Forty years ago today, Raiders of the Lost Ark was released, introducing fans to Indiana Jones in a film that has spawned a large film franchise and following. It has been met with tremendous critical acclaim over the past four decades, and it is routinely included on the lists of the greatest films ever made.
There have been three sequels made so far – Temple of Doom in 1984, The Last Crusade in 1989, and Kingdom of the Crystal Skull in 2008 – and another installment is on the way, set to release on July 29, 2022. Plus, there was a television show, The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles, in the 1990s. And the whole franchise arose out of the mind of one of the most brilliant creatives in film history, George Lucas.
As the story goes, Lucas had an idea in mind for this kind of adventure film for many years, but was more focused on his long-desired space movie, which became Star Wars. Released in 1977, Star Wars was a massive hit and became the highest-grossing film of all-time up to that point. Lucas, however, was convinced it was going to be a failure. It was a nightmare getting the movie made, and he didn’t think it was going to be well-received. So he planned to be on vacation in Hawaii around the release of Star Wars, anticipating negative reaction and wanting to get away from it. Lucas and his wife, Marcia (who herself won an Academy Award for Best Film Editing for her work on Star Wars), and a friend, Steven Spielberg, joined them. Spielberg was already a well-established director in Hollywood, primarily for his work on Jaws in 1975 – which, in fact, was the film Star Wars supplanted to become the highest-grossing in history.
And on a beach in Hawaii, Lucas mentioned to his friend this idea for an adventure franchise, at the time named Indiana Smith, and which would eventually become known as Indiana Jones. Spielberg was hooked and agreed to direct it. Lucas provided the story and was an executive producer, while Spielberg directed. Plus, John Williams, the magnificent composer who was familiar with both Lucas and Spielberg, agreed to write the music, having already won the Academy Award for Best Original Score on both Jaws and Star Wars. When it came to casting the lead, for the role of Indiana Jones, the job wound up going to Harrison Ford, who was a breakout star in Star Wars as Han Solo.
Lawrence Kasdan was brought on to write the script, based on the story by George Lucas. After writing a script for Raiders of the Lost Ark, Lucas asked him to write a revised draft of the sequel to Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back. Since then, Kasdan has also returned to the Star Wars franchise to write Return of the Jedi, The Force Awakens, and Solo: A Star Wars Story.
One other person of note to work on the film, at least when looking back on it, had her name buried far down in the credits, listed as an associate to Steven Spielberg, Kathleen Kennedy. She returned as an associate producer on the next two sequels, and by time of Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, she was not only an executive producer, but had already made her name as one of the most successful producers in film history, working closely with Spielberg. When Lucas sought out someone to turn his company over to, he chose Kennedy to run Lucasfilm, and she has led the company ever since.
So it probably is readily apparent why I’m writing this article despite this being a Star Wars site, since Indiana Jones and Star Wars share so much overlap – especially on the creative side. And Raiders remains maybe the greatest in what is a very fun and successful franchise, even all these years later.
The adventure feel of the film is profound, and from the very beginning – with Indy seeking out the idol and then having to desperately try to escape – it sets the tone. But that opening adventure, in which we’re thrust into the action midway through, leads into our main adventure: a search for the long-lost Ark of the Covenant. Through that, Indy reunites with old friends (though new to us) like Marion Ravenwood and Sallah, and, of course, he eventually does find the Ark. Included in there is plenty of mystery, plenty of exploring, and plenty of action – like the thrilling desert chase sequence as Indy goes after the Ark.
In all of it, we’re introduced to the character of Indiana Jones, and it’s easy to fall in love with the character and the feel of these films. They’re a lot of fun, and that’s part of why it’s endured for forty years – and looks to continue, with another chapter on the way next year.