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“An Army That Carries The Ark Before It… Is Invincible”
George Lucas first told Steven Spielberg about his idea for Raiders Of The Lost Ark when they were both on vacation in Hawaii in May 1977.
Spielberg got away for the weekend from finishing up post-production on Close Encounters Of The Third Kind while Lucas wanted to get away as Star Wars was coming out that weekend, and he was afraid that the movie would bomb at the box office.
But as the film broke the bank that weekend, the two pondered what to do next. Spielberg told Lucas that he always wanted to do a James Bond film.
Lucas said he had that beat, and proceeded to lay out his idea for a swashbuckling throwback adventure movie based on Saturday matinee serials that would eventually become Raiders Of The Lost Ark.
Lucas named the main character “Indiana Smith.” But Spielberg protested that it was too similar to the 1966 Steve McQueen western Nevada Smith and requested a change. They agreed that the last name should be as universal and nondescript as “Smith,” so Lucas threw out “Jones” as a possibility. Indiana came from Lucas’ dog, an Alaskan malamute named Indiana. That same mutt was also the inspiration for Chewbacca.
Prior to production starting in May 1980, Lucas and Spielberg set up shop in the old Lucasfilm corporate headquarters in North Hollywood to begin the casting process.
Actors and actresses considered for the lead roles of Indiana Jones and Marion Ravenwood included Jane Seymour, Debra Winger, Mark Harmon, Mary Steenburgen, Michael Biehn, Sam Shepard, Valerie Bertinelli, Bruce Boxleitner, Sean Young, Don Johnson, Dee Wallace, Barbara Hershey, and David Hasselhoff.
For Indy, Lucas and Spielberg settled on actor Tom Selleck. But when CBS got wind of what the two were up to, the network legally barred the Magnum, P.I. star from appearing in the film.
Spielberg suggested Harrison Ford as a quick replacement, but Lucas was reluctant to cast Ford because he was already Han Solo in his Star Wars films.
But Spielberg’s quick thinking prevailed, and Ford was added to the cast just two weeks before principal photography began.
A similar thing happened with Danny DeVito, the first choice to play Indy’s companion Sallah, who couldn’t take the part due to his contractual obligation to appear on ABC show Taxi.
“Snakes… Why Does It Always Have To Be Snakes?”
In order to shoot on schedule and stay on budget, many of the film’s more elaborate set pieces were created in a studio during the film’s six-month pre-production as room-size scale miniatures by production designer Norman Reynolds.
Spielberg blocked out all of the shots for the Well of Souls, the Egyptian marketplace, the Tanis dig, and the final canyon scene with the Ark prior to getting on set so they could expedite the process and film seemingly off the cuff—similar to the shooting method of the old serials that inspired Raiders.
A boulder nearly crushing Indy as he escaped from the temple with the idol in the opening was always part of the script, but it was originally only supposed to be a minor detail.
When Reynolds brought the 22-feet-in-diameter fiberglass boulder onto the set, Spielberg fell in love with it and decided to extend the rolling boulder another 50 feet to make it a major part at the end of the scene.
Of Ford’s ability to outrun the boulder, Spielberg later said:
“He won 10 times and beat the odds. He was lucky, and I was an idiot for letting him try.”
The improvised scene where Indy simply shoots the swordsman (played by stuntman Terry Richards) in the middle of the Egyptian Bazaar was born out of hellish shooting conditions.
The daily temperature in Tunisia where they shot the scenes averaged over 100 degrees and cast and crew were all suffering from a nasty stomach bug, Ford was so ill he had to run back to his trailer every 10 minutes to use the toilet.
But not Spielberg, the director wisely drank only bottled water and ate canned Spaghetti bought in the UK that he brought over and kept in his hotel room.
When shooting the scene where Indy and Sallah descend into the Well of Souls to uncover the Ark and find it completely covered in slithering asps, the production originally had about 2000 snakes on set.
But that didn’t satisfy the director as the 2000 snakes didn’t cover the floor. Spielberg then estimated they would need at least 7000 more snakes to make it believably scary, so he had the producers raided all the pet shops in London and elsewhere around Europe to get enough.
The Nazi sub used in the film was actually rented from the production of director Wolfgang Peterson’s film Das Boot because it allowed them to cut costs.
The facial cast of actor Ronald Lacey for Toht’s famous face-melt scene was made of alginate, the same thing dentists use to make impressions of teeth.
Special makeup effects supervisor Chris Walas was responsible for making the melting look effectively hideous. First, he used a negative facial mold on top of a stone skull to survive the heat that would make the mold melt.
Walas covered the skull with thin layers of gelatine that melted at low temperatures and added coloured yarn to mimic muscles and sinews. Two propane space heaters were placed on either side of the head, which, over the course of 10 minutes, melted the face. Walas sat just below camera with a hair dryer to do some on-the-spot melting wherever needed. The final shot was sped up.
Belloq’s exploding head was made of mostly the same materials but some meat and liver were placed inside to make it especially disgusting. It was so gruesome that to avoid an R rating, the effects team had to add in a pillar of fire in the foreground of the shot to tone down the gore.
“You Want To Talk To God? Let’s Go See Him Together. I’ve Got Nothing Better To Do”
The Well of Souls sequence was filmed on the set of the Overlook Hotel from The Shining. To get the sound of thousands of snakes slithering, sound designer Ben Burtt stuck his fingers into a cheese casserole. This was augmented by applying wet sponges to the grip tape on a skateboard.
To create the sound of the heavy lid of the Ark being slid open, Burtt recorded him moving the lid of his toilet cistern at home.
During shooting for the scene when the cobra rises up and hisses at Indy when he falls into the Well of Souls, there was a thin sheet of perspex between the cobra and Ford. At one point the snake became agitated and threw venom at the glass. Medics wearing hazmat suits and carrying syringes of anti-venom stood just outside camera range.
Freeze-framing during the Well of Souls scene, you can notice a golden pillar with a tiny engraving of R2-D2 and C-3PO. They’re also on the wall behind Indy when they first approach the Ark.
British wrestler Pat Roach gets killed twice in the movie, once as a giant Sherpa left in the burning Nepalese bar, and once as the German mechanic mauled by the plane’s propeller. Ford’s knee was run over by the plane during filming for that scene, tearing his ACL, but wrapped and iced the knee, and carried on filming.
Despite having Lucas and Spielberg behind the movie, it was initially turned down by every studio in Hollywood. Only after a lot of persuasion, Paramount agreed to do it.
Released on June 12, 1981, Raiders became the year’s top-grossing movie and remains one of the highest-grossing movies ever made.
Raiders Of The Lost Ark was nominated for 8 Academy Awards in 1982, including Best Picture, and won 4 for Best Art Direction, Film Editing, Sound and Visual Effects with a fifth Academy Award: a Special Achievement Award for Sound Effects Editing.
Considered one of the greatest films ever made, the film ranked number 7 on Empire’s list of the 100 greatest movies of all time, and in 1999, the movie was included in the United States Library of Congress’ National Film Registry as having been deemed, “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”
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