Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

Steven Spielberg
1981 • 115 Minutes • 2.35:1 • United States
Color • English • Paramount

Cast: Harrison Ford, Karen Allen, Paul Freeman, Ronald Lacey, John-Rhys Davies, Denholm Elliot
Screenplay: Lawrence Kasdan based on a story by George Lucas, Philip Kaufman
Producers: Howard Kazanjian (executive producer), George Lucas (executive producer), Frank Marshall (producer), Robert Watts (associate producer)
Cinematography:  Douglas Slocombe

Awards & Honors

Academy Awards
Winner: Best Film Editing - Michael Kahn 
Winner: Best Visual Effects - Richard Edlund
Winner: Best Sound - Roy Charman, Bill Varney 
Winner: Best Art Direction/Set Decoration - Norman Reynolds
Winner: Special Achievement - Best Sound Effects Editing: Ben Burtt, Richard L. Anderson
Nominated: Best Picture
Nominated: Best Director - Steven Spielberg
Nominated: Best Cinematography - Douglas Slocombe
Nominated: Best Music, Original Score - John Williams

Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror Films - Saturn Awards
Winner: Best Fantasy Film
Winner: Best Actor - Harrison Ford
Winner: Best Actress - Karen Allen
Winner: Best Director - Steven Spielberg
Winner: Best Music - John Williams
Winner: Best Special Effects - Richard Edlund
Winner: Best Writing - Lawrence Kasdan
Nominated: Best Supporting Actor - Paul Freeman
Nominated: Best Costumes - Deborah Nadoolman

American Film Institute
AFI's 100 Years... 100 Movies - #60
AFI's 100 Years...100 Thrills - #10
AFI's 100 Years...100 Heroes and Villains - Indiana Jones, #2 Hero
AFI's 100 Years...100 Movie Quotes - "Snakes! Why did it have to be snakes?" - Nominated
AFI's 100 Years of Film Scores - Nominated
AFI's 100 Years...100 Movies (10th Anniversary Edition) - #66

BAFTA Awards
Winner: Best Production Design/Art Direction - Norman Reynolds 
Nominated: Best Film
Nominated: Best Supporting Artist - Denholm Elliott 
Nominated: Best Cinematography - Douglas Slocombe 
Nominated: Best Editing - Michael Kahn 
Nominated: Anthony Asquith Award for Film Music - John Williams 
Nominated: Best Sound - Roy Charman, Ben Burtt, Bill Varney 

Director's Guild of America
Nominated: Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Motion Pictures - Steven Spielberg 

The Essential Films
100 Greatest Movie Heroes - #3, Indiana Jones

Golden Globes
Nominated: Best Director - Motion Picture: Steven Spielberg 

Grammy Awards
Winner: Best Album of Original Score Written for a Motion Picture or Television Special - John Williams 

Hugo Awards
Winner: Best Dramatic Presentation - Steven Spielberg (director), Lawrence Kasdan (screenplay), George Lucas (story), Philip Kaufman (story) 

National Film Preservation Board
1999 - Entered National Film Registry

People's Choice Awards
Winner: Favorite Motion Picture

Writer's Guild of America
Nominated: Best Comedy Written Directly for the Screen - Lawrence Kasdan, George Lucas, Philip Kaufman 

Oh, yes. The Bible speaks of the Ark leveling mountains and laying waste to entire regions. An army which carries the Ark before it... is invincible.


Boasting an impressive list of filmmakers and artists that were at the height of their careers, Raiders of the Lost Ark is perhaps the best pure adventure film ever made. The film was directed by Steven Spielberg who was in the midst of a string of successes like Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and, following Raiders, E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial. His longtime friend, George Lucas produced the film and received a story credit while John Williams added another notch to his legendary film music achievements that already included Star Wars and Superman by scoring the picture. Of course, it's all topped by one of the most iconic actors of the modern, Harrison Ford, who turned Indiana Jones, with his fedora and bullwhip, into a pop-culture phenomenon that still resonates today.  The film also kicked off a series of adventures, spawning three sequels and a rumored fourth.

The film, set in 1936, follows the adventures of Dr. Jones, or "Indiana," an archaeology professor as he hunts the world for rare treasures. After his most recent South American excursion is thwarted by rival archaeologist, Rene Beloq, he returns to the United States to two government agents inquiring about his old mentor, Abner Ravenwood.  Indy soon realizes that Ravenwood could have discovered the location of the Ark of the Covenant, said to house the remains of the stone tablets in which the Ten Commandments where inscribed.  Fearing the Nazis are using Ravenwood to retrieve the Ark for nefarious means, the government funds an expedition for Jones to intercept the Ark and bring it back to the States.  While trying to hunt down Ravenwood, Jones finds his daughter Marion instead, with whom he once had a tumultuous romantic relationship. The two head to Cairo together to retrieve the
Ark from the Nazis' grasp but encounter danger at every turn.

George Lucas had, much like Star Wars, conceived of the idea for Indiana Jones long before the film was ever released. Originally titled The Adventures of Indiana Smith, the character and story was inspired by the 1930s and 40s film serials that Lucas was so fond of. Collaborating with Philip Kaufman on the story, they came up with the concept of using the Ark of the Covenant as a plot device. When Kaufman bowed out of the production plans to work on other projects, Lucas moved on to produce his other serial-inspired epic adventure, Star Wars.  Years later, when speaking with his friend Steven Spielberg, who had supposedly expressed interest in directing a James Bond film, Lucas convinced him to take on a project with a hero who was "better than Bond." Spielberg was on board, and after a quick name change from "Smith" to "Jones," Raiders of the Lost Ark was on its way to becoming a classic.  Lucas and Spielberg collaborated with screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan, brainstorming visual ideas like a boulder chase and the stealing of the idol (ideas, Lucas later admitted, were lifted out of Uncle Scrooge stories.) Comic book and storyboard artists created the look of the film and due to all of this, the film was rejected by almost every studio until Paramount Pictures finally agreed to finance the film.

It's hard to imagine Indiana Jones played by anyone other than Harrison Ford.  But that's almost what happened as Lucas initially shied away from casting Ford due to his association with the Star Wars brand. Lucas was wary of having a "guy I put in all my movies" much like Robert DeNiro and Martin Scorsese.  Tom Selleck was initially offered the role, but had to turn it down due to his commitment to the TV show, Magnum PI. Lucas was finally convinced by Spielberg to cast Ford after producers were impressed by his performance in The Empire Strikes Back, which had been in theaters during the Raiders pre-production.  A good thing too, as Ford's portrayal of Jones as a skeptical intellectual who can throw a good punch and isn't afraid of anything (except snakes) is as close to perfect as you can get.  While it was too early to tell in 1981, Ford had a hand in creating two major pop culture icons that shaped the lives of children everywhere with Han Solo and Indiana Jones.

With such a powerful lead character, the rest of the roles had to take a back seat. However, some of the performances by the supporting players still bring a lot of energy and fun to the film.  Karen Allen plays Marion Ravenwood, the fiesty, hard-drinking ex-lover of Indy, who can give as good as she gets.  Marion's character is at once hard-edged but delicate. Resenting Jones for the end of their relationship, but clearly happy to have him back in her life to go on an adventure (after cathartically punching him in the face.)  Paul Freeman is the self-centered Dr. Rene Beloq, Indy's rival and chief antagonist, who seems to always be able to snatch the victory out of Jones' hands at the last minute.  Freeman is fun to watch as the slimy Beloq who intends to find out what's in the Ark before Hitler gets his hands on it. John Rhys-Davies plays the leader of a digging team named "Sallah," a close friend of Indy's and a valuable resource. While the film is generally light-hearted, Rhys-Davies' chief responsibility is the role of comic relief, which he fills out nicely. Ronald Lacey, Denholm Elliot, Wolf Kahler and a young Alfred Molina round out the cast of characters that populate this world so uniquely.  

Of course you can't talk about Raiders without talking about the magnificent score by John Williams, who is responsible for some of the most memorable movie themes of all time.  From Jaws to Star Wars to Superman to Jurassic Park to Harry Potter, Indiana Jones' famous Raiders March is just another iconic theme in his memorable resume.  Right from the get-go, the theme invokes a sense of adventure and excitement that a lot of modern films can't quite capture.  It's a theme that instantly invokes nostalgia and recognition and will stand the test of time.

Raiders is, as stated before, perhaps the greatest pure adventure film of all time. The hero is someone men want to be and women want to be with, rugged and handsome and a little dirty. He's the smartest guy in the room, but he also knows how to handle himself in a fight.  He dodges danger at every turn and has the narrowest of escapes as he races to reach his desired goal, in this case, the Ark of the Covenant.  Raiders is also one of the greatest summer blockbusters ever, offering everything for which audiences escape to the movies: adventure, excitement, a great hero, nasty villains, a love story, chase scenes, crazy stunts and a slam-bang ending.  The film has so many memorable moments that entrench themselves in the viewers minds from the boulder chase to the snake pit in the Well of Souls, from Indiana Jones holding for dear life to the back of speeding truck to the face-melting finale of the film.  But what's wonderful is that all the "stuff in between" is still so much fun that one can't help but have a smile on their face as they watch the adventure unfold.  All of this makes a great blockbuster adventure film without sacrificing the quality of acting or story. (I'm looking at you, Transformers.)

Raiders of the Lost Ark is the essential adventure film, mixing a great character with a fun story and thrilling action to create one of the greatest blockbusters of all time.