On June 12, 1981, audiences were introduced to one of the most iconic movie characters ever, Indiana Jones. Raiders of the Lost Ark would become the highest grossing film of 1981 and win more Academy Awards than any other movie that year.
George Lucas initially conceived the idea for Indiana Jones in the early 70s. The concept was to modernize the serial adventure films popular in the first half of the 20th century. When Lucas shifted his focus to Star Wars, Steven Spielberg joined the project. The two had ideas for the set pieces, but needed a top notch writer to fill in the narrative, and Lawrence Kasdan was hired for the job (that same year, Kasdan would make his directorial debut with Body Heat).
The casting process is the stuff of Hollywood legend: the early favorite to play the intrepid archaeologist, Tom Selleck, had just signed on to play television PI Thomas Magnum, and CBS refused to release him from his contract. Other actors who read for the part were Tim Matheson and Peter Coyote, the latter of whom – in this humble blogger’s opinion – would certainly have made a better Indiana than Selleck. By the way, other actors supposedly considered for the role include Steve Martin, Chevy Chase and Bill Murray; make of that information what you will. Ultimately, the role went to Harrison Ford, and I don’t think anyone would want it any other way.
Filming was completed in the summer of 1980 at Elstree Studios in England, and on location in La Rochelle, France, Tunisia and Hawaii. The production cost was an estimated $20 million, which would translate to about $60 million today; for reference, today’s blockbuster movies are routinely made for $200 million or more. My favorite story from the set of the film is when Harrison Ford, suffering from dysentery, was slated to film a sword fight scene. Not feeling up to the job, Ford suggested Indiana should just shoot the guy, and one of the most iconic movie scenes ever was born. And, in a recent interview with Uproxx (https://uproxx.com/movies/karen-allen-raiders-of-the-lost-ark/), Karen Allen revealed that she accidentally punched Ford in the face, leading to this fantastic exchange:
“Was he mad?“
“He was slightly annoyed. But I mean, it happens. It happens. I mean, I had never punched anybody in a film before. So they were showing me how to do it, and I was doing my absolute best, and as far as I was concerned his chin just got in the way of my hand.”
By the way, some really amazing set photos are available on the internet – here are just a few of my favorites:
A bit nervous about the lack of audience anticipation for the film, Paramount Pictures only mounted a national ad campaign about a week before Raiders‘ release. Superman II (which was released just a week after Raiders) was expected to be the box office winner that summer and in the end, it wasn’t even close – Raiders won the year with almost twice the gross of Superman II, which ended the year in third place behind On Golden Pond (and if you, like me, are wondering, here is the rest of the top ten: Arthur, Stripes, The Cannonball Run, Chariots of Fire, For Your Eyes Only, The Four Seasons and Time Bandits).
Audiences fell in love with Dr. Jones (and Marion too), and we had a villain impossibly easy to root against – the Nazis. We were mesmerized by the set pieces – that boulder! those snakes! the opening of the Ark! – and captivated by John Williams’ iconic score. We booed when Belloq appeared onscreen, we shivered at the sight of the tarantulas and we cheered when the Nazis’ faces melted. I remember seeing the movie in the theater with my parents, and just delighting in every moment; if I had to guess, I’ve probably seen it at least thirty times since then.
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences loved the film as well. Raiders received nine Oscar nods, for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Cinematography, Best Original Score, Best Sound, Best Sound Editing, Best Art Direction, Best Film Editing and Best Visual Effects, winning in the last five categories (more than eventual Best Picture winner Chariots of Fire, which won four awards).
In the forty years since Raiders was released, there have been three additional Indiana Jones films (with a fifth in production now), a television series (The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles – I especially loved the episodes with a teenage Indy played by Sean Patrick Flanery), several Indiana Jones-themed Disney attractions, graphic novels, tie-in novelizations and video games. In 2003, the American Film Institute named Indiana Jones the second-greatest movie hero of all time (Atticus Finch took the top spot, so I can’t be mad). Tie-in merchandise includes everything from “Professor bow tie” and t-shirts to action figures and Legos. Indiana Jones’ legacy as a pop culture icon is secure, and it all started with Raiders of the Lost Ark.