Raiders of the Lost Ark, Spielberg’s first collaboration with George Lucas is a tribute to old cliffhanger series from the 1930s and 1940s Lucas and Spielberg were watching as teenagers on TV.
In 1973, George Lucas writes The Adventures of Indiana Smith. Lucas discusses the concept with fellow director and screenwriter Philip Kaufman, who works with him for several weeks and brings up the idea of the Ark of the Covenant as the plot device (he was told about it by his dentist when he was a child). When Clint Eastwood hires Kaufman to direct The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976), Lucas puts the Indiana Smith project on hold and decides to write and direct Star Wars – A New Hope (1977) instead.
After completing Star Wars, Lucas meets Spielberg while on vacation on Hawaii and convinces Spielberg to sign on as director for Raiders of the Lost Ark (Kaufman receives a story credit).
Spielberg wants to iron out the 1941 disaster and completes the film less expensive and faster than expected. Spielberg remembers:
“Every single shot was storyboarded. Raiders was the most prepared I’ve ever been to direct a movie, and it paid off.“
Budget and schedule restrictions help Spielberg to create another cinematic milestone: Raiders is ranked among the greatest films of all time in the action-adventure genre and often in general. Spielberg on the influence of budget and time constrictions on his creative decisions:
"Had I had more time and money, it would have turned out a pretentious movie.”
From the outset, Spielberg suggests casting Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones, but
Lucas objects – he does not want Ford to become his "Bobby De Niro” or
“that guy I put in all my movies”. Among the actors who audition for the
part are Tim Matheson, Peter Coyote, John Shea, and Tom Selleck. Jeff
Bridges turns down the role.
Three weeks away from filming, Spielberg
persuades Lucas to cast Ford – and he finally gives in.
Sean Young auditions for the role of Indy’s partner Marion, while Debra Winger turns it down. In the auditioning process, Karen Allen delivers the most convincing performance and gets the part. Other notable cast members include Paul Freeman (Belloq), John Rhys-Davies (Sallah), Denholm Elliott (Marcus Brody), and Ronald Lacey (Arnold Ernst Toht).
Polished dialogues by screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan and skillfull compositions of cinematographer Douglas Slocombe add up to the look and feel of a “classic” Hollywood film. The heated disputes between Indy and Marion are a worthy homage to the screwball dialogue of the Hepburn & Tracy era.
The opening scene in the Peruvian jungle is filmed on the island of Kauai, one of the islands of Hawaii, to where Spielberg will return to shoot Jurassic Park (1993).
Spectacular stunts (coordinated by Vic Armstrong) let Spielberg triumph over the James Bond franchise. John Williams composes one of his best scores to date. Williams offers two different candidates for Jones’s theme, but Spielberg enjoys them so much that he chooses to combine them in what becomes the “Raiders March”.
Raiders of the Lost Ark is a boxoffice smash hit (grossing $384 million worldwide) and remains one of the top twenty highest-grossing films ever made when adjusted for inflation. Not surprisingly, Spielberg reunites with Lucas for three sequels.
The film is acclaimed by critics and audiences alike. In his review, Roger Ebert writes: “Two things, however, make Raiders of the Lost Ark more than just a technological triumph: its sense of humor and the droll style of its characters […] We find ourselves laughing in surprise, in relief, in incredulity at the movie’s ability to pile one incident upon another in an inexhaustible series of inventions
For the second time, Spielberg is nominated for Best Director. Raiders of the Lost Ark is nominated for nine Academy Awards, including Best Picture, winning four (Best Art Direction, Best Film Editing, Best Sound, Best Visual Effects) and a fifth Special Achievement Award for its Sound Effects Editing.
For the first time, Spielberg collaborates with Industrial Light and Magic: Unlike his colleagues George Lucas, James Cameron and Peter Jackson,
Spielberg will never start his own visual effects company, but will always rely on ILM’s services. Dennis Muren (who started out with photography of the mothership in Close Encounters) will supervise the visual effects for six more Spielberg films.
Another first: Producers Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall start to work for Spielberg and continue to do so until today. They join Spielberg in founding the film production company Amblin Entertainment. Amblin’s headquarters on the Universal lot are "donated” by studio boss Sid Sheinberg.
Frank Marshall plays a pilot in the airplane fight sequence, while Dennis Muren has a cameo as a Nazi spy hiding behind a newspaper onboard the Pan Am China Clipper.