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The Return of the Great Adventure: RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK celebrates 40 years!

June 12th marks the 40th anniversary of RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK. To celebrate, I wanted to share some details about the two posters Richard Amsel created for the film.

As fate would have it, production on the fifth Indiana Jones adventure begins this very week. My only regret is that Richard Amsel isn't around to do the eventual poster.**

Raiders of the Lost Ark poster (1981)
Richard Amsel's poster for RAIDERS' initial release in 1981.

Back in 1981, RAIDERS was a runaway global box office smash – and also warmly received by critics. But perhaps even more remarkable is how much the film has endured over the years.

An early sketch for the first RAIDERS poster (1981).

Amsel’s artwork also remains as popular as ever. I’ll be giving RAIDERS due attention in both the upcoming film and book I'm doing on Amsel, but in the meantime, I wanted to share some trivia about his posters’ enduring legacies…

It’s important to remember that RAIDERS was something of a mystery prior to its theatrical release in 1981. American audiences were anticipating SUPERMAN II to be that summer’s biggest blockbuster, and while the superhero epic opened much stronger in the United States, the first Indiana Jones adventure eventually surpassed it at the box office, thanks to positive word of mouth and glowing critical reviews.

I strongly doubt Amsel was given the opportunity to see the film when he created the original artwork. I recall Drew Struzan stating that artists were given only a very basic summary of the plot and a handful of stills in preparation for creating their illustrations.

Amsel’s design for first RAIDERS poster reflected the more enigmatic, grittier nature of the character -- long before Indiana Jones became a household name, and before he grew into the more larger than life figure in subsequent films.

Amsel's final comp, in preparation for the 1981 poster.

Amsel’s design seemed clear from the very outset, as even his earliest sketches nailed Harrison Ford’s portrait as it appeared in the final work. The original color comp is interesting, in that while it resembles the final piece, it has some variations; the color is more intense, and the lighting is more dramatic.

The final poster looks more monochromatic, and is flatly-lit – as if Indiana Jones himself was a mysterious figure to unearth. Compare it to Drew Struzan's stylish -- and very different -- poster illustration, which was used in many international markets. Like Amsel, Struzan often relied on using layers of paint, colored pencils, and airbrushing to create his fanciful illustrations.

For all the comparisons people have made between Struzan and Amsel’s work over the years, I’ve always believed that the two artists’ respective styles were each very much their own. It is unfair and inaccurate to suggest that one ever “copied” the other. They both had keen sensibilities, surely, and perhaps this resulted in times when both minds thought alike. But Struzan's work and career never "followed" Amsel's; they were, in fact, fellow contemporaries. Struzan was actually born several months before Amsel, and had carved out a distinguished career and body of work at the same time Amsel did. (For more information of Struzan's work, check out Erik Sharkey's wonderful documentary, DREW: THE MAN BEHIND THE POSTER. He provides especially fascinating testimonials about Struzan's early career.)

The creation of Amsel’s first Indiana Jones poster wasn’t without some creative struggles. Spiros Angelikas, the designer and owner of the ad agency Spiros Associates, described his experience working with Paramount Pictures and Richard Amsel on RAIDERS.

To hear Angelikas recall his working relationship with Richard Amsel is something to behold. I’ve heard several recollections from Amsel’s colleagues about the artist’s talent and dedication, but Angelikas’ interview was easily the most candid and telling. While Amsel was often softspoken and shy in his interactions with people, he wouldn’t hesitate to fiercely stick to his guns when it came to certain creative decisions. If he believed in something strongly, he could be defiant, stubborn, and inflexible...even if it meant jeopardizing his chances at getting the job.

Such was the case with the first RAIDERS poster. People loved the artwork, but the marketing powers that be demanded that the bottom foreground elements be changed. Amsel initially refused to do it.

One of Amsel's sketches of the foreground elements for the first RAIDERS poster.

Spiros pleaded his case. Again, Amsel refused. More pleads, more refusals. On and on, over and over. Things grew so tense that Spiros personally went to Amsel’s New York apartment and begged him to make the change, confiding that the artist would risk losing the film campaign altogether if he didn’t relent.

Amsel ultimately gave in and did as he was told. (As to who imposed the order, Spiros wasn’t sure.)

Executive producer Howard Kazanjian once told me of another slight modification made to the final poster. Amsel’s trademark signature had to be reduced in size, as it was originally written so large that it rivaled John Hancock’s signature!

I’ve interviewed a number of Amsel’s friends for my forthcoming documentary, AMSEL: ILLUSTRATOR OF THE LOST ART. Several of them stated that Amsel was most fond of that first RAIDERS poster, namely because the portrait helped to define the hero’s particular rugged “aura”, and the artwork was featured so prominently throughout the world.

Amsel’s poster for the 1982 reissue of RAIDERS was a different matter altogether, as by then the movie was a worldwide runaway hit. Now having seen the film, Amsel was not only able to perfectly capture its fun, adventurous spirit, but also celebrate the phenomenon of the movie itself.

Amsel's poster for the 1982 rerelease of RAIDERS, used worldwide.

For this, Amsel did voluminous sketches, particularly of Harrison Ford’s pose. While there was a photo of Ford brandishing a bullwhip that served as an initial general reference, that dynamic pose is something Amsel slaved over, with sketch after sketch of hands, faces, etc…

I love how Ford is smiling in that poster. Had it been done by any other artist, it would have looked cheesy. But Amsel made it work; Indy’s smile was somehow well earned.

Anatomy of an adventurer: a progression of Amsel's sketches for the 1982 poster.

One of Amsel's many sketches developing the montage of elements for the 1982 poster.

The rerelease poster featured an ensemble of characters, fitted into the type of controlled composition that Amsel was known for. Compare it to Amsel’s posters for MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS and THE SHOOTIST; the artist was able to create a montage of characters and events that, while visually dense, was also uncluttered and very exciting.

Amsel's polished color comp, before the final poster illustration.

I mean, just look at it -- that poster is the movie, and remains, in my mind, both a stunning work of art, and a testament to the talent of an artist lost far, far too soon.

But don’t just take my word for it. In 2011, the publication TOTAL FILM expressed the same sentiment, naming Amsel’s rerelease poster as "The Greatest Hand-Drawn Movie Poster of all time."

Detail of Amsel's artwork, taken from one of many newly scanned images acquired for the documentary and book.
Detail of Amsel's artwork, taken from one of many newly scanned images acquired for the documentary and book.
Detail of Amsel's artwork, taken from one of many newly scanned images acquired for the documentary and book.

** pressure, but my fingers are crossed.


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