Mr. Spielberg is, to put it mildly, kind of a big deal.
Other directors gaze longingly at his resume and hope that maybe one day they'll put one together that's one-tenth as cool. In Hollywood terms, he's the total package: directing incredibly popular crowd-pleasers and serious artistic statements seemingly at will, and sometimes both at the same time. His movies read like a resume of classics: Jaws, E.T., Jurassic Park Schindler's List, Saving Private Ryan, and Minority Report, just to name a few. Raiders has an honored place in that company, and reflects the same sensibilities that helped make him a household name.
Spielberg grew up in New Jersey and Arizona, and was the child of divorce. He blamed his father for the split (wrongly, he later claimed), and grew up lonely and bullied for being Jewish. But don't worry: like a lot of his films, there's a happy ending. He was nuts for the movies, to the point of making 8mm films as a kid (and charging admission for people to see them). His mom aided and abetted his burgeoning fascination with movies by letting him trash the house if necessary for his special effects. She told an interviewer, "I told Steve, if I'd known how famous he was going to be, I'd have had my uterus bronzed" (source).
Spielberg went to school at Long Beach State with the goal of becoming a filmmaker. Luckily, he wasn't just studying. He made a short movie called Amblin, which he parlayed into a gig directing TV shows for Universal Pictures. (The most famous was an episode of Rod Serling's Night Gallery, featuring Joan Crawford in full-bore career free-fall. He was 21. Twenty-one.) In 1971, he made Duel, a TV movie about a cross-country driver menaced by a big-rig truck. It was so impressive that they eventually released it in theaters. Four years later, at the age of 26 (twenty-six!), he directed Jaws, which became the highest-grossing movie of all time, as well as scaring the crap out of a generation of beachgoers.
He hasn't looked back yet.
Early critics didn't care for Steve's crowd-pleasing ways, claiming that he was too light and fluffy to be taken seriously. That tends to happen when you make heart-warming movies about aliens from outer space that gross a kajillion-zillion dollars at the box office. But those critics forgot that he was actually rebelling against the kind of grim, angst-ridden movies that dominated theaters in the mid-1970s.
America at the time was dealing with Vietnam and Nixon's resignation; the economy was in the tank and gas cost more than the cars getting fueled. The movies reflected that darkness—and how. Everything was serious, everything was downbeat, and everything had morally compromised heroes who sometimes failed spectacularly. Movies like Chinatown and The Exorcist dominated the box office and as great as they were, they didn't exactly make for a fun night out. (Seriously, try enjoying your dinner after watching Linda Blair puke green soup all over everyone.)
Then came Spielberg (and Lucas, who was kind of his partner in crime on this one).
Their movies reminded people to have a little fun, to enjoy themselves, and to maybe forget their troubles for a couple of hours instead of just wallowing in them. From Jaws came Star Wars and Close Encounters, and from them came Raiders… the perfect way of reminding grown-ups what it felt like to be a kid.
Despite his early success, Spielberg still struggled to shake off the lightweight badge. It took twelve more years of experimenting with more serious efforts like The Color Purple and Empire of the Sun before he finally got that monkey off his back. Schindler's List, which recounted the true story of a German industrialist who saved thousands of Jews from the Holocaust, earned him untold accolades, a couple of Oscars, and a movie that still serves as one of the best films about Nazi Germany's attempted extermination of the Jews.
Spielberg actually took all that attention and did something great with it: establishing the Shoah Foundation, which records the testimonies of Holocaust survivors and makes them available to the whole world.
After Schindler, Spielberg worked hard to maintain his newfound reputation for serious filmmaking. But he didn't stop with the popcorn stuff either. The same years as Schindler, he directed Jurassic Park, which set the record for the highest-grossing film of all time. (For those keeping score at home, it was the third time a Spielberg movie did that, along with Jaws and E.T.) That was followed by serious movies like Lincoln, light entertainment like War of the Worlds, and movies like Minority Report that seemed to do a little of both.
People actually compare Raiders to Schindler's List when charting the course of Spielberg's creative development. Both films deal with the Nazis and their atrocities, but Schindler's List is presented as a matter of history. This happened, it says, and it was awful. Spielberg sticks as closely as possible to the details of the Schindler case in order to impart the way it all went down.
Raiders deals with the same issues, but presented in more of a fictional context. The Nazis are stealing a revered Jewish artifact to use for their own nefarious purposes, and Indy more or less pounds them senseless. (And strictly speaking, God himself gets in on that action too: descending from Heaven in a literal deus ex machina to smite the bad guys with holy fire.)
That's not a criticism.
Raiders was supposed to be largely fun and games, so it's going to be less serious, but Spielberg's anger at the Nazis and the eventual artistic maturity he found with Schindler's List had its seeds in this one. He goes from a great adventure story touching on this part of history to an actual examination of what happened. The second film might not have happened without the first.
It's what we've come to expect from this director: reigning king of the cinematic age and someone who knows the value of a hero in a snazzy hat.
You might not have heard of Lawrence Kasdan, but you've definitely heard his dialogue: It appeared in The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi as well as Raiders of the Lost Ark. He was born in sunny Miami, Florida, and had dreams of becoming an English teacher after graduating from the University of Michigan. But he loved screenwriting, too, which prompted him to send all kinds of scripts to Hollywood in hopes that they'd be published.
His first one, The Bodyguard, was intended for Steve McQueen and Diana Ross, but eventually turned into that Kevin Costner/Whitney Houston thing about twenty years ago. This should give you a good idea of how long this man had to wait for his moment. It was a long, hard slog in the beginning, and he initially had no idea that bullwhip-wielding immortality awaited him.
After selling Steven Spielberg his script for a romantic comedy called The Continental Divide, Spielberg asked Kasdan to join their secret cabal of awesome filmmakers. His first job? Turning George Lucas and Philip Kaufman's ideas into the screenplay for Raiders of the Lost Ark. Nine out of ten movie geeks agree that he knocked it out of the park. (And that last guy is a sad, confused soul.)
As a screenwriter for hire, he had to bow to the vision of the folks who signed the checks, though you can see inklings of who and what he was underneath the surface. The man loved westerns, for instance (he went on to write and direct a couple of them in a time when westerns were at death's door), and you can see shades of classic cowboy stories woven into Indy's DNA. He's essentially a variation of the lone hero riding into the dirty town to take out the bad guys, except in this case, the bad guys are Nazis and the dirty town is an archaeological dig in the middle of Egypt. And, hey, he's even got a white horse.
On a pure technical level, Kasdan's writing reflects his background in English literature. The man just knows dialogue. His words roll off of the tongue like butter and carry the kind of snap that Indy's bullwhip dreams about at night.
That comes from his hard-earned master's degree… and the fact that he paid attention in poetry class. Sure, the dialogue isn't as symbolic or alliterative as a proper poem, but the beats—the "feet" in fancy poet talk—are deliberate and specific. Let's take a look at an example: at one point early on, Indy says,
INDIANA JONES: "I'm going after a find of incredible historical significance, you're talking about the boogeyman."
Repeat that line aloud.
See how easy it is to repeat? How it just kind of hums out? That's the power of a metered line, using stressed syllables in a particular pattern that makes it easy to repeat. "in-CRE-di-BLE his-TOR-i-CAL sig-NI-fi-CANCE." Those are big words, but Kasdan makes them as catchy as a pop song. Add that to last-minute escapes and some well-developed character, and you've got a screenplay built to last. If you're interested, and we know you are, we have a whole section on poetry that expounds further.
Kasdan didn't limit himself to writing. The same year that Raiders opened, he made his directorial debut with the very steamy erotic thriller Body Heat. More directing jobs followed: mostly talky dramas like The Big Chill and Grand Canyon, or westerns like Silverado and Wyatt Earp. But he came back to the Lucasfilm fold to help write the new Star Wars films (episodes VII-IX), so some of that pulp adventure still beats in his grizzled old heart.
Paramount Pictures released the film (and its opening logo made for a keen visual match for Steven Spielberg to play with), but the production company was Lucasfilm, created in 1971 to deliver unto the world All Things George Lucas. That's been something of a mixed blessing sometimes (*cough* Howard the Duck *cough*), but at least it keeps the company's focus clear. It's all George, all the time…which you may have suspected given the company's name.
But what does that mean, exactly? It means we can pick up a few common threads in the company's products. Lucas grew up a car nut and he had a fixation on what automobiles represented: freedom, individuality, and the opportunity to drive unspeakably fast. Lucasfilm movies tend to reflect that both literally (with car-based movies like American Graffiti and Tucker: The Man and His Dream) and figuratively (what are all those Star Wars spaceships if not revved-up intergalactic hot rods?). The speed involved with fast vehicles shows up in a lot of Lucasfilm movies, even those that don't really have any cars.
In addition, Lucas was a baby boomer, which means he loved the culture of the '40s and '50s. The Star Wars movies look a lot like the Saturday afternoon children's matinees Lucas grew up with, and movies like Tucker and American Graffiti (to say nothing of the little-seen Radioland Murders) are mainlined right into the nostalgia portion of our brains.
Raiders of the Lost Ark perfectly tapped into both of those Lucasfilmian tendencies: pulp adventure and nostalgia for the past delivered with the modern pacing of your average NASCAR race. You may like some results more than others (seriously, Howard the Duck?!), but at least they all come from one guy's ideas, not some committee working for a giant corporation whose job it is to suck all joy out of our cinematic experience.
Nailing the equation involved keeping a lot of different balls in the air. Star Wars, for example, had special effects from Industrial Light & Magic and sound effects from Skywalker Sound. Lucasfilm eventually encompassed all of those divisions (including a video game branch calls LucasArts and THX, which developed the spine-shattering hum you hear at the beginning of movies that market loud noises as a selling point).
And while most of them remained safety under the Lucas umbrella, a few of these entities slipped out to make plenty of noise of their own. One of them was a computer animation firm called Pixar, which Lucas sold to Apple's Steve Jobs in 1986 and which changed the world of animation nine years later with a little movie called Toy Story.
Big George liked keeping his empire close to his bearded bosom, but time catches up with everyone. And when he decided to retire at age 68, he had to find somewhere to put his baby. Enter The Mouse, AKA the Walt Disney Company, which snapped it all up for the princely sum of $4 billion and began making even more money with Lucasfilm properties than he did. Luckily, the general vibe hasn't much changed, with the final three chapters in the Star Wars saga and potential future Indiana Jones films firmly on its docket.
Steven Spielberg wanted to evoke the feeling of 1930s serials, but he wanted to use modern filmmaking techniques to do it. The original serials were targeted at little kids and didn't need a lot of money to sell them. Spielberg couldn't plug into that feeling by making it cheap or shoddy; that would only remind us of the lameness, not the awesomeness.
In shooting terms, that meant using 35mm film, which was the dominant style in the dark days before digital, and shooting it in widescreen format instead of the nearly square 4:3 ratio used in movies in the 1930s. That also meant using color instead of black and white (which was much cheaper in the 30s and still used in a lot of films).
That also meant shooting it on location instead of in a studio. Back in the day, they'd do everything in Hollywood: throw up a few palm trees, face the camera away from the billboards, and pretend it was all Darkest Africa. Here, Spielberg went all-out: flying to Hawaii to handle the jungle scenes and shooting the Egyptian scenes in nearby Tunisia. (At least they kept the Himalayan scenes inside a nice warm studio.)
Even the stuff they shot on sets took place in another country: England, whose Elstree Studios also hosted the Star Wars movies. The far-flung production gave it all an authenticity that modern audiences expected while still retaining the larger-than-life feeling that those earlier films had. It's a pretty tough trick, but Spielberg made it look awfully easy.
So, John Williams. We're guessing you've heard of him. Steven Spielberg credited him with saving his first massive hit, Jaws, and has used him in every single one of his subsequent movies except The Color Purple (Quincy Jones did that one) and his most recent, Bridge of Spies (Williams was ill during its filming). That's 26 films and counting. That means writing unforgettable scores to the likes of E.T., Close Encounters, Schindler's List, Saving Private Ryan, and Lincoln. In between then, he found time to compose one or two other themes you may be familiar with, including Star Wars (all nine of them), Harry Potter, Superman: The Movie, and NBC's Olympics theme (trust us, you've heard it). If that's not a drop-the-mike resume for a composer, it sure as heck ought to be.
His Raiders score makes a darn fine showing in that company and remains one of the most instantly recognizable themes in cinema history. (Seriously, has anyone ever scored something huge in their lives—winning the ballgame, A's on the midterms, a raise at work—and not heard that theme in their heads?) It works so well, in part, because of the exquisite way it cues emotions for the film. George Lucas said that he always considered the Star Wars series akin to silent movies, where the music makes the appropriate emotional point. Raiders follows the same pattern.
For example, Indy's theme is bold and brassy: a march, but something a little pluckier than your average military formation stuff. That pluckiness comes back whenever we need reminding how outgunned he is. Listen to the lone trumpet coming after the cacophonous thrashing right before the big truck chase begins, and why he might just pull this thing off. By composing the theme in that manner, Williams can adjust the tone to match what's happening on the screen and still have everything coming up Indy.
The theme of the Ark itself is much the same. It goes all minor key on us there, echoing both the mysticism surrounding it and the dangers it holds. It can play soft to just tug at us, like it does when Marcus mentions the Ark's power in Indy's house, and it can hit the roof like it does at the climax. It's always overt and direct, but that's not the same thing as simple. While we know exactly, precisely what we're supposed to be feeling at any time, Williams gives the film a lot of variation within that frame.
It adds up to a truly immortal theme, as much a part of Indiana Jones as the hat and the whip. In fact, we bet you're secretly humming it right now, aren't you?
Raiders has its share of fans, to be sure, though they're not as loud or prominent as other fan bases. (Trekkies, we're looking at you.) You certainly get your share of people dressing in the old hat and jacket at Comic Con, and there are plenty of websites out there speculating on the minutiae of the film, but we've yet to see the kind of cultural saturation that creates theme weddings and mountains of children's toys (again with the Trekkies). Lots of people love the movie, but comparatively few are willing to dedicate an entire weekend convention to it.
We'd be remiss, though, if we didn't mention at least one group of admirers who went well beyond what even the most hard-core fans of other movies would do.
In 1989, teenagers Chris Strompolos, Eric Zala, and Jayson Lamb got together and started reshooting the entire movie, scene for scene. They didn't have any money and it took them years to complete it (between all those pesky real-life things like high school), but they got it done thanks to a 2014 boost from Kickstarter, and the resulting film has become kind of a cult classic in and of itself.
How can a few sets of pointy ears compete with that?