Raiders of the Lost Ark (later marketed as Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark.) is a 1981 American action-adventure film directed by Steven Spielberg and written by Lawrence Kasdan based on a story by George Lucas and Philip Kaufman.
It stars Harrison Ford, Karen Allen, Paul Freeman, Ronald Lacey, John Rhys-Davies, and Denholm Elliott.
Ford portrays Indiana Jones, a globe-trotting archaeologist, vying with Nazi forces in 1936, to recover the long-lost Ark of the Covenant, a relic said to make an army invincible. Teaming up with his tough, former-lover Marion Ravenwood (Allen), Jones races to stop rival archaeologist Dr. René Belloq (Freeman) from guiding the Nazis to the Ark and its power.
In 1936, American archaeologist Indiana Jones overcomes an ancient booby-trapped temple in Peru to retrieve a golden idol. Though betrayed by his guide and cornered by rival archaeologist René Belloq and the indigenous people, Jones escapes in a waiting seaplane; Belloq steals the idol for himself. After returning to America, Jones is approached by two Army Intelligence agents. They reveal that the Nazis are searching for the Ark of the Covenant, an ancient relic they believe will render their armies invincible. The agents recruit Jones to recover the Ark.
Jones travels to Nepal to recover the headpiece of the “staff of Ra”, an artifact used to locate the Ark, from his old mentor Abner Ravenwood. There, he learns that Ravenwood is dead, and his daughter Marion – with whom Jones had an illicit affair – possesses the headpiece. The sadistic Nazi commander Arnold Toht arrives at Marion’s bar, flanked by mercenaries, to recover the headpiece. A gunfight erupts and the bar is set ablaze. Toht attempts to recover the headpiece from the flames, only managing to burn its shape into his hand. Jones and Marion take the headpiece and escape together.
The pair travel to Cairo, Egypt, where they meet Jones’ friend Sallah. He reveals that Belloq is assisting the Nazis’ search for the Ark in Tanis; they have fashioned a replica headpiece from the burns on Toht’s hand. Jones and Marion are attacked by Nazi soldiers and mercenaries and Marion is seemingly killed. Despondent, Jones confronts Belloq at a bar before regrouping with Sallah. An imam deciphers the headpiece for Jones; one side bears a warning not to disturb the Ark, the other the correct measurements for the staff of Ra. Jones and Salah realise that the Nazis are digging in the wrong location.
Jones and Sallah infiltrate the Nazi dig site and use the headpiece to locate the Ark’s resting place, the snake-infested Well of Souls. They recover the Ark, a golden, intricately-decorated chest, but are intercepted by Belloq, Toht, and Nazi officer Colonel Dietrich. They seize the Ark and throw Marion, who has been held captive by Belloq, into the well with Jones, before sealing it. Jones collapses a large statue into a wall, creating an opening to escape. At a nearby airstrip, Jones and Marion destroy the flying wing intended to transport the Ark to Berlin. The Nazis load the Ark onto a truck and flee, but Jones catches up on horseback, hijacks the truck, and escapes. He arranges to transport the Ark to London aboard a tramp steamer.
The following day, a Nazi U-boat intercepts the ship and seizes the Ark and Marion; Jones covertly transfers over to the U-boat. The vessel travels to an island in the Aegean Sea, where Belloq intends to test the power of the Ark before presenting it to Adolf Hitler. En route, Jones ambushes the Nazi group with a rocket launcher. He is forced to surrender after Belloq deduces that Jones would never destroy something of historical significance and, like Belloq, wants to know if the Ark’s power is real.
The Nazis take Jones and Marion to the test site and tie them to a post. Belloq performs a ceremonial opening of the Ark, but they find only sand inside. Jones instructs Marion to close her eyes and not look upon the Ark. Spirits emerge from the Ark, followed by flames that cause Dietrich’s body to shrivel, Toht’s face to melt, and Belloq’s head to explode, while bolts of energy shoot through the gathered Nazis, killing them all. A whirlwind of fire reaches from the Ark into the sky, dissipating as the Ark seals itself shut. Jones and Marion open their eyes to find the area cleared of bodies and their bindings removed; the pair embrace.
Back in Washington, D.C., Jones and Marcus Brody receive a large payment from the United States government for securing the Ark. Despite Jones’ protests to know what has happened to the Ark, the agents offer only that it has been moved to a secure facility for study by “top men”. Elsewhere, the Ark is crated up and put into storage among countless other crates in a large warehouse.
- Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones:
- An archaeology professor and adventurer.
- Karen Allen as Marion Ravenwood:
- A spirited, tough bar owner and Jones’ former lover.
- Paul Freeman as René Belloq:
- A rival archaeologist to Jones, in the employ of the Nazis.
- Ronald Lacey as Major Arnold Toht:
- A sadistic Gestapo agent.
- John Rhys-Davies as Sallah:
- An Egyptian excavator and old acquaintance of Jones.
- Denholm Elliott as Dr. Marcus Brody:
- A museum curator who helps fund Jones’ expeditions.
As well as the main cast, Raiders of the Lost Ark features Wolf Kahler as ruthless Nazi officer Colonel Dietrich, and Anthony Higgins as Major Gobler, Colonel Dietrich’s right-hand-man. Don Fellows and William Hootkins appear as United States Army Intelligence agents Colonel Musgrove and Major Eaton, respectively. George Harris plays Simon Katanga, captain of the Bantu Wind, and Fred Sorenson portrays Jones’ pilot Jock.
Producer Frank Marshall appears as the Flying Wing pilot. Pat Roach and Vic Tablian each portray two different characters in the film: Roach appears as the Nazi who brawls Jones by the Flying Wing and one of Toht’s Sherpas in Nepal; Tablian plays Jones’ treacherous guide during the film’s opening and the Monkey Man in Cairo. The film features the first theatrical appearance of Alfred Molina, who appears as Jones’ guide Satipo. Terry Richards portrays the Cairo swordsman who is shot by Jones.
George Lucas conceived of Raiders of the Lost Ark in 1973, shortly after finishing work on the comedy film American Graffiti (1973). After seeing an old movie poster of a heroic character leaping from a horse to a truck, Lucas was reminded of the serial films made by Republic Pictures in the early 20th century. Lucas was disappointed that no one was making the serials he had enjoyed as a child like, Buck Rogers (1939), Zorro’s Fighting Legion (1939), Spy Smasher (1942), and Don Winslow of the Navy (1942). Lucas wanted to make a B movie that he would want to see, modelled on those serials. He created The Adventures of Indiana Smith, an adventurous archaeologist, named after Lucas’ Alaskan Malamute dog. Around the same time, Lucas was trying to adapt the space opera serial Flash Gordon (1936), but had been unable to obtain the rights. Lucas decided to shelve the Indiana Smith project and focus on creating his own space opera, Star Wars (1977).
In 1975, Lucas discussed his serial film idea with his friend Philip Kaufman. The pair worked on a script for two weeks. Lucas imagined his character as a college professor and archaeologist adventurer, based on his own appreciation for archaeology and famous archaeologists like Hiram Bingham III, Roy Chapman Andrews, and Leonard Woolley. He described Indiana Smith as a regular nightclub patron, often surrounded by beautiful women. Kaufman removed the nightclub and womanising, and suggested the Ark of the Covenant as the film’s central goal; he learned of the Ark from his childhood dentist. The Ark provided a source of conflict for the hero and the Nazis, playing off Nazi leader Adolf Hitler’s historical fascination with the occult. Lucas wanted Kaufman to direct the film, but he was already committed to working on the western The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976). Lucas again paused the idea and resumed his focus on Star Wars.
In May 1977, Lucas vacationed in Hawaii to avoid the theatrical debut of Star Wars; he was afraid of its potential failure. He invited Steven Spielberg to join him and his wife on vacation. While on a beach near Mauna Kea volcano, Lucas and Spielberg discussed their next projects. Spielberg wanted to direct a James Bond film. Lucas said he had a similar project but without the Bond series’ trademark gadgets and gimmicks. He pitched Spielberg The Adventures of Indiana Smith. Lucas still hoped that Kaufman would direct it, but that if that did not work out, he asked that Spielberg replace him. A few months later, it was confirmed that Kaufman could not direct, and Spielberg joined the project.
Spielberg was tasked with hiring a writer. He had recently discovered screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan and helped him sell the script for Continental Divide (1981). Although Kasdan had been working as a professional screenwriter for only one month, Lucas agreed with Spielberg’s assessment after reading the Continental Divide script. In January 1978, Lucas, Kasdan, and Spielberg worked for nine hours a day for between three and five days at the house of Lucas’ assistant in Sherman Oaks, Los Angeles. The trio developed Lucas’ outline and acted out scenes to help form a narrative structure. Spielberg hated the character’s name. He thought it would remind audiences of the Steve McQueen character Nevada Smith. They agreed to use “Jones” instead.
Jones’ character was based on actors Clint Eastwood and Toshiro Mifune, and the James Bond character. Lucas wanted Jones to be a Kung fu practitioner and playboy, funding his lifestyle with the spoils of his adventures. Spielberg and Kasdan felt that Jones was complicated enough being an adventurer and archaeologist. Spielberg suggested making Jones an avid gambler or an alcoholic. Lucas disliked this idea because he wanted Jones to be a role model who is “honest and true and trusting”. Important to both men was that Jones be fallible, vulnerable, and as capable of comedic moments as serious ones. They intended for the character to be someone the audience could relate to and idolise.
Spielberg and Lucas wanted to cast a young actress as Marion, who has a romantic past with the much older Jones. Lucas suggested that she would have been 11 at the time; Spielberg replied “She had better be older”. Several ideas in the finished film came from these discussions, including the boulder trap, the monkey in Cairo, Toht burning the imprint of the staff headpiece into his hand, and the final scene of government agents locking the Ark away. Kasdan quickly realised that Spielberg and Lucas had a number of setpieces in mind, but they were looking for someone else to do the hard work of piecing them together.
While Spielberg directed the action comedy film 1941 (1979), Kasdan made use of his offices to write Raiders of the Lost Ark. Kasdan wrote Jones as an anti-hero, an archaeologist who was reduced to grave-robbing. He took inspiration from the early 20th-century serials, and adventure films like Red River (1948), Seven Samurai (1954), and The Magnificent Seven (1960). Kasdan wanted to create a supporting cast that had its own unique characterizations. He felt it was important that characters, even those with little dialogue, had a memorable impact. He described the hardest part of writing as explaining how Jones would fall into successive dangerous events and then survive, and how he travelled between locations.
In August 1978, Kasdan completed his first draft; it took approximately five months. After delivering it to Lucas, he was then asked to work on the script for Lucas’ Star Wars sequel, The Empire Strikes Back, following the death of the original writer Leigh Brackett. Spielberg described this draft as good but “overly long”; Kasdan and Lucas collaborated to trim and refine it. The script was a globe-spanning tale set throughout the United States, Egypt, Greece, Nepal, and Shanghai. Several elements were cut, including a journey to Shanghai to recover a piece of the Staff of Ra. This journey would lead to a minecart chase and Jones using a gong to shield himself from gunfire; both ideas were re-used in the film’s prequel Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984). Much of Kasdan’s love story between Jones and Marion was trimmed, as was scenes demonstrating mutual attraction between Marion and Belloq. Jokes that did not fit the tone were removed, like a scene of a person fainting at the sight of people emerging from the Well of Souls. The screenplay was completed by December 1979.
Development and Pre-Production
Lucas wanted to fund Raiders of the Ark himself, but at the time he had limited cash assets. His attorney Tom Pollock and the financial chief of Lucas’ studio Lucasfilm, Charles Webber, offered the project to several Hollywood studios. All of them rejected it, in part because of the proposed $20 million budget, but also because of the deal Lucas offered. He wanted the purchasing studio to provide the budget, have no creative input and allow him to retain control of the licensing rights and any sequels.
Studios thought that the film would be successful, but did not trust the budget or that they would be burdened with all of the associated risk and have no control. Even so, they still contacted Lucas to negotiate terms. The studios were also reluctant because of Spielberg’s involvement. Though generally successful as a director, Spielberg had delivered a succession of films that were over schedule and budget. His most recent effort, 1941, was both over budget and a critical failure. Lucas refused to do the project without Spielberg as the pair had already fully developed their concept.
Then-Paramount Pictures president Michael Eisner called the deal “unworkable”, but said that the script was one of the best he had read. Eisner compromised with Lucas, agreeing to his deal in exchange for exclusive rights to produce any sequels, and severe penalties if the filming schedule or budget were exceeded. Lucas agreed, on the terms that he had to be involved in the sequels. Reports of pay for Lucas and Spielberg are inconsistent. Lucas is reported to have negotiated between $1 million and $4 million plus a share of the gross profits, though a separate report stated that he would only receive a share of the net profits. Spielberg received up to $1.5 million as director and a share of the gross profits. Lucas also negotiated $1 million for Lucasfilm.
Early on, Spielberg had expressed interest in working with producer Frank Marshall. Marshall had worked on smaller independent films, and Spielberg believed that he would help keep the film on schedule and under budget. Lucas served as the film’s executive producer, alongside his old acquaintance Howard Kazanjian. Lucas hired Kazanjian because he would be a disciplined influence and not indulge the filmmakers larger ambitions. Spielberg had previously worked with cinematographer Douglas Slocombe on the science fiction film Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), and had liked his work. Spielberg also hired his frequent collaborator Michael Kahn as the editor. Spielberg had wanted to work with production designer Norman Reynolds for a while, and Lucas brought in his long-time collaborator Robert Watts as associate producer and production manager. A filming schedule of 85 days was mandated by Paramount; Lucas, Spielberg, and Marshall agreed a self-imposed 73-day schedule. Spielberg was determined to avoid criticism from another schedule overrun.
Pre-production began in December 1979, and took place over six months. Spielberg preferred to spend a year in pre-production, but worked at a faster pace to keep the budget low. Spielberg and Lucas were both also working on other projects at the time. Spielberg had the film extensively storyboarded to pre-visualize scenes and cut down time spent setting up shots. It was one of his most storyboarded films, with over 80% of the script represented, equating approximately 6,000 images. Spielberg storyboard action scenes, and also behaviours and dialogue. Storyboarding was done by Ed Verreaux, Dave Negron, Michael Lloyd, and Joe Johnston. The script only described the opening of the Ark as “all hell breaks loose”. Each storyboard artist was tasked with envisioning what should happen. Each offered different aspects: spirits, flames, and weird light effects. Johnston was tasked with combining all three. Spielberg also had miniature sets built of larger scenes so that he could pre-visualise the layouts and lighting. Miniatures included the Well of Souls, the Tanis dig site, and the Cairo marketplace. The miniatures were populated with 1-inch tall figurines to understand how many extras would be required.
Among changes made at this stage, Spielberg was forced to abandon his idea for Toht to have a mechanical arm that could be detached and turned into a machine gun or flamethrower. Lucas said that it put the film into a completely different genre than intended. Elstree Studios in Hertfordshire, England was chosen as the main production studio because it was already well-staffed with artists and technicians that had worked on Star Wars.
Auditioning actors were not given a script. Spielberg often held auditions in the Lucasfilm kitchens. To help the actors relax, Spielberg had those auditioning early help him bake cookies, and the ones auditioning late would eat them. Those called for a second audition would sometimes be given a hastily written scene to read. Only those called back for a final audition were filmed.
Lucas wanted to cast a relatively unknown actor to play Indiana Jones, who would commit to a trilogy of films. Those considered for the role included Tom Selleck, Bill Murray, Nick Nolte, Steve Martin, Chevy Chase, Tim Matheson, Nick Mancuso, Peter Coyote, Jack Nicholson, Jeff Bridges and John Shea. Spielberg suggested casting Harrison Ford, but Lucas was concerned about using the actor in another film after Star Wars because he did want Ford to become his “Bobby De Niro” or “that guy I put in all my movies” – a reference to Martin Scorsese’s frequent collaborations with Robert De Niro. Lucas’ then-wife and frequent collaborator Marcia Lucas favoured Selleck, and casting director Mike Fenton preferred Bridges; Bridges turned it down. Selleck had recently worked on the pilot episode of Magnum, P.I. and was contractually obligated to that show if it were to be made into a full series. Selleck had 10 days left on his contract when Lucas and Spielberg asked the shows studio CBS to release Selleck early so they could begin filming Raiders of the Lost Ark. When CBS realised that Selleck was in demand, they greenlit Magnum P.I., forcing Selleck to drop out. Ironically, the actors strike of 1980 put the show in hiatus for three months, which would have allowed Selleck to star as Jones.
The production had been left with no lead actor, three weeks before the commencement of filming. Accounts differ on how Ford was cast. Spielberg said that Ford was perfect for the role after seeing him in The Empire Strikes Back; Kanzanjian said that Ford had always been considered but not cast because he was already a well-known actor. Lucas did not think Ford would commit to the three-film contract, as he was reluctant to do so to portray Han Solo in Star Wars. However, Ford thought it would be a fun project and agreed to the deal. He negotiated for a seven-figure salary, a percentage of the gross profits, and the option to re-write his dialogue so that Jones did not sound too much like Solo, to avoid being typecast. Ford undertook extensive training to enhance his physique and to learn how to use a bullwhip; Lucas had always envisioned the character wielding a whip. Ford trained for several weeks with the whip under stunt coordinator Glenn Randall and alone. He had to rehabilitate his wrist to compensate for an earlier injury that had never fully healed. Ford saw the character as an academic first, and adventurer second.
For Jones’ love interest Marion Ravenwood, Spielberg wanted someone akin to early 20th-century leading ladies like Irene Dunne, Barbara Stanwyck, and Ann Sheridan, who could hold their own against their male counterparts. Lucas wanted Debra Winger for the role, but she was not interested. Spielberg wanted to cast his then-girlfriend Amy Irving but she was unavailable. Barbara Hershey and Sean Young were also considered; Young went as far as screen testing for the role against Matheson. Allen impressed Spielberg with her professionalism during auditions. One of first things he asked Allen was “how well do you spit?” Allen developed a backstory for Marion that included her mother’s death and her affair with Jones when she was 15-16, but Spielberg said it belonged in a different movie. Kasdan named Marion after his wife’s grandmother, and took Ravenwood from a street in Los Angeles.
Belloq was intended to be a sophisticated villain to counter the “beer-drinking” hero. Spielberg cast Freeman after seeing him in the docudrama Death of a Princess (1980); he was captivated by Freeman’s piercing eyes. French Singer Jacques Dutronc and Giancarlo Giannini were also considered. Danny DeVito was approached to portray Sallah, described as a skinny, 5 ft (1.5 m) tall Egyptian like Sam Jaffe’s portrayal of Gunga Din in the adventure film Gunga Din (1939). DeVito could not participate because of scheduling conflicts with his sitcom Taxi and because his agent wanted too much money. Rhys-Davies was cast based on his performance in the 1980 miniseries Shōgun. Spielberg asked him to play the character as a mix of his Shōgun role and the character John Falstaff. Ronald Lacey was cast as Toht because he reminded Spielberg of the late-actor Peter Lorre. Klaus Kinski was offered the role but chose to appear in the horror film Venom (1981) because the pay was better.
Principal photography began on Monday 23 June 1980. Filming took place on sets at Elstree Studios, and on location in La Rochelle in France, Tunisia in North Africa, and Hawaii. Lucas often spent several weeks at a time visiting the locations during filming, and directed some second unit shots. Spielberg said he learned to “like” instead of “love” to avoid using too much time trying to achieve the perfect take. He said, “We didn’t do 30 or 40 takes; usually only four… Had I had more time and money, it would have turned out a pretentious movie.” On-location shooting cost around $100,000 a day in addition to crew salaries. The sets cost an additional $4 million. The production could only afford certain equipment for a limited time, including a Panaglide camera stabilizer for smoother shots, and a camera crane for higher angles. It also impacted on Spielberg’s desire to have 2,000 extras as diggers; he had to settle for 600.
The loosely detailed script led to lots of improvisation; where the script described three people talking in a room, in the film it would take place in a quarry alongside 500 extras. Scenes like the young girl with “Love You” written across her eyelids, and Marion putting on a dress to conceal a weapon were also improvised. Allen, Lacey, Freeman, and Rhys-Davies often spent time together between takes to talk and discuss their characters. Allen described Ford as a private person who would not discuss his character in detail. She said it took her a while to adapt to his working style.
The first scene shot was in La Rochelle; it featured the capture of the tramp steamer Bantu Wind by a Nazi U-boat. Watts borrowed a submarine from the war film Das Boot (1981) on condition that it not be taken into deep waters. Lucas returned home after becoming sea sick during the shoot. World War II German U-boat pens in La Rochelle were used for the U-boat dock. An original coal-fired tramp steamer boat could not be found for filming, so an Egyptian boat found in an Irish port was appropriately decorated and sailed to France. La Rochelle filming concluded by the end of the week.
Filming moved to Elstree Studios by June 30. The first interior scene featured the imam deciphering the staff headpiece for Jones. Repeated delays were experienced while filming the Well of Souls scene: there were insufficient snakes, a lack of anti-venom, and Stanley Kubrick’s daughter Vivian – who was visiting Kubrick on the set of The Shining – called the RSPCA animal welfare charity about the treatment of the snakes. The stage doors were kept open during filming for access to a waiting ambulance. The snakes, tight spaces, and special effects dust made Allen anxious and frustrated also. She felt that little time was given to rehearse the scene, or generally explore her character in depth. Animal handler Steve Edge donned a dress and shaved his legs to stand in for Allen at specific points. Kasdan was irritated by the Marion’s bar scene because he found much of the content he had wrote for it had been removed. The Peruvian temple set was also filmed at Elstree. The interior scenes at Jones’ school were filmed at The Royal Masonic School for Girls in Rickmansworth, near Hertfordshire; the exterior is the University of the Pacific in California.
Tunisia is used to portray Egypt in Raiders of the Lost Ark. The temperature there was often in excess of 130 °F (54 °C). Spielberg described this phase as one of his worst filming experiences. The majority of the crew – over 150 people – became sick with Amoebic dysentery from eating the local food. Spielberg was one of the few to remain healthy because he ate tinned food and bottled water he had brought from England. Lucas suffered a severe sunburn and facial swelling. The Cairo village was filmed in the city of Kairouan. A day of filming was lost there because over 300 TV antennas had to be removed from the surrounding houses. Stuntman Terry Richards, who portrayed the swordsman nonchalantly dispatched by Jones, spent weeks practicing sword skills for an extended fight scene. Ford was unable to perform for long periods of time due to dysentery, and it was decided cut the fight scene down significantly. The Sidi Bouhlel canyon near the city of Tozeur is the location where a rocket launcher-equipped Jones confronts the Nazis for the Ark. Lucas previously used the canyon in Star Wars to portray the planet Tatooine. During the scene, a fly crawled into Freeman’s mouth during his dialogue, but he continued to deliver his lines. Up to 600 extras at a time were involved in some scenes.
In late September 1980, filming moved to Hawaii for exterior shots of the film’s Peruvian opening. The Paramount logo dissolving into a natural mountain was an improvisation by Spielberg based on his own childhood habit of doing the same while making films; the mountain is Kalalea Mountain on the island of Kauaʻi. Though the scene appears to be a single location, it was shot across 10 different areas in Hawaii, including the Huleia National Wildlife Refuge. It was originally more elaborate and longer, featuring an added betrayal by one of Jones’ guides, resulting in a fight, and it had more dialogue; it was deemed unnecessary and removed for a tighter paced sequence. Alfred Molina’s Satipo would have held half of Jones’ map, but it was seen as achieving the same outcome in a long way. The cave exterior was deemed a perfect location, though a nearby pool was a mosquito breeding ground; even with anti-mosquito equipment the crew still were bitten. The donkeys used for the trek eventually suffered lameness. It was difficult to find replacements, and eventually, a pair of grey donkeys were painted brown with hair spray and flown by helicopter to the Nā Pali Coast State Park to finish the scene.
Filming concluded in September 1980, after 73 days. Lucas described it as the film he had the least problems with due to the lack of studio interference.
Post-production lasted a few months and focused mainly on special effects and Pick-up shots. Speilberg’s first cut was close to 3 hours long before he and Kahn re-edited it down to just under 2 hours. After showing the rough cut to Lucas, he, Spielberg, and Kahn were happy with the result. The following morning, Lucas asked Spielberg if he could perform an edit himself to trim down the ending. Lucas and Kahn collaborated on the edit; Spielberg said he was happy with their changes. Marcia Lucas opined that there was no emotional closure for Jones and Marion because Marion was absent following the closure of the Ark. Marcia is not credited in the film, but her suggestion led Spielberg to shoot a final exterior sequence on the steps of San Francisco City Hall with Jones and Marion together.
Other changes included the addition of a scene where the Ark makes a humming noise in the Bantu Wind hold, and the removal of a scene showing Jones holding on to the U-boat periscope to follow the Nazis; Spielberg thought it looked poor and hoped the audiences would not care how Jones accomplished the feat. Shots of the Douglas DC-3 Jones flies to Nepal on were repurposed from the adventure film Lost Horizon (1937), and a street scene outside Jones’ home was taken from The Hindenburg (1975). Spielberg said that it was cost-effective and only sharp-eyed viewers would ever notice. Special effects supervisor Richard Edlund has maintained that the latter scene was done with miniatures. The final cut of the film runs for 115 minutes.
John Williams served as composer for Raiders of the Lost Ark. He said that the music did not have to be serious for the film, and was instead theatrical and excessive. He spent a few weeks working on the Indiana Jones theme, more commonly known as “The Raiders March” that plays during the main character’s heroic scenes. He played two separate pieces for Spielberg, who wanted to use both. These pieces became the main theme and musical bridge of “The Raiders March”.
For the romantic theme, Williams took inspiration from older films like the drama Now, Voyager (1942) to create something more emotionally monumental that he felt would contrast well with the film’s humor and lighter moments. Williams used “dark” orchestral pieces to represent the actions of the Nazis, using a “seventh degree on a bottom scale”. He said this signified a militaristic evil. To create something suitably biblical for the Ark of the Covenant, he used a mix of chorus and orchestra.
Ford performed as many of his own stunts as he was allowed, and suffered several injuries as a result. He used his bullwhip in stunts and had become proficient enough by filming that he could disarm the Monkey Man played by Vic Tablian.
The Peruvian temple scene was shot in the second week of filming at Elstree Studios. The interiors were life-sized sets. Several planned ideas for the temple were abandoned including a crushing wall trap and a pit concealed by spider-webs. The Golden Idol also had mechanically-operated eyes that could follow Jones. The giant boulder was made of fiberglass, plaster, and wood. It was designed to be 65 ft (20 m) wide, but this was reduced to 22 ft (6.7 m) with a weight of 300 lb (140 kg). Spielberg liked the effect so much that he had its ramp extended to give it more screentime. The boulder was controlled by a steel rod in the wall concealed by rubber rock outcroppings. Ford performed the stunt himself; he completed it ten times in total for the different camera angles. Spielberg said he was an idiot for letting Ford do it, but that it would not have looked as good with a stuntman concealing their face. The tarantulas on Molina’s character would not move because they were all male and non-aggressive. A female spider was put on Molina’s chest to encourage movement. For the final part of the scene in which Jones flees by plane, the first take ended in near-disaster when the plane crashed from a height of 20 ft (6.1 m) because Ford’s hanging leg was blocking the aircraft’s navigating flap. Ford and the pilot were unharmed.
The Well of Souls scene was delayed initially by a lack of snakes. There were 500-600 snakes to use for close shots and some mechanical snakes for wider shots, but Spielberg wanted more. A request was made to snake handlers from around London and Europe who produced anywhere between 6,000 and 10,000 snakes in a few days. Afterward, they struggled to obtain anti-venom and local supplies had expired; it had to be imported from India. Allen was reportedly so scared that she could not scream on cue. Spielberg dropped a dead serpent on her to elicit a genuine reaction. Vivian Kubrick lodged a complaint with the RSPCA about the perceived poor treatment of the snakes, requiring production to cease while safeguards were added.
The BV-38 flying wing, present in the scene following Jones’ and Marion’s escape from the Well of Souls, was created by Reynolds and production artist Ron Cobb. It was constructed by British engineering firm Vickers, then dismantled, because of its size, and shipped to Tunisia. It was not designed to be flight-worthy, only to serve as a source of danger with its propellers. The design was inspired by the Horten Ho 229, Northrop N-1M, and Vought V-173 aircraft. The vehicle was abandoned in Tunisia and slowly dismantled over the following decade by souvenir hunters before being demolished. The fight between Jones and the German underneath the plane was mainly improvised; Spielberg had to restrain himself from making it too long as each new idea led to another. During the fight, the moving vehicle rolled over Ford’s foot and towards his knee before it was stopped. It took 40 crew members to move it off of him. He avoided injury through a combination of the extreme Tunisian heat making the tire soft and the ground being covered in sand. Dysentry had left the production with a lack of stuntmen and Spielberg had Marshall stand in as the flying wing pilot. The scene was shot over 3 days. It was one of Spielberg’s more difficult scenes to film, and he was reported as saying he wanted to go home.
The truck chase was mainly filmed by second unit director Michael D. Moore. Spielberg had not used a second director before but agreed to it as the scene would take a long time to film because it is set over multiple locations. Moore completed wider shots where stuntmen stood in for Ford. He closely followed Spielberg’s storyboarding but innovated a few shots that Spielberg considered to be improvements. Stuntman Glenn Randall suggested the scene of Jones traversing the underside of the truck. Ford was sat in a concealed bicycle seat attached to the truck underside when clinging to its front. One of the convoy cars going over a cliff was a combination of matte painting background and stop motion animation of miniature figures falling out of the car.
Lucas’ visual effects company Industrial Light & Magic handled the film’s special effects, under the supervision of Richard Edlund. The team was divided between work on Raiders of the Lost Ark and the dark fantasy Dragonslayer (1981). Lucas felt that special effects were a financially economic method of delivering a good film. He said that audiences will buy into even a poor special effect as long as they are emotionally involved in the story. Spielberg liked practical effects because he could regularly check the raw footage during filming, rather than waiting months for the composite effect to be completed.
Freeman said that he had no idea what was happening when the Ark is opened. He was told to imagine something coming towards him and to scream. Spielberg and Lucas were not concerned about the scene’s gore. The spirits of the Ark were created by special effects artist Steve Gawley. He suspended small robed puppets in a clouded water tank in front of a blue screen. The puppets were shaken to create a surely, natural movement that was composited into the live footage. For the close-up of the ghost, a Lucasfilm receptionist dressed in a long white robe and was suspended in the air in front of a blue screen. She was filmed moving away from the camera and the footage was reversed to create an inhuman movement. Her visage was composited with a skeletal model for the monstrous transformation.
The death scenes for Freeman, Lacey, and Kahler were created using different models. A mold was made of Kahler’s face for Dietrich; the mold was lined with bladders filled with air. Controlled by up to ten people, the air was then removed to create the appearance of the head shriveling. Lacey’s melting face was sculpted by special effects artist Chris Walas using different colored layers of gelatin placed over a carved, stone skull that could withstand heat. The sculpt was then heated with propane heaters to melt the gelatin and filmed using a slower-than-normal camera so that the effect appears to take place rapidly when played at normal speed. Belloq’s head mold contained a thin-plaster skull filled with blood bags and detritus. It was blown up using explosives, shotguns, and an air cannon. It took three attempts to get the desired effect. Belloq’s death was considered so extreme that the film was initially handed an R rating restricting its audience to those over 17 years of age unless supervised by an adult. Flames were superimposed over the scene to conceal the effect.
Kasdan scripted detailed montages during the transition between locations, but Spielberg saved money by showing a map and an animated line traveling between destinations. The Well of Souls catacombs were filled with skulls and rotting bodies made by chief make-up artist Tom Smith; he used real skulls for reference. To get the monkey to salute, the trainer hit it on the head to make it touch the affected area. When this did not work, the filmmakers hung a grape over its head to make it reach up; it took 50 takes to capture it performing the Nazi salute. A partially deaf rat was used for the scene of the ark “humming” in the hold of the Bantu Wind, giving it a unique and unnatural head movement.
Visuals and Sound
Matte paintings by Michael Pangrazio were composited into the filmed footage to create more elaborate backgrounds: these included the establishing shot of Marion’s Nepalese bar and the warehouse where the Ark is later stored. Spielberg did not like the one used for the China Clipper plane as he did not think it looked real against the water they had filmed. Jones’ attire – a leather jacket and khaki pants – were based on Humphrey Bogart’s in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) and Charlton Heston in Secret of the Incas (1954). Costume designer Deborah Nadoolman Landis found Jones’ hat in Bermans & Nathans, London. She dumped boxes of hats on the floor for Ford to try on. After picking the right style, Nadoolman Landis went to Herbert Johnson hatters and purchased an Australian model that she aged with Fuller’s earth and mineral oil, and then scrunched beneath a bed. The hat allowed them to create a recognisable image even in silhouette. Designer Ralph McQuarrie was responsible for the Ark decorations.
Spielberg wanted a moodier film noir lighting style like in The Informer (1935). Slocombe wanted to make things brighter, and used backlighting to create a greater depth of field; Spielberg preferred his changes. Slocombe often employed natural light, using solar position predictions to plot a scene’s layout. Spielberg liked the beams of sunlight glimpsed through scenery, and tasked special effects artist Kit West with using a smoke machine to artificially sunlight shards. For the bar fight, Spielberg wanted pitch-black shadows on the wall, but the lighting required would have shrouded the actors’ eyes and had to settle for subtler shadings. He also wanted to illuminate the Well of Souls with a lighting effect through the ceiling opening, but once this was sealed it no longer made sense. The flaming torches used in the scene did not provide enough light so he opted to use an artificial light source. Spielberg noted that Allen always looked beautiful in her scenes because Slocombe would spend twice as long setting up her lighting as he would Ford.
Sound effects supervisor Ben Burtt recorded the film’s many sounds: the snake slithering is a mix of Burtt running his hands through cheese casserole and wet sponges being dragged across grip tape; the rolling boulder is a Honda Civic driving down a gravel hill; and the Ark lid opening is the sound of a toilet cistern being opened. The Ark spirits are the cries of sea lions and dolphins filtered through a vocoder. Jones’ revolver is the sound of a Winchester rifle firing, while his whip-crack was made by recording Ford himself using the whip.
By the summer of 1981 (June–September), the film industry had been in decline for over a year. There had been few box office successes and rising film production costs, diminishing audiences, and rising ticket prices were taking a toll. The summer period was predicted to be down 10% or $250 million against the previous year. Studios were desperate to make the next Blockbuster film, that could generate as much revenue in a short period as an average film could in a year. Over 60 films were scheduled for release, an increase over the previous year, increasing competition for the majority of audiences, made up of those aged 12 to 24, at the most profitable time of the film year.
The superhero film Superman II was expected to overwhelmingly dominate the season; it was already doing well outside of North America. Based on industry experts and audience polling, the film was widely anticipated, followed by the comedy film History of the World, Part I, the latest James Bond film For Your Eyes Only, the comedies Nice Dreams and The Great Muppet Caper, and the science fiction film Outland. Conversely, audience polling by CinemaScore showed that there was no awareness or anticipation for Raiders of the Lost Ark, until nationwide previews a week prior to its release. The New York Times reported that Paramount had provided a more beneficial deal than usual with theater owners to ensure Raiders of the Lost Ark was played in the best theaters and locations.
The press event for the film cost $10,000; it featured two camels, an elephant, and a python. Paramount supplied the film prints to theatres in a lead-sealed container to prevent tampering. They also wrote to the managers of the theatres, advising that they would be responsible for misuse of the film. The letter inspired a whistleblower working at one theatre to alert the studio of the planned theft of a Raiders of the Lost Ark print for film piracy. The FBI investigated and broke up an organised crime ring duplicating theatrical releases. The 1,200 film prints produced by Paramount Pictures cost an estimated $1.7 million.
In North America, Raiders of the Lost Ark received a wide release on 12 June 1981, across 1,078 theatres. The film earned $8.3 million – an average of $7,705 per theatre. Raiders of the Lost Ark finished as the number one film of the weekend, ahead of the adventure film Clash of the Titans ($6.6 million) and History of the World, Part I ($4.9 million), both also in their first week of release. The film fell to the number three position in its second weekend with a further gross of $8 million – a drop of only 4% – behind the debuting Cannonball Run ($11.8 million) and Superman II ($14.1 million).
These positions remained unchanged in its third week. However in its fourth week, Raiders of the Lost Ark began rising up the box office charts, reaching the number two position with a gross of $7.3 million, behind Superman II ($10.9 million). By its sixth week, it had regained the number one position with $6.4 million. The film spent the majority of the following nine weeks as the number one film, and forty-weeks straight in the top-ten highest-grossing films. It had earned over $100 million by mid-August, and had been declared the top box office film of the summer by early September, with a total approximate gross of $125 million. Of this figure, $72 million was estimated to have been returned to the studio; the profit-sharing deal with Spielberg and Lucas meant that after the costs of marketing, Paramount had earned $23 million in profit.
The film remained a steady success; six months after its release, industry executives joked that Raiders of the Lost Ark would be the year’s big Christmas film. Its success continued into the following spring (March–May). The film officially left theatres on 18 March 1982, although some were still playing it over a year later. By the end of its run, Raiders of the Lost Ark had earned an approximate box office gross of $212.2 million. This figure made it the highest grossing film of 1981, ahead of the drama film On Golden Pond ($119.3 million), Superman II ($108.1 million), and the comedy film Stripes ($85.3 million). According to estimates by Box Office Mojo, this indicates that over 77 million tickets were bought to see the film. As of 1997, the box office returns to the studio – minus the theatres share – was $115.6 million. Raiders of the Lost Ark remains the “leggiest” film ever released, referring to the difference between the highest-weekend gross earned and the time taken to achieve the overall total gross.
Outside of North America, the film earned a further $141.7 million, making it the number one film ahead of For Your Eyes Only ($140.5 million) and Superman II ($82.2 million). This figure gives it a cumulative worldwide gross of $354 million, making it the highest-grossing film of 1981 worldwide, again ahead of For Your Eyes Only ($195.3 million) and Superman II ($190.4 million).
Raiders of the Lost Ark has received several theatrical re-releases. It was first re-released in July 1982, where it earned an additional $21.4 million. It was re-released in March 1983, when it earned a further $11.4 million. A remastered version, supervised by Spielberg, was released across 267 IMAX in North America. The success of the release led to the run being extended to 300 other theatres. The film earned a further $3.1 million. These releases have raised the film’s worldwide theatrical gross to an estimated $389.9 million.
Awards and Accolades
At the 1982 Academy Awards, Raiders of the Lost Ark received five awards: Best Film Editing (Michael Kahn); Best Production Design (Norman Reynolds, Leslie Dilley, and Michael D. Ford); Best Sound (Bill Varney, Steve Maslow, Gregg Landaker, and Roy Charman); Best Sound Editing (Ben Burtt and Richard L. Anderson); and Best Visual Effects (Richard Edlund, Kit West, Bruce Nicholson, and Joe Johnston). The film received a further four nominations: Best Picture (losing to historical drama Chariots of Fire); Best Cinematography (losing to Reds); Best Director (losing to Warren Beatty for the drama Reds); and Best Original Score (losing to Vangelis for Chariots of Fire). It was tied with the drama film Ragtime for the third-most nominations, behind On Golden Pond and Reds.
For the 39th Golden Globe Awards, Raiders of the Lost Ark received one nomination for Best Director, again losing to Beatty for Reds. At the 9th Saturn Awards, Raiders of the Lost Ark won seven awards, including Best Fantasy Film, Best Actor (Ford), Best Actress (Allen), Best Director, Best Music (Williams), Best Writing (Kasdan), and Best Special Effects (Edlund). Spielberg received a Directors Guild Award nomination, losing to Beatty.
The 35th British Academy Film Awards earned the film one award for Best Production Design (Reynolds), and a further six nominations: Best Film (losing to Chariots of Fire); Best Supporting Actor for Elliott (losing to Ian Holm for Chariots of Fire); Best Original Music (losing to Carl Davis for The French Lieutenant’s Woman); Best Cinematography (losing to Ghislain Cloquet and Geoffrey Unsworth for Tess); Best Editing (losing to Thelma Schoonmaker for Raging Bull; and Best Sound for Charman, Burtt, and Bill Varney (losing to The French Lieutenant’s Woman. The film also received a Grammy Award for William’s score, a People’s Choice Award for Favorite Motion Picture, a Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation, and a nomination for Best Original Screenplay at the 34th Writers Guild of America Awards.
- In 1999, the film was selected by the United States Library of Congress to be preserved in the National Film Registry for being culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.
Indiana Jones Series
You can find a full index and overview of the Indiana Jones franchise here.
Production & Filming Details
- Director(s): Steven Spielberg.
- Producer(s): Frank Marshall.
- Writer(s): Lawrence Kasdan (screenplay), George Lucas (story), and Philip Kaufman (story).
- Music: John Williams.
- Cinematography: Douglas Slocombe.
- Editor(s): Michael Kahn.
- Production: Lucasfilm Ltd.
- Distributor(s): Paramount Pictures.
- Release Date: 12 June 1981.
- Running Time: 115 minutes.
- Rating: PG.
- Country: US.
- Language: English.