Raiders of the Lost Ark: Anatomy of Blockbuster

Producer George Lucas (“Star Wars” movies) and director Steven Spielberg (“Jaws”) collaborated for the first time in making “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” a spectacular adventure, serving as tribute to the old serials they liked to watch as children on Saturday mornings.
Spielberg recalls:

Polished production values and a vastly entertaining saga were responsible for the picture’s box-office bonanza (grossing more than $200 million domestically), and leading to two more chapters in the 1980s: “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” and “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.”

Based on a story by Lucas and Philip Kaufman’s, Lawrence Kasdan’s scenario tells the story of an archeologist, Dr. Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford, just before “Blade Runner”), a distinguished scholar who removes his glasses in the name of a more promising and exciting away from the stifling classroom.
The part was first offered to Tom Selleck, then riding high as the star of TV’s “Magnum P.I.,” but that show’s producers didn’t want to release him. Fortunately, Harrison Ford, who had starred in George Lucas’ “American Graffiti” and “Star Wars” films, stepped in quickly. In a role that sounds like a comic-book style hero Ford shines, playing it realistically rather than as high-camp, as could have been the case.
“Raiders of the Lost Ark” represented a new film breed, a Hollywood blockbuster and event film, made in the wake of “Jaws” and “Star Wars,” that while drawing on classic Hollywood cinema also displays a playful, postmodern sensibility.
Indeed, as the scholars Roberts and Wallis pointed out, structurally, the adventure consisted of loosely linked action sequences, built around stunts and special effects and moving in rapid-fire speed.
Like many of Spielberg and Lucas’s films, “Raiders” has an episodic structure that’s based op the B-movie serials of the 1930s, but still benefits from a well-told story, psychologically-motivated characters (both heroes and villains), and plot-driven yarn, all properties of dominant Hollywood cinema.
Nominally, Indy’s goal is to retrieve a golden icon, but the icon is not relevant to the rest of the saga, nor crucial to the joys that the movie offers. However, the icon and the trials engendered by it (chase and rescue from the temple) are just a device around which the daredevil stunts and escape sequences are structured. In fact, the yarn centers on a different archeological treasure, the Ark of the Covenant. Hence, the icons are just means of offering viewers with the frills and spills of watching a movie adventure for its own sake.
The fractured narrative allows for the insertion of cliffhangers, stunts, escapes, and rescues, all presented in a visually spectacular way, though, as noted, they are not at the expense of classic Hollywood narrative.
Introducing the hero
A lot has been written about the opening shot and the visual introduction of the hero. We first see an image of a mountain, which is a graphic match of the Paramount logo that precedes the image.  Our hero Indy then walks into the frame and is positioned in a way that shows him from behind, silhouetted against the skyline and looking at the mountain, his destination. Though placed at the center of the frame, his identity is withheld. Not seeing his face creates suspense and encourages curiosity to find out who he is. Indy’s face remains briefly in the dark, before he steps forward into half-light, finally revealing his face as a suntanned, unshaven, sweat-stained and frowning a powerful, classic image of a tough yet competent hero.
The exciting episodes are linked by the general, mythic theme of struggle between good, represented by Indiana Jones and the American government at large, and the evil, embodied by Belloq (Paul Freeman) and the Nazis.
The story is set in 1936, during the Nazi regime and, more importantly, the year in which “Flash Gordon” was released. (That movie became a popular franchise, followed by the making of “Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars,” in 1938, and “Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe,” in 1949).
Indy is a classic Hollywood hero, but reflecting the zeitgeist of the 1980s, he is a flawed hero. Knowledgeable, decisive in the jungle terrain, able to interpret signs (like the poisoned dart in the tree) and weigh up the risk, but he is also fearful of snakes! As Roberts and Wallis pointed out, Indy is separated from the group through his position, his actions, and his costume. Sporting a leather jacket and battered hat immediately identifies him as an American and a hero, in contrast to the bare heads or tattered straw or knitted hats that his followers wear.
Indy’s bravery and knowledge are qualities that are absent from his sidekick, Satipo (the great Alfred Molina), whose face and voice express fear, lack of confidence, and perhaps greed too.
Space doesn’t permit me to dwell on the old-new representation of gender, in the tough-sensitive character of Marion Ravenwood (played with gusto by Karen Allen), and the iconic representations of different nationalities and races by placing them in different geographical settings, such as the jungles of South America or the sand dunes of Egypt. (This may also be a tribute to David Lean’s “Lawrence of Arabia,” which both Lucas and Spielberg have admired).
Cast
Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford)
Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen)
Bellog (Paul Freeman)
Toht (Ronald Lacey)
Sallah (John Rhys-Davies)
Brody (Denholm Elliott)
Dietrich (Wolf Kahler)
Gobler (Anthony Higgins)
Satipo (Alfred Molina)
Barranca (Vic Tablian)
Oscar Nominations: 8
Picture, produced by Frank Marshall
Director: Steven Spielberg
Cinematography: Douglas Slocombe
Art Direction-Set Decoration: Norman Reynolds and Leslie Dilley
Film Editing: Michael Kahn
Sound: Bill Varney, Steve Maslow, Gregg Landaker, and Roy Charman
Original Score: John Williams
Visual Effects: Richard Edlund, Kit West, Bruce Nicholson, and Joe Johnston
Oscar awards: 5
Art Direction-Set Decoration
Film Editing
Sound
Visual Effects
Special Achievement Award for Sound Effects Editing: Benjamin P. Burtt Jr. and Richard L. Anderson
Oscar Context
In 1981, the British sports melodrama “Chariots of Fire,” was the surprise winner of the Best Picture Oscar, with 7 nominations and four awards, including Original Score to Vangelis. Spielberg’s “Raiders of the Lost Ark” won most of the technical Oscars.
The other nominees were Louis Malle’s “Atlantic City,” The schmaltzy family saga “On Golden Pond,” and Warren Beatty’s semi-successful epic “Reds,” which received the largest (12) number of nominations.