connell (author, Watching Skies: Star Wars, Spielberg and Us): Without Raiders there would have been no Jurassic Park, or Romancing the Stone. Or ‘Crocodile’ Dundee. Or Ghostbusters. Spielberg's first film of the decade that was his for the taking, the film is a masterclass of pace, precision and matinee momentum. It's a curious hybrid of old school actioner cinema and new era effects, processes and sound.

Stephen Danley (host, Star Wars at the Movies): John Williams' impeccable score, the effective editing, the jaw-dropping stunt work, the timely humor in the face of considerable danger, and Harrison Ford's reaction to it all as it unfolds makes for flawless entertainment. Just as it was intended to be forty years ago, Raiders remains timeless.

Joseph McBride (author, Steven Spielberg: A Biography): Raiders brought back old entertainment values tried and tested in the thirties and earlier—serials and B movies—but on bigger budgets and with better actors. It came at a time when movies were being dumbed down and focused on juvenilia in synch with the times (the Reagan era) and when Hollywood was turning its back on personal filmmaking in favor of self-conscious genres homages (i.e. rip-offs).

Steve Lee (The Hollywood Sound Museum): Raiders of the Lost Ark was one of the films that really inspired me to pursue a career in film sound. When I saw it for the first time, I was already a fan of Ben Burtt—who had previously created the innovative sound effects for Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back. His work with Richard Anderson and their crew on Raiders just blew me away. And if you had told the eleven-year-old me watching that film in 1981 that I would be working with those guys making sounds for films just a few years later, I probably would not have believed you.

Craig Stevens (author, The Star Wars Phenomenon in Britain: The Blockbuster Impact and the Galaxy of Merchandise, 1977-1983): Every time I see Raiders of the Lost Ark I revert to my eleven-year-old self, sitting at the front of the cinema, completely absorbed in the story unfolding in front of my eyes. The action, the excitement, the humor—it seemed to be almost too much at the time, and I feel the same way about the film today. Even though I have researched how it was made, I feel that Raiders has lost little of its authenticity. It was made of course at a time when epic action needed to be filmed for real in genuine locations (something I felt was lacking in Kingdom of the Crystal Skull and modern films in general). When the credits roll, I still have trouble believing that the adventure is over—that there still is not another reel of film to be shown. Of course, Raiders was only the beginning of the story and I was on board for every twist and turn.

Eric Lichtenfeld: Raiders also deserves to be celebrated because of the convergence of sheer talent it embodies. And I don’t just mean Lucas, Spielberg, Harrison Ford and John Williams (although that would be enough right there). I mean every department head—from cinematographer Douglas Slocombe and editor Michael Kahn to re-recording mixers Bill Varney, Steve Maslow and Gregg Landaker, and everyone in between and beyond. And not only was each one the best in their field, but they were also, at that particular moment, working at their own personal best. So even though Lucas and Spielberg routinely have great collaborators, this kind of conjunction is still rare. I’d venture to say even for them.

On the set of Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)



Jonathan Rinzler (author, The Making of Star Wars; co-author, The Complete Making of Indiana Jones): You had the best of the best on the crew and at Industrial Light and Magic, and then you had two geniuses at the top in Lucas and Spielberg. And sometimes an actor gets the role they were born to play, and that seems to me to be true for Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones.

Bruce Scivally (co-author, James Bond: The Legacy): Raiders of the Lost Ark was a smash hit for audiences in the summer of 1981, effectively following the formula that worked so well for Star Wars four years earlier: take a storyline inspired by action-packed movie serials of the 1930s and 40s, produce it on A-list budget, and give it a rousing John Williams score.

Paul M. Sammon (author, Future Noir: The Making of Blade Runner): Raiders was a massively popular, big-budget fantasy/action adventure that also, at heart, was an affectionate and knowing homage to the cheap Saturday morning serials produced during the 1940s phase of Golden Age Hollywood.

Laurent Bouzereau (producer, Indiana Jones home media special features; co-author, The Complete Making of Indiana Jones): While it paid homage to serial films, Raiders was unique and felt fresh and original.

Saul Pincus (director/editor, Nocturne): Raiders was a huge inspiration to me as a filmmaker: I’d study the 16-minute Super-8 digest not just by projecting it every night, but also by running it though a film viewer by hand. I could internalize every composition and analyze every cut… why things worked. It was exciting and so much of the aesthetic the Lucas and Spielberg brought to it felt new; I’d never seen an action film so inherently visual, so involving, so fluid. Spielberg was a wiz who played with light, suspense and wonder and who might now forget had pioneered an entirely fresh way of connecting with his audience on an emotional and expositional level by when and how he moved his camera. Lucas’ propulsive technique relied primarily on editing, sound and graphics. Both filmmakers depended on Williams. That’s why I can’t say that Lucas and Spielberg alone are responsible for inspiring me—because when I think of the films these guys have made, I first hum the music.

Steven Awalt: Raiders is the perfect model adventure film of the so-called "blockbuster era," a huge influence on so much that came afterwards.

Tom Shone (author, Blockbuster: How the Jaws and Jedi Generation Turned Hollywood Into a Boom-Town): Here’s one thing Raiders didn’t do: it didn’t open big, as they say, taking in just $8.3 million on its opening weekend. Spielberg remembered the look of disappointment on the face of Paramount’s head of distribution, although today it would have resulted in someone losing their job, not just their composure.

Laurent Bouzereau: Raiders checks all of the boxes of what a great film should be.

Tom Shone: While the marketing was a mess, Raiders eventually took in over $200 million, more than any film in Paramount’s history until that point, but it did so under its own steam and in its own time. In other words, Raiders arrived with little fanfare, punched above its weight, fought for its finger hold, and then held on for dear life. Sounds like Indy.

Scott Mendelson (box office analyst, Forbes): Raiders of the Lost Ark was and still is one of the leggiest wide release movies ever made! It played over a year in some theaters and became only the fourth movie to gross $200 million domestically. In its first theatrical release, it earned more than 25x what it earned during its opening weekend!

Bruce Scivally: Raiders was both nostalgic and fresh, with easy-to-hate villains (Nazis), and a colorful hero who was as handy with a whip as he was with a handgun. Add to that the effervescent chemistry between Harrison Ford and Karen Allen, and the icy villainy of Paul Freeman and Ronald Lacey, and it's one of those rare adventure films where every element clicked to make a perfect popcorn entertainment.

Sheldon Hall (co-author, Epics, Spectacles, and Blockbusters: A Hollywood History): Although it subsequently became a great success on home video and remains popular on broadcast television even in peak-time reruns today, on its first theatrical release Raiders of the Lost Ark was regarded as a commercial disappointment in the United Kingdom. It opened promisingly but was eclipsed from the start by the James Bond film For Your Eyes Only. Only in its sixth week of release did Raiders attain the number-one spot in London, a position it held for several weeks. It had legs and was still being shown in the West End well into 1982. Outside the capital, however, the film rapidly slipped down and out of the charts.

James Kendrick (author, Darkness in the Bliss-Out: A Reconstruction of the Films of Steven Spielberg): In reaching back to the cliff-hanging serials of an earlier cinematic era, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas's Raiders of the Lost Ark provided what appeared on the surface to be the antithesis of the serious-minded and often heavy-handed irony and despair that characterized much American filmmaking in the 1970s. However, even as we lose ourselves in the action and adventure, which is made all the more visceral via the use of practical effects, real locations, and genuine stunt-work, we shouldn't lose sight of the darker recesses lurking just beneath the surface. It is easy to forget that Indiana Jones, the wry hero, is a shady (albeit undeniably charming) opportunist who loses at the end to shadowy government bureaucracy. Raiders is, in its own way, a direct descendent of the paranoid conspiracy and anti-government films of the Nixon era, elements of which we see in all of Spielberg's early works, including The Sugarland Express (1974), Jaws (1975), Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), and 1941 (1979). The film has often been slammed in academic and critical circles for being an extension of Reagan-era conservatism and global intervention, and while it does have some real issues with racial and ethnic representation, it is hardly a grand celebration of the stars and stripes forever. The film's real genius and the reason it has persisted in the popular imaginary while so many other action-adventure films have faded into obscurity is because it merges old-fashioned entertainment and peerless action aesthetics with a sardonic cynicism that enriches, rather than deflates, the thrills.

Jeff Bond (editor-in-chief, Geek Monthly; co-author, Star Trek: The Motion PictureInside the Art & Visual Effects): Raiders will never be topped in my opinion—a perfect movie.

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