'Raiders of the Lost Ark' at 40: M. Night Shyamalan, Zack Snyder, J.J. Abrams and more pay tribute to Indiana Jones's first adventure

When George Lucas and Steven Spielberg joined forces to make Raiders of the Lost Ark in 1981, they were heavily inspired by the cinematic serials they grew up watching nearly 40 years prior. Flash-forward four decades to 2021, and an entire generation of filmmakers has been inspired by Raiders and its whip-cracking, snake-hating, treasure-seeking hero, Indiana Jones, played to perfection by Harrison Ford.

Opening in theaters on June 12, 1981, the movie was the highest-grossing film of that year, banking over $200 million. Three sequels followed, with one last adventure on the way, but Raiders remains in a class by itself, and remains a touchstone for any director tasked with crafting a rousing, satisfying and endlessly rewatchable blockbuster.

Over the past year, Yahoo Entertainment has been gathering stories from filmmakers who grew up watching Raiders of the Lost Ark on repeat about how the movie has inspired or influenced their own work. Watch the video above to see their tributes, and read their full comments below. And remember: it's not the years — it's the mileage.

M. Night Shyamalan

The Sixth Sense director was once famously described as "the next Spielberg," and it's a title he started training for early on. One of Shyamalan's first films was a homemade remake of the opening scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark, starring himself as Indiana Jones. We spoke with him for the second season of supernatural series, Servant, currently streaming on Apple TV+.

I've had a few religious moments [in a movie theater]. Star Wars was one, and then [Raiders] was the one where I was like, "That feeling I just had? That's what I'm going to do. I don't care if I'm flipping burgers somewhere, I'm going to do that in my spare time. I don't know if I'm going to get paid for it, but I'm going do to that. I want to figure out how to make people feel how I just felt."

The moment of me seeing that movie, it was in the Narberth theater [in Philadelphia] and I was sitting on the right hand side on the aisle. I couldn't sit next to my friend, and I was sitting with an older couple. In my mind, that couple was ancient, but they were probably 15 years younger than I am now. [Laughs] They were sitting next to me, and they got me popcorn.

Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones and Karen Allen as Marion Ravenwood on the set of 'Raiders of the Lost Ark' (Photo: Paramount/courtesy Everett Collection)
Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones and Karen Allen as Marion Ravenwood on the set of 'Raiders of the Lost Ark' (Photo: Paramount/courtesy Everett Collection)

That was much more innocent time — today you'd be like, "Oh, they're trying to drug me!" But back then it was super-sweet: they saw a scared little Indian kid sitting by himself, and the gave him popcorn and said, 'Here, we got this for you.' So imagine that: I'm sitting there scared out of my comfort zone, away from my friends and these strangers gave me food. Then the logo for [Paramount] mountain comes on. I mean forget about it! It's over, that's the cult — that's the cult I'm in.

Every single scene [in Raiders] is my favorite. I don't know why, but I'm always repeating the Kadan scene, where he says, "Take back one Kadan, to honor the Hebrew God whose ark this is." Whenever he does that, I get [chills]. It's so dramatic that they know where the ark is hidden.

Zack Snyder

With movies like 300 and Zack Snyder's Justice League under his belt, Snyder has some experience depicting the exploits of larger-than-life heroes in colorful uniforms. We spoke with him for his latest zombie movie, Army of the Dead, currently streaming on Netflix.

[Raiders] is a seminal movie for me. I'm sure everybody says that, but it really was one of those films that just locked in for me this notion that the movies were a magical and impossible place where anything could happen. Even when I saw it as a child, I remember how specific it was to its world. It just in that way is transformative.

Ford gets ready for action in a scene from 'Raiders of the Lost Ark' (Photo: Paramount/Courtesy Everett Collection)
Ford gets ready for action in a scene from 'Raiders of the Lost Ark' (Photo: Paramount/Courtesy Everett Collection)

It's not like a sci-fi movie in the sense that it takes place in a certain time period, there's Nazis in it. It's just the perfect blend, and it really blew my mind. I remember that I really loved — and today you can see it still influences me — the match cut from the Paramount mountain to the actual mountain. I was just like, "Yes." I dig that tremendously.

J.J. Abrams

You might say that Steven Spielberg is J.J. Abrams's spirit animal. The Star Wars director made an entire movie that was an extended homage to Spielberg's '80s classics — 2011's Super 8. That movie happened to be produced by Spielberg himself, which served as the beginning of a beautiful Hollywood friendship. We spoke with Abrams for his Stephen King adaption, Lisey's Story, currently streaming on Apple TV+.

I mean, it's one of the great movies ever. Getting to know the man behind that movie has been the thrill of a lifetime for me. Becoming friends with Steven. That movie is so beautifully and perfectly done. Talk about a classic movie, that's just one of the greats. Forty years! Holy crap, that's insane.

Kate Herron

After getting her start behind the camera on British series like Five by Five and Sex Education, the U.K.-born Herron recently joined the Marvel Cinematic Universe with the new Disney+ series Loki. It's safe to say that Tom Hiddleston's alter ego would like to imagine himself as an Indiana Jones-like figure... even though he's probably closer to René Belloq.

I've dressed up as Indiana Jones so many times by this point that I've lost count. [Laughs] He's charismatic, and [the movie] is so fun. It's like the perfect Saturday movie outing. I think that's the thing I love about the film: the escapism of it. When I started filmmaking, I was like 'How do they do that? And how do they do that?" My favorite scene is probably the opening. I know that's a cliche thing, but it just grabs you by the hand straightaway and doesn't let go. I hadn't seen anything like that in a film when I was younger, and the practical sets are just a treat for the imagination.

Don Hall

Since he's in the business of making cartoons, it's only appropriate that Don Hall becomes animated when talking about Raiders. The longtime Disney employee began his career working on contemporary Mouse House favorites like Tarzan and Tangled, before moving behind the camera himself for Winnie the Pooh and Moana. We spoke with him for Raya and the Last Dragon, currently streaming on Disney+.

I’m a longtime Disney person but growing up in the '70s and '80s, I was also a huge Spielberg fan. His films and his approach to films was a huge influence on me, so there [are] a lot of Raiders of the Lost Ark references [in Raya]. A real lot of Raiders of the Lost Ark references. That’s one of the best action-adventure movies ever made and every aspiring action-adventure compares to that movie. So we’re no different, but that approach was definitely brought up quite a bit. Also the fact that we have a few scenes where [Raya] is sneaking into a temple or ruins or something like that. That definitely evokes an Indiana Jones-y type of thing. Her sword’s also kind of like a whip, so that’s there, too.

Sam Levinson

Although he was born after Raiders had already come and gone from theaters, Euphoria creator, Sam Levinson, followed Indiana Jones's adventures on VHS and then DVD before joining the business himself. We spoke with him for his movie, Malcom & Marie, currently streaming on Netflix.

It's interesting, I remember watching it as a kid and I loved it when I saw it, but it's not a movie that made a massive impression on me. Temple of Doom, for some strange reason, made a bigger impression, and I think that's because of the violence of it. It was PG-13, and I remember being startled and enthralled by that. But when Steven Soderbergh did that re-release where he put Raiders in black-and-white, that blew my mind. I watched it for its shot construction, and you realize the true brilliance of it.

Kevin Smith

The always-chatty Clerks director likes to say that he could never make a blockbuster like Raiders of the Lost Ark, but the film impacted him in a different way — by showing how a love of pop culture could be passed from father to son.

My father was always just my father to me, just a stoic dad. We didn't have like a chatty relationship, and he didn't wear his heart on his sleeve. He wasn't like me in that way. So when we went to see Raiders of the Lost Ark, that was the day where I really met my dad, Don Smith, because he was reduced to a child. He was so excited; he kept turning me going, "This is the kind of movie that they used to show me when I was a kid! They were called cliffhangers, and I would go in the next week. I'd have to watch it again." I'd never seen that version of my father... where I was like, "He's a real human being. He's just like me, and gets geeky about certain things." He was triggered in a positive way by seeing Raiders and wanted to share that with his kid.

Jamie Bell

While he's not a director — at least not yet, anyway — actor Jamie Bell has the unique experience of being directed by Steven Spielberg. The Billy Elliot star played the title role in Spielberg's 2011 motion-capture spectacle, The Adventures of Tintin, which feels like a close relative of his Indiana Jones quartet. We spoke with Bell for the action film Without Remorse, currently streaming on Prime Video.

The first film I saw was in a theater was Jurassic Park, and when I saw it was directed by a guy named Steven Spielberg, I genuinely thought he was a magician. It was like he was from a different planet, you know? My favorite Indiana Jones movie was always Temple of Doom, because it's such a bizarre entry in the canon of those movies. But I adore all of them, and I watched them again when I was getting ready to work with Steven on Tintin. I also adore Harrison in those movies. What a legacy that is, and I'm super-excited to see the next one, of course.

Indiana Jones (Ford) races away from certain death in the famous opening sequence of 'Raiders of the Lost Ark' (Photo: Paramount/courtesy Everett Collection)
Indiana Jones (Ford) races away from certain death in the famous opening sequence of 'Raiders of the Lost Ark' (Photo: Paramount/courtesy Everett Collection)

When I look back on that experience, it was a very brief six-week shooting schedule because it was all motion capture. At first, I almost couldn't really speak to him to tell him how I really felt. I didn't want to reveal my cards, because he's such an important filmmaker to me, as he is to so many people. But one thing I will say is that he's never not inventing. Even when you think he's taking downtime or is just in a casual conversation, he's looking at things and coming up with things. He's an idea invention factor, and it's unbelievable when you see him come up with something new and inventive. It's a joy to behold and I've privileged to have had that experience.

Video produced by Jon San and edited by Jimmie Rhee

Raiders of the Lost Ark is currently streaming on Paramount+ and available on a new 4K Ultra HD set

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