Raiders of the Lost Ark at 40

1977. Imagine a beach in Hawaii where two friends, Steven and George, are building a sandcastle and having a discussion. The two friends are film directors George Lucas and Steven Spielberg. The Jaws director has just finished making Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and the man behind American Graffiti is hiding from Hollywood while his new film, Star Wars, premiers – as he fears it will be a failure. (I don’t think he needed to worry.) Steven suggests he’d like to direct a Bond film, and George tells him he has something better – an homage to the old Saturday morning adventure serials, with a lead character named after his dog, Indiana. And, thus, the seeds were sown for one of cinema’s most iconic characters and a huge action-adventure movie, Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Raiders premiered in June 1981, 40 years ago, and generated 3 sequels over the next 20 years, and the fifth film in the series is currently in production. To celebrate the 40th anniversary of that first film Paramount have released the four existing films as a 4K/UHD box set.

History of the Cliffhanger

"To be continued" graphic

Those Saturday matinee serials that inspired Lucas would usually end in a cliffhanger, where your main protagonist is left in jeopardy to make you come back for the next installment. The term ‘Cliffhanger’ originated with Thomas Hardy’s A Pair of Blue Eyes – which was serialised in Tinsley’s Magazine in the 1870s, where one of the protagonists is literally left hanging on a cliff edge. However it became popularised in the 30s and 40s with the popularity of the Saturday matinee serial films. 

These would be a story told in several ‘chapters’ (usually 12), with the next episode being shown the following week, and would accompany the main (‘A’) film, the secondary (‘B’) film, cartoons and Newsreels. (You got your money’s worth in those days!) This type of film died out in the 50s with the popularity of Television. Serials covered several genres – including Adventure (The New Adventures of Tarzan), Crime (Dick Tracy), Western (The Lone Ranger Rides Again) and Science Fiction (Flash Gordon). The cliffhanger has been used ever since in one way or another – classic British Sci-Fi TV series Doctor Who built it’s format around the use of cliffhangers (less so in the modern series, but still happens), and Soaps use them all the time. Movies like The Empire Strikes Back, The Matrix:Reloaded and Avengers: Infinity War have all used the cliffhanger to make sure you come back next time.

Thanos resting at the end of the 'Avengers : Infinity War' movie

Calling Doctor Jones

Initially Lucas wanted to call our hero Indiana Smith, but Spielberg thought Jones sounded better. It’s hard to imagine anyone other than Harrison Ford playing archeologist Indiana Jones, however he was not George Lucas’ first choice – as he had been in his earlier films, and he didn’t want him to be his “Robert De Niro” – so that fell to Tom Selleck (of Magnum P.I,. and now Blue Bloods, fame). However, Selleck had just filmed the pilot for Magnum and CBS told him he couldn’t do both the TV show and the movie. (Ironically an actors’ strike delayed production and Selleck could have taken on the role, after all!) It was Ford’s performance in the Star Wars sequel The Empire Strikes Back, as the charming scoundrel Han Solo that made him Lucas’/Spielberg’s next choice for charming adventurer Indiana Jones.

Much of the visual style of the movie comes from the pre-production concept art by comic-book artist Jim Steranko, working from instructions from George Lucas – such as “Painting #1…should be inside an Inca-type temple with snakes on the floor and spiders on the walls. Our hero should be dressed in…khaki pants, gun belt, leather jacket (brown like the one George wears), felt hat with brim turned down. He will have a bullwhip attached to the back of his belt.

Concept art for 'Raiders of the Lost Ark' by Jim Steranko, of Indy in a temple.
An example of Jim Steranko's concept art of Raiders of the Lost Ark

Where was Raiders of the Lost Ark filmed?

Mount Shubet, Hawaii, from the opening shot of Raiders of the Lost Ark

Indiana Jones travels all over the world in Raiders – from Peru to Egypt – but where, in fact, did Spielberg film it?

The island of Kauai stood in for the jungles of Peru – with Mount Shubet being the brilliant opening shot fading in from the Paramount mountain.

This North African country doubles for Egypt and much of the terrain of the mediterranean island where they take the Ark for the films climax (the latter being filmed in ‘Star Wars’ canyon, so called because that is where George Lucas filmed many of the Tatooine scenes).

La Rochelle is where the submarine base on the island was filmed.

The exterior of ‘Marshall College’ where Doctor Jones works, is actually University of the Pacific, Stockton, California (for the interior, see England). The Government building, whose steps Jones & Ravenwood descend at the end of the film is in reality San Francisco City Hall.

Elstree Studios, in Hertfordshire, England, once called the “home of the British film industry” by Charlie Chaplin, had a new large silent stage built to accommodate the work that Lucas & Spielberg were bringing. There they filmed the Peruvian temple interior, inside Indy’s house, the Raven bar interior, the Map room, the Well of Souls, the Flying Wing (well, not a set, but built at Elstree, and flown out to Tunisia where it was re-built – and destroyed), Indy & Marion’s cabin on the Bantu Wind and the opening of the Ark.

For more location information see helpful sites: Youngindylocations.com  and movie-location.com.

Who wrote Raiders?

As we’ve already said Raiders of the Lost Ark was the brainchild of George Lucas, but he and Spielberg hired out the writing of the screenplay to Lawrence Kasdan. Spielberg had been impressed with his script for a film called Continental Divide, which he read while finishing Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Spielberg, Lucas & Kasdan thrashed out the plot over 5 days, and he wrote the screenplay over the next 6 months. Once he’d finished George asked him to write the screenplay for The Empire Strikes Back

Below is an interview he gave as part of the ‘On Story’ series with the Austin Film Festival, talking about his life in the film industry.

Play Video

Who wrote the music for Indiana Jones?

The music for all the Indiana Jones films has been written by the wonderful John Williams (who basically wrote the soundtrack to my childhood). By the time of Raiders he had already very successfully collaborated with Steven Spielberg on Jaws and Close Encounters,and with Lucas on Star Wars so, naturally, he would be their choice to bring the musical emotion to their joint venture. He recorded the soundtrack in 1980 at Abbey Road studios, London with the London Symphony Orchestra.  The Raiders’ March is as instantly recognisable as any theme could be, and Williams received an Academy award (Oscar) nomination for his efforts.

Play Video

Indiana Jones Sequels

The 80s saw Lucas & Spelberg join forces again for two sequels – Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, and then the Last Crusade. Almost 20 years later, in 2008, the band got together again to produce Indiana Jones and Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. And now, over another decade later the next installment is in production. Harrison Ford returns as the iconic hero, but apart from John Williams, all the other main players are new. James Mangold writes and directs , but is supported by Producers who know the Indy story well : Frank Marshall, Kathleen Kennedy & Steven Spielberg.

Indiana Jones books, soundtrack and on 4K

Until the new film comes out we will have to fill our time reminding ourselves why this series of movies and characters are so well loved. And what better way to do that than to dive into the new 4K/UHD box set. You can get it from Zoom & Zavvi (and Zavvi are also doing a tad more expensive Steelbook version)

The Indiana Jones movies boxset in 4K/UHD

This is what the box set contains:

A collectible booklet;
All 4 movies on 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray Disc (with original theatrical trailers and access to digital copies). A Blu-ray with seven hours of previously released bonus content:

  • On Set with Raiders of the Lost Ark
    • From Jungle to Desert
    • From Adventure to Legend
  • Making the Films
    • The Making of Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981 documentary)
    • The Making of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom
    • The Making of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade
    • The Making of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (HD)
  • Behind the Scenes
    • The Stunts of Indiana Jones
    • The Sound of Indiana Jones
    • The Music of Indiana Jones
    • The Light and Magic of Indiana Jones
    • Raiders: The Melting Face!
    • Indiana Jones and the Creepy Crawlies (with optional pop-ups)
    • Travel with Indiana Jones: Locations (with optional pop-ups)
    • Indy’s Women: The American Film Institute Tribute
    • Indy’s Friends and Enemies
    • Iconic Props (Kingdom of the Crystal Skull) (HD)
    • The Effects of Indy (Kingdom of the Crystal Skull) (HD)
    • Adventures in Post Production (Kingdom of the Crystal Skull) (HD)
Inside pages from the book "The complete making of Indiana Jones"

You could also dip into ‘The complete Making of Indiana Jones’ book by J. W. Rinzler (available from Abe books, and Waterstones) – full of interviews, storyboards and concept paintings. (Rinzler is the best-selling author of many ‘Making of … ‘ books including Star Wars, Alien & Planet of the Apes.)

Or how about kicking back and listening to the maestro, John Williams’, classic score.

The soundtrack of 'Raiders of the Lost Ark' by composer John Willams


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