On its 40th anniversary, Tom Jolliffe looks back at Raiders of the Lost Ark and its genre defining legacy…
Steven Spielberg was well and truly announced by the the beginning of the 80’s. A number of successful features in and he was on a roll. Jaws became a pop cultural phenomenon and really was a major catalyst in kick-starting the blockbuster genre. That was further cemented a few years later by Star Wars by George Lucas. Spielberg then had his first foray into extra terrestrials on screen with Close Encounters of the Third Kind (unless you count 1964’s Firelight, from Spielberg’s pre-fame days that has now become a lost relic). The next one would mark Spielberg’s first misfire… 1941.
As we shifted into a new decade, with cinema at a crossroads, Spielberg found his career at a key stage. He could still dine out on Jaws and Close Encounters for a few years, but a hit was needed. As one of two prominent figures in the blockbuster revolution, it ended up being a collaboration that would become a match made in heaven. Spielberg and Lucas. Lucas, by this point shifting his focus on producing and away from directing, would lend his creative input but give Spielberg the reigns to direct in his own inimitable style. A mutual passion for pulp, old comics, serials and B pictures would form the basis for their new action adventure event: Raiders of the Lost Ark. It would be based on a long standing idea of Lucas’, perfected by Lawrence Kasdan’s script.
Ironically, the film wasn’t fancied. A number of studios baulked at the idea (even with a pair of hit makers on board) before it was finally picked up by Paramount. Harrison Ford was cast. Despite having Han Solo on his CV, he was still deemed something of a risky choice. Step forward to post release and all worries about the film are cast asunder. Raiders is a hit. Spielberg gets back on track, and Lucas, who shrewdly cultivated a very assured profit % deal, made an enormous amount (his acumen and forward thinking approach to movie marketing, merchandising and tie-ins, would be further proven with Indy). Additionally, the film was received with almost universally glowing responses from fans and critics alike, even if some of the latter still praised it under the caveat of ‘good for a B movie.’ It also kicked the blockbuster revolution into high gear for the decade ahead.
A new franchise would be born out of a film which perfectly blended rollicking action, adventure, drama and humour. Ford, as the titular hero exuded charisma with an easy grin and roguish charm that was a contradiction to the image of Jones in his day job (As a professor of Archaeology). Ford was on a striking run now, with two hugely popular characters under his belt. A legion of young fans worshipped him as their new hero. Elsewhere, the cast is loaded with a number of excellent character actors, including Alfred Molina, Paul Freeman, Denholm Elliot and John Rhys-Davies, whilst Karen Allen proved a feisty and charming love interest. She was more than the damsel in distress. The cherry on the icing on the cake was the legendary score from John Williams, one of his most iconic.
The film still marks one of the most perfectly executed examples of its genre. Raiders laid out a blue print that would prove irresistible to all who followed (and that recipe blend is copied to this day). This would be most successfully shown in the first two follow ups, Temple of Doom and The Last Crusade. Indy was one of the must see adventurers. A dogged and determined hero, always in over his head, but always scraping through and coming out on top. He’s not even entirely righteous in his approach (the infamous gag, where Indy waits patiently for his sword wielding foe to finish a terrifying display of sword handling skill, only to nonchalantly shoot him). He’s the likeable rogue who battles Nazi’s and overcomes insurmountable odds to win. The sequels aside, the following decade would become overstuffed with several copycat archetype films: The Conan riff, the Mad Max riff, the Star Wars riff and The Indiana Jones riff. Of the latter, several notable action adventure pictures with roguishly charming heroes popped up including Romancing the Stone, King Solomon’s Mines and Firewalker (though Chuck Norris didn’t quite have the charm part down).
As Ford dons his Fedora and pulls out his whip for a fifth outing as Jones, the legacy of the franchise is clear. The adventurer has endured through 40 years, with new audiences constantly attracted to the adventures. Much of that power rests particularly in how good the original film is. Raiders is that bench mark, that perfect genre specimen to judge all against. In 40 years, has there been a better action adventure blockbuster? Probably not. Iconic and exceptionally executed set pieces, thrilling sequences, unforgettable moments (the face melting, the coat hanger gag, etc etc), likeable characters, brilliant villains and a little bit of the chillingly destructive supernatural. It just doesn’t get any better than this.
What are your thoughts on Raiders of the Lost Ark? Are you looking forward to Indiana Jones 5? Let us know on our social channels @flickeringmyth…
Tom Jolliffe is an award winning screenwriter and passionate cinephile. He has a number of films out on DVD/VOD around the world and several releases due out in 2021/2022, including, Renegades (Lee Majors, Danny Trejo, Michael Pare, Tiny Lister, Nick Moran, Patsy Kensit, Ian Ogilvy and Billy Murray), Crackdown, When Darkness Falls and War of The Worlds: The Attack (Vincent Regan). Find more info at the best personal site you’ll ever see here.