Analysis: the 1981 Hollywood blockbuster was hugely inspired by the serial films and follyeruppers of the 1910s and 1920s 

In 1981, Godfrey Fitzsimons, the former film critic of The Irish Times who passed away last year, described one of the new summer releases as being "like an old Saturday-morning follyerupper telescoped into one." Reviewing the same film for VarietyStephen Klain remarked that it was "the stuff that raucous Saturday matinees at the local Bijou once were made of, a crackerjack fantasy-adventure that shapes its pulp sensibilities and cliff-hanging serial origins into an exhilarating escapist entertainment." This film which was warmly welcomed by both these critics and many others was Raiders of the Lost Ark which is 40 years old this year.

The first film in the Indiana Jones' franchise has become so familiar to audiences through its frequent outings on TV that it is useful to remember that the concept and the idea was unusual at the time. An adventure film hung together on the flimsiest of plots, where the hero and heroine travel from one exotic location to another and are put in peril every ten minutes or so, did not seem like a surefire hit. It is unlikely that Raiders of the Lost Ark would have been made were it not for the bankability of its director Steven Spielberg, whose Jaws was the first blockbuster and who was fresh from the success of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and its producer and co-writer George Lucas, whose Star Wars was a phenomenal hit.

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1981 trailer for Raiders of the Lost Ark

Spielberg and Lucas were fans of an older type of film and wanted to make their own version of this genre. The films they were imitating were part of Hollywood history, but were considered to be ancient history in the 1980s. The films were thought to have had their day and were considered to have been put aside to make room for more modern type of stories.

The films that were celebrated by Spielberg and Lucas in Raiders of the Lost Ark included the old serial films from the 1910s and 1920s and the B-movie adventure films from the 1920s and 1930s. These were films that they had grown up with on TV and on re-releases in the cinema, films shown on Saturday morning or afternoon slots exclusively promoted at children.

Fitzsimons’s phrase "follyerupper" is the perfect Irish description of this type of film which was part of a series of 10, 20 or even more episodes. These films were adventure films and shorts which were screened weekly and every episode ended on a cliff-hanger which ensured that the audience would return to the cinema the following week to find out how it was resolved.

The Perils of Pauline (1914)

The serial film first became popular in the 1910s. A short film, anything from 10 to 30 minutes in length, it formed part of an evening’s entertainment in the where the main feature length film was usually bookended by a newsreel, a comedy short, an animation and a serial film.

Some of the most popular serials featured women as the stars and these stars took the heroic part. Serials such as the Perils of Pauline (1914), were produced at a time in Hollywood when women had more power and influence and held more important positions than at any time since. The film serials reflected this. In the Perils of Pauline, Pearl White, one of the most successful actresses of the time played Pauline, an adventurer who refused to marry that man she loved until she had completed a year’s trip around the world in pursuit of adventure and inspiration for her work as a writer.

The Exploits of Elaine (1914)

Each week Pauline would travel from one exotic location to another and experience danger and adventure and have her life put in peril. However, Pauline was not waiting around to be saved by the hero, she was the hero and each week she would demonstrate this with acts of bravery and daring. Audiences flocked to watch her adventures every week. In Ireland The Exploits of Elaine, also starring Pearl White, was another popular serial. Different cinemas ran the serial at different times so that you could always catch up with the latest episode.

Spielberg and Lucas created Raiders of the Lost Ark as both an homage to these films and an imitation of them. In the film's Marion Ravenwood, played by Karen Allen, we can see echoes of the heroine from the Perils of Pauline. Marion is a successful business woman running her own inn and holding her own in a very masculine society. Captured and held prisoner she does not wait for the hero to rescue her but rather uses her strength and her guile to effect her own escape. Once this is achieved she joins with the hero to defeat the bad guys.

Raiders of the Lost Ark ends with an indication that there will be a sequel, and Lucas envisioned a series of three films initially. Thanks to the success of Lucas and Spielberg, Hollywood made a film that harked back to an earlier success story and which is still entertaining audiences 40 years on.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ