The concept for a film series featuring daredevil archaeologist Indiana Jones had been kicking around in George Lucas’s head even before STAR WARS.
Lucas aimed to take another discarded genre – that of the cliffhanging Republic serials of the ’30s and ’40s – and revamp it for a new generation. Once more, movie houses would rock to scenes of hair’s-breadth escapes, cursed tombs and hidden treasures.
Spielberg was enthralled, but they needed a hero.
After being denied Tom Selleck due to his CBS contract to star as MAGNUM, PI, as the pair watched THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, they realised that the man they wanted was right under their noses. Although he later confessed that the role only became his “by default”, Ford’s laconic charisma was perfect for the character, and he fitted Spielberg’s vision of what Indy looked like (an amalgam of Errol Flynn and Humphrey Bogart).
“Harrison can be villainous and romantic all at once,” the director noted. Ford was also especially skilled at portraying Indy’s occasional vulnerability. This trait made him far more attractive to audiences than if he’d been a superman: when he’s punched, he bleeds.
Evolving from Lucas’ academic interest in archaeology and social science, Indy is part college professor, part soldier of fortune, and this shady side of his nature leads him in search of treasure.
He’s one of cinema’s darkest heroes, nothing short of a looter of native cultures. “Indiana is an archaeologist. In his spare time he’s a grave robber,” said Ford.
As initially envisaged by Lucas, Indy was to be something of a playboy: his nights on the town financed by the museums who buy his stolen antiquities.
In an alternative version of the RAIDERS scene where Denholm Elliot’s character Brody visits him at home, we see a tuxedo-clad Indiana Jones entertaining a Jean Harlow-type blonde.
Spielberg didn’t like it; feeling Indy’s duality of teacher/adventurer made him complicated enough. If anything, he wanted him to be more sleazy, with a grizzled view of life, even going so far as proposing Indy be an alcoholic. Lucas baulked at that but agreed to drop the playboy image.
Ford’s only reservation about taking on the role was Indy’s occasional resemblance to Han Solo (RAIDERS’ screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan also penned THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK), and he wanted clear distinctions between the characters.
“Steven and I sat on the plane from LA and went through the script line by line for hours,” Ford recalled. “By the time we got into Heathrow, we’d worked out the whole film.”
Unfamiliar with the Saturday morning pictures that Lucas based his ideas on, Ford created Indy in his own image.
Part of his acting technique has always been to try and invest himself into the characters he plays, despite apparent differences, “Indiana is braver, stronger, smarter and more willing to suffer than I am,” he said. “Other than that, we’re the same guy. I have never in life, been an extremely heroic person.”
Ford was required to handle the ever-present bullwhip himself: “I lashed myself about the head and shoulders for at least a couple of weeks before I really figured the thing out.”
His dedication won the admiration of the Raiders of the Lost Ark’s hardened stunt team, and he became so proficient that the whip was incorporated into several fight scenes.
In 1990, Ford sold it for charity for $25,000, although he confessed to having another at home (“It’s on the top shelf of my hall closet, handy in case I need it”).
In a film of non-stop action, the physical demands on Ford were enormous, and he insisted on handling many of the stunts himself. “Anything that simply promised serious injury or total disability, Harrison did,” Spielberg remembered.
“Anything that promised death through fatal miscalculation the stunt guys did.” In the legendary opening scene where Indy is chased through a tomb by a huge boulder, Ford was convinced he could dodge the fake boulder (made up of 800lbs of fibreglass, wood and plaster).
Spielberg wasn’t so sure. Ford raced the rock ten times. It would have been on him within seconds if he had tripped just once.
“He won ten times and beat the odds,” Spielberg said. “He was lucky and I was an idiot for letting him try.”
The star’s luck almost ran out on the last day of filming, which involved him escaping rampaging natives as he swims out to a waiting plane.
To emphasise Indy’s panic, Ford proposed leaving the plane’s door open and dangling his legs outside. Big mistake. It shot the plane’s aerodynamics to hell and crashed when it reached 20ft. Spielberg and Ford’s wife, screenwriter Melissa Mathison, watched in horror, but Ford and the pilot climbed out unscathed.
At times he felt more like a battered quarterback than an actor but still wasn’t prepared for the film’s primary location, Tunisia, where he succumbed to illness in temperatures of 130 degrees.
It was not a happy experience. “Dysentery. That’ll do it every time!” he moaned, “That does spoil a country for you, to see it from a toilet seat.”
For the remainder of the shoot, he gamely battled on in the face of gastric pains and diarrhoea (watch the film closely, and the evidence is occasionally on his face). “The hardest job I’ll ever have,” Ford lamented.
Ford’s dysentery did, however, have one benefit. One morning, feeling particularly rough and not looking forward to filming an elaborate fight scene with a blood-curdling Arab swordsman, he came up with the inspired notion of Indy just nonchalantly shooting the guy dead – and stormed over to Spielberg to suggest it.
As he did, Spielberg turned round, snapped his fingers and exclaimed, “I was just thinking the same thing.” It turned out to be the funniest moment of the film.
Amazingly, Spielberg and Lucas had no idea RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK would be such a massive hit. Opening in the summer of 1981, it set box-office records worldwide.
As for Ford, sometimes lost amid the special effects in STAR WARS, he suddenly found himself called to single-handedly carry a blockbuster. The prospect terrified him, but he emerged as a pulp star to a new generation of moviegoers, the action hero for the Eighties.
Asked why punters should go and see the movie, Ford, always the pragmatist, gave one reporter this well-judged pitch:
“Besides the full-frontal nudity and the sex with a camel, folks will see it because it’s going to be a hell of a lot of fun. If not, I’d ask for my money back.”
I wonder if anyone did.
I read the script, and it described the character as a 5’2″ Egyptian. I said, “What are you proposing, Surgery? Am I playing this on my knees?” [Davis is 6’2″]. He said, “No no no… what I want from you is a cross between the character you played in SHOGUN, and Falstaff, but Egyptian.” So I said OK, I can make that one work.
It was a lot of fun. It was hard work, though. We all got sick in Tunisia. I’ve never gone back there; my memories are so vile. Swallowing flies, which were there in such an abundance. It was during the date harvest, and we’d sit down to eat, 150 of us, and they had a covered but open-sided tent. And in every cubic foot of space, there were ten flies.
You were waving your hands over your food to stop the flies from landing on it, and as you stopped for a second to put your fork on the plate, a fly would land on something. Or they would follow the food into your mouth, which seemed to be their favourite thing, so you’d end up chewing flies.
We all got so sick. It was terrifying! I have one cherished memory of actually having tunnel vision. There was a tunnel in front of my eyes where people’s words were spiralling. No periperal vision at all. And 24 hours later, I had a temperature of 106. I was actually dying. And I’m laying in this bed, where I’ve vomited and excreted, and the door opens, and I excitedly realise it’s the lady doctor. She comes in, and the stench hits her. She cramps over her stomach and says, “Oh Christ John, I see you’ve got it too. Can I use your toilet?” and she runs off. That’s when I realised that if the doctor’s also sick, we’re all screwed.
It was a bloody nightmare. I lost 22 pounds in two days. It was almost terminal. But I did weigh about 250 lbs at the time; aah, to be that slim again! HA HA HA!
In some ways, RAIDERS was creatively one of Spielberg’s most free periods of his career. 1941 had not been well received at the box office. And all those low-achieving malignant people hanging around talented young men were baying for his blood and hoping for failure. For the Wunderkind to crash humiliatingly down. He got us together and said: “In the past I’ve gone to 80 takes some of the time. This time I’m using George’s money and I have to be more frugal, and I’m gonna try a different style. Sometimes we’ll even print mistakes. But what I want is freshness and imediacy, and the sense that the paint is fresh on the canvas, and is spontaneous and real.” And you can see that in the film. He really encouraged improvisation.
It’s a marvellous film. I told my agent: “I haven’t read a script like RAIDERS before – it’s either going to be the biggest disaster of all times, or it will set a new trend in filmmaking.” And it did.