The Story Behind Raiders Of The Lost Ark

A grimy figure in a battered hat sprints down a passageway, a giant boulder booming behind him. With one last burst, he dives through the cave entrance. He’s nano-seconds from being crushed by the rock. Rolling over on the safety mat, our hero pushes up the brim of his hat to reveal the face of... Tom Selleck. Shouting across to the baseball-capped figure behind the lens, Selleck asks his director if the last take was okay. “Yeah, Tom,” says Philip Kaufman. “That was great. Get some rest.”

There’ll be no rest for Kaufman, though. The Adventures Of Indiana Smith is taking its toll and he still has to finish storyboarding the scenes where Indy Smith meets Debra Winger’s Marion Ravenwood in a Tibet bar. Next up, the moment when our hero and his Egyptian mate Sallah, played by Danny DeVito, finally discover the Ark of the Covenant...

All right, so that’s not how Raiders Of The Lost Ark happened. But it so nearly could have been. Think the film is all about cliffhangers and lucky escapes? Wait ’til you hear about the shoot...

George Lucas first hit on the idea for Raiders Of The Lost Ark in 1973, around the time he finished American Graffiti. Thing was, he was also consumed by his idea for a space opera, so any plans for a Saturday morning serial adventure were shelved.

Two years later, Lucas had a meeting with buddy Philip Kaufman. The conversation soon turned towards reviving Lucas’ concept of a Boy’s Own blockbuster, an idea inspired by the director’s nostalgic pangs for the RKO serials he used to lap up as a kid. After a mini-brainstorm, the two thrashed out a few ideas and named their hero – an adventurous archaeologist named Indiana Smith. It was Kaufman who suggested the Ark of the Covenant as the central McGuffin. Lucas wanted Kaufman to direct the movie, but Kaufman was working on The Outlaw Josey Wales. Again, the idea was shelved as Lucas returned to his script for a movie called Star Wars.

When, in 1977, said picture opened to a resounding box-office kerching, its creator treated himself to a holiday in Hawaii. Also in the same resort was his old mucker, Steven Spielberg, riding high after Close Encounters Of The Third Kind. While the two lay about on the beach, Lucas found himself pitching Raiders to his friend. Spielberg was smitten, but he suggested Lucas direct the movie himself. The latter replied: “I’m retired. If you want it, it’s yours...”

In mid-summer 1979, scripter Lawrence Kasdan – writer of The Empire Strikes Back – delivered the finished screenplay for Raiders. After lengthy chinwags (or rather beardwags) with Spielberg and Lucas, the character and story took a definite shape. The hero was still called Indiana (named after Lucas’ pet Malamute dog), but his surname Smith (which Spielberg hated) was ditched in favour of Jones. All they had to do now was cast it.

Spielberg wanted his girlfriend Amy Irving to play Indy’s leading lady, Marion Ravenwood; she wasn’t available. Lucas’ choice was Debra Winger; she wasn’t interested. It was 28-year-old actress Karen Allen who finally bagged the part after an idiosyncratic casting process (one of the first things Spielberg asked her was, “How well do you spit?”). First choice for Indy’s buddy Sallah was Danny DeVito. But they couldn’t agree a salary with The Short One’s agent, so the part went to John Rhys-Davies. On hearing that the role had first been offered to DeVito, the 6ft-plus Welshman joked: “What do you expect me to do – have surgery at the knees?”

The biggest problem of all came just when they thought they’d found their rough-diamond hero. After an ordeal of auditions, everybody agreed that TV thesp Tom Selleck was perfect for the role. (Well, everyone except casting director Mike Fenton – he favoured Jeff Bridges.) Trouble was, Selleck was already being held to an option on a TV series called Magnum PI, whose pilot episode had screened a few months earlier.

“The show had sat there and nobody wanted it,” says Lucas. “We were desperate to get going. We called CBS and asked if he could be let out of his option agreement – it literally had about 10 days to go.” On hearing Spielberg and Lucas were interested in Selleck, the TV company took a long, hard look at the Magnum PI pilot and decided to go with it after all. Selleck reluctantly dropped out of Raiders. “We really were about to shoot,” remembers Lucas. “It was right at the last minute – and we lost our star.”

Legend has it that a few days later, Spielberg was watching The Empire Strikes Back and it struck him that the actor playing Han Solo would also make a perfect Indiana Jones. Others tell a different tale. Producer Howard Kazanjian still insists that Ford had been considered from day one, but that Lucas and Spielberg had been reluctant about casting such a well-known face.

Whatever the story, the two beards met with Ford and convinced him to take the role. Ford drove a tough bargain that saw him bag a seven-figure salary, seven percent of the gross and an extensive rewrite on all of Indy’s dialogue. “I don’t want Jones to become some kind of Professor Solo,” barked the typecasting-fearing actor in his usual exasperated tone.

With Ford having bulked himself into shape with workouts (as well as extensive training with a bullwhip), filming finally got under way on 23 June 1980 in the seas off the French town of La Rochelle. The script called for the ship Indy and Karen are on to be stopped by a Nazi U-boat – not the easiest prop to track down. However, the production managed to dig up the sub that Wolfgang Petersen used in Das Boot, as well as footage of it in the cavernous U-boat pens that still exist near La Rochelle.

Spielberg rattled through the location filming, and seven days later the production was in Elstree for interiors. Why was he moving at such speed? Simple answer: money. Lucas and Spielberg had negotiated a fantastic financial deal with Paramount Pictures: George received $4 million; Steven got $1.5 million; both got a share of the gross; and Paramount had to bear the costs of distributing the film. But there was a catch. Paramount insisted on severe penalties if the film went over its $20-million budget. (The overruns on Close Encounters and the recent disaster of 1941 meant that, for once, golden boy Spielberg wasn’t to be trusted.)

Raiders began and continued at a frantic pace, shooting an average of 35 set-ups a day. “On Raiders I learned to like instead of love,” Spielberg joked later. “If I liked a scene after I shot it, I printed it. I didn’t shoot it again 17 times until I got one that I loved.”

Inside of six weeks at Elstree, Spielberg had finished all the Cairo interiors and shot the entire booby-trapped Peruvian temple sequence. Then it was on to the Well of Souls, the hiding place of the Ark. The floor of the set was supposed to be covered with live snakes, and even though there were already 2,000 snakes on the soundstage, Spielberg felt he needed more. So he shut down filming for a day while 4,500 extra cobras and rattlers were flown in from Denmark, bulking their numbers up further with sections of garden hose.

It turned out that the production’s anti-venom supply was two years out of date, leading to more delays while new stocks were located. Then, just when they were ready to go, Stanley Kubrick’s daughter Vivian – visiting her dad’s shoot for The Shining – wandered on set, saw the snakes and promptly called the RSPCA. (“Steven, this is so cruel,” she is reputed to have sobbed.) Cue another lost day as the production reassured the authorities that the snakes were being well treated.

As far as Karen Allen was concerned, they could delay the moment when she had to tiptoe among the cobras as long as they liked. “Although I was never bitten,” she tells Total Film, “our First AD was, and there were moments when I came very close to being bitten and just had to literally walk off the set in the middle of the shot.” Inevitably, Allen’s stunt double took over for some shots, and when even she didn’t feel safe, snake handler Steve Edge shaved his legs and slipped into Marion’s dress. Spielberg didn’t make filming any easier for the actors. “I threw snakes at Karen’s head because I didn’t think she was screaming for real,” he laughs. “And I set her on fire. And I tossed a tarantula on her leg...”

“He didn’t do all of those things,” laughs Allen, “but he did drop a snake on my head. It was a dead python, which Steven had left on ice for three days until it was completely decayed. I was just completely slimed, and it made me really angry. But, as I remember, I wiped some of the slime off and made sure it went right down the front of his shirt.”

Time pressures. Snake shortages. Traumatised leading ladies. But nothing compared to the unbridled joy of shooting in Tunisia...

In late August 1980, the Raiders crew started filming in the Sedala Desert. Despite temperatures hitting 130°F, Spielberg continued sprinting through the filming. “I’ve never seen a camera crew so flat out,” remembers Paul “Belloq” Freeman. “You’d see them asleep with their faces in their lunch.”

One of the first sequences to be shot was the lengthy fistfight between Indy and a burly German mechanic, set around the wheels and propellers of an aircraft preparing for take-off. During rehearsals it worked perfectly, with Ford executing a backwards roll that rocked him away from the undercarriage of the plane. In front of the cameras, though, he slipped and caught his toe under the moving wheel. The brakes were pumped seconds before his knee got crushed. The extreme heat had softened the tires so no damage was done, but it still took 40 crewmen to rock the plane off his leg. “The crew’s reaction was the normal one associated with having a film’s star run over by an aeroplane when the movie is only half completed,” deadpans Ford. “I was a lot more careful after that.”

But not too careful, obviously. The next scene on the shooting schedule involved a lengthy truck chase. Although that is Ford you see dangling from the bonnet, a leg either side of a spinning lorry wheel, the really tricky stuff was dealt with by the pros. “Indiana was merely to slip and find himself in danger of having the whole truck run over him,” says the director. “Then, as in the Yakima Canutt stunt in Stagecoach, in the last instant he was to grab hold of the tailpipe and climb back on.” Stunt arranger Glenn Randall added a new wrinkle, though – having Indy crawl hand-to-hand along the underside of the moving vehicle.

To make room for the stuntman, Randall had a shallow trench dug down the middle of the road. But, with the truck moving at 30 miles an hour, there was a distinct risk of marmalading him. “It really was one of those stunts where there’s no room for error,” says Randall. Terry Leonard – the stuntman stupid enough to agree to the acrobatics – refused to do it unless Randall drove the truck himself.

The last stop in Tunisia was the city of Kairouan, acting as a double for ’30s Cairo; something which cost the production another day of shooting as harassed production assistants crawled over the rooftops removing – oh, the glamour – the city’s TV aerials.

It was in a crowded Kairouan marketplace that Spielberg had scheduled to shoot an incredible sword-versus-whip battle between Indy and an Arab warrior. By this time, though, Ford was suffering from a bad case of dysentery. (Spielberg was fine, though – he’d brought his own supplies of tinned food.) Trotting off to the loo every hour had left Ford in no condition for a prolonged day-long action sequence and, even worse, the swordsman was “sort of inept,” as Karen Allen puts it. “The guy had not really learned these choreographed moves,” she says, “and it was looking like it wasn’t gonna come off.” So Ford suggested an alternative. “As was very often the case, when I suggested it to Steven – ‘Let’s shoot the fucker’ – he said he’d thought the same thing,” jokes Ford. The fucker was shot. One of action cinema’s funniest sight gags was born. And all because the star had the squits...

The final bout of the production took place on the Hawaiian island of Kauai in late September. There, Spielberg and co shot the exteriors of the opening sequence in the Peruvian temple. With the finishing line in sight, trekking a film-crew’s worth of materials down the sheer sides of a waterfall-carved canyon and battling the zillions of mosquitos fizzing around somehow seemed a little easier. Just a little.

The last shot to be filmed involved Indy’s escape from a horde of pursuing natives. Racing towards a seaplane parked in the middle of a lake, he swings across on a vine, swims to the plane, clambers up the side and gets in, sitting with his legs dangling out as the plane takes off.

Well, in theory. Nobody had bothered to calculate the effect that Ford’s dangling legs would have on the aerodynamics of the vintage ’30s Waco biplane they were using. As it happened, the plane managed to get about 20ft above the surface of the lake before slewing off to the side at treetop level and diving into the forest. After dodging the rolling rock and almost being crushed by the plane, Spielberg must have thought it was third time unlucky for his star. But everyone emerged from the crash undamaged.

Spielberg’s frantic pace paid off handsomely. Officially scheduled to shoot for 85 days, the film wrapped after just 73 days, guaranteeing that he and Lucas suffered no penalty payments. Industrial Light & Magic now started slaving away on the special effects. Most challenging was the sequence when the Ark was finally opened. One FX geek suggested a firestorm to accompany it; another wanted to do ghosts; a third said they should have a strange light show. Spielberg asked for all three.

If he was being extravagant there, in other areas Steven was still cutting costs – leading to one of the film’s most memorable concepts. “In the original script, Kasdan embroidered dozens of images to take us from one country to the next. To save money, I decided to show a map of the world with animated travel lines tracing the route of our adventurers.”

Raiders opened in the US on 12 June 1981 on just over 1,000 screens. It bagged more than $8 million and went on to become the most successful movie of the year, taking $367 million. It was nominated for eight Oscars, although it only took home four in minor categories such as Special Effects and Sound. But audiences still loved it. “The thing to keep in mind about Raiders is that it’s only a movie.”

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