There is no denying that Spielberg is a big deal to the history of Hollywood. Even if you aren’t a big fan of his movies, he has been one of the most consistently successful directors over the past fifty years. His films fall into two different categories to me: the heartfelt and the entertaining. That is not to say that there isn’t overlap, but some of his films are purely for entertainment. In the case of todays selection, Raiders of the Lost Ark, it is his own love letter to the serial action films he grew up with. A fun, action film, Raiders is full of memorable moments, perfect performances, and classic Harrison Ford swagger. It addition to being another high grossing summer blockbuster, it was also one of the films that helped to create the PG-13 rating.
Set in 1936, we are dropped into the middle of a hunt for treasure in Peru. After close calls, our hero Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) is forced to turn the idol over to his biggest competator Dr. René Belloq (Paul Freeman). After another close call, Indy makes it back to his plane and back to the states. A very popular professor of archeology, Indy is approached by some Army Intelligence agents who pick his brain about the possibility of the Nazis seeking out occult items. Upon learning what is their suspected plans are, he tracks down the daughter of his former mentor, thought to be in possession of what the Nazis need to find the Ark. Despite also being tracked by the Nazis, Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen) and Indy escape to meet up with Sallah (John Rhys-Davies): “The best digger in Cairo”. The three then encounter a variety of obstacles including Nazis, explosions, and a pit of snakes. Escaping each time, with his hat intact, Indiana and Marion find themselves in the middle of an ancient ritual that, thanks to Indy remembering the warning on the amulet, leads to the deaths of Nazis, Belloq, and the creepy Gestapo agent Arnold Toht (Ronald Lacey). The film ends on one of the most iconic of film images: the Ark sealed in a wood crate being added to a giant warehouse filled with identical crates of unknown contents.
The idea for the film came to George Lucas in 1973. At the time, fresh off his success of American Graffiti, Lucas felt like his next project could be almost anything he wanted. He grew up loving the serials of the 1930s/1940s and wanted to bring a ‘modern’ twist to them. Interestingly, Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark sprung from the same ideas and inspiration. Once Star Wars became it’s own idea, Mr. Jones was put on the shelf and all but forgotten until 1977. While hiding from the world, Spielberg and Lucas spent time on the beach in Hawaii talking about movies. It was there that Spielberg, having just finished work on Close Encounters… expressed interest in directing a “Bond-like” film. George then pitched him his idea for Indiana Jones.
Lawrence Kasdan came on board to help flush out the script and ideas. Working closely with Lucas and Spielberg, they wrote various drafts that formed not only the backbone for Raiders, but also had elements that would be used in the second film as well. The various drafts also helped to morph the character of Indiana. He was originally more of an alcoholic, Humphrey Bogart type, but that trait seemed to fall away as more drafts came about. Despite some issues getting the film made, Lucas and Spielberg finally sold the idea to Paramount with the deal that they would make it on a shoestring budget. Continuing to pay homage to Saturday matinee serials, they made the film in a ‘quick and dirty’ way. Spielberg even admitted that had they done the film any other way, it would have turned into something more “pretentious”.
When it came to casting, it seems like Harrison Ford would have been the first choice, but he wasn’t. When Spielberg floated his name to Lucas, he objected the idea of Ford in the role. It wasn’t that Lucas didn’t like Ford, he just felt like it would be a good idea to give the opportunity to another actor. Even though Tom Selleck was looking to be the first choice, he dropped out due to scheduling conflicts with Magnum, P.I. Finally, nearly three weeks before principle photography started, Lucas agreed to Ford and he would go on to become the perfect Indiana Jones.
The film is well remembered for a variety of moments. Some of which creeped out a generation of kids and still makes me shutter. The moment where the Nazis all melt into nothing is burned in my memory. In fact, it was that scene that original gave the movie a ‘R’ rating. Knowing a ‘R’ rating would essentially a death sentence, they edited the scene to make it a little less scary (adding fire in front of the face melting). The MPAA begrudgingly put a PG rating on it. It would be the beginning of the creation of the PG-13 rating. The snake scene also seemed to have scared some people, but not nearly as much as the opening of the Ark.
My first encounter with the movie wasn’t the movie at all, but the stunt show at MGM Studios at Walt Disney World. I remember sitting in the uncomfortable bleachers with my parents in the Florida heat (where even though your under the cover of a ceiling, it’s still hot) watching the stunt people run from boulders and avoid moving planes. I remember that more then the first time I saw the movie. In fact, the first time I saw it was while on vacation in Hawaii visiting my Grandmother. McDonalds was doing some promo where you could buy the original films when you bought a combo (or whatever). We got Raiders and came home and watched it. Other then hiding during the end, I remember enjoying it because it reminded me of the stunt show and portions of the Great Movie Ride. To be honest, I think I enjoy the memories of Indiana Jones and Disney World more then the movie itself. Don’t get me wrong, it is an excellent film and does belong to be on the list, it is far from my favorite Spielberg film.