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It has been 40 years since we first met Indiana Jones - not just one of the best Harrison Ford characters but, perhaps, the all-time greatest movie hero in one of the greatest action films ever made. Producer George Lucas and director Steven Spielberg made Raiders of the Lost Ark in 1981 as a tribute to the movies (specifically serialized adventure stories of the 1930s and 1940s), not realizing it would become one of the most attributed and inspirational movies in history. Yet, as the following behind the scenes facts will prove, the road to get there makes Indy’s search for the Ark of the Covenant look like a cake walk.
So, how could anything go wrong during the making of a movie that pretty much gets everything right (can you tell that this is my favorite movie of all time)? We will certainly get to that during our behind-the-scenes raid of Raiders of the Lost Ark. But first, we will start with some lighter trivia that is still bound to amuse.
Indiana Jones Was Named After George Lucas’ Dog
We learn at the end of 1989’s Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade that Harrison Ford’s Dr. Henry Jones took his nickname from the family dog, Indiana. As Raiders of the Lost Ark producer George Lucas would reveal in a making-of doc on the Blu-ray collection’s bonus features disc, it was actually the Star Wars creator’s Alaskan Malamute, Indiana, who would inspire the name. Lucas went on to say that Steven Spielberg disagreed with him on the character’s original name, Indiana Smith, before both agreed on the other most common last name, Jones.
Tom Selleck Was Almost Cast As Indiana Jones
Casting Raiders of the Lost Ark’s hero was the next step, and Steven Spielberg, after seeing The Empire Strikes Back, suggested Harrison Ford to play Indiana Jones, which George Lucas initially refused, not wanting the Han Solo actor in every movie he made. According to the Blu-ray featurette, Blue Bloods cast lead Tom Selleck won them over in a screen test with Ford’s future Blade Runner co-star Sean Young, ironically, as Marion Ravenwood. However, due to Selleck’s commitment to the original Magnum P.I. TV show, he had to drop out, giving Ford the chance to step in.
Danny DeVito Was Considered For Sallah In Raiders
Prior commitment to a TV show is what cost another actor the role of Sallah, Indy’s trusted Egyptian ally in Raiders of the Lost Ark. Steven Spielberg recalled on the making-of doc from Indiana Jones: The Complete Adventures Blu-ray set (available on Amazon) that he first approached Danny DeVito to play the part, which the future Batman Returns villain was wildly enthusiastic over. However, his Golden Globe-winning role as Louie De Palma on the hit sitcom Taxi forced him to back out, leaving room for Welshman and future The Lord of the Rings cast member John Rhys-Davis to win the part, which he would later reprise in the third film.
Costume Designer Deborah Nadoolman Personally Aged Indiana Jones’ Hat And Jacket
The only thing more iconic about the character of Indiana Jones than Harrison Ford’s performance is his outfit, complete with a whip, hat, and leather jacket. As Raiders of the Lost Ark costume designer Deborah Nadoolman (who also worked on the Blues Brothers set) puts it in the Blu-ray featurette, the key to the clothes’ iconography are their lived-in look, which she achieved herself. Nadoolman scraped up the multiple brand new leather jackets used with metal brushes and a pocket knife belonging to Harrison Ford, who also contributed to aging up the hat by sitting on it after Nadoolman rolled it up in her hands.
The Boulder From Raiders’ Opening Scene Really Was As Heavy As It Looks
As you can probably tell, accuracy and attention to detail were very important on the set of Raiders of the Lost Ark, right down to the creation of the, also iconic, giant boulder from the exciting opening sequence. According to an inside look at that particular scene by Entertainment Weekly, the prop measured 22 feet in diameter and, despite being constructed from fiberglass, weighed 500 pounds. Therefore, the crew had to be extra careful to make sure it did not run over Harrison Ford as it rolled down a track that Steven Spielberg opted make 50 feet longer than its original construction, just to give it more screen time.
Karen Allen Contributed A Lot To Marion Ravenwood’s Development
Last minute changes to certain scenes of Raiders of the Lost Ark were actually quite frequent during production. For instance, Karen Allen helped come up with a lot of the more active things that Marion Ravenwood does throughout the film, such as in the market place chase in Cairo (which was really Tunisia). She recalls the experience in the following quote from the Blu-ray featurette:
Any moment where I could join and be useful and resourceful had meaning for me. All of that stuff became a part of the character and I was really happy to have it, as opposed to just being somebody running [and] scared. You know, to have a frying pan in my hand that I could bump the guy in the head with and stuff.
Karen Allen’s feisty performance and willingness to try so much on the Raiders set is why she is still most fans’ favorite of Indiana Jones’ romantic female leads. No wonder Marion Ravenwood was brought back for the fourth film, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, in 2008.
Harrison Ford’s Own Illness Inspired One Of Raiders’ Funniest Scenes
Some of Raiders of the Lost Ark’s last minute changes were the result of on-set problems, such as how the hot Tunisian weather and food poisoning caused many crew members to fall ill (as Steven Spielberg recalls on the Blu-ray doc), including Harrison Ford. The silver lining to the actor’s sickness is that it led to one of the film’s funniest moments: Indiana Jones gunning down a swordsman instead of engaging in a fist fight, as it was originally planned. Brad Duke’s book Harrison Ford: The Films explains how this hilariously abridged version came to be with a quote from Ford himself:
I was in my fifth week of dysentery and I was riding in at 5:30 a.m. with nothing to do but submit to my wild imaginings. So I stormed Steven [Spielberg] with the idea of just dismissing this maniac. I’d never unholstered my gun in the whole movie so I said, 'Let’s just shoot the fucker.' And we did.
I could not have said it better myself.
Toht’s Coat Hanger Gag Was Recycled From 1941
Another memorably comical moment is when Nazi Gestapo agent Toht (Ronald Lacey) takes out what appears to be an instrument of torture to threaten Belloq (Paul Freeman) and Marion, until it is revealed to be a portable coat hanger. According to Freeman on the Blu-ray featurette, the joke was actually something Steven Spielberg had attempted in his World War II-era comedy flop, 1941, from 1979, but, in the vein of comedic legends like Buster Keaton, he tried it again (and, apparently, better) in Raiders.
An Engraving Of C-3PO And R2D2 Appears In The Well Of Souls
Perhaps the funniest moment from Raiders of the Lost Ark that you may not have noticed during your first viewing is a subtle nod to Star Wars, per Steven Spielberg’s suggestion. On the Blu-ray featurette, designer Norman Reynolds reveals that if you look closely enough at the hieroglyphics in the Well of Souls (where the Ark of the Covenant is held), you will find an engraving resembling C-3PO and R2D2.
7,000 Live Snakes Were Used For Raiders’ Well Of Souls Sequence
Speaking of the Well of Souls, what notably made the journey into the Ark of the Covenant’s hidden location a nightmare for Indiana Jones was the wall-to-wall horde of “very dangerous” asps. As the following claim from Steven Spielberg on the Raiders of the Lost Ark making-of doc reveals, there almost were not enough snakes to fill the whole floor:
We had 2,000 or 3,000 snakes and they hardly covered [the set]. I couldn’t get a wide shot. I couldn’t go back because I would see there were no snakes on the sides. So, that’s when I said to Robert Watts or to Frank Marshall…
The featurette cuts to vintage footage of Spielberg saying, “We have to get more snakes. You know what we really need? We need about 7,000 snakes, in addition to the 2,000 that we have here, to make it work.” The grand total of reptiles used in the scene was 7,000, according to a Dick Cavett interview with Spielberg, during which the filmmaker also recalled how his assistant director, David Tomlin, was bitten by a python on the U.K. set. Fortunately, all it took was a snake handler to flick the reptile on its tail for it to let go of his wrist.
Toht’s Melting Face Was Achieved By Putting A Gelatin Mold Under Heat Lamps
Even with an entire sequence involving thousands of deadly snakes everywhere you step, an arguably more frightening and inarguably more unforgettable moment in Raiders of the Lost Ark is the sight of Toht’s face melting to dripping mass of liquified blood and flesh after the Ark of the Covenant is opened. On a seven-minute featurette from the Indiana Jones movie Blu-ray collection, Oscar-winning ILM makeup effects artist Chris Walas explains how he achieved the effect by building a gelatin mold of actor Ronald Lacey’s face that he placed near multiple surrounding heat sources. Filming the melting process and speeding up footage resulted in one of Steven Spielberg’s all-time favorite special effects.
I sure do miss practical effects like Toht’s famous melting face and I hope that they are utilized when Indiana Jones 5 goes into production, which seems to be coming close - not that we should expect it on a 2021 new movie releases schedule. I also hope that a talented director like James Mangold will be able to capture some of the same sort of magic that Raiders of the Lost Ark brought to audiences of all ages in 1981 and still does to this day. Well, Harrison Ford coming back to the role of Indiana Jones is a pretty good sign that more fortune and glory could be just another whip crack away.