As Raiders of the Lost Ark turns 40, uncovering four production secrets of the Steven Spielberg classic

·6 min read

Eight months after introducing the world to Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia and Chewbacca, George Lucas invited Steven Spielberg and the screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan to his assistant's home in Los Angeles to pitch a new name for adventure.

"Indiana Smith," Lucas said. "Very Americana square."

Sighed Spielberg: "I hate this, but go ahead."

Over the next five days, according to a story conference transcript, the three concocted a swashbuckling archaeologist who fused Humphrey Bogart to James Bond. They gave Indy a bullwhip and a passport €" and they tweaked 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 is streaming on Paramount+). Four decades later, the iconic hit has become the pivot point between cinema's past and present. Indiana Jones' narrow escapes from Nazis, boulders, blow darts, poisoned dates, speeding trucks and, of course, snakes, tip a fedora to the cliffhanger serials of the 1930s €" the kiddie adventures that shaped his creators €" even as they calibrated their nostalgia into a cross-promotional blockbuster that would define Hollywood's future.

"What we're just doing here, really, is designing a ride at Disneyland," Spielberg said at that first meeting. Prophetic words. Yet, like Indy's exploits around the globe, the film's production history is itself a tale of misadventure, lucky breaks and inspiration. Here are four secret stories from the set.

1. Spielberg's commitment to practical effects was anything but practical.

A scene from the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Much of the warehouse is a matte painting made by Michael Pangrazio | Credit: Paramount Pictures
A scene from the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Much of the warehouse is a matte painting made by Michael Pangrazio | Credit: Paramount Pictures

A scene from the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Much of the warehouse is a matte painting made by Michael Pangrazio | Credit: Paramount Pictures

Black-and-white serials like Tarzan and Jungle Jim couldn't electrify their thrills with CGI. Neither would Raiders. The film's set pieces, from locations to traps, are temples of old Hollywood craftsmanship. Indy's seaplane departure, the snowbound Nepalese saloon and the plummeting cliffs of Cairo were all handmade matte paintings. On average, a matte painting has only a few seconds before the audience catches on to the trick. Yet, the sprawling warehouse in the film's final shot had to command the screen for nearly half a minute and took the artist Michael Pangrazio three months to complete.

For the opening boulder chase, Spielberg commissioned a 12-foot fibreglass and plaster rock mounted at the top of a 40-yard track. Even at a mere 300 pounds €" mere, that is, relative to 80 tons of genuine granite €" the fake behemoth shattered the prop stalagmites in its path and they had to be replaced between each take. And the boulder might have crushed the star Harrison Ford if he hadn't outrun it all 10 times.

"He was lucky," Spielberg said in American Cinematographer magazine, "and I was an idiot for letting him try it."

2. The desert shoot destroyed morale.

During the worst stretch of filming on location in Tunisia, the crew must have wished the entire Egypt sequence could have been hand-painted. Temperatures clawed to 130 degrees and everyone but Spielberg was waylaid by food poisoning. (Spielberg packed a crate 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 set, the photographer Nancy Moran observed Spielberg moaning that he wanted to go home while fearing that Lucas, sunburned and exhausted, "will be arriving with his feet in Kleenex boxes soon."

Their suffering excuses the continuity errors in the Well of Souls sequence, where bricks, rocks and even a truck shift restlessly in the frame as though they, too, are anxious for an iced tea by the hotel pool.

The most egregious blooper occurs when Indy and Marion burst through the Well of Souls 2 feet from what appears to be an unconscious man in a blue shirt. The man is a vestige from either a deleted fight scene or a failed gag in which a worker is so startled to see living bodies exhumed from a 1,000-year-old sealed tomb that he faints dead. The mystery of his origins is matched by a second question: Why is a 1,000-year-old sealed tomb covered in construction scaffolding?

3. Indy's weakness became his strength.

Ford with Terry Richards in a duel scene | Credit: Paramount Pictures
Ford with Terry Richards in a duel scene | Credit: Paramount Pictures

Ford with Terry Richards in a duel scene | Credit: Paramount Pictures

Alas, Ford, too, was stricken with dysentery when it came time to shoot an epic sword-versus-whip duel for which Spielberg had budgeted a day and a half of filming, according to the 1996 biography Spielberg: The Man, the Movies, the Mythology. Ford asked if they could wrap the scene in an hour. "Yeah, if you shoot him," Spielberg joked. So they did, and the wordless punchline got one of the film's biggest laughs. Still, when healthy, Ford performed a subtler physical comedy that merits its own applause.

The best showcase of the star's Buster Keaton-esque athleticism can be spotted in his showdown against Pat Roach's shirtless Nazi plane mechanic. Facing such Teutonic brawn, Ford clings wearily to the Flying Wing like polar bear grips an iceberg. He hesitates before launching €" and whiffing €" a punch. His knees wobble when he gets slugged. His Indy is so impossibly outmatched that when Roach backhands his right cheek, a dazed Ford pirouettes toward the blow and out of frame, defying the laws of physics. Outmuscled, Indy fights dirty. He bites, throws sand, aims for the crotch, and, ultimately, is rescued by a plane propeller. Compared with modern superheroes who barely wince when a skyscraper falls on their head, his frailty makes him human €" and his survival more thrilling.

4. An insect improviser continues to generate controversy.

Also improvised? The animal performances, a natural byproduct of casting snakes and tarantulas instead of golden retrievers. Apart from a few nips at the calves of the animal handler Steve Edge, who shaved his legs to double as Karen Allen, the snakes €" all 6,500 of them €" mostly behaved themselves, so much that Spielberg, when anxious, could cradle one in his hands like a rosary. Not the treacherous capuchin monkey, which, despite being trained to perform a Nazi salute, squandered 50 takes before an exasperated Lucas, handling the insert shot, dangled a grape on a fishing line.

As for the eerie rat that spins in circles in front of the ark of the covenant, it simply had an equilibrium problem. In the most unnerving moment of improv, just as Paul Freeman, playing Indy's French rival, Belloq, sneers, "Your persistence surprises even me," a fly chose to crawl across the actor's lower lip and, apparently, into his mouth. Did Freeman eat the fly? He's often asked and claims that its escape was edited out. Yet Spielberg disagrees. "I have inspected those frames the way some people have inspected the Zapruder film," he told Empire magazine. "That fly went into Paul Freeman's mouth and Paul was so absorbed that he didn't realise he'd swallowed the bugger." Indiana Jones himself would agree that some stories are better left as myths.

Amy Nicholson c.2021 The New York Times Company

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