[EDITOR'S NOTE: In a yearly feature titled "Oscars Revisited," Press Play takes a look back at the Academy Awards race from earlier eras. Our inaugural series focuses on the five Best Picture nominees from calendar year 1981: Reds, Atlantic City, On Golden Pond, Raiders of the Lost Ark and Chariots of Fire.]
For years after the release of his box-office breakthrough Jaws, Steven Spielberg fantasized about directing a James Bond picture. He got his chance, sort of, with Raiders of the Lost Ark, his first team-up with his longtime friend and fellow "movie brat" George Lucas. The two were on vacation in Hawaii in 1977 after the release of Lucas' own career-redefining blockbuster Star Wars, Episode IV: A New Hope but before the release of Spielberg's next movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Spielberg told Lucas of his desire to make a Bond film; Lucas replied that he had a better idea, and Spielberg instantly seized on it as "James Bond without the gadgets." It was about Indiana Smith, an archaeologist who travelled the world unearthing buried treasure, fighting bad guys and witnessing supernatural events; Lucas envisioned it as an homage to the World War II-era cliffhanger serials that he, Spielberg and other '50s kids used to watch in reruns on local TV, only in color and CinemaScope and in Dolby stereo. Spielberg liked the concept but suggested changing the hero's last name from Smith to Jones.
Four years and a $18 million worth of Paramount's money later, Spielberg and Lucas released Raiders of the Lost Ark, featuring up-and-coming action hero Harrison Ford — Han Solo in Lucas' Star Wars franchise — as the whip-cracking archaeology professor trying to keep the Lost Ark of the Covenant out of Hitler's hands. As scripted by Lawrence Kasdan, who rewrote the Star Wars sequel The Empire Strikes Back, Indy was a rumpled, unshaven, refreshingly human hero, surly but decent, less like a Bond-style sexy sociopath than a Gary Cooper character in a bad mood. The combination of Ford's casual fearlessness, Lucas' gee-whiz sensibility, Spielberg's kinetic precision and costar Karen Allen's tomboy sass made the film into the year's biggest hit, a sleeper that rolled into multiplexes opposite Superman II and the latest James Bond entry For Your Eyes Only and stole their box office thunder. Raiders grossed $209 million in North America and took the "So popular that we can't ignore it" spot in the following year's Best Picture lineup. It also inspired knockoffs, including the network TV series Tales of the Gold Monkey and Bring 'Em Back Alive and the movies High Road to China, Romancing the Stone and The Jewel of the Nile.
Spielberg didn't stint on the violent action; this was probably one the first PG movies in which a lone hero singlehandedly and bloodily eliminated scores of foes, and definitely the first in which the power of God made Nazis' heads melt, implode and detonate, spewing meat chunks into the camera. Three summers later, the even more extreme violence of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and the Spielberg-produced Gremlins inspired the creation of a new MPAA rating, PG-13. But the film's real draw was its mastery of pacing and tone. For a large production shot in several countries, Raiders was light on its feet, zipping through scenes without a wasted frame. And it managed the same neat trick as Spielberg and Lucas' earlier films in managing to seem at once self-aware and innocent. The duo plundered recent and past film history like kleptomaniacs on a prowl through Macy's. The deranged finale evoked Brian De Palma's Carrie and The Fury; Indy's wild escape beneath the carriage of a hijacked truck echoed a similar stunt in John Ford's Stagecoach; the final shot in which the Ark of the Covenant, recently recovered from Hitler's minions, is wheeled into a gigantic warehouse was filched from Citizen Kane. The transitional sequences depicting the global progress of Jones and company via cross-dissolved travel footage and maps festooned with animated red lines was so brazenly old-fashioned that it made the circa-1981 audiences that I saw it with laugh and applaud. (As I recounted in a piece about Raiders for The House Next Door, this was the first film that made me realize that movies could be expressions of a singular sensibility — that they were directed.)
Raiders was a career-redefining entry on the resumes of its major players. Ford stepped into the lead after CBS refused to release the filmmakers' first choice, Magnum, P.I. star Tom Selleck, from his TV contract, and proved he could sell tickets without a laser pistol in his hand; the film's success marked the start of a 20-year run as one of Hollywood's highest-paid actors. Ford's regular employer Lucas showed the studios that he wasn't just the Star Wars guy. The movie also revived Spielberg's career momentum after the box-office flop of 1941 (1979), an epically overscaled bit of period slapstick that in retrospect feels like a dry run for Raiders, an immense physical comedy that owed as much to Jacques Tati and Buster Keaton as it did to poverty row cliffhangers, with a stalwart hero taking on armies. The film and its sequels went on to comprise one of the most financially successful and stylistically influential series ever made. With their superficial awareness of the texture of certain periods and places, Jones' pre-World War II shenaningans felt like a precocious schoolboy's fantasy — flip books scrawled in the margins of a history text. Lucas, Spielberg, Ford and their collaborators pushed this sensibility further in the film's sequels, which saw Indy cheat death in pre-war Shanghai, British colonial India, Nazi-occupied Austria and Germany (where Indy ends up getting his father's Grail diary autographed by Hitler at a book burning!), and an atomic testing site in 1950s Roswell, New Mexico, (which gave prankish new meaning to the phrase "nuclear family"). Although mainstream critics and general audiences enjoyed the series (except for the long-delayed fourth film Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, which some fans viewed as a personal affront) Indy's adventures had their detractors. The New Yorker's Pauline Kael complained that Raiders lacked the human touch of Spielberg's earlier hits and was lukewarm on The Last Crusade — although with typically Kaelian perversity, she adored The Temple of Doom. Alternative press critics pointed out — correctly, but without much impact — that Indy's adventures had an ahistorical and oddly pre-sexual vibe, and that Lucas and Spielberg's depiction of "foreign" cultures was cluless at best, racist at worst; for a long time, Indy's second adventure Indiana Jones and The Temple of Doom was banned in India. For a brief period in the late '80s and early '90s, Lucas brought Indy to TV. His youthful adventures were bracketed with segments narrated by a geriatric Indy, a craggy-faced, one-eyed icon whose appearance was inspired by documentary footage of the old John Ford.
The Indy films do have a personal sensibility, although it's admittedly obscured by gunshots, explosions and supernatural maimings. The films feel like daydreams, not product, and their fusion of spectacle, mayhem, slapstick, banter and miracles has no equivalent elsewhere in cinema. And the saga does have an implied narrative that's more knowing and gentle than Spielberg and Lucas' detractors care to admit. Over the course of four films, the arrested adolescent Indy grows up, taking responsibllity for a surrogate family in The Temple of Doom (a prequel that feels like a sequel), reconciling with his estranged dad in The Last Crusade, then coming to terms with mortality and reconnecting with Marion and the son he didn't know he had in Crystal Skull. There's something to be said for Indy's brand of resourcefulness; it's earthbound and useful, rooted in emotional reality and ultimately touching. He's a superheroic everyman, surly and self-effacing — James Bond as Yankee prole. "I'm going after that truck," Indy tells his buddy Sallah, before throwing himself into the movie's most raucous action setpiece. "How?" Sallah asks. "I don't know," Indy replies, pushing his hat down tight on his head. "I'm just making this up as I go."
A critic, journalist and filmmaker, Matt Zoller Seitz is the staff TV columnist for New York Magazine and the founder of Press Play.