Today, the name Indiana Jones brings to mind a series of epic, action-packed blockbusters led by the world-renowned Harrison Ford. But back in 1981, with the release of Raiders of the Lost Ark, audiences were not already familiar with the franchise that would go on to become legend. Ford had, of course, already stolen the hearts of film viewers everywhere with 1977’s Star Wars, but here was a more dedicated role that put him at the center of a new grand adventure. With the talents of directors George Lucas and Steven Spielberg and writer Lawrence Kasdan, Raiders was set up for success and would, in turn, be met with unbelievable critical acclaim.
Raiders of the Lost Ark was followed by 1984’s Temple of Doom, a sequel that did more to sour the legacy of the beloved hero than enliven it. Two more sequels followed, one excellent, and another considered middling. In 2022, audiences await the fifth film in the franchise, slated for release next year. Like all great American franchises, Hollywood has proved that too much of a good thing is not always the best pattern. To some, the Indiana Jones series never again claimed the uproar and fervor of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Here’s why the first film in the franchise turned out to be the best one of them all.
One of Cinema’s Most Adored Epics
One of the most loved characteristics of Raiders of the Lost Ark is its non-stop action. From the jungles of Peru to the Egyptian desert, Indiana Jones is fighting bad guys non-stop. Some inventive set pieces and kinetic fights give Raiders a blood-pumping, larger-than-life atmosphere. The special effects look dated by today’s standards, but still fulfill the unique thrill of watching old, non-CGI stunts. With the different locations and the travel between them, the film radiates the spirit of adventure. That vibe is carried by a score marked by triumphant horns, helmed by John Williams at the top of his game. Just the mere mention of Raiders is likely to conjure the epic riff in the minds of the movie’s fans.
Creators George Lucas and Steven Spielberg were inspired by epics of cinema like Citizen Kane, Yojimbo, and Lawrence of Arabia when conceiving of the story, which was intended to be a bombastic thrill ride built on the euphoria of those old classics. Viewers were enchanted by this vision of adventure, and it became its own form that many films still try, and usually fail to capture. Some 40 years later, it seems that Raiders of the Lost Ark was lightning in a bottle, evidenced by the way that its own sequels would fail to recreate the beating heart behind this film.
The Phenomenon of Harrison Ford
Star Wars brought Harrison Ford to national attention, but his character, Han Solo, had a lot less screen time than others in the film. By contrast, Raiders of the Lost Ark put Ford center stage, and let his natural charisma carry the film. That gruff bravado and sly smile took root in the hearts of multiple generations of filmgoers—and Raiders was the film that facilitated it. Though his charisma carries each film in the franchise, it was never quite as palpable as the first one. Ford would go on to star as the leading man in dozens of big-budget blockbusters throughout the 80s and 90s, leaving his mark across multiple franchises and films that now form an impressive filmography. Decades later, Ford is a household name. Though his acting career has slowed compared to the 80s and 90s, Ford’s portrayal of Indiana Jones in the first film became a national phenomenon.
A Love Letter to Filmmaking
By the time of its release, Hollywood was already spending huge sums of money for the production of movies, which had a massive influence on how movies were shot. Raiders of the Lost Ark, made on a budget of $20 million, uses all of Steven Spielberg’s established canon of effects to make action scenes feel frenetic and full of life. According to Spielberg, the film is also a tribute to the craft of filmmaking. Containing references and homages to previous popular films like Star Wars and Citizen Kane, Raiders used the existing language of cinema to create something that was unique, yet still a mixture of existing cinematic techniques. The design of those iconic shots, from their conception and the tools used to bring them to life, elevate the emotional beats that make the film feel visceral.
Changing The Field of Archeology
It’s not hard to see why a film about a sexy swashbuckling archeologist might set a fire in the hearts of any one even remotely interested in the field. A whole generation of archaelogists were inspired by the film, citing it as the movie that began their fascination with the field. Harrison Ford has committed to making this a lasting truth, and has spent decades contributing his philanthropic efforts towards the Archeological Institute of America, helping increase awareness of archeology as a field. Additionally, there was an exhibit at the National Geographic Museum titled “Indiana Jones and the Adventures of Archeology,” which showcased a mixture of objects from the film’s shoot and real ancient artifacts from different institutions. The intention was to show off just how much the film had impacted the field.
The sequels to Raiders of the Lost Ark enjoyed varying degrees of success, but failed to recreate the intrigue and excitement behind the original. It’s possible that this film was born from an elusive alignment of stars. Decades later, the series is celebrated for the roots established by Raiders of the Lost Ark, of idealism and adventure and the never-ending quest for greater purpose.
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