REEL RETRO CINEMA: Raiders of the Lost Ark

New looks at old flicks — and their comic-book adaptations.



Thirty-five years ago today, on June 12, 1981, many millions of moviegoers’ minds were blown when they first saw a little film called Raiders of the Lost Ark.

I am not going to waste any time recapping the film’s plot, since I am sure that 100 percent of you reading this know it by heart. Rather, on the occasion of its 35th anniversary, I’m taking time out to reflect on what makes this movie so enduringly great, as well as take a look at the Marvel Comics adaptation published simultaneously.

Hatched on a beach in Hawaii by George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, archaeologist and adventurer Indiana Smith (rechristened Jones on the first day of production) was conceived to be their version of James Bond. Spielberg had long wanted to direct a 007 installment, but was supposedly turned down by the producers. When informed of this, Lucas suggested to his pal he had something even better, a character based on the 1940s and ’50s movie serials that the two industry titans had grown up on, as well as a mix of other pop-culture influences.


Despite the pedigrees of Spielberg and Lucas, most of the major movie studios had no interest in making a big-budget tribute to an archaic film genre. Eventually — thankfully — Paramount Pictures decided to fund it, after it was stipulated that the production would have to remain tightly under control. Specifically, it would be producer Lucas’ job to rein in director Spielberg (who was just coming off the expensive flop 1941) to ensure there weren’t too many runaway costs while shooting.

On the casting front, Spielberg wanted Harrison Ford from the beginning, but Lucas thought he was too familiar as Han Solo. Other actors were considered, and tested, with Tom Selleck eventually getting the nod. Unfortunately for him, CBS refused to let him take time off from the TV series he was starring in, Magnum, P.I. Lucas finally relented and Ford was given the role.

Raiders of the Lost Ark is the rare example where every single element, in front of the camera and behind it, is working at the peak of its powers. Spielberg had something to prove post-1941, so he approached the film’s production in a lean-and-mean manner. Every scene relays the information it needs to forward the story (either via character details or plot elements) and then moves on—there’s not a single moment of excess or bloat to be found. The screenplay, by George Lucas and Lawrence Kasdan (from a story by Lucas and Philip Kaufman), is ruthless in its efficiency.


After the boffo opening scene where we learn just who Indiana Jones is, what he does, and how he is in eternal conflict with the less-than-scrupulous Belloq (Paul Freeman, more on him in a moment), the larger plot is set in motion when two government agents visit Indy and his friend Marcus Brody (Denholm Elliott) and tell them that the Nazis are close to discovering the not-so-mythological Ark the Covenant.

I have seen Raiders of the Lost Ark hundreds of times over the years, and I never fail to marvel at this scene. In most films, having two characters come in just so they can spit out page after page of exposition would be a deadly dull scene, the kind of thing audiences know is necessary just to get to the fun stuff. But Spielberg, Lucas and Kasdan have so fully developed this world that this sequence of a couple of guys sitting around a table talking is so compelling, tense and, yes, funny, (“Uh, now what’s that supposed to be coming out of there?” “Lightning. Fire. Power of God or something…”) that it leaves you wanting more.

The cast is perfect right down the line. Harrison Ford effortlessly exudes Movie Leading Man charm, confident enough in his screen persona to give us glimpses of a hero that isn’t always in control of the situation he’s found himself in (“I’m making this up as I go”). His leading lady, Karen Allen as Marion Ravenwood, is the perfect Howard Hawks-ian dame who is every bit Indy’s equal. Allen as Marion is beautiful, sensitive, but also believably tough as nails (check out how she immediately grabs a metal can and starts banging guys in the head when she and Indy are attacked on the streets of Cairo).


Spielberg and Lucas originally conceived Marion as their version of a Bond Girl, which is why she was replaced in subsequent films. Spielberg and Lucas did their job a little too well, crafting a character so compelling that when it came time to make Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, there was really no other choice than to bring her back.

Paul Freeman as Belloq is one of the movies’ greatest villains, a sympathetic-yet-venal doppelganger of our hero—a “shadowy reflection” if you will. He enjoys the back-and-forth with his old foe, but lacks the moral compass that guides Indy. It proves that you don’t need expensive special effects or a fancy costume to make a great villain—a great actor giving a great performance is all that you need. John Rhys-Davies is warm and jovial as Indy’s pal Sallah, full of great one-liners (“Asps…very dangerous. You go first.”) and exactly the kind of guy you want along on a grand adventure. Ronald Lacey only gets a few lines as the black-hatted Nazi enforcer Toht, but he cuts a frame not dissimilar from Darth Vader. When he enters the scene, you know there’s going to be trouble–there’s a reason why he looms over Indy on the cover to Marvel’s Raiders of the Lost Ark #1!


Speaking of Marvel’s adaptation of Raiders, it was released simultaneously as a three-issue mini-series and in magazine form as Marvel Super Special #18 (bearing a beautiful Howard Chaykin cover). I remember buying the first issue off the newsstand and being thrilled that it delivered exactly what I wanted from it—an exciting, beat-for-beat recreation of a movie I loved, done in the Mighty Marvel Manner.

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Written by Walter Simonson and drawn by John Buscema and Klaus Janson, it features every major story beat plus a few extra moments eventually dropped during the film’s editing—like when we learn just how Indy managed to survive the trip stowed away aboard the Nazi sub. As you might expect, there’s a lot more on-the-nose dialogue in Marvel’s version, but it’s still a lot of fun, is great to look at, and of course would be just the beginning of Indy’s comic-book career.



Speaking of Indiana Jones and comics, another source of inspiration for the character was Disney’s Uncle Scrooge, via the work of the incomparable Carl Barks. In Uncle Scrooge #7 (Sept. 1954), the famous feathered One Percenter plus Donald and the nephews visit “The Seven Cities of Cibola” and find a giant green idol that triggers a boulder to go on a rolling rampage. Sound familiar?

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A few issues later (Uncle Scrooge #26, June 1959), Barks ups the ante by having the ducks avoid not just a giant boulder, but flying darts, a decapitating blade, and a tunnel that floods with water. Spielberg and Lucas have both said in interviews that they were fans of the Uncle Scrooge comic, so these moments of high adventure must have lodged themselves in the nascent geniuses’ brains, just waiting to be dusted off.

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Steven Spielberg and George Lucas took everything they loved as 10-year olds, and applied their expert filmmaking skills to those elements to create a piece of entertainment that honors what came before while making something a contemporary audience could call its own. Raiders gallops from one thrilling set piece to the next — the aforementioned opening sequence in the cave, Marion’s bar, the Well of the Souls, the hidden Nazi base carved inside a remote island — our hero barely surviving each new scrape.

In many ways, the character of Indiana Jones transcends James Bond, in that his heroism is on a much more relatable, human scale—in just this film alone, Indy almost gets betrayed by an underling, rendered speechless by a comely female student, knocked on his ass by a bald Nazi goon, and gets a cigarette casually tossed on him. And, even after surviving all this, Marion manages to uppercut him with a giant mirror.

While there are films on my personal “all-time favorites” list that rank higher, Raiders is one of those movies that I just couldn’t bear not to ever see again, something I can’t say of some of the other films on that mental list. It’s so fun, so utterly delightful, and still so exciting even after 35 years that it feels as fresh as when I first saw it in a darkened theater in 1981. It’s a bona-fide classic, and if you haven’t seen it in a while, go watch it again, you’ll love it. Trust me.


Rob Kelly is a writer/artist/comics and film historian. He is the co-host of The Fire and Water Podcast (and the host of its sister show, The Film and Water Podcast), the co-creator and writer of the award-winning webcomic Ace Kilroy, and the creator of the book Hey Kids, Comics!: True-Life Tales From the Spinner Rack. He is the founder and treasurer of the Karen Allen Appreciation Society (KAAS).

You can read more of his REEL RETRO CINEMA columns here.

Author: Dan Greenfield

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  1. I saw Raiders in the theater. I bought the comics when they came out. Last Friday in Boston we went to see the Boston Pops play the soundtrack simultaneously with the film. What a kick! Was fun to share with my kids. As a musician and a child of that era it was a double treat.

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