Nowadays it’s difficult to appreciate the awe felt by uninitiated audiences who saw Raiders of the Lost Ark in theaters in 1981. Think about the film’s opening scenes, which introduce Indiana Jones and his now-iconic fedora in the jungles of South America. He narrowly avoids getting shot in the back by his mutinous guides, proves his Zorro-esque expertise with a whip, cleverly maneuvers through the deadly booby-traps of an ancient Peruvian temple, flicks away tarantulas like they’re gnats, nabs the prized golden idol but sets off a chain-reaction of destruction that includes a giant boulder chasing him back out into the sunlight, finds himself surrounded by angry natives and a smug Eurotrash rival, outruns them and their poisonous darts to an idling sea-plane that barely gets him in the air in time — only to find himself sharing the front seat with a giant snake, which we soon learn, is his kryptonite.
In just 12 minutes and 47 seconds, audiences experienced more pulsating action than most action movies stuff into two full hours. It was exhilarating. And it only picked up steam from there. Indy fought Nazis in Nepal and re-teamed with lost love Marion (Karen Allen), infamously dueled with an Arab swordsman in Cairo, discovered the Well of Souls where the mysterious Ark was hidden (guarded by hundreds of slithering asps), and then stole the Ark back from the Germans in the death-defying stunt that had Indy being dragged underneath and behind a speeding truck — a clever homage to the classic scene in John Ford’s iconic western Stagecoach.
Hollywood has been trying to catch up ever since. Raiders, which was conceived as an homage to cheap 1940s cliffhanger serials, completely rewrote the rules of the action genre. It all started as a lark, a beach-vacation chat between pals, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas. Spielberg expressed his desire to direct a James Bond movie; Lucas responded that he had something better than a Bond movie — a daring 1930s globe-trotting archeologist named… Indiana Smith.
Smith became Jones — because who wants to keep up with the Smiths? — and Harrison Ford, already a superstar after Star Wars, famously stepped into the role after TV’s Tom Selleck couldn’t get out of his Magnum P.I. contract. Lucas envisioned Jones as an American Bond, and Ford combined the dash of Sean Connery with the roguish charm of Humphrey Bogart.
Lucas produced the film, and Spielberg — intent on restoring his reputation after the stinker 1941 — directed. They did it on the cheap — less than $20 million — a point of pride for Spielberg, who’d earned a reputation for blowing past budgets at that point in his career. When it arrived it theaters, advertised as a “new hero from the creators of Jaws and Star Wars,” the film wasn’t exactly an underdog, but it was hardly a sure thing — especially after some disastrous test screenings. Hindsight has a way of making it appear so, but no one knew who Indiana Jones was or why he was hunting the Lost Ark, and why is Han Solo wielding a whip?
The movie opened at No. 1, but it took a backseat to Superman and James Bond in weeks two and three. But then, like the giant boulder in the film, the movie gained momentum, crushing everything in its path. It steamrolled the competition and was still winning weekends in October. By the end of the summer, John Williams’ rollicking Raiders score had replaced his soaring Superman theme and Bond’s 007 music as the soundtrack of boys’ imaginations. Ultimately, it made nearly twice as much as the year’s second place movie, On Golden Pond, and it was also nominated for nine Oscars, including Best Picture.
Release Date: June 12, 1981
Box Office: $212.2 million domestic ($8.3 million opening weekend), $389.9 million global; $614.8 million domestic in 2014 dollars, adjusted for inflation. (All numbers from Box Office Mojo.)
The Competition: Raiders had an impressive opening weekend, clobbering Mel Brooks’ History of the World Part I, but in its second week, it finished a distant third to Superman II and The Cannonball Run. But as Raiders became a juggernaut, it clearly put a dent into the grosses of its action-movie rivals, from For Your Eyes Only to Escape From New York to The Legend of the Lone Ranger to Clash of the Titans to Tarzan the Ape Man to Dragonslayer.
What EW said: “At its heart is a smart, self-effacing, swaggering American hero whom we can, if not exactly identify with, then at least dream of one day becoming. Indiana Jones has flaws (a fear of snakes, a habit of regularly getting the stuffing beat out of him, and, sadly, no ability to speak Hovitos). But he always manages to grab his whip, dust off his leather jacket, and kick some Nazi tail when it matters most. One minute he might get pummeled by one of Hitler’s muscle-bound stooges on an airstrip, but the next he’s racing on the back of a horse, leaping onto the side of a speeding truck, and bashing the driver’s face in — all on his way to rescuing the girl. Neither he, nor the film, pauses to catch its breath until Belloq’s head explodes at the end.” — Chris Nashawaty, 2008
Cultural Impact Then: Indiana Jones became an immediate icon, on par with Superman and Luke Skywalker. In 2003, AFI would name Jones Hollywood’s second greatest hero — ahead of James Bond and behind only To Kill a Mockingbird‘s Atticus Finch, a perfect placement for the dashing hero who doubled as a bookish college professor. In Hollywood, the fedora made Ford the biggest star in the world, a role he never seemed fully comfortable with, but one that positioned him for every blockbuster franchise for the next two decades. On the other hand, the film’s success basically proved to Spielberg skeptics that Jaws was not a fluke, and his reputation as an unparallelled storyteller and box-office rainmaker would never be called into question again. (And certainly not after E.T. in 1982.) The success of Raiders gave Lucas his second ginormous franchise, allowing him to do anything he wanted, including nothing at all.
Cultural Staying Power: Hollywood tried to replicate Raiders‘ success, with movies like King Solomon’s Mines (No) and Romancing the Stone (Yes), but there was only one Indiana Jones. He returned in 1984, like all good Saturday-morning matinee heroes do, for Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and then again in 1989 for Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Lucas produced a popular TV series in the early 1990s, titled The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles, and there was a lot of talk about making a fourth film in 2008 that would’ve included crystal skulls, nuked fridges, and Shia LaBeouf. Fortunately this never happened — NEVER HAPPENED, I SAID — and Indiana Jones was never violated in a notorious South Park episode. Disney acquired the character in its recent billion-dollar deal with Lucas that included the Star Wars universe, and it’s only a matter of time before Indiana returns, with Harrison Ford back under the fedora for a last hurrah or the inevitable reboot. Trust me.
29. The Hangover
28. Rambo: First Blood Part II
27. There’s Something About Mary
23. Saving Private Ryan
21. Independence Day
20. Toy Story 3
16. The Avengers
14. Superman II
13. The Lion King
12. The Sixth Sense
11. Top Gun
9. Animal House
7. Forrest Gump
5. Raiders of the Lost Ark