Renowned archeologist and expert in the occult, Dr. Indiana Jones, is hired by the U.S. Government to find the Ark of the Covenant, which is believed to still hold the ten commandments. Unfortunately, agents of Hitler are also after the Ark. Indy, and his ex-flame Marion, escape from various close scrapes in a quest that takes them from Nepal to Cairo.
Tom Selleck was originally pencilled in to play Indiana Jones, don't you know. Of course you do. So, how about the fact that the name of the "obtainer of rare antiquities," actually first belonged to George Lucas' dog? Oh, that too? And herein lies our problem — Raiders Of The Lost Ark is so adored, so worshipped, that it has been analysed to death.
In fact, even if it opened in the UK just one day after Charles and Di tied the knot, in the "Where were you when?" stakes, some would say there's no contest. And, yes, there is a multitude of treasures to be unearthed. The Star Wars-inspired registration of Jock's plane (OB-CPO); the hieroglyphics of R2-D2 and C-3PO in the Well Of Souls; and cameos by ILM's Dennis Muren (as a Gestapo agent) and producer Frank Marshall (a Nazi pilot). More significant, though, is Raiders' resonance. Initially perceived as a $20.8 million spin on the Saturday matinee serials ("I made it as a B-movie," said Spielberg), it would go on to gross $363 million (Paramount's biggest ever earner until 1994's Forrest Gump).
It heralded a new dawn for the summer blockbuster; scooped four Oscars; elevated the dusty image of archaeology to the sexiest profession known to man and reinvigorated the hitherto lost art of whipping schoolmates' bare buttocks with rolled-up towels. "Why'd it have to be snakes?" is Indy's lament, but it might easily have been Karen Allen's. Cast after Spielberg and Amy Irving had split up and Debra Winger passed, Allen had to endure an experience that made Tippi Hedren's in The Birds seem like a walk in the park. Spielberg elicited more convincing screams by throwing live snakes at her head. Legend has it that many of the reptilian extras were never recaptured and still live in the dark recesses of Elstree Studios.
But if the final result is one of the most exhilarating examples of action/adventure cinema — its pre-credit sequence, a glowing homage to ye olde Hollywoode, establishes a breakneck pace that can surely never be sustained, but is — this was not always on the cards. While the finished film arrived 11 days ahead of schedule, early on-set signals seemed ominous, with everyone bar the director taken ill on location in Tunisia. (It's rumoured that he avoided sickness by eating only the cans of Spaghetti-Os he'd packed). It was precisely this unfortunate disposition which resulted in a diarrhoea-striken Ford's suggestion to "Just shoot the fucker," in the now mythical Indy vs. Arab guard face-off, but it was also the latest turn in a growing line of mishaps. "Anything that promised serious injury or total disability, Harrison did," said Spielberg of Ford's insistence on carrying out as many of his own stunts as possible. An insistence which very nearly had fatal consequences when the German Flying Wing fight sequence went awry. "The crew's reaction was the normal one associated with having a film's star run over by an aeroplane when the movie is only half-completed," said Ford in hindsight. "I was a lot more careful after that."
While Ford was perfect as the hell-for-leather, loveable rogue, the locations sumptuous, the special effects breathtaking and the cinematography dazzling, the real success of Raiders' lies in its conception. A product of the near-Holy trinity of Spielberg, George Lucas and Lawrence Kasdan, it is the collaboration that holds the key to the magic. Lucas' original brainchild (he pitched the idea to Spielberg in Hawaii, where he'd decamped to escape the critical mauling he feared awaited Star Wars), he provided the flair of the set pieces and the frenetic pacing. Add to that his harmonious working relationship with Spielberg — at one meeting Lucas snapped the wingstips off a model Flying Wing, reducing it from four to two engines and securing a reluctant compromise from Spielberg which saved some $250,000 — and his influence is clear.
Kasdan, meanwhile, was the ideal choice as screenwriter. Fresh from co-writing duties on The Empire Strikes Back (1980), his screenplay was exceptional, lending essentially cartoon characters an extra dimension, whittling down an overlong script (scenes with a giant rolling gong and a mine-cart were cut and then re-employed for Temple Of Doom three years later) and easily covering for Lucas' Achilles Heel with his timeless dialogue. Third and most significant in the triumvirate is, of course, Spielberg. His ability to capture a true sense of wonder oozes from every frame, from the opening Paramount mountain match shot, to tour-de-force finale. Indeed, although it was Philip Kaufman's suggestion that the quest should centre around the Ark of the Covenant, the Hebraic tradition suggesting the Arc has awesome mystical powers is a concept more likely to appeal to the Jewish Spielberg than the Methodist Lucas.
If Lucas is Raiders' guts and Kasdan its head, then Spielberg is its beating heart.