FILM & TV
Raiders of the Lost Ark is 40 years old – 12 reasons why it’s a movie to treasure
Words by Rob Chilton
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Not only is it one of the best movies of the 1980s, but one of the best films of all time
Harrison Ford, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg – a recipe for movie success.
There’s no such thing as a surefire hit in Hollywood but when you have Steven Spielberg and George Lucas at the helm of a movie, you can be quietly confident. Shot in 1980 with a generous budget of around $21 million, the movie was a huge hit upon its release on June 12, 1981. “I had a great time, working with Harrison Ford for the first time,” says the movie’s director Spielberg. “I had one of the best times on my entire life working on that picture.”
In 1977 George Lucas was sitting on a beach in Hawaii, having released Star Wars the day before. To make the sci-fi epic, Lucas had paused on his idea of an archaeology adventure movie but now felt ready to give it his full attention. Lucas bumped into Steven Spielberg on the beach and they got talking. “Steven wanted to do a James Bond film, but I told him the story of Indiana Jones and he said let’s do it,” Lucas explains. Spielberg confirms he was “blown away” by the idea. The script was written by Lawrence Kasdan who had enjoyed success with his work on The Empire Strikes Back in 1980 and would go on to write Return of the Jedi in 1983, both monster hits for Harrison Ford. Spielberg says only two scripts in his remarkable career have been almost ready to shoot from the first draft: E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial and Raiders. Most studios rejected the Raiders script, however. “It was unlike anything being done in 1981,” says Spielberg. Eventually Paramount took on the project, which was shot in just 73 days. Spielberg’s previous three films – Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and 1941 – were his first big screen outings and had all gone massively over-schedule. With Raiders, he was determined to finish the project on time to help his producer and friend Lucas. “That’s why the film’s tight, explains Spielberg. “I storyboarded every single sequence.”
The character of Indiana Jones and the movie’s plot were inspired by both comic books and the short movies Spielberg and Lucas watched in movie theatres as boys. These short movies – or serials – were suspenseful adventure movies that were shown before the main attraction at the cinema. Consisting of around a dozen chapters, each chapter was a cliffhanger that kept audiences coming back to see the next installment.
Filmmaking students are often told to watch the first 12 minutes of Raiders as it is widely regarded as a masterclass in plot development, suspense, storytelling and character revelation. Wearing his trademark fedora and leather jacket, Jones is seen only partially as he hikes through the jungle (shot in Hawaii), making him instantly enigmatic. Our hero is eventually revealed three minutes into the film as he walks menacingly towards the camera with a scowl on his face, having just used his bullwhip – another iconic prop – to rid a treacherous companion of his pistol. From there, it’s a tense trek to a temple where Jones replaces a gold idol with a bag of sand before outrunning a giant rolling ball in one of the film’s most famous and beloved sequences. “That was dangerous,” says Spielberg. “The ball weighed a lot, about 300lbs, so it got me nervous. Harrison did it all himself.” Speaking of the opening, the film’s Oscar-winning editor Michael Kahn says, “When a motion picture starts you want to start it with something that the audience can grab onto.” Spielberg says, “My happiest days on set were shooting that scene, it’s the scene I’m most proud of.”
South America, Nepal, Cairo and the United States – Raiders of the Lost Ark is a road movie, made graphically clear with a visual effect of a red line connecting dots on a map to chronicle Jones’ route. As we are taken from tropical jungle to leafy university campus to scorching desert and back to urban America, we feel like we’ve been with Jones on every step of his exhausting, sweaty journey.
It can be tiresome to watch movie heroes miraculously escape a hail of machine gun fire or get punched repeatedly but not even suffer a nosebleed. What’s refreshing about Indiana Jones is that he gets beaten up but doesn’t reappear in the next scene looking like he’s just had a spa treatment. Instead, the cuts, bruises and sweat patches are there to see. Let’s not forget he has a day job as a brainy archaeologist in a bow tie and tweed jacket who lectures students with the help of a stick of chalk and a blackboard. “Indiana Jones is tough as nails but he gets hurt in the fights,” smiles Spielberg. “He has a soft heart, he’s not strong with women, they get the better of him.” Ford, already a star thanks to Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back, cemented his position on the A-list with Raiders and worked hard to amp up his character. “Harrison made monumental contributions to the movie, he came up with lines, he fleshed out the character and brought everything to life,” says Spielberg. Shooting in the Tunisian desert in temperatures of 54 degrees also demonstrated Ford was a grafter.
One of the movie’s greatest scenes was a total accident. The script laid out an epic fight sequence in a crowded marketplace between a skillful swordsman and Jones that was supposed to be shot over two and a half days with more than 100 storyboards. “It was meant to be this classical fight scene of sword versus whip,” explains Spielberg. But the night before shooting, Ford went to a disreputable restaurant and was struck down with food poisoning. Unable to complete the gruelling scene, Ford instead shoots the swordsman in a fantastic visual gag. Still today, Spielberg and Ford disagree about who came up with the idea. “We shot the whole sequence, five shots, in about an hour and 20 minutes and then Harrison went back to his hotel,” chuckles Spielberg.
The obvious place to start is with Harrison Ford and Karen Allen as Jones and Marion Ravenwood, ex-lovers who are bound together on a thrilling and dangerous adventure. She’s motivated by revenge for her father’s death while he wants to prevent an important archaeological artifact from falling into Nazi hands. Their fizzing dialogue and love/hate attraction for each other is a driving force of the movie and a rich source of comedy, too. But mention must also go to Jones’ sidekick Sallah, played by John Rhys-Davies, a Shakespearean actor who would go on to star in the Lord of the Rings trilogy as Gimli. Another Brit, Denholm Elliott shares warm scenes of friendship with Jones as his university boss Marcus Brody. Spielberg says Allen and Ford’s chemistry reminded him of iconic Hollywood screen duo Clark Gable and Carole Lombard, plus the fictional pairing of Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) and Rick (Humphrey Bogart) in Casablanca.
Raiders won four Oscars: film editing, visual effects, sound mixing, and production design, which highlight the technical brilliance of the movie (it lost out in the music, picture, director and cinematography categories). The editing Oscar for Michael Kahn demonstrates how much action is packed into a movie that rattles along at a dizzying pace. Kahn is a long-time Spielberg collaborator, working with the legendary director for more than 40 years, earning five nominations (Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Fatal Attraction, Empire of the Sun, Munich, and Lincoln) and winning three (Raiders, Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan). Spielberg says of first meeting Kahn, “We had one significant thing in common: we discovered we were both Eagle Scouts.” Recalling his experience on Raiders, Kahn smiles, “I remember I had a lot of fun.”
The villain of Raiders isn’t a fictional megalomaniacal despot – it’s Adolf Hitler, which adds a powerful substance to the plot. Set in 1936, Raiders pits Jones against the Nazis, with swastikas appearing frequently throughout the movie. Wolf Kahler plays a snippy German commander, vying for power with Toht, the slimy SS villain in a black leather trenchcoat played by Ronald Lacey. The third bad guy is Belloq, who’s played by suave British actor Paul Freeman. A French archaeologist and rival of Jones, Belloq is hired by Hitler to find the Ark of the Covenant that will give the German army unstoppable power. The infamous melting face scene marks the memorable demise of this villainous trio.
When you watch a Steven Spielberg movie, you know the music is going to be (a) scored by John Williams and (b) utterly memorable and brilliant. Of course, coming from Williams, the soundtrack of Raiders has enormous string arrangements and a stirring motif that crashes into the film at key points, before softening into Marion’s theme. Elsewhere, spooky melodies maintain the film’s supernatural theme.
The movie’s ending can’t truly be described as happy – and it’s all the better for it. Having secured the safe return of the Ark to Washington DC, Jones is then frustrated at a cover-up led by obfuscating US government officials and their failure to disclose the location of the ark. However, he ends up going for a drink with Marion, so that’s nice. But the final few mysterious seconds that show the Ark being boxed up and wheeled into a giant warehouse are fantastically eerie. Talk about a cliffhanger.
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