Back in 1981, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark introduced the world to Professor Indiana Jones. What started with a successful action romp eventually turned into a pop culture staple. With the release of 1984’s prequel, The Temple of Doom, and the 1989 sequel, The Last Crusade, audiences around the world glommed on to the action hero.
However, 2008’s The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull wasn’t a blockbuster hit for fans or critics. As with many reworks of mega-popular hits, audiences are holding out hope for the fifth and final project. Still untitled, the fifth film is set for release in 2023 and has wrapped filming—with Harrison Ford still serving as Indy himself.
As one of the most lucrative and popular film franchises of all time, the Indiana Jones series has captured the attention of multiple generations. But what, exactly, did the films do that has made them stand the test of time? Let’s take a closer look at four ways this throwback sculpted the future of cinema.
It Introduced a New Genre
Back in 1981, film genres weren’t quite as creative and varied as they are today. Action movies tended to focus on military conflict or martial arts. Aside from historical narratives, action films didn’t involve aspects of culture or anthropology. Indy, as an archaeologist, created a whole new type of action genre.
This fact might fly over the heads of many, as anthropology-based action movies are common today. From The Mummy to The DaVinci Code to the Lara Croft franchise, the cultural-action flick is well-known. Even games today carry these popular tropes. For example, PokerStars Casino offers dozens of titles for slots fans, with many borrowing from the genre.
There’s Rich Wilde and the Book of Dead and its follow-up Rich Wilde and the Tome of Madness. There’s also Cashzuma and the Tomb of Wonga along with Legacy of Dead, which all highlight a blend of action, anthropology, and hidden treasure.
It Even Changed the Field of Archaeology
Lucas’s character didn’t just help foster interest in action flicks with cultural roots—it also helped garner interest in the field of archaeology as a whole. In fact, whole generations grew up with a budding interest in culture and history thanks to Indy’s exploits.
Back in 2015, National Geographic partnered with the Penn Museum and Lucas Films Ltd. to bridge these worlds, much to the public’s delight. Visitors packed into the special exhibit that compared the objects from the Indiana Jones films to the real-life artifacts that inspired them. This includes a 5,000-year-old map from Nippur and iconographic clay pots from the Nazca Lines.
It Introduced a New Type of Action Hero
Today, some of the most popular superheroes in Marvel and DC Comics blend characteristics like sass, intellect, and a curiously accurate gut instinct. Films like Ironman and Deadpool built dedicated fanbases based on these traits—but Indiana Jones was one of the first action stars to build out a sassy persona. Until 1981’s Raiders of the Lost Ark, most heroes were either cunning and droll, like James Bond, a hardened gangster type like Inspector Harry Callahan, or honorable and fair, like Superman.
But Indiana Jones managed to blend these characteristics into a brand new type of hero. He was both reluctant and stubborn, charismatic and off-the-cuff. Most of all, there always seemed to be a kernel of instinct driving him to his next move.
It Brought the Opening Scene to the Forefront
Most films follow a basic three-act format. First, a filmmaker sets up the stakes, then embroils the characters in conflict. Lastly, they’ll create a satisfying resolution for audiences. However, Lucas’s opening scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark bucked that tradition by creating a mini-three-act set up in the first ten minutes.
Audiences got to understand Indy’s character along with his lifestyle and goals as he attempts to outrun a boulder as an ancient temple falls apart. It instilled the idea that storytelling in cinema could take more risks in how it builds out characters—and it shows that a riveting action sequence can do that when written well. Over 40 years after the film’s release, many can still imagine Indy leaping as he attempts to outrun the boulder and walk away with the golden idol.