In honor of the 30th anniversary of “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” Hero Complex will be screening the film on Monday with an onstage Q&A with Steven Spielberg. Leading up to the event, we’ve been looking back at the landmark film and its influence on cinema and pop culture. Today, a trip down the toy aisle.
As strange as it sounds, “Raiders of the Lost Ark” toys and merchandise were somewhat hard-to-find treasures when the film became a box-office sensation back in 1981.
The usual scenario these days is to start launching movie tie-ins weeks or months before a film’s opening weekend, but it was a different landscape three decades ago when Indiana Jones became a box-office sensation. That’s not to say that the fedora hero was nowhere in sight — there were trading cards, a movie novelization, a collector’s magazine and a Marvel comic adaption — but very little in the way of movie-related merchandise was actually available at the time of the film’s release. It wasn’t until 1982 — when director Steven Spielberg had followed “Raiders” with another mega hit, “E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial” — that kids could go on further crusades with Dr. Jones.
Merchandise licensing deals for “Raiders” were ultimately put into play with Kenner, a very popular toy company at the time, especially given the highly successful sales of the action figures, vehicles and playsets it was then producing for the “Star Wars” movies. Spielberg’s longtime friend and “Star Wars” creator George Lucas was the co-writer and executive producer of “Raiders,” of course, so Kenner may have been the inevitable choice.
Kenner didn’t worry much about putting distance between the two toy universes.
Not only did the company stick with the popular 3 3/4-inch size of its main “Star Wars” action figure line, but when it made a foot-tall figure of Indiana Jones in 1982 it used the same head and body it had used for its 1979 version of Han Solo even though the hairstyle was a bit too galactically groovy for the 1930s.
The Indiana Jones films were about rare treasure so its fitting that the toy line also produced a Holy Grail for collectors — there’s an ultra-rare, 3 3/4-inch action figure of the evil Belloq dressed in ceremonial robes that never reached retail. Only 10 Kenner salesperson samples were made and they can fetch several thousand dollars on the collectors market if they are still “carded,” the term for an action figure still inside the familiar packaging of the era — a plastic bubble with cardboard backing.
Robe-clad Belloq figures were also made available as a mail-away offer but not in that same prized packaging. Kids could send proofs-of-purchase from three “Raiders” action figures to Kenner and in exchange would receive the Belloq action figure in a sealed plastic bag, the same method the toymaker used on similiar “Star Wars” mail-away offers. Those mailed Belloqs are a lesser treasure but remember what the villian sneered when he trapped our hero in the Well of Souls: “Who knows? In a thousand years, even you may be worth something!”
The 3 3/4-inch “Raiders” action figure line included Indiana Jones, Marion Ravenwood, Toht and the Cairo Swordsman, followed later by the second wave of Sallah, Belloq, German Mechanic and a variant Indiana Jones in a German uniform disguise. “Raiders” action figures were not produced in the same large quantities as their “Star Wars” counterparts, making them much harder to come by today, especially with the original packaging intact.
In 1982, fans delved into further adventures with the famed archeologist with a couple of board games and the first-ever Indiana Jones video game: a “Raiders of the Lost Ark” cartridge for the Atari 2600 home video-gaming system.
“Raiders” on the Atari 2600 was one of the first ever movie adaptations in the video game world and, in a bit of deep trivia, it’s the only Atari 2600 single-player game that required use of both joystick/button controllers — the right controller to move Indiana Jones, and the left controller to control your inventory.
This game was well received at the time of its release and is still considered an entertaining 8-bit romp. Gamers played as Jones seeking the Ark, facing both action and puzzle-solving challenges that mimicked sequences in the film, battling snakes and thieves and exploring hidden rooms.
Newly produced “Raiders of the Lost Ark” toys and games continue to be popular with collectors today. In July, new sets of 3 3/4-inch figures — which pay homage to the style of the original Kenner “Raiders” line — quickly sold out at Comic-Con International in San Diego. The line featured for the first time ever the character called Satipo. The name doesn’t ring a bell? He’s Alfred Molina’s character, the doomed double-crosser who utters that classic line, “Throw me the idol — I throw you the whip!”
– Jay West
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