Filmsite Movie Review
Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
Pages: (1) (2) (3)

Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) is the spectacular, cliff-hanger, breathlessly-paced, non-stop action/adventure film of the early 1980s. It was an immensely successful summer box-office hit. The film was conceived by producer George Lucas and directed by Steven Spielberg. [Note: Significantly, this was the first full collaboration between the two legendary American film-makers.] Screen-credited Lawrence Kasdan's script for the film was based on a story by collaborators George Lucas and Philip Kaufman.

Harrison Ford, who had starred in Lucas' Star Wars (1977), took the role of the globe-trotting, adventurous, comic-book hero/academic archaeologist with a leather jacket and bullwhip when Tom Selleck declined the role and chose instead to pursue his TV career as Magnum, P.I. (Tim Matheson, Nick Nolte, and Peter Coyote were also considered for the role, and Sean Young was tested for the role ultimately accepted by Karen Allen. Selleck later appeared in a Raiders knock-off film titled High Road to China (1983).)

The swaggering, two-fisted character with a fear of snakes was designed to be flawed yet cocky, with frequent boasts: "Trust me." The character was originally named Indiana Smith, but it was changed by Spielberg. [Note: "Indiana" was the name of Lucas' dog. The swashbuckling character of Indiana Jones was loosely based on an early 19th century Italian archaeologist named Giovanni Belzoni, who became famous for exploring and excavating treasured Egyptian sites. The name was also a playful variation of Steve McQueen's name in Nevada Smith (1966).]

This was the first of three Indiana Jones movies (and then a fourth film almost twenty years later) - created as a tribute (by Lucas) in wide-eyed homage to the episodic Saturday matinee, cliff-hanging thrillers, westerns, and adventure serials of yesteryear in the 1930s and 40s, with their strong-jawed heroes. Influences on the film came from the many permutations of the Zorro legend, John Ford's Stagecoach (1939) with its amazing stuntwork by Yakima Canutt, Gunga Din (1939), Casablanca (1942), The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), King Solomon's Mines (1950), and the Disney Ducks adventure comics by Carl Barks.

Spielberg was encouraged to make three more sequels:

See more about The Indiana Jones Franchise

Raiders Films

Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

Main religious artifact or icon: Jewish Ark of the Covenant that once held the 10 Commandments

Year: 1936

(Composer John Williams)
Introduced character of whip-carrying Indy Jones (Harrison Ford); with 8 Academy Awards nominations and 4 Oscar wins; grossed $242 million (domestic)

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984)

Main religious icon or artifact: the Sankara Stones, five sacred Hindu stones

Year: 1935

(Composer John Williams)
A prequel to the first film, an inferior, darker remake that paid homage to Gunga Din (1939), involving an evil cult and enslaved children; inspired the creation of the MPAA's PG-13 rating; the film that introduced Spielberg to his future wife Kate Capshaw, a miscast character in the film; grossed approx. $179 million (domestic)

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)

Main religious artifact or icon: legendary Christian sacred vessel, the Holy Grail, the cup Jesus used at the Last Supper

Year: A prequel (1912), then the late 1930s

(Composer John Williams)
With Sean Connery as Indy's dad Henry; 13 year-old Indy was played by River Phoenix; grossed $197 million (domestic)

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008)

Main religious artifact or icon: The Mitchell-Hedges crystalline skull, revealed to be the skull of an ancient inter-dimensional alien - possibly an ancient alien "supercomputer" providing ultimate knowledge; and the legendary ancient city El Dorado

Year: 1957

Steven Spielberg (director)
George Lucas (exec. producer, co-writer)
David Koepp (co-writer)
With 64-year old Harrison Ford reprising his role as Professor Henry "Indiana" Jones, Jr.; also with a return for Karen Allen (as Marion Ravenwood), and Cate Blanchett as villainous, jet-black Cleopatra-banged Russian agent Irina Spalko; also with Shia LaBeouf as "Mutt" Williams aka Henry Jones III, Indy's son, and Ray Winstone as Mac McHale, Indy's compatriot with dubious loyalties; featured Indy escaping a nuclear explosion by hiding in a lead-lined refrigerator, a skin-crawling attack by millions of giant ants, and a spectacular finale featuring a flying saucer, followed by the long-awaited marriage between Indy and Marion

ABC-television series, The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles (1992-1996) - (only two seasons and a shortened season 3 on cable's Family Channel)


  The teenaged 17-year-old Indy was played by Sean Patrick Flanery, 93-year-old Indy narration provided by George Hall, and headstrong 10-year-old Indy by Corey Carrier; the hour-long TV series, was re-edited (chronologically configured into 22 90-minute segments) and released on video in 1999 under the name The Adventures of Young Indiana Jones

DVD volumes:
Vol 1: The Early Years
Vol 2: The War Years
Vol 3: The Years of Change

Numerous other films have been influenced by the trilogy of Raiders films: King Solomon's Mines (1985) with Richard Chamberlain, Romancing the Stone (1984) and Jewel of the Nile (1985), the Spielberg-produced The Goonies (1985), and more recently The Mummy (1999) and The Mummy Returns (2001), and Lara Croft: Tomb Raider (2001).

Raiders is a thoroughly entertaining work, with some of the greatest gee-whiz technical effects (created at Lucasfilms' Industrial Light and Magic), kinetic stunts, larger-than-life characters, and continuously chained-together action sequences ever filmed. Unforgettable scenes include the thrilling opening, the underground Egyptian temple filled with snakes, the tense chase scenes, and the retribution visited upon the rival, religious artifact-obsessed French archaeologist and his Third Reich Nazi cohorts in the fiery finale when the Ark of the Covenant is opened.

The musical score by accomplished composer John Williams (famous for work on Jaws (1975) , Star Wars (1977), and The Empire Strikes Back (1980)) added an air of excitement. Spielberg's phenomenally successful film, that cost only $23 million and made more than $200 million, contributed to the demand for bigger blockbusters. [Note: Superman (1978) is often considered to be John Williams' best score.]

The film received eight Academy Awards nominations, and came away with four Oscars, mostly for technical categories: Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, Best Sound, Best Film Editing, and Best Visual Effects, plus a Special Achievement Award for Sound Effects Editing. Its other unrewarded nominations were for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Cinematography (Douglas Slocombe), and Best Original Score (John Williams).

Plot Synopsis

The opening sequence resembles the climax of most films - and is actually unrelated to the main storyline. A hang-on-to-your-seats experience begins after the Paramount logo match-dissolves into an actual South American rainforest jungle mountain peak.

[Note: All four Indiana Jones films incorporated the majestic Paramount mountain logo into the film with match-dissolves: the mountain dissolved into a mountain pictured on a gong in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984), a similarly-shaped Southwestern USA rocky peak in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989), and a gopher hill crushed by a buggy roadster in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008.]

It is 1936 in a South American rainforest jungle, with high jutting canyon walls shrouded by thick mists. An expedition is led by an American, Dr. Indiana "Indy" Jones (Harrison Ford, looking like a disheveled version of the unstable character played by Humphrey Bogart in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), or Errol Flynn as a roguish, lover-swordsman in The Adventures of Don Juan (1949)), first seen faceless and only in silhouette while guiding the group. Two Spanish Peruvians Satipo (Alfred Molina) and Barranca (Vic Tablian) and Indian porters also make their way through the menacing, dense underbrush.

The atmosphere becomes increasingly nervous and tense with two incidents: one of the Indians spreads apart some branches to reveal a hideous stone statue. When birds take flight from it, the Indian screams in fright. Fearlessly, the leader pushes on, finding a short, poisonous native dart in a tree. He extracts it and lets it drop to the ground. Coming up from behind, Satipo tastes it, spits out the poison, and informs Barranca: "fresh, three days" - it's a sign that native Indians are following them. Ominously, Barranca responds to their life-threatening situation: "If they knew we were here, they would have killed us already."

Jones, still viewed from the back, sports his signature short, brown leather flight jacket, a brimmed felt fedora, with a bullwhip firmly in his hand. As he examines two halves of a browned and torn parchment - a treasure map - Barranca reaches for his gun to end the dangerous mission early and cocks it. Jones responds reflexively with lightning speed by accurately and gracefully uncoiling his bullwhip and wrapping it around Barranca's hand. His reaction sends the gun into the river where it discharges harmlessly. Barranca flees into the forest as Jones is fully revealed.

Satipo and Jones come upon the cave entrance to a temple, where Jones stoops down and fills a small cloth drawstring pouch with sand. Jones tells the guide that his competitor Forrestal - who was "very good" - cashed it in at that location. Self-serving guide Satipo warns: "Senior, nobody's come out of there alive, please." The two of them cautiously enter the wet, dark, dripping interior of the tubular passage with thick spider webs. Indy is in the lead with Satipo's flaming torch barely lighting the way from behind. Partway down the twisting passageway, Satipo signals Indy that he has three deadly tarantulas crawling on the back of his jacket. After brushing them off with his bullwhip, Satipo turns around for an inspection and finds dozens of tarantulas on himself.

In a section of the hallway where a shaft of sunlight illuminates the chamber, Indy warns, "Stay out of the light." To test his instincts, he momentarily places his hand in the shaft of light. This sets off a primitive, light-sensitive booby-trap. With a ferocious noise, giant spikes spring together from the sides of the chamber - impaled there on the gate are the remains of a white man, half-flesh, half-skeleton, his mouth agape in horror. Indy recognizes the explorer-victim, his competitor: "Forrestal" - one of the best explorers in the business. They continue on.

The two swing perilously across a bottomless pit using the bullwhip on a failing support beam, turn a corner, and enter a large domed room, with a unique pattern of rock tiles laid out on the floor. Across the room is an altar, where the coveted object of Indy's mission is located - a tiny, gold jeweled figurine or statuette artifact - a disembodied head. With one end of the torch, Jones reaches out and taps one of the loose, dark tiles on the floor. He causes a whizzing poisonous dart to fly from a recessed hole in the wall into the shaft of the torch - it just misses him. Realizing that the entire room is honeycombed with holes, Indy carefully walks across the room and deliberately avoids the dark tiles.

At the start of a memorable sequence, Indy reaches the altar where the idol looks both fierce and beautiful. From inside his jacket, he removes the small, canvas drawstring bag filled with sand. He bounces it in his hand to estimate the approximate weight of the idol and then rubs his chin in thought. With tremendous concentration, he twitches his fingers (the guide twitches his fingers also) and then deftly and smoothly replaces the idol with the sand-filled bag to avoid triggering another booby trap. For a few moments, all seems well, until the pedestal beneath the bag suddenly begins to sink into the altar stone. Indy has miscalculated the weight in the swap to pilfer the sacred object, setting off a loud chain reaction of destruction. The entire sanctuary rumbles and shakes and rocks fall loose from the collapsing walls, as Indy spins and runs through the tiled floor area. He sets off a noisy torrent of poisonous darts and arrows.

Satipo races ahead and swings across the pit with the bullwhip just as it comes undone from the beam. He leaves Indy without a means to escape. In a nervous discussion across the deep chasm, the two negotiate an exchange of the artifact for the whip:

Indy: Give me the whip.
Satipo: Throw me the idol. No time to argue. Throw me the idol. I throw you the whip. (Indy tosses the idol across the pit to Satipo.)
Indy: Give me the whip.
Satipo: Adios, senor.

The traitorous Satipo drops the whip on the floor and rushes out toward the entrance. Desperate, Indy runs full speed and leaps across the pit, but he lands short and hangs tenuously from the edge while clinging by his fingertips. He claws and pulls himself up with a stray vine. Just in the nick of time, he makes it under a closing concrete wall after reaching back for his bullwhip. Indy hears rumbling noises, and then turns and finds himself face-to-face with a dead Satipo. Spikes protrude from his bloodied head. Indy retrieves the golden idol from the ground, and retorts under his breath to his unlucky partner, "Adios, estupido."

As he turns toward the loud rumbling noise, he sees behind him a huge, thundering boulder. The giant bowling ball rock tumbles, roars and rolls in his direction - perfectly sized to fit the passageway. Indy dashes just ahead of the destructive, crushing boulder. He leaps to safety outside the cave, just as the giant rock slams into the entrance of the cave and seals it perfectly. On the ground in front of the temple, the unflinching Indy looks up and finds himself surrounded by native Hovitos warriors poised in battle paint and loin cloths, ready to spear him. His turncoat guide Barranca falls face forward, dead with poisonous darts in his back.

In the midst of the natives is his nemesis, a pith-helmeted, safari-outfitted, crafty, charming, but lethal French archaeologist named Renee Belloq (Paul Freeman). With a heavy French accent, Belloq greets him and extends his hand, ready to steal his hard-earned treasure:

Belloq: Dr. Jones. Again, we see there is nothing you can possess which I cannot take away. And you thought I'd given up. (Indy reaches for his gun, but pauses and hands over his gun when the warriors draw back their weapons.) You chose the wrong friends. This time it will cost you.
Indy: Too bad the Hovitos don't know you the way I do, Belloq. (Indy hands over the prized idol.)
Belloq: Yes, too bad. You could warn them...if only you spoke Hovitos.

Belloq turns toward the natives and dramatically holds up the idol high into the air, and then speaks something in their language. All of them humbly prostrate themselves on the ground - heads down. Indy seizes the opportunity to escape and makes a break for it through the underbrush to a waiting seaplane. He is followed closely behind by the natives with poison darts and spears. (As Belloq holds up the idol, his maniacal laugh echoes through the forest.) An amphibious plane sits in the water, with its British pilot Jock (Fred Sorenson) fishing from one of the pontoons. [The seaplane's license number reads, "OB-CPO," an obvious reference to Star Wars, and the back of the pilot's shirt reads 'Air Pirates.'] Reaching a clearing, Indy yells out:

Jock, start the engines! Get it up. Start the engines!...

Jock is just at the point of pulling in a fish, but throws away his fishing pole and fires up the getaway plane's engines. Indy swings from some vines from the bank's edge into the river, and swims toward the plane as darts and arrows pepper the water around him. As the plane passes across the water near him, Indy grabs the pontoon and climbs aboard, and then maneuvers himself into the vacant cockpit in front of the pilot as the plane takes off from the river.

Suddenly, Indy's heroic veneer is tarnished when he notices the pilot's pet boa constrictor (named Reggie) aboard the plane at his feet. He literally jumps out of his seat, shouting at Jock over the loud drone of the plane's motors:

Indy: There's a big snake in the plane, Jock!
Jock: Aw, that's just my pet snake Reggie.
Indy: I hate snakes, Jock! I hate 'em!
Jock: Come on, show a little backbone, will ya?

The entire opening sequence - the South American adventure, deliberately sets the tone and pace of the film. It is also a prelude to a second quest - for the legendary, gold-encrusted Biblical Ark of the Covenant - a quest that also includes arch rival Belloq. The exciting opener also establishes the character of the protagonist - Indiana Jones, a ruggedly handsome, but rumpled and battered hero/adventurer with a comical fear of snakes.

The next scene finds a spectacled, tweed-suited professor, again Dr. Indiana Jones, in a university classroom. He is having difficulty writing the word "NEOLITHIC" on the blackboard. He is lecturing to a group of mostly female undergraduates, mesmerized by him rather than his beloved subject - archaeology. One of the young female students bats her eyes several times at him when he turns from the blackboard to address the class. The message "Love" and "You" is written on her eyelids. When Indy notices, he does a double-take and stutters, but carries on with his teaching. He reminds his students to read Michaelson, chapters 4 and 5.

When his class ends (and the last student out of the class leaves a green apple on Indy's desk), Marcus Brody (Denholm Elliott), the curator of the National Museum in Washington, examines some of the artifacts on his desk, as Jones tells him of his Peruvian experience: "I had it, Marcus. I had it in my hand." Jones needs $2,000 to get a ticket to Marrakesh where the gold idol may be sold by Belloq, and offers to exchange some of his other treasures. Marcus has brought two people to visit Jones at the university - both men are U. S. Army Intelligence agents ready to enlist his aid in another project. In a large amphitheatre-type lecture hall, Jones is told that his notoriety is well-known: "Professor of Archaeology, Expert on the Occult, and uh, how does one say it? Obtainer of Rare Antiquities."

The two agents know his background - he was an understudy for Professor Ravenwood at the University of Chicago, but Jones informs them that he hasn't spoken to Ravenwood in ten years (after a "falling out"), and last heard of him somewhere in Asia. Telling Jones of their "strictly confidential" information, their European sections recently intercepted a German (Nazi) communique that was sent from Cairo to Berlin. Reportedly, the Nazis have commissioned teams of archaeologists around the world to look for religious artifacts - Hitler is "nuts on the subject. He's crazy. He's obsessed with the occult." Presently, there is a German archaeological dig going on in the desert outside of Cairo at Tanis. The communique needs to be interpreted by Jones:

Agent: Tanis development proceeding. Acquire headpiece. Staff of Ra. Abner Ravenwood, U.S....
Jones (excitedly interpreting): The Nazis have discovered Tanis...Tanis is one of the possible resting places of the Lost Ark...yeah, the Ark of the Covenant, the chest the Hebrews used to carry around the Ten Commandments in...the original stone tablets that Moses brought down out of Mt. Heron and smashed, if you believe in that sort of thing...The Hebrews took the broken pieces and put them in the Ark. When they settled in Canaan, they put the Ark in a place called the Temple of Solomon...[in Jerusalem]...where it stayed for many years, until, all of a sudden, whoosh, it was gone...Nobody knows where or when.
Brody: However, an Egyptian pharaoh Shishak invaded the city of Jerusalem around about 980 BC and he may have taken the Ark back to the city of Tanis and hidden it in a secret chamber called the Well of Souls...However, about a year after the pharaoh had returned to Egypt, the city of Tanis was consumed by the desert in a sandstorm which lasted a whole year, wiped clean by the wrath of God....
Jones: Ravenwood is the real expert. Abner did the first serious work on Tanis, collected some of its relics. It was his obsession really. But he never found the city...
Agent: Frankly, we're somewhat suspicious of Mr. Ravenwood. An American being mentioned so prominently in a secret Nazi cable.
Brody: Oh rubbish! Ravenwood's no Nazi.
Agent: Well, what do they want him for, then?
Jones (describing and sketching his ideas visually on a blackboard): Obviously, the Nazis are looking for the headpiece to the Staff of Ra and they think Abner's got it...Well, the Staff is just a stick...(he indicates about six feet), nobody really knows for sure how's capped by an elaborate headpiece in the shape of a sun with a crystal in the center. And what you did was you take this Staff to a special room in Tanis, a map room, a miniature of the city all laid out on the floor. And if you put the Staff in a certain place at a certain time of day, the sun shone through here [a hole in the headpiece] and made a beam that came down on the floor here, and gave you the exact location of the Well of the Souls...
Agent: Where the Ark of the Covenant was kept right?
Jones: That's exactly what the Nazis are looking for!
Agent: What does this Ark look like?

Dr. Jones pulls out a big book, puts it on the desk, and flips through the pages. He finds a large color illustration of the Ark in action. [The pen drawing was penned by conceptual artist Ralph McQuarrie, who was the main designer for the Star Wars series.] The dramatic drawing in the print shows a Biblical battle - the Israelite Army vanquishes an opposing foe. Hebrew priests carry the beautiful gold chest, the Ark of the Covenant (that contains the original 10 Commandments). To carry it, they use two long wooden poles that pass through rings on the corners of the Ark. From the side of the Ark held high above the battle, a brilliant jet of "lightning, fire, the power of God or something" (according to Indy) issues forth. Presumably, whoever possesses the Ark will be infused with invincible powers:

Agent: I'm beginning to understand Hitler's interest in this.
Brody: 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.

Next Page