Inspired by the adventure serials they grew up with, George Lucas and Philip Kaufman worked on the story. Lucas then brought in Steven Spielberg, who had a desire at the time to make a James Bond film, to direct because Lucas was in the middle of working on the original Star Wars trilogy. Tom Selleck was initially cast as Jones, but his duties on the television series Magnum P.I. made him unavailable, which opened the door for Harrison Ford to play the role. Retitled in the canon for the 1999 VHS re-issue to match the others, Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark remains a classic adventure film that set a high bar with its many iconic action sequences that still resonate today.
Similar to the Bond films, Raiders opens with a story already in progress. Indy is in a South American jungle circa 1936 in search of a golden idol. He is slowly revealed onscreen, both visually and internally. Indy is smart and cautious; he requires a bit of luck, though he doesn't always succeed. After surviving a number of deadly traps, including outrunning a giant boulder that seals a cave entrance, Indy is forced to turn the idol over to his adversary Belloq (Paul Freeman).
Spielberg also reveals something about the film itself in this opening, letting the viewer know that even when the danger seems over that doesn't mean it is. His direction evokes the grandeur of David Lean, making the film seem bigger than it appears, and matches the suspense of Alfred Hitchcock, keeping the viewer tense and attentive. It's one of his best efforts, and earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Director.
Back in the States, Indy is archaeology professor Henry Jones, Jr., Ph.D. U.S. Army Intelligence officers approach him and reveal that the Nazis have been searching the world for religious artifacts and are currently working in Cairo, Egypt. Through their discussion, the audience learns the Nazis are searching for the Ark of the Covenant, which is rumored to house the original stone tablets that Moses chiseled the Ten Commandments on, which will make armies invincible "if you believe in that sort of thing."
The Nazis are also searching for Indy's former mentor, Abner Ravenwood, an expert on the Ark and collector of related artifacts. At the Army's request, Indy seeks out Ravenwood in Nepal, but learns of his death from his daughter Marion (Karen Allen), now a barkeeper, whose heart Indy broke years ago. Indy offers money for a medallion that will help find the Ark. She agrees, but tells him to come back tomorrow when she will have it, even though she is wearing it. Moments later, a Nazi agent and his henchmen come seeking the medallion as well, but they refuse to wait. Before they can take it from her, Indy returns. A battle ensues and Marion's bar catches fire. During the exchange, the Nazi agent sees the medallion on the floor. He grabs it, but severely burns his hand because the fire has heated the metal.
Indy and Marion escape and head to Egypt. With the help of Indy's friend, Sallah, they try to find the Ark without alerting the Nazis of their plans. The story takes a number of twists and turns as possession of the Ark changes. Interspersed are great action sequences, such as Indy fighting the muscular German mechanic under the Flying Wing and his battling with a number of German soldiers on a moving truck. The audience is kept off-balance like they were riding a roller coaster. The film concludes with a fantastic climax.
Raiders works so well because of talents of many of its contributors. While Spielberg, Lucas, and Ford get most of the recognition, a couple of others deserve mention as well. Lawrence Kasdan turned the brainstorming story sessions with Lucas and Spielberg into a very good script. The characters are quickly rendered through their dialogue and actions. John Williams' music is as essential to the film as any other aspect. His work perfectly augments the mood and is as instantly recognizable as Ford's fedora-adorned silhouette and the graphic features of title.
The all-new special features include a new introduction with great behind-the-scenes footage incorporated. All of that footage should have presented. "The Indy Trilogy: A Crystal Clear Appreciation" has the cast and crew involved with Indy IV talk about Raiders. "The Mystery of the Melting Faces" contains interviews with the effects people and presents modern-day recreations. "Snakes Alive! The Well of Souls Storyboards" compares the storyboards with the sequence. There was no carryover from the previous set's "Indiana Jones: The Making of a Trilogy."
If you don't own Raiders on DVD, be sure to get it. If you already have it, the new material isn't even worth a rental