(Welcome to The Movies That Made Star Wars, a series where we explore the films and television properties that inspired George Lucas’s iconic universe. In this edition: the Steven Spielberg pulp masterpiece Raiders of the Lost Ark.)

Steven Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark might be one of the greatest films of all time. It’s a breathless action film wrapped up in some of the best dialogue ever written. It somehow takes the tropes of ‘30s adventure films, crosses them with Edgar Rice Burroughs and movies like Treasure of the Sierra Madre and Casablanca and then ups the ante even further. It’s the sort of movie that’s a Swiss watch of structure and adventure. It’s the dream of any filmmaker to make a movie with one-tenth the spirit.

But what effect did it have on Star Wars? On the surface, one could point to its conception by George Lucas and say that’s enough, but going deeper is a lot more fun.

The Writing

The next level we can look at is the writing. Lawrence Kasdan was hired to write Raiders of the Lost Ark based on the strength of his script for The Bodyguard. Sure, that movie came out in 1992, but it was actually written in the 1970s. Kasdan’s agent sold another script to Amblin Entertainment—Spielberg’s production company—and that eventually landed him the offer to write Raiders. The day he turned in that first draft, George Lucas offered Kasdan the job of writing The Empire Strikes Back. That began a long association with Lucasfilm that would enable him to eventually write four Star Wars movies, most recently Solo: A Star Wars Story. There are commonalities to Kasdan’s writing throughout his oeuvre and you can spot the tools he likes to employ. One is slipping heavy exposition into the dialogue.

It’s easy to compare the scene between Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) and Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen) in the bar in Nepal to the scene between Han Solo (also Ford) and Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) as they argue through the hallways of Echo Base in Empire. Each scene is marred with friction between the characters and most of what they’re talking about is pain they’ve inflicted on each other in the past that flies by without a spare breath. Whether its Marion and Indy’s past relationship or the bounty hunters on Ord Mantell, Kasdan has a way of infusing his dialogue with stories that sound like they matter to the characters speaking them, even though we don’t have any first hand knowledge of it.

Lawrence Kasdan stepped up to help J.J. Abrams craft The Force Awakens and his bag of screenwriting tricks are on full display in that film as well. The scene between Han and Leia talking about the loss of their son and his corruption by Snoke are in that exact same vein as the previous scenes. These are by no means the only examples, but they are the scenes that draw the brightest lines to Kasdan’s style.

The Rise of Skywalker

When J.J. Abrams set out to make The Rise of Skywalker, he didn’t have the benefit of Lawrence Kasdan’s help, so it’s no wonder that he would fall back on a Kasdan-like film structure for the close of the Skywalker saga. Though Kasdan wasn’t there physically, he was definitely there spiritually.

Raiders of the Lost Ark has a significant turn in the story every ten minutes or so, changing the pace and the stakes at a pace that makes the film feel completely breathless. Sitting down with The Rise of Skywalker and a timer, it moves at just about the same pace. Sequences in the film are built in chunks of about ten minutes. If they linger on a planet for twenty minutes, there’s an action sequence at the mid-point. 

Pasaana is an excellent case study of this. Like Raiders, the characters are after an artifact that will lead them to a place that will give them an opportunity to rob the villains of the power they seek to subjugate the populace. In Raiders, this comes in the form of the Headpiece of the Staff of Ra. In The Rise of Skywalker this comes in the form of the Sith Dagger. In both cases, ancient writing must be decoded to tell its secret. When the heroes of the Resistance arrive on Pasaana, they’re greeted by locals of a vaguely Middle Eastern inspiration—this, and many sequences from the Indiana Jones films, was shot in Jordan. Very quickly, the heroes meet up with a local guide (Lando in Rise, Sallah in Raiders) and then have a chase sequence right in the middle that results in the alleged death of a major character. In Raiders of the Lost Ark, this is the sequence where Marion is abducted in that basket and is presumed to explode. In The Rise of Skywalker, the speeder chase leads to the moment where Chewbacca is presumed dead and is very quickly brought back to life and in custody of Space Nazis (as opposed to regular ones.) The speeder chase happens almost exactly ten minutes into the Pasaana sequence.

That breathtaking sequence culminates in what amounts to a tomb raiding through the serpent’s burrow not unlike those common in Indiana Jones films. Indiana Jones famously hates snakes and comments often, “Snakes. I hate snakes.”

Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) gets to turn this line into “Bones. I hate bones,” just before the massive serpent arrives in the sequence.

J.J. Abrams takes the Raiders of the Lost Ark parallel to the extreme when the power of the Jedi is opened up inside of Rey like the wrath of God found in the Ark of the Covenant. She uses that strength to melt Palpatine’s face, just like the Nazis in Raiders. 

Coda

Raiders of the Lost Ark is the finest of the Indiana Jones films and one of the single greatest action-adventure films ever made. The truck chase through the desert is, arguably, one of the best chases ever to be committed to film. Roger Ebert ranked it first, putting The French Connection and Bullit in second and third, respectively.

And no, before you ask, the idea that the film would resolve into exactly the same result had Indiana Jones not been in the film is patently false. The Nazis would have never found the Headpiece, nor would they have found the correct room with the Ark, nor would the Americans been able to collect it to keep it off the map for future engagements with the Nazis. Indiana Jones was instrumental every step of the way. Don’t let a disingenuously argued YouTube video tell you otherwise.

If, somehow, you’ve never seen it, it’s worth your time. Not just because of its influence on Star Wars, but because of its influence on cinema going forward. It spawned as many copycats as Star Wars did and remains an important piece of cinema. 

Gene Siskel said of the film, “Yes, it’s as entertaining as you have heard. Maybe more so. Raiders of the Lost Ark is, in fact, about as entertaining as a commercial movie can be.”

And there’s really no arguing with that. If only commercial movies these days were able to hold the same standard of sharp, whip-cracking writing, character development, and thrills, we’d all be a lot better off.

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