Raiders of the Lost Ark is historically important because it marks the first collaboration between George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, the two most financially successful of American filmmakers. Released in the summer of 1981, the film garnered some of the best critical accolades in either man's career; it also continued their phenomenal success: it is now one of the top ten money-makers of all time.
An homage to old movie serials in much the same way as are George Lucas's Star Wars films, Raiders of the Lost Ark is also derivative of westerns, horror films, war films and James Bond films. In fact, Lucas reportedly mentioned his Raiders story to Spielberg in 1977 after Spielberg said that he had always wanted to make a James Bond film. Raiders even opens with an initial adventure scene unrelated to the main story of the film, a device used in the James Bond films.
Relying on Spielberg's TV experience and extensive "storyboarding," the elaborate action film was shot in 73 days in France, Tunisia, Hawaii, and the famed Elstree Studios in England, which Lucas also used for his Star Wars films. Special effects for the film were made at Industrial Light and Magic, Lucasfilms' own facility in northern California. Spielberg used English cinematographer Douglas Slocombe, who worked on his Close Encounters, and editor Michael Kahn, who edited Close Encounters and 1941. Spielberg also brought screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan to Lucas's attention.
The primary distinction of Raiders, in addition to its constant high level of thrills and chills, is the vivid portrayal of its hero, Indiana Jones, played by Harrison Ford. As Spielberg himself has said, Ford in this film is a combination of Errol Flynn in The Adventures of Don Juan and Humphrey Bogart in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. A vulnerable but heroic figure, Ford's Indiana Jones also has a shadowy side. Indiana's search for the Ark which contains the original Ten Commandments becomes a dark obsession, a passion that causes him twice to abandon the film's heroine, Marion Ravenswood, played by Karen Allen.
Around this larger than life hero, Lucas and Spielberg weave a tale of intrigue and adventure, full of Nazi villains, a nasty but engaging Frenchman who is Indy's rival and shadowy double, and numerous references to Biblical and Egyptian mythology. There is an atmosphere of evil and mysterious power, and a demonic transformation of many of the film's settings and props. Thus, the ancient city of Tanis in Raiders has become deserted wasteland, an Egyptian temple becomes the prison full of snakes for Indy and Marion, and the mysterious Ark of the Covenant brings fiery destruction to the Nazis.
In the end, the Ark eludes Indy's grasp and is tucked away in an immense warehouse, a scene reminiscent of the last shot in Citizen Kane. Through the course of the film, Indy discovers that he is both free and bound – although he loses the Ark, he does get Marion. In this respect the film seems to be saying, True love or friendship is its own reward.
Essay by Thomas Snyder
Release Date: 1981
Starring: Harrison Ford, Karen Allen, Paul Freeman, John Rhys-Davies, Wolf Kahler, Ronald Lacey, and Denholm Elliot
Director: Steven Spielberg
Writer: Lawrence Kasdan
Source Citation: Snyder, Thomas. "Raiders of the Lost Ark." International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers. Ed. Sara Pendergast and Tom Pendergast. 4th ed. Vol. 1: Films. Detroit: St. James Press, 2000. 993-995.