Raiders of the Lost Ark was released in North American movie theatres 40 years ago, on June 12, 1981. As Raiders is one of the all-time great adventure movies, its release alone makes June 12 worthy of celebration. But Raiders wasn’t the only movie to hit theatres that day. Mel Brooks’ epic spoof picture History of the World: Part I and the Greek mythology-inspired fantasy film Clash of the Titans both opened on June 12 as well, making it quite a weekend at the multiplex for fans of soon-to-be-classic genre flicks.
We haven’t seen a release date like June 12, 1981, in a while. As creating and promoting blockbuster movies became less of an art and more of a science, the big studios have grown cautious when choosing opening weekends for their movies. It is possible a studio might be willing to open an “R”-rated comedy like History of the World against a family-friendly adventure movie like Raiders of the Lost Ark or Clash of the Titans in modern times. But the days are long gone when two family-friendly adventure movies would open head-to-head. In the rare modern case when such a match-up is announced, it’s usually only a few days before one studio or the other backs down and moves their movie to a less competitive weekend.
And that’s fine. The film market has changed a lot in 40 years. There wasn’t really a home video market in 1981, so popular movies played in theatres for a long time. Raiders of the Lost Ark would officially go on to play in North American theatres through mid-March 1982, though it was still in a few theatres a full year after its original release. And even big studio movies in the 1980s weren’t released as widely as they are in modern times. Raiders opened in around 1,000 theatres, compared to a modern wide-release blockbuster that (barring a pandemic or other catastrophe) might open on multiple screens in 4,000 or more theatres.
Long theatrical runs on fewer screens meant that film distributors were less concerned about a big opening weekend. So they were willing to open a movie and let it play for a few weeks to see if it had “legs.”
The modern movie industry is obviously very different. Between streaming services and video-on-demand and cable TV, the home market for films is huge, much more massive than most people could have imagined in 1981. That huge market is hungry for new movies, so if a flick has a disappointing opening weekend, the distributor is probably going to pull it from theatres quickly and see if the movie fares better with home audiences.
Raiders of the Lost Ark did indeed have “legs.” It was the number one grossing movie in North America in its first weekend of release. After getting bumped out of the top spot in its second weekend by Superman II, Raiders would go on to reclaim the number one spot for several other weekends in 1981, including the first weekend in December, its 26th weekend of release.
Steven Spielberg had proven himself a talented and bankable director with earlier hits like Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. But Raiders cemented his status as a filmmaking legend, and he’d go on to basically own the 1980s, producing iconic movies of the decade like Poltergeist, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, and The Goonies. And Spielberg directed E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, which is possibly the single biggest influence on recent 1980s-set properties like Stranger Things.
Spielberg’s competition on June 12 was a couple of guys who were already filmmaking legends. Mel Brooks’ History of the World: Part I is an anthology movie, so it isn’t as consistent as his more notable spoofs like Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein, and High Anxiety. But when History works, it really works, like the opening scene (that raunchily and hilariously sends up Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey “Dawn of Man” sequence) and the infamous Spanish Inquisition song and dance number. Plus Orson Welles narrates it, and everybody knows that when it comes to narrators, Welles is hard to beat.
Clash of the Titans features the work of stop-motion effects and creature creating legend Ray Harryhausen. The plot of Clash is a bit like Harryhausen’s earlier classic, Jason and the Argonauts, updated for the post-Star Wars era. But you don’t show up for a Harryhausen movie for the story, you show up for the monsters, and that’s where Clash of the Titans delivers. Especially amazing is Harryhausen’s take on the gorgon Medusa, adding a snake-like lower body to go along with the snakes that she has on her head in place of hair. Each of those snakes is in constant (hand animated) motion, regardless of what other motion is happening with the character. It’s really something to see.
Despite its opening weekend competition, and despite all of the other excellent flicks that 1981 brought us (it really is one of the all-time great movie years), Raiders of the Lost Ark went on to be the highest-grossing movie released that year in North America. And it wasn’t even really close, with Raiders raking in $212 million, almost twice as much money as the second-place film (the family drama On Golden Pond).
I caught Raiders of the Lost Ark at the movie theatre at some point during that incredible first run. I was around ten years old at the time so I, of course, loved the movie. But I love it even more now as an adult who knows a bit about filmmaking.
I think my current favourite aspect of Raiders is the climactic scene where a bunch of Nazis literally get their faces melted off. It’s amazing, both for the bravura mix of practical special effects on display and the context — it’s a creepy scene that quickly turns violent and gory, like something out of a wild 1980s hard-“R” Italian horror flick. It’s kind of shocking to see this stuff in a “PG” movie — as violent as some of our modern “PG-13” action movies can get, that violence tends to be less bloody, melty, and head exploding. Of course, as a kid, I didn’t give it a second thought — I just revelled in the bad guys getting their comeuppance.
Moviegoers lucky enough to catch Raiders of the Lost Ark, Clash of the Titans, and History of the World: Part I all in that opening weekend in 1981 wouldn’t have to wait long for another big weekend at the movies. A new epic fantasy movie (Dragonslayer), a new James Bond movie (For Your Eyes Only), a new Muppet movie (The Great Muppet Caper), and a new Bill Murray comedy (Stripes) would all open only two weeks later, on June 26.
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