Eight months after introducing Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, and Chewbacca to the world, George Lucas invited Steven Spielberg and screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan to his assistant in Los Angeles to pitch a new name for the adventure.
– Indiana Smith, Lucas said. “Very Americana place.”
Spielberg sighed, “I hate it, but go for it.”
Over the next five days, according to a story conference transcript, the three concocted a swaggering archaeologist who fused Humphrey Bogart with James Bond. They gave Indy a boost and a passport – and they changed his name.
“Jones,” Lucas conceded, “people can call him Jones.”
That brainstorming session, of course, led to “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” which celebrates its 40th anniversary this month (and airs on Paramount +). Four decades later, the iconic success has become the pivot between cinema’s past and present. Indiana Jones’ narrow escapes of Nazis, boulders, darts, poisonous dates, high speed trucks and, of course, snakes, tip a fedora to 1930s cliffhanger soap operas – the children’s adventures that have shaped its creators – even when they calibrated their nostalgia into a cross-promotional blockbuster that would define Hollywood’s future.
“What we’re doing right here, really, is designing a ride at Disneyland,” Spielberg said at that first meeting. Prophetic words. Yet, like Indy’s exploits across the globe, the film’s production story is itself a story of misfortune, luck, and inspiration. Here are four secret stories from the set.
1. Spielberg’s commitment to practical effects was anything but practical.
Black and white series like “Tarzan” and “Jungle Jim” couldn’t electrify their feelings with CGI. “Raiders” either. The sets of the film, places with traps, are temples of old Hollywood know-how. Indy’s seaplane departure, the snow-capped Nepalese saloon, and the free-falling cliffs of Cairo were all hand-painted matte paintings. On average, a matte painting only has a few seconds before the audience understands the trick. Still, the sprawling warehouse in the film’s last shot must have commanded the screen for almost half a minute and took artist Michael Pangrazio three months. For the opening block hunt, Spielberg ordered a 12-foot fiberglass and plaster rock mounted to the top of a 40-yard track. Even at just 300 pounds – barely, that’s compared to 80 tons of real granite – the fake juggernaut broke the propeller stalagmites in its path and they had to be replaced between each take. And the boulder could have crushed star Harrison Ford if he hadn’t passed it 10 times. “He was lucky,” Spielberg told American Cinematographer magazine, “and I was an idiot to let him try.”
2. Desert growth has destroyed morale.
During the worst part of the filming on location in Tunisia, the crew must have wished that the entire Egyptian footage could be painted by hand. Temperatures climbed to 130 degrees and everyone except Spielberg fell victim to food poisoning. (Spielberg packed a case of canned food, which he ate for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, often cold.) In an article she wrote for the Washington Post that recalled her time on the set, photographer Nancy Moran observed Spielberg moaning that he wanted to go home, while fearing that the sunburned and exhausted Lucas “might soon arrive with his feet in Kleenex boxes.” Their suffering excuses the continuity errors in the Well of Souls sequence, where bricks, boulders and even a truck move relentlessly in the frame as if they too are looking forward to an iced tea by the pool of the l ‘hotel. The most egregious blooper occurs when Indy and Marion burst into the Well of Souls two feet from what appears to be an unconscious man in a blue shirt. The man is a remnant of a deleted fight scene or a failed gag in which a worker is so surprised to see living bodies unearthed from a 1,000-year-old sealed tomb that he passes out dead. The mystery of its origins corresponds to a second question: why is a 1,000-year-old sealed tomb covered with construction scaffolding?
3. Indy’s weakness has become his strength.
Sadly, Ford also suffered from dysentery while filming an epic sword-against-whip duel for which Spielberg had scheduled a day and a half of filming, according to the 1996 biography “Spielberg: The Man, the Movies, La mythology. Ford asked if they could finish the scene in an hour. “Yes, if you shoot him,” Spielberg joked. That’s what they did, and the wordless punchline elicited one The biggest laughs in the movie. Yet, in good health, Ford pulled off a more subtle physical comedy that deserves its own applause. The best showcase of the Buster Keaton star’s athleticism can be spotted in his clash against the Mechanic Pat Roach’s shirtless Nazi plane. Faced with such Teutonic musculature, Ford wearily clings to the flying wing like a polar bear grabs an iceberg. He hesitates before throwing – and blowing – a punch . His knees wobble when he gets banged. His Indy is so unbelievably outmatched that when Roach flings the back of his right cheek, a dazed Ford spins up and out of the frame, defying the laws of physics. Outmuscle, Indy fights badly. He bites, throws sand, aims at the crotch and, finally, is rescued by the plane’s propeller. Compared to modern superheroes who barely wince when a skyscraper falls on their heads, his fragility makes him human – and his survival more exciting.
4. An improvising insect continues to generate controversy.
Also improvised? Animal performance, a natural by-product of casting snakes and tarantulas instead of golden retrievers. Aside from a few calf bites from animal handler Steve Edge, who shaved his legs to act as Karen Allen, the snakes – all 6,500 – mostly performed well, so much so that Spielberg, when he was anxious, could cradle one in his hand like a rosary. Not the treacherous capuchin monkey, who, though trained to perform a Nazi salute, wasted 50 catches before an exasperated Lucas, handling the insert shot, caused a grape to hang on a fishing line. As for the strange rat circling in front of the ark of the covenant, it simply had a problem with its balance. In the most unnerving moment of improvisation, just as Paul Freeman, playing Indy’s French rival, Belloq, chuckles, “Your persistence even surprises me,” a fly chose to crawl over the actor’s lower lip. and, apparently, in his mouth. Did Freeman eat the fly? He is often questioned and claims his escape has been suppressed. Still, Spielberg disagrees. “I inspected these frames the same way some people inspected Zapruder’s film,” he told Empire magazine. “This fly got into Paul Freeman’s mouth and Paul was so engrossed he didn’t realize he had swallowed the bugger.” Indiana Jones himself would agree that some stories are best left as myths.