When George Lucas first pitched the idea of an old-fashioned action-adventure to Steven Spielberg, he couldn’t possibly have predicted that in resurrecting such Saturday morning B-movie fare Spielberg would be setting the standard for summer blockbuster movies for the next couple of decades.
Only the Midas touch of Spielberg and Lucas could create a contemporary adventure story in which the main protagonist is an archaeologist . . .
Treasure hunter/archaeologist Dr Henry Indiana Jones Jnr sets out with his ex-girlfriend Marion (Karen Allen), with the help of Sallah (John Rhys-Davies) and Indy’s colleague, Marcus Brody (Denholm Elliott) to find the legendary Ark of the Covenant – the gold chest in which Moses supposedly stored the stone tablets inscribed with the Ten Commandments – before the Nazis do.
With Indy battling a thousand German soldiers for a magic box full of sand, Harrison Ford took the leading man charisma he’d been honing in Star Wars (1977) and created a modern-day hero that would inspire Bruce Willis years later in Die Hard (1988).
In The Temple Of Doom (1984), Spielberg brought the franchise to a darker place and was panned at the time by the critics. But both Temple and The Last Crusade are light years better than most of the movies that try to ape the success of this trilogy.
From South American jungles to Nazi excavations in Egypt, it didn’t really matter that we were watching location sequences in a South America that was really Hawaii, or an Egyptian desert that was really Tunisia.
We applauded the good guys, hissed the bad guys, and hid our eyes when the horrors got too real – if you suffer from herpetophobia or ophidiophobia, do NOT watch this movie! There is a pit full of a slithering mass of live cobras, asps, pythons, and boa constrictors.
The imaginative horrors Spielberg dreamed up included cracking whips, poison arrows, bat-filled caves, plagues of tarantulas, booby traps with stone doors equipped with steel teeth that clash shut impaling their victims, catacombs containing hundreds of human skeletons, red-hot pokers, exploding submarines, fires, lost cities, mine shafts, and every kind of weapon ever conceived by the kinds of minds that create comic books.
There’s even a monkey that gives a “Heil Hitler” before dying from poisoned dates and a Nazi Neanderthal who gets splattered to kingdom come by spinning aeroplane propellers.
A replica South American temple was built at Elstree Studios, London, complete with booby traps and 50 live tarantulas.
The fake boulder was made from a mixture of plaster, wood and fibreglass. It was 12 feet high and weighed over 300 pounds – easily enough to damage anyone falling in front of it.
Hell-bent on realism, Harrison Ford insisted on outrunning the dangerous contraption himself (pictured). The scene had to be filmed from several different angles and Ford managed to stay ahead of the boulder all 10 times.
What read in the original script as a three-page whip vs sword fight was transformed into sheer genius on the screen thanks to a stomach bug which meant Harrison Ford could not complete the planned sequence.
Faced with an Arab swordsman (stuntman Terry Richards), Indy calmly dispatches him with a single shot from his revolver – Characterising the “let’s go” spirit that courses through the entire film. Who could have known that archaeology could be this exciting?
Raiders of the Lost Ark won five Oscars and became the first in a series of Indiana Jones films; Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984), Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989) and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008). It also sired a TV show, The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles (1992-1996).
The movie also inspired many books, comics, video games, LEGO sets and action figures, and in 1999 was deemed to be “of significant cultural and historical value” by the US Library of Congress by its selection for preservation in the National Film Registry.
For the eagle-eyed viewer, the hieroglyphics in the Well of Souls include engravings of R2-D2 and C-3PO from Star Wars.
Since Egypt was under British rule in 1936 it is highly unlikely that Nazi Germany would have been allowed to mount a major archaeological expedition in the country. It is also far more likely that the British would have discovered and excavated the ark, and then taken it back to Blighty “for safe keeping” like the Elgin Marbles. But hey . . . it’s just a movie.
Oh, by the way, Indiana is named after George Lucas’ dog.
Giant Sherpa/Big German mechanic