Study Guide

Raiders of the Lost Ark

Raiders of the Lost Ark Introduction

Release Year: 1981

Genre: Action, Adventure

Director: Steven Spielberg

Writers: Lawrence Kasdan, George Lucas, Philip Kaufman

Stars: Harrison Ford

It's 1936 and Nazi Germany is working hard on earning its Worst People in the History of Everything Award. They've set their eyes on the Ark of the Covenant, the most sacred relic in all of Judaism and a convenient carrying-case for the actual Ten Commandments—and they think they've found it in the Egyptian desert.

Too bad for them that a certain swashbuckling archaeologist is on the case as well.

Raiders of the Lost Ark introduced the world to Indiana Jones: college professor, grave-robber, freelance Nazi-basher, and proud owner of the coolest hat ever. He stormed into theaters in the summer of 1981, courtesy of then-burgeoning wunderkinds Steven Spielberg and George Lucas. It was a serious Two Great Tastes that Taste Great Together moment. Spielberg had already wowed audiences with Jaws and Close Encounters while Lucas had a little thing called Star Wars under his belt.

Throwing those two together was enough to get even the most cynical film geek to do the Snoopy dance on top of the candy counter in the theater lobby. Raiders had everything; it was a reimagined version of 1930s action-adventure serials, with a high-end budget and huge star in the form of Harrison Ford. Nobody thought that Ford could top Han Solo for pop culture immortality, but Indiana Jones pulled it off.

With a little extra swoon, to boot.

Everyone knew the film was going to be a hit, and in 1981, nothing else could come close. Raiders of the Lost Ark pulled in an astonishing $248 million, making it the biggest movie of the year. Adjust that number for inflation and it comes to $734 million, more than any of those new-fangled superhero movies that don't hold a candle to Raiders. Just sayin'.

Raiders worked because Harrison Ford is a god—wait, no. Start over. Raiders worked because it reminded adults what it felt like to be a kid: that movies could be fun without being simplistic or stupid. And back in those days, the Oscars didn't equate good movies with movies no one actually saw; Raiders netted nine Academy Award nominations including Best Picture and Best Director. It walked away with five of them. Pretty fitting for a movie about a guy who likes stealing shiny gold statues.

And Raiders has stood the test of time. Not only did it inspire thirty more years of action-adventure movies, but it didn't lose an ounce of its charm along the way. It sits at a whopping 95% on Rotten Tomatoes (getting 62 positive reviews and 3 totally undeserved negative ones), and the handy critics consensus there lists it as "one of the most consummately entertaining adventure pictures of all time."

Truth is, we don't need to cite those guys. You want to know how great Raiders of the Lost Ark is? All you have to do is sit down and watch it.

What is Raiders of the Lost Ark About and Why Should I Care?

You mean besides The Awesome? The miles and miles of pure, unfiltered Awesome?

Raiders of the Lost Ark is a textbook example of the Hero's Journey: The universal framework for a story—outlined by mythologist Joseph Campbell in The Hero with a Thousand Faces—that defines literature and film… and pretty much every story ever told. Here's the gist:

  • A threat arises to destroy all that is good.
  • A hero sets out to find a prize that can thwart the danger.
  • Said hero undergoes trials and gains new abilities.
  • Hero eventually returns with hard-won wisdom to save the day (and get the girl).

It's actually seventeen steps (not four), but that's what it boils down to.

George Lucas and Joseph Campbell were actually buddy-buddy, and Lucas did more than anybody else to bring Campbell's theories straight into the mainstream.

Luke Skywalker was our first real exposure to the Campbellian hero, and since we met him four years before we met Indy, he gets seniority. But Lucas didn't deviate from the formula with Raiders: It pretty much takes all of its mojo from the Campbell playbook. In fact, we wouldn't be surprised to see Indy pull a copy of The Hero with a Thousand Faces out of his satchel to find out what happens next.

In many cases, the Hero's Journey involves strange worlds and far-flung locales. Star Wars has outer space and The Lord of the Rings has Middle-earth, neither of which is exactly a regular vacation spot. (And no, New Zealand doesn't count.) But Indy's adventures take place in a real world, with real-life countries and actual historically real bad guys to pummel.

That takes the Hero's Journey out of the "hey, this is just made up!" category and into something closer to real life. Sure, there's magic and trapped tombs and other far-fetched stuff, but at least we can spot the locations on that little map that keeps popping up.

Why does that matter? Because the Hero's Journey is supposed to apply to all of us. All of us are living the Hero's Journey in our own lives. We don't literally face down dragons (er, snakes?) or armies of villains, but we do face The Horrible Midterm of Doom, The Morning Commute of Terror, and The Bank Loan That Eats Your Face Off. Raiders brings the dragons and monsters a little closer to that reality. There's still magic, but it's not quite so out-there and helps us understand how stories like this connect to our own lives.

Turns out you may find a few life lessons amid the un-popped kernels at the bottom of your popcorn bag.


Fun fact: George Lucas named the character Indiana after his dog, an Alaskan malamute that he owned in the 1970s. Indiana (the dog, not the Jones) also served as the inspiration for Chewbacca in the Star Wars movies. (source)

Movie buffs know that the entire crew of Raiders got deathly ill from the food they ate in Tunisia… all except Steven Spielberg, who brought in crates of Spaghetti-Os on his own dime and ate them instead of the local cuisine. Everybody else won a free case of the trots with their stay, and it actually led to one of the movie's most famous moments. Harrison Ford was supposed to have a lengthy fight with an Arabian swordsman in the middle of the Cairo streets. But, green in the gills and struggling to stand, he didn't feel up to a long fight. So he said, "Why don't I just pull out my gun and shoot him?" Which turned out to be way better than any lengthy throwdown they might have planned. (source)

The film's sound designer was pretty ingenious. He ran his fingers through a cheese casserole to get the sound of snakes slithering around. (Admit it, you've done it.) The sound of the Ark being lifted was him lifting the toilet seat at his house. And the sound of that giant boulder chasing Indy? It was a definitely more mundane Honda Civic going down a gravel-covered hill. Did they not cut the sound designer in on the $18 million budget? (source)

Wondering how to get up close and personal with the face-melting scene? Your wait is over. (source)

Raiders of the Lost Ark Resources


Official Indiana Jones Website
Lucasfilm's official (and slightly outdated) fan site for all things Indy.

Raiders IMDB Page
The Internet Movie Database's page for Raiders. Complete with cast, crew, quotes, and snarky forums.

The Indy Experience
A fairly comprehensive fan site covering Dr. Jones' various escapades.

The Indiana Jones Wiki
No self-respecting cultural icon would be complete without a wiki of his very own.

Indiana Jones, German Style
A German fan has set up a great Indiana Jones website, with convenient English translations for the Deutsche-impaired.

Fun Facts
This 30th anniversary site is loaded with behind-the-scenes stuff.

Books or TV Adaptations

The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles
Lucasfilm produced a television series based on Indy's adventures as a young man. It starred Sean Patrick Flanery and Corey Carrier as Indy in various stages of youth, and ran from March of 1992 to July of 1993. It even featured Harrison Ford dusting off the fedora for a cameo.

Raiders Adaptation
Author Campbell Black wrote the original novelization of Raiders of the Lost Ark, in which we learn that Marion was only 14 when Indy seduced her.

Other Indy Novels
There have been a lot of them. Luckily, the good folks at Amazon have done their best to collect them all in a handy website page.

Marvel Comics
Marvel Comics published a series of Indy comic books back when that was their thing instead of destroying box office records the world over. The comics ran from 1983 to 1986, not counting official movie adaptations.

Dark Horse Comics
When Marvel left Indy in the lurch, Dark Horse Comics picked up the bullwhip for new fun and games for a few years.

Articles and Interviews

Steven Spielberg Interview
Before the release of the much-maligned fourth film (which we kind of like; don't judge us), Steven Spielberg talked to Vanity Fair about all things Indy.

Harrison Ford Interview
The actor himself sat down with Empire magazine to spill the beans on his most famous character. Yes, really. Sorry, Han Solo fans.

Paul Freeman Interview
A few words from Indy's hated nemesis.

Roger Ebert Essay
The late, great Roger Ebert waxes rhapsodic about Raiders on his website.

The Gray Lady Loved It
New York Times film critic Vincent Canby went gaga over Raiders.

The Perils of Pauline
The legendary New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael thought the movie was too frenetic and comic book-y, with nary a second to catch your breath. We beg to differ, but you gotta love her comparison of watching the film to the experience of being put through a Cuisinart. That's a kitchen appliance that grinds food into a pulp, for those of you who've never made your own hummus.


Great Movie Stunts: Raiders of the Lost Ark
A hard-to-find special covering the stunts of Raiders, hosted by Harrison Ford. (It's broken into six parts, but it's worth the watch.)

Ford on Letterman
Harrison Ford gets interviewed on David Letterman about Indy.

A brief trailer of that fan-made, shot-for-shot remake of Raiders.

Steven Spielberg Q&A
Spielberg raps to the public about Raiders at Hollywood's Cinerama Dome.

Raiders of the Lost Ark Featurette
An old-school featurette for Raiders.

The Big Bang Theory
The Big Bang Theory has a little fun with Raiders, as Sheldon Cooper (Jim Parsons) steals a fictional "director's cut" of the film.


30th Anniversary Interview
Spielberg and Ford speak to the LA Times about Indiana Jones 30 years after Raiders.


The Poster
The iconic poster for the movie's release in 1981.

The Comic Book
Marvel's comic adaptation used a little more pink than we remember.

Raiders! Cast
The boys behind the Raiders remake. Best. Fans. Ever.

Behind the Scenes
Steven Spielberg and Karen Allen with a friend… who may start flinging poo at a moment's notice.

More Behind the Scenes
Harrison Ford and John Rhys-Davies sharing a funny.

Concept Art
An early image by Jim Steranko to get everybody at Paramount in the right mood.

More Concept Art
Apparently Indy smokes. Who knew?