History of Film: Steven Spielberg’s ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’

Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark

“What’s your favorite movie?” tends to be a haphazard, superficial question. We tend to answer superficially in kind: a quick title drop followed by some general qualifications. It’s always felt like a disservice to the objects of our cinematic affections because a favorite movie is a very deep, personal thing.

By that I don’t just mean how we traditionally conceive of a favorite: a simple subjective choice. It seems like cinephiles (myself included) don’t talk about it much, but the reasons we cherish particular movies above others are frequently very personal. It’s not a matter of films simply aligning with our generalized tastes. It’s a matter of them tapping into or reflecting something far more fundamental of ourselves. With time our favorites can embed themselves into the trajectory of our lives; transcend personal preference to become historical artifacts that link our own stories.

Raiders of the Lost Ark is my favorite movie. I don’t have to tell you why it’s great. You know why it’s great. Instead, what follows is a list of very personal moments, feelings, and impressions anchored to Steven Spielberg’s work. A film loved more than any other should be personal. This then is my life, as told through the constant presence of my favorite movie.

I. I loved Raiders of the Lost Ark before I had ever seen it. Because the popularity of Raiders means its images, character, and story always precedes it, the appeal of Indiana Jones had established itself in my consciousness long before my overly protective parents let me watch a movie where angels melt people’s faces off. Finally seeing Indy’s first adventure may have felt like a confirmation of the inevitable, but it was no less a revelation.

II. In a funny way, Raiders of the Lost Ark is the reason I write. In 8th Grade our English teacher made us write a short story. As I proceeded to eagerly rip-off the opening of Raiders – complete with daring archeologists, trap doors, impalements – I discovered the process of writing didn’t feel like homework. Something clicked, excitement spilled out. Which is why, despite being painfully shy, I immediately volunteered to read my story in class. The violence in it wasn’t anywhere near budding-serial-killer levels, but certainly gruesome by 8th Grade standards, which is why there was audible and visible repulsion in the classroom as I read. That sealed it for me. I had created something (well, sort of plagiarized) that had produced reactions, had – through the power of writing – affected people. All these years later, I’m still pursuing that.


III. If I were to visually represent the first fourteen years of my life, all the moving I did with my family might very well look like an Indiana Jones map with that red line constantly crisscrossing the globe, halting briefly in places before moving onto somewhere else. It was a difficult time for me, and eventually after my third country, fifth home, and sixth school I shut down and gave up on attaching myself to my new environment. It all seemed too hard and pointless. Then I saw Raiders of the Lost Ark. Here was this man whose serial adventures seemed representative of how I felt: perpetually hopping from place to place, thrust into one new challenging situation after another. Except his obstacles were even more insurmountable than mine, and he overcame all of them triumphantly. Here then was a hero I could learn from; a hero I could try to be more like.

IV. I’ve dressed up as Indiana Jones for Halloween three times in the last five years. I like to let people believe it’s because I’m too lazy and cheap to buy new costumes, but it’s really because of how damn good I feel being Indiana Jones just for a little while. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t wearing the fedora right now for inspiration.

V. The manager who hired me to work for Blockbuster – my first real job – informed me later that the main reason he gave me the gig was because I cited Raiders of the Lost Ark as my favorite movie during my interview.

VI. Once I was dating a girl who had never seen Raiders. Wanting to share something I deeply cared about, I showed it to her. Afterwards, she told me she didn’t like it. Then she dumped me. As one’s prone to do post-dumping and post-a few too many heartbreaks, I started to give up on the idea of ever finding someone after that. It remains a testament to the unshakable adoration I have for Spielberg’s film that it hasn’t been soured by the negative association.

VII. In an inconstant life that’s left me wary of change, Raiders of the Lost Ark – and my affection for it – has remained one of the most constant, unchanging things in it.

VIII. A year and a half after that breakup, I was sitting in a theater watching the movie for the first time on the big screen. I was also seeing it for the first time with the woman I am going to spend the rest of my life with. The occasion was my 30th birthday, and at her suggestion we had travelled all the way from Toronto to Boston to see the 70mm IMAX release of Raiders. As the movie was projected in a way I’d always dreamed of seeing, the overwhelming joy I felt wasn’t just for the film – it was for the realization that I had been wrong to think I’d never find the person sitting next to me.


IX. I don’t usually admit this, but I’ve always secretly cherished the false belief that I get a little more out of Raiders of the Lost Ark than most other people. As a fluent German, being able to understand the Nazi henchmen’s inconsequential asides has long made me feel like I’m privy to a part of the movie others can’t as naturally access. It’s not that knowing precisely what the brutish, shirtless airplane pilot is saying to taunt our khaki hero makes me feel like I’ve reached a higher rung of Indiana Jones affection. It’s simply a matter of feeling like something that’s widely loved by many people is, in a very minor way, somehow more uniquely mine.

X. Lastly, I don’t watch Raiders of the Lost Ark the way I watch other movies. I can analyze, dissect and evaluate almost any film with a certain distance to ascertain its strength and weaknesses. I can burrow so deep into films that I find themes and subtexts that only make sense to me. I can’t do any of that with Raiders. I can’t distance myself. Watching it is all drifting away and feeling and experience. I’ve seen it over 50 times, and it’s never buckled beneath the risks of overexposure. It never feels worn, or boring, or any less the film it was to me all those years ago when I first saw it. It is, however, more. It is now a part of memory. It may not be autobiographical, but it’s no less autobiographic to me. Time, inevitably, will make my favorite movie even more so.

  • http://www.torontoscreenshots.com James McNally

    Alex, I happen to LOVE this kind of movie writing. I do it more often with music, but I love seeing how creative work intertwines with the moments of our lives and becomes deeply personal. I also have a personal Raiders story:

    My mum and I used to go to the movies fairly regularly together while I was a teenager, and I think I was already 15 or 16 when Raiders came out. As we were watching the fight scene you referenced above (with the bald shirtless thug), my mother started to get very excited as the propeller drew closer to the bad guy’s head. When the gruesome moment finally arrived, she almost jumped out of her seat and her flailing fist caught me directly in the balls. Yeah, awkward. Worse still, she passed away when I was just 22, so this moment became even more memorable in the years since. I can laugh about it now but it was pretty mortifying at the time.

    • Alexander_Huls

      Sorry to hear about your loss, James, and thanks for sharing that great story. Stories like that always remind me the impact movies can have on audiences – i.e. remarkable they can produce those kind of reactions (and, sometimes, unfortunate consequences as is the case here).

      Funnily enough I also have a Mom-centric story about TEMPLE OF DOOM – though a considerably less painful one.

  • Ryan Hecht

    Alex, thank you so much for this wonderful article. Raiders happens to be my favorite movie as well. I’ve loved it ever since I first saw it in 1981 at the age of 9. I must have seen it 10-15 times during that first year of its release. I’ve owned it in every possible format and had the thrill of seeing it back on the big screen numerous times over the ensuing 32(!) years.

    And here’s the story of the last time I caught it on the big screen. After knocking around NYC for 17 or so years, this past January I found a 4-screen movie theater up for lease in the small town of Cloverdale, CA. After months of struggling to come up with financing for the digital conversion (including a Kickstarter that raised over $60,000) my wife and I packed our bags and moved west to reopen The Clover. All through the odyssey of fundraising I was steadfast in my plan that we would show Raiders of the Lost Ark for our grand opening celebration. And on July 27th it came to pass. It was an incredibly hard journey to get the theater open which made it all the more satisfying to get up in front of our supporters and introduce Raiders. I tried to explain that you could trace a direct line from me seeing Raiders in 1981 to me opening a movie theater in 2013 but I was blubbering too much. So I just dimmed the lights and cued up the movie. Let me tell you, sitting back and watching my favorite film in my own theater with 100 of my new closest friends (some of whom had never seen it before) was just about the most satisfying moment of my life. And, after a few minutes (at right about the “that’s what scares me” line) I got lost in the film all over again.

    • Alexander_Huls

      Thanks for sharing, Ryan. And a hearty congratulations on your success with The Clover! That does sound like a hell of a way to watch RAIDERS.

  • Sarah B. Hood

    Raiders has been similarly important to me. To condense a long story, because I kept drawing chalk murals of scenes from the movie in the student lounge during my MA, I got picked to do two tours of Egyptian archaeology (as a dig artist). I have been to Tanis. My boyfriend at the time gave me a bullwhip, which I suspect I still own. And now, as a college teacher, when I’m writing on the board and make a mistake, in my head I’m spelling “LITHIC…. L…I…”