The film originated with Lucas' desire to create a modern version of the serials of the 1930s and 1940s. Production was based at Elstree Studios, England; but filming also took place in La Rochelle, Tunisia, Hawaii, and California from June to September 1980.
Released on June 12, 1981, Raiders of the Lost Ark became the year's top-grossing film and remains one of the highest-grossing films ever made. It was nominated for nine Academy Awards in 1982, including Best Picture, and won four (Best Art Direction, Best Film Editing, Best Sound, Best Visual Effects) as well as winning a fifth Special Achievement Academy Award in Sound Effects Editing. The film's critical and popular success led to three additional films, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984), Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989), andIndiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008), a television series, The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles (1992–1996), and 15 video games as of 2009. In 1999, the film was included in the U.S. Library of Congress' National Film Registry as having been deemed "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant."
In 1936, archaeologist Indiana Jones braves an ancient Peruvian temple filled with booby traps to retrieve a golden idol. Upon fleeing the temple, Indiana is confronted by rival archaeologist René Belloq and the indigenous Hovitos. Surrounded and outnumbered, Indiana is forced to surrender the idol to Belloq and escapes aboard a waiting Waco seaplane, in the process revealing his fear of snakes.
Shortly after returning to the college in the United States where he teaches archaeology, Indiana is interviewed by two Army intelligence agents. They inform him that the Nazis, in their quest for occult power, are searching for his old mentor, Abner Ravenwood, who is the leading expert on the ancient Egyptian city of Tanis and possesses the headpiece of an artifact called the Staff of Ra. Indiana deduces that the Nazis are searching for Tanis because it is believed to be the location of the Ark of the Covenant, the biblical chest built by the Israelites to contain the fragments of the Ten Commandments; the Nazis believe that if they acquire it, their armies will become invincible. The Staff of Ra, meanwhile, is the key to finding the Well of Souls, a secret chamber in which the Ark is buried. The agents subsequently authorize Indiana to recover the Ark before the Nazis. Indiana travels to Nepal, only to find that Ravenwood has died and that the headpiece is in the possession of his daughter, Marion, Indiana's embittered former lover. Indiana offers to buy the headpiece for three thousand dollars, plus two thousand more when they return to the United States. Marion's tavern is suddenly raided by a group of thugs commanded by Nazi agent Toht. The tavern is burned down in the ensuing fight, during which Toht burns his hand on the searing hot headpiece as he tries to grab it. Indiana and Marion escape with the headpiece, with Marion declaring she will accompany Indiana in his search for the Ark so he can repay his debt.
They travel to Cairo where they learn from Indiana's friend Sallah, a skilled excavator, that Belloq and the Nazis, led by Colonel Dietrich, are currently digging for the Well of Souls with a replica of the headpiece modeled after the scar on Toht's hand. In a bazaar, Nazi operatives attempt to kidnap Marion and as Indiana chases after them it appears that she dies in an explosion. While deciphering the markings on the headpiece, Indiana and Sallah realize that the Nazis have miscalculated the location of the Well of Souls. Using this to their advantage, they infiltrate the Nazi dig and use the Staff of Ra to determine the location correctly and uncover the Well of Souls, which is filled with snakes. Indiana fends off the snakes and acquires the Ark, but Belloq, Dietrich and the Nazis arrive to take it. They toss Marion into the well with Indiana and seal them in, but they manage to escape. After a fistfight with a giant Nazi mechanic, blowing up a flying wing on the airstrip, and chasing down a convoy of trucks, Indiana takes back the Ark before it can be shipped to Berlin.
Indiana and Marion leave Cairo to escort the Ark to England on board a tramp steamer. The next morning, their boat is boarded by Belloq, Dietrich and the Nazis, who once again steal the Ark and kidnap Marion. Indiana stows away on their U-boat and follows them to an isolated island in the Aegean Sea where Belloq plans to test the power of the Ark before presenting it to Hitler. Indiana reveals himself and threatens to destroy the Ark with a bazooka, but Belloq calls his bluff, knowing Indy cannot bear to eradicate an important historical artifact.
Indiana surrenders and is tied to a post with Marion as Belloq performs a ceremonial opening of the Ark, which appears to contain nothing but sand. Suddenly, spirits resembling Old Testament Seraphim emerge from the Ark. Aware of the supernatural danger of looking at the opened Ark, Indiana warns Marion to close her eyes. The apparitions suddenly morph into "angels of death", and lightning bolts begin flying out of the Ark, gruesomely killing the Nazi soldiers, while Belloq, Dietrich and Toht meet even more gruesome fates. The fires rise into the sky, then fall back down to Earth and the Ark closes with a crack of thunder.
Back in Washington, D.C., the Army intelligence agents tell a suspicious Indiana and Brody that the Ark "is someplace safe" to be studied by "top men". In reality, the Ark is sealed in a wooden crate labeled "top secret" and stored in a giant government warehouse in Area 51 filled with countless similar crates.
- Harrison Ford stars as Indiana Jones, an archaeology professor who often embarks on perilous adventures to obtain rare artifacts. Jones claims that he has no belief in the supernatural, only to have his skepticism challenged when he discovers the Ark. Spielberg suggested casting Ford as Jones, but Lucas objected, stating that he did not want Ford to become his "Bobby De Niro" or "that guy I put in all my movies", a reference to Martin Scorsese, who often worked with Robert De Niro. Desiring a lesser known actor, Lucas persuaded Spielberg to help him search for a new talent. Among the actors who auditioned were Tim Matheson, Peter Coyote, John Shea, and Tom Selleck. Selleck was originally offered the role, but he was unavailable for the part because of his commitment to the television series Magnum, P.I. In June 1980, three weeks away from filming, Spielberg persuaded Lucas to cast Ford after producers Marshall and Kathleen Kennedy were impressed by his performance as Han Solo in The Empire Strikes Back.
- Karen Allen as Marion Ravenwood, a spirited, tough former lover of Indiana's. She is the daughter of Abner Ravenwood, Indiana Jones' mentor, and owns a bar in Nepal. Allen was cast after auditioning with Matheson and John Shea. Spielberg was interested in her, as he had seen her performance in National Lampoon's Animal House. Sean Young had previously auditioned for the part, while Debra Winger turned it down.
- Paul Freeman as Dr. René Belloq, Jones' arch nemesis. Belloq is also an archaeologist after the Ark, but he is working for the Nazis. He intends to harness the Ark's power himself before Hitler can, but he is killed by the Ark's supernatural powers.
- Ronald Lacey as Major Arnold Toht, an interrogator for the Gestapo, who tries to torture Marion Ravenwood for the headpiece of the Staff of Ra. He dies by the Ark's supernatural powers. Lacey was cast as he reminded Spielberg ofPeter Lorre. Spielberg had originally offered the role to Roman Polanski, who was intrigued at the opportunity to work with Spielberg but decided to turn down the role because he wouldn't be able to make the trip to Tunisia. Klaus Kinski was also offered the role, but he hated the script, calling it "moronically shitty".
- John Rhys-Davies as Sallah, "the best digger in Cairo", who has been hired by the Nazis to help them excavate Tanis. Although he fears disturbing the Ark, he is an old friend of Indiana Jones, and agrees to help him obtain it. Spielberg initially approached Danny DeVito to play Sallah, but he could not play the part due to scheduling conflicts. Spielberg cast Rhys-Davies after seeing his performance in Shogun.
- Denholm Elliott as Dr. Marcus Brody, a museum curator, who buys the artifacts Indiana obtains for display in his museum. The U.S. government agents approach him with regard to the Ark's recovery, and he sets up a meeting between them and Indiana Jones. Spielberg hired Elliott as he was a big fan of the actor.
- Wolf Kahler as Colonel Dietrich, a ruthless Nazi officer leading the operation to secure the Ark. He is killed by the Ark's supernatural powers.
- Alfred Molina, in his film debut, as Satipo, one of Jones' guides through the South American jungle. He betrays Jones and steals the golden idol, but is killed by traps before he can leave the temple.
- Vic Tablian as Barranca and the Monkey Man
Producer Frank Marshall played a pilot in the airplane fight sequence. The stunt team was ill, so he took the role instead. The result was three days in a hot cockpit, which he joked was over "140 degrees". Pat Roach plays the Nazi mechanic with whom Jones brawls in this sequence, as well as a massive sherpa who battles Jones in Marion's bar. He had the rare opportunity to be killed twice in one film. Special-effects supervisor Dennis Muren made a cameoas a Nazi spy on the seaplane Jones takes from San Francisco to Manila.
In 1973, George Lucas wrote The Adventures of Indiana Smith. Like Star Wars, which he also wrote, it was an opportunity to create a modern version of the film serials of the 1930s and 1940s. Lucas discussed the concept withPhilip Kaufman, who worked with him for several weeks and came up with the Ark of the Covenant as the plot device. Kaufman was told about the Ark by his dentist when he was a child. The project stalled when Clint Eastwoodhired Kaufman to direct The Outlaw Josey Wales. Lucas eventually shelved the idea, deciding to concentrate on his outer space adventure which would become Star Wars. In late May 1977, Lucas was in Maui, trying to escape the enormous success of Star Wars. Friend and colleague Steven Spielberg was also there, on vacation from work on Close Encounters of the Third Kind. While building a sand castle at Mauna Kea, Spielberg expressed an interest in directing a James Bond film. Lucas convinced his friend Spielberg that he had conceived a character "better than James Bond" and explained the concept of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Spielberg loved it, calling it "a James Bond film without the hardware," although Spielberg told Lucas that the surname Smith was not right for the character, Lucas replied, "OK. What about Jones?" Indiana was the name of Lucas' Alaskan Malamute.
The following year, Lucas focused on developing Raiders and the Star Wars sequel The Empire Strikes Back, during which Lawrence Kasdan and Frank Marshall joined the project as screenwriter and producer respectively. Between January 23–January 27, 1978, for nine hours a day, Lucas, Kasdan, and Spielberg discussed the story and visual ideas. Spielberg came up with Jones being chased by a boulder, which was inspired by Carl Barks' Uncle Scroogecomic "The Seven Cities of Cibola". Lucas later acknowledged that the idea for the idol mechanism in the opening scene, and deadly traps later in the film were inspired by several Uncle Scrooge comics. Lucas came up with a submarine, a monkey giving the Hitler salute, and Marion punching Jones in Nepal. Kasdan used a 100-page transcript of their conversations for his first script draft, which he worked on for six months. Ultimately, some of their ideas were too grand and had to be cut: a mine chase, an escape in Shanghai using a rolling gong as a shield, and a jump from an airplane in a raft, all of which made it into the prequel, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.
Spielberg and Lucas disagreed on the character: although Lucas saw him as a Bondian playboy, Spielberg and Kasdan felt the character's academic and adventurer elements made him complex enough. Spielberg had a darker vision of Jones, interpreting him as an alcoholic similar to Humphrey Bogart's character Fred C. Dobbs in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. This characterization fell away during the later drafts. Spielberg also initially conceived of Toht as having a robotic arm, which Lucas rejected as falling into science-fiction. Comic book artist Jim Steranko was also commissioned to produce original illustrations for pre-production, which heavily influenced Spielberg's decisions in both the film's look and the character of Indiana Jones himself.
Initially, the film was rejected by every major studio in Hollywood, as most executives thought that the story was too over the top and would be exceedingly expensive to produce. Eventually Paramount agreed to finance the film, with Lucas negotiating a five picture deal. By April 1980, Kasdan's fifth draft was produced, and production was getting ready to shoot at Elstree Studios, with Lucas trying to keep costs down. With four illustrators, Raiders of the Lost Ark was Spielberg's most storyboarded film of his career to date, further helping the film economically. He and Lucas agreed on a tight schedule to keep costs down, and to stylistically follow the "quick and dirty" feel of the old Saturday matinée serials. Special effects were done using puppets, miniature models, animation, and camera trickery. "We didn't do 30 or 40 takes; usually only four. It was like silent film--shoot only what you need, no waste," Spielberg said. "Had I had more time and money, it would have turned out a pretentious movie." Lucas also directed some of the second unit.
Filming began on June 23, 1980, at La Rochelle, France, for scenes involving the Nazi submarine, which was rented from the production of Das Boot. The U-boat pen was a genuine one that had survived from World War II.The crew moved to Elstree Studios for scenes involving the Well of Souls, the temple's interiors in the opening sequence and Marion Ravenwood's bar. The Well of Souls required 7,000 snakes, though the only venomous snakes on set were the cobras. However, one crew member was bitten by a python on set.To shoot the scene where Indiana comes face-to-face with the cobra, a glass sheet was put between Ford and the reptile, which is partially visible in the film when the light hits it at a certain angle. Unlike the character he portrayed, Ford does not have a fear of snakes; Spielberg was not afraid either, but seeing all the snakes on the set writhing around made him "want to puke". The opening sequence featured live tarantulas: Alfred Molina had to have many put on him, but they did not move until a female tarantula was introduced. A fiberglass boulder 22 feet (7 m) in diameter was made for the scene where Indiana escapes from the temple; Spielberg was so impressed by production designer Norman Reynolds' realization of his idea that he gave it a more prominent role in the film and told Reynolds to increase the boulder run's length by 50 feet (15 m).
All of the scenes set in Egypt were filmed in Tunisia, and the canyon where Indiana threatens to blow up the Ark was shot in Sidi Bouhlel, just outside of Tozeur. The location was previously used in the Tatooine scenes from 1977'sStar Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, since many people in the location crew were the same for both films. Notably, that canyon was exactly the same location where R2-D2 was attacked by Jawas. The Tanis scenes were filmed in nearby Sedala and it was a harsh experience due to the heat and disease. Several cast and crew members fell ill; Rhys-Davies in particular defecated in his costume during one shot. Spielberg averted diseases by only eating canned foods from England, but did not like the area and quickly pushed forward a scheduled six-week shoot to four-and-a-half weeks. Much was improvised there: the scene where Marion puts on her dress and attempts to leave Belloq's tent was improvised, as was the entire plane fight. During that scene's shooting, Ford tore his left leg's cruciate ligament as a wheel went over his knee, but he did not accept local medical help and simply put ice over it. The fight scenes in the town were filmed in Kairouan; by then Ford was suffering from dysentery and did not want to film a lengthy fight scene in which Indiana uses his whip to fight off a swordsman. He said to Spielberg "Let's just shoot the fucker." Spielberg agreed, scrapped the rest of the fight scene, and filmed the gag of Indiana quickly gunning down the swordsman. The truck chase was shot entirely by the second-unit who mostly followed Spielberg's storyboards, though they decided to add Indiana being dragged by the truck. Spielberg shot all the close-ups with Ford afterwards.
The interior staircase set in Washington, D.C. was filmed inside of San Francisco's City Hall. The University of the Pacific's campus in Stockton, California, stands in for the exterior of the college where Jones works, while his classroom and the hall where he meets the American intelligence agents was filmed at the Royal Masonic School for Girls in Rickmansworth, Hertfordshire, England. His home exteriors were filmed in San Rafael, California. The opening exteriors were filmed in Kauai, Hawaii, with Spielberg wrapping in September, finishing under schedule in 73 days, in contrast to his previous film, 1941. The Washington, D.C. coda, although it appeared in the script's early drafts, was not included in early edits and was added later when it was realized that there was no resolution to Jones's relationship with Marion. Shots of the Douglas DC-3 Jones flies on to Nepal were taken from Lost Horizon, while a street scene was cut from a shot in The Hindenburg. The filming of Indy boarding a Boeing China Clipper flying-boat was complicated by the lack of a surviving aircraft. Eventually, a post-war British Short Solent flying-boat formerly owned by Howard Hughes was located in California and substituted in its place.
The special visual effects for Raiders were provided by Industrial Light & Magic and include: a matte shot to establish the Pan Am flying boat in the water and miniature work to show the plane taking off and flying, superimposed over a map; animation effects for the beam in the Tanis map room; and a miniature car and passengers superimposed over a matte painting for a shot of a Nazi car being forced off a cliff. The bulk of effects shots were featured in the climactic sequence wherein the Ark of the Covenant (which was designed by Brian Muir and Keith Short) is opened and God's wrath is unleashed. This sequence featured animation, a woman to portray a beautiful spirit's face, rod puppet spirits moved through water to convey a sense of floating, a matte painting of the island, and cloud tank effects to portray clouds. The melting of Toht's head was done by exposing a gelatine and plaster model of Ronald Lacey's head to a heat lamp with an under cranked camera, while Dietrich's crushed head was a hollow model from which air was withdrawn. The spirits were shot underwater for a ghostly look. When the film was originally submitted to the Motion Picture Association of America, it received an R rating because of the scene in which Belloq's head explodes. The filmmakers were later able to receive a PG rating when they added a veil of fire over the exploding head scene. (The PG-13 rating was not created until 1984.) The firestorm that cleanses the canyon at the finish was a miniature canyon filmed upside down.
Ben Burtt, the sound effects supervisor, made extensive use of traditional foley work in yet another of the production's throwbacks to days of the Republic serials. He selected a 30-30 Winchester rifle for the sound of Jones' pistol. Sound effects artists struck leather jackets and baseball gloves with a baseball bat to create a variety of punching noises and body blows. For the snakes in the Well of Souls sequence, fingers running through cheese casserole and sponges sliding over cement were used for the slithering noises. The sliding lid on a toilet cistern provided the sound for the opening of the Ark. Burtt also used, as he did in many of his films, the ubiquitous Wilhelm scream when a Nazi falls from a truck. In addition to his use of such time-honored foley work, Burtt also demonstrated the modern expertise honed during his award-winning work on Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope. He employed a synthesizer for the sounds of the Ark, and mixed dolphins' and sea lions' screams for those of the spirits within.