“Snakes. Why’d it have to be snakes?”
The two titans of the modern blockbuster teamed up in 1981 for an old-fashioned cliffhanging thrill ride. Raiders of the Lost Ark was the spectacular result of a collaboration between director Steven Spielberg (Jaws) and executive producer George Lucas (Star Wars), who also co-wrote the story. And with matinee idol Harrison Ford in the title role, this archaeological adventure would set the standard for dozens of blockbusters to come.
In a thrilling prologue set in 1936, manly archaeologist Indiana Jones recovers a gold idol from a booby-trapped South American temple, only to have it stolen by rival Rene Belloq. Returning to the U.S., Jones is informed by associate Marcus Brody that the Nazis are after the Ark of the Covenant, the housing for the original stone tablet Ten Commandments. Indy knows they’ll need a special medallion to find the Ark, and he just happens to know who has it: old partner Abner Ravenwood.
The intrepid archaeologist hops a plane to Nepal, but Abner is dead, leaving his spitfire daughter Marion with the medallion. She isn’t exactly eager to give it up, especially not to ex-flame Indy, but she’s willing to negotiate. That night, a hissy-voiced Nazi named Toht barges in to claim the medallion, a brawl breaks out, and Indy ends up with Marion as his new partner.
The two travel to Tunis, where old friend Sallah helps arrange for Indy to find the Ark’s location and dig it up. The Ark is found, but Belloq, now working with the Nazis, again steals Indy’s prize. From then on, it’s a non-stop series of chases and fights, narrow escapes and frustrating failures as Indy and Belloq trade upper hands across northern Africa, culminating in a supernatural climax that gave several kids nightmares for months.
With scenes like that, Raiders of the Lost Ark more than earned its PG rating, but it was a family film in the truest sense of the word. Kids and parents were left on the edges of their seats, and grandparents smiled at the memory of the classic Republic movie serials of yesteryear. The film went well over budget, but the money was put to good use, filling every second with larger and more elaborate stunts. It quickly paid its debts… and then some.
Released in the summer of 1981, Raiders of the Lost Ark was still playing in some theaters a year later, earning its way onto the list of all-time box office champs. Indy’s trademarked bullwhip, leather jacket and fedora became a perennial Halloween costume, and an entire franchise was begun.
In addition to video games, toys, lunchboxes and other merchandise, the film spawned three highly successful movie sequels and a “prequel” TV series, The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles. Furthermore, in 1995, Indy was immortalized in his own Disneyland attraction, Indiana Jones Adventure: Temple of the Forbidden Eye. And if any further proof were needed that this bullwhip-slinging macho man has passed into pop culture immortality, Indy’s fedora was placed in the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, D.C., making him a genuine national treasure.
If you have fond memories of watching Indy battle it out on the big screen back in 1981, or just consider Raiders of the Lost Ark to be one of your favorite all-time adventure films, we welcome all of your thoughts and recollections in our comments section.