Raiders At 40: Creating A Legend, Part One

This is my final article celebrating Raiders of the Lost Ark turning 40-years-old this month. For my grand finale, I’m going to delve into the making of the film and I’ve been digging up as much behind the scenes info as I can. I’ve trawled through five different Raiders/Indiana Jones documentaries, a couple of dozen or so written articles/interviews and two Indy fansites to gather as much info as I could, and crammed it all into this one massive write up. So here we go, the story behind just how Raiders of the Lost Ark was made… In three parts.

It has been said that George Lucas came up with the idea for Raiders of the Lost Ark while on a beach in Hawaii. The well-known story goes that he pitched the idea to Steven Spielberg when they were both taking a break from making films. That’s a half-truth to be honest, as the idea of the film came before that beach meeting ever took place.

In 1973, George Lucas enjoying the success of his flick, American Graffiti. A coming-of-age teen comedy set in 1962, which went on to become a huge hit. American Graffiti even got itself a few Oscar nominations, including best picture and best director. Lucas suddenly became a big name in Hollywood and people waited for his next flick with great interest. Oh yeah, American Graffiti also featured a lot of then-unknown actors. Richard Dreyfuss and Ron Howard got parts. Some kid called Mark Hamill also tried for a role, but never got it. Another young fella did manage to land a part in the film though…


While American Graffiti was impressing audiences and the Oscar committee, Lucas was already outlining his next flick. George Lucas was a big fan of the old matinee serials of the 1930s, serials like Zorro’s Fighting Legion and Flash Gordon. That was when Lucas began to wonder why they don’t make films like that anymore? High-adventure, swashbuckling, globe-trotting hero pictures. He made his mind up, that would be the genesis of his next film, a 1930s style matinee serial, but on a much grander scale and with a more modern action slant. He even already had a very clear vision in mind, to revive the Flash Gordon character.

A huge adventure-type film crammed full of action, all set in space. However, Lucas could not secure the rights to the Flash Gordon character, not wanting to waste that action flick in space idea, he began to write a new story. Still set in space, still with that action-adventure theme, but with his own ideas for characters instead of using Flash Gordon. Something called Star Wars or whatever it was. It was 1975 when Lucas was finalising his script for this Star Wars flick and when he met film director, Philip Kaufman. Lucas and Kaufman got to talking about those classic matinee serials and that was when Lucas said he’d love to bring those back. Once he was done with this Star Wars flick, he would make his big-screen version of a high-adventure serial, he even already had the main character in mind too. Lucas began to tell Kaufman about this archaeologist character who would be a teacher by day, but an adventure-seeking hero by night. A character that would wear a leather jacket, fedora hat and use a bullwhip, who would travel the globe seeking out lost relics and ancient civilizations.

The two continued their chat, and George Lucas revealed that while he had a very clear idea of the type of character he wanted as his hero, he didn’t have any ideas of what he should be going after or a clear direction for the story to head in. That was when Philip Kaufman regaled Lucas with an old story he was once told about the Ark of the Covenant. A 1930s stylised heroic archaeologist character going in search of the Ark of the Covenant? It could work. Anyway, Lucas was still working on this Star Wars thing, so he put his whole archaeologist movie concept on ice, but not before offering Philip Kaufman the job of writing and directing the film once Lucas was done with Star Wars.

On the 25th of May 1977, Star Wars was released in cinemas across America… But George Lucas wanted to get away from it all, he was unsure if the film would do well, he didn’t want to sit around and have critics destroy his new movie. So he went off to the Mauna Kea Hotel in Hawaii to get away from it all and recharge his batteries after working on Star Wars for the last few years. He was joined by a friend and fellow bearded film director, some guy called Steven Spielberg. Spielberg had just finished work on Close Encounters of the Third Kind (set to be released a few months later in 1977) and just like Lucas, he wanted to get away from Hollywood for a while too.


After dinner, one night, a very nervous Lucas received a phone call from Star Wars‘ distributor Twentieth Century Fox’s marketing chief, Ashley Boone. Boone told Lucas how huge Star Wars was, it was packing out cinemas across the country and getting rave reviews. A very relieved George Lucas’ mood changed overnight and on the beach in Hawaii the next day (apparently while building sandcastles), he began to talk to Steven Spielberg about possible future film projects. Spielberg said how he always wanted to direct a James Bond flick, but at the time, the Bond franchise was very much a British thing and they wouldn’t allow an American director anywhere near the franchise (true as all Bond film directors had been British at that point). That was when Lucas told Spielberg that he had an idea that was better than Bond.

George Lucas then began to pitch his 1930s styled, archaeologist character/Ark of the Covenant idea to Steven Spielberg. Just like Lucas, Spielberg was also a big fan of those matinee serials and said how he’d love to be involved, even direct the picture. Of course, Lucas had already offered the job to Philip Kaufman a few years prior, but Lucas promised that he’d get Spielberg involved in some way. Several months after that sandcastle building holiday in Hawaii and Steven Spielberg received a phone call from George Lucas. While Philip Kaufman was still on board to write the story of this Ark of the Covenant flick, he couldn’t direct it due to other work commitments. Lucas offered Spielberg the directing job… Which he snapped up.

The two friends met regularly and began to develop the film, while they were both working on other projects. George Lucas was busy as executive producer on Akira Kurosawa’s The Shadow Warrior (1980) as well as deep in work on a sequel to that Star Wars space film thing called, The Empire Strikes Back (1980) or something. Then, Steven Spielberg was directing a comedy flick starring John Belushi called 1941 (1979). Philip Kaufman finished the story, but it needed to be turned into a screenplay and Lucas told Spielberg, as the film’s director, to find someone he was happy with. Spielberg handpicked Lawrence Kasdan. The trio of Lucas, Spielberg and Kasdan all met up in early 1978 to work on the finer details of Kaufman’s story and began to flesh the whole thing out.


The hero was to be called Indiana Smith, the name Indiana coming from George Lucas’ dog (yes, he really was named after the dog), an Alaskan Malamute. Not the first time his dog has influenced a character as Chewbacca from Star Wars was inspired from Indiana too. Anyway, Steven Spielberg didn’t much like the name Smith, he thought the unassuming last name idea was good, but just felt that Indiana Smith might remind people of Nevada Smith, the 1966 Steve McQueen flick. So Lucas then suggested the last name of Jones instead. The Smith last name wasn’t the only thing that was changed early on either.

Indy was originally conceived as being a bit of a playboy, who used his expeditions to fund his hedonistic lifestyle. It was decided that Indy being a professor and an intrepid archaeologist was enough for his character. Also, Steven Spielberg envisioned Indy as being an alcoholic. George Lucas quickly quashed that idea as he felt he wanted the hero to be a role model for kids… And that perhaps a rampant party animal with a drinking problem was not the best springboard on which to base hero for a younger audience.

“He has to be a person we can look up to. We’re doing a role model for little kids, so we have to be careful. We need someone who’s honest and true and trusting.”

– George Lucas

It was the summer of 1978 when Lawrence Kasdan finished his first draft of the screenplay and handed it over to George Lucas. Lucas put it to one side and offered to take Kasdan out for lunch so they could talk, refusing the read the script. At that lunch, Lucas asked Kasdan if he would also write the screenplay for The Empire Strikes Back. The original writer, Leigh Brackett, unfortunately passed away after he wrote the first draft and Lucas needed someone to tidy it up. That was when Lawrence Kasdan suggested that perhaps George Lucas should read his Raiders screenplay first, just in case he didn’t like it. That was when Lucas said that if he hated the Raiders screenplay, then he would have no problem in taking the Empire writing offer back… But he had a good feeling about the whole thing. After that lunch, the two went their separate ways. George Lucas read that Raiders screenplay that night. The following morning, he called Kasdan to tell him how much he loved it and insisted that Kasdan worked on Empire.

Both George Lucas and Steven Spielberg adored Lawrence Kasdan’s treatment of Raiders and couldn’t wait to get to work on it proper. But of course, it had to be put on the back burner as both Lucas and Spielberg were busy with other projects, and now so was Kasdan as he cracked on with that The Empire Strikes Back thing.


There were more meetings as Lucas, Spielberg and Kasdan continued to work their archaeologist flick through 1979. They needed a producer and Steven Spielberg suggested some young guy called Frank Marshall, who had only produced a handful of small-budget films previously. Lucas, Spielberg, Kasdan and Marshall met for the first time all together and an hour later, they were all shaking hands, welcoming the producer of their next flick. The production team were added too. Close friend and collaborator, Howard Kazanjian, joined George Lucas as executive producer. Douglas Slocombe was hired by Spielberg as the director of photography, after they had worked together on Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Michael Kahn was hired as the editor, again, after working with Spielberg. The backbone of the production team was in place and by the end of 1979, location scouting began with the aim to start shooting the film in the spring of 1980.

But, they needed a studio to actually pay for the production costs and distribute the film. Now, George Lucas was riding high at the time thanks to the staggering success of Star Wars, and the soon to be released sequel that would no doubt make some serious scratch too. Apparently, Lucas wanted to bankroll the entire film himself. However, according to Lucas’ biographer, Dale Pollock, in his book, Skywalking: The Life And Films of George Lucas, the bearded one was facing some ‘cash-flow problems’ and just could not afford to pay for a film to be made. The flick was offered to every major movie studio in America, and every one of them turned it down. This was due to something called the Lucas ‘killer deal’. The deal was that the studio put up all of the money, take all of the risks (if the film flops) and yet, still give George Lucas complete control over the movie with zero interference. Well okay, not every studio turned it down. President of Paramount Pictures, Michael Eisner, said it was an ‘unmakable deal’… But he also said that he had never read a better script and the chance to have a film made by George Lucas and Steven Spielberg was something that you just don’t turn down. Still, Eisner had a few stipulations. First, he wanted the sequel rights to Raiders and second, Eisner wanted to impose strict penalties against Lucas and Spielberg if the film went over budget and schedule. He got the penalties and Paramount would even be allowed to distribute the film forever (even with the later Disney buyout, Paramount still own distribution rights to Raiders and all the Indy films pre-2013), but any sequels would only be made with the full agreement and involvement of Lucas.


Anyway, the deal was made and it was not exactly a ‘normal’ deal at all. George Lucas just didn’t trust Hollywood at all, he prefered indie (no pun) filmmaking. You also have to bear in mind that Steven Spielberg’s then-latest flick, 1941, was not liked by critics at all. It certainly was not as well-loved as his previous movies, Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. And while 1941 made a profit ($65 million made over a $35 million budget), Paramount were very wary about Steven Spielberg’s longevity as a director. Bearing in mind that Spielberg was not the huge name back then that he is now, and he was seen as very much being a flash in the pan director who got lucky with his Jaws and Close Encounters flicks . So for Paramount to put up all of the money, give full creative control to Lucas and trust a director whose most recent film was rather ‘poor’, it was certainly an unusual deal.

“All he said was, ‘Trust me’. So we had Spielberg who had spent a lot of money to make 1941, George saying trust me and us having to guarantee completion money for a film that might cost $50 million. It was not a standard deal, to say the least.”

– Michael Eisner

Still, Lucas loved the deal because of how he was treated by 20th Century Fox when making Star Wars. The studio was continually interfering and putting pressure on Lucas. They even threatened to take the film from him and put it into cinemas without his input before it was fully finished. George Lucas almost ended up having a nervous breakdown, that was why he disappeared off to Hawaii when Star Wars was released, to get away from it all. But now? Now Lucas had full control over the film and with Paramount paying for everything… He had nothing to lose.

Raiders of the Lost Ark was given a budget of $20 million and an eighty-five-day shooting schedule. Steven Spielberg was pretty well known in Hollywood for going over budget and over schedule. See the making of Jaws… The making of Close Encounters of the Third Kind… The making of 1941. Every major flick Spielberg had made up to this point had gone over budget, gone over schedule, or both. So, in order to keep things under control, some written scenes and ideas were removed from the shooting script or simplified. A scene where Indy infiltrates a Nazi base and discovers several super-weapons and an experimental Flying Wing was removed. Then there was the idea that Gestapo agent Thot would have a mechanical arm that was also removed to save time. As this early concept art shows.


In fact, Thot originally was even going to be partly cybernetic. He was going to have a radio/communication device built into his head and that mechanical arm was going to work as a machine gun that would fire bullets through his finger… Seriously…


Also to keep things running smoothly, George Lucas wanted the production to be based at the legendary Elstree Studios in London. Big flicks such as Superman: The Movie and of course, Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back were made there. Lucas knew the place well and was 100% confident that they had the right people to work behind the scenes to get the film made, and most importantly made on time and within the budget. Around 80% of the film was storyboarded with over six thousand images sketched out. Steven Spielberg also had the art department at Elstree studios make scale models of each set and location, which Spielberg used to pre-plan out each and every shot in advance. There’s this great behind the scenes photo of Spielberg planning a shot over a model of the iconic dig site from the film.


Everything was planned and gone over with a fine-tooth comb in order to keep the shoot tight, within budget and to ensure it was all filmed in that agreed eighty-five-day shooting schedule. Then after all of the planning had been done, budget worked out, locations scouted, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg turn their attention to the cast.

For the lead role, Lucas wanted an unknown, or at least, a very little known actor. An actor who wouldn’t be too busy with other projects if the option of sequels came about. Seeing as Lucas had already written two other story outlines, in case Raiders was successful, he needed an actor who could commit to (at least) three films. Auditions were held, but none of the actors were given a copy of the script. Steven Spielberg would meet any interested actors and just talk to them, give them the general gist of the character they would be playing and ask them to act as that character. If they were liked, they were asked to come back for another audition, but this second audition was a bit more specific and a scene would be written especially for them to act out. Nothing from the Raiders script itself (as to keep things top secret), but a scene that would hopefully show what these actors could do. As the production team whittled down to their final choices for all the roles, their auditions were filmed.

The casting director, Mike Fenton, championed for Jeff Bridges to play Indiana Jones. While George Lucas’ wife, Marcia, eyed up Tom Selleck. After a meeting, Lucas and Spielberg agreed that Selleck was the man for the job and he was invited in for a final audition where he was filmed in a screentest with Sean Young as Marion (YouTube it).


Tom Selleck was offered the Indiana Jones role there and then as both George Lucas and Steven Spielberg felt he was perfect. However, Selleck had just finished shooting a pilot for a TV show called Magnum P.I. for CBS. The pilot was a success and was to be turned into a full TV show. CBS refused to let Selleck out of his contract to film Raiders, Lucas asked CBS if they would delay the shooting of Magnum P.I. by a few weeks so that Tom Selleck could do both, they refused again. So Lucas and Spielberg were back at square one, looking for a new leading man. As an aside, while Tom Selleck was in Hawaii preparing for his Magnum P.I. role, there was a writers strike, which delayed the production of the show. Selleck could’ve done both roles, only he was stuck in Hawaii wanting to shoot Magnum P.I. while the production of Raiders was based in England. I quite honestly think that Tom Selleck would’ve made a fantastic Indiana Jones too.

It was now just a few weeks before shooting began and the film had no lead. One afternoon and George Lucas had Steven Spielberg watch and advance screening of The Empire Strikes Back. It was while watching that screening when Spielberg found his leading man. Spielberg told Lucas he felt that Harrison Ford was the right man for the job. However, Lucas was not so sure. He didn’t want it to be seen as a Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro type thing, what with Lucas already working with Ford on not only the two Star Wars flicks, but also the previously mentioned American Graffiti. It took some convincing, but Spielberg managed to talk Lucas round. Harrison Ford met Steven Spielberg in his home. They just hung out, playing pinball and video games, while talking about the film. It was during that informal chat when Ford really understood Spielberg’s vision for the flick. Harrison Ford signed up to play Indiana Jones there and then.

Both Steven Spielberg and Harrison Ford shared a flight from LA to London to begin shooting Raiders. On that flight, they went through the script line by line and refined some of the rougher aspects. Around ten hours later when they landed in London, Spielberg and Ford and polished the shooting script as much as they could. Even though Ford was only hired as an actor, he had no obligations to help out with the script, he just wanted to.

“Harrison is a very original leading man. There’s not been anyone like him for thirty or forty years, and he does carry the movie wonderfully. Harrison was more than just an actor playing a role, he was a collaborator and really was involved in a lot of decision making about the movie. And this wasn’t by contract, it was because I sensed a very good story mind and a real smart person and called on him time and again.”

– Steven Spielberg


Going right back to George Lucas’ original vision for the character, a ten-foot bullwhip was always the weapon of choice. Harrison Ford had to master it in a short space of time too, given the fact he was only hired a few weeks before the film began shooting. Before becoming an actor, Ford worked as a carpenter. During a job, he had an accident and broke his right wrist when he fell off a ladder. The wrist never fully recovered and so using a bullwhip became a lot more difficult than it already was. Raiders of the Lost Ark’s stunt coordinator Glenn Randall was the man who had to train Ford and train him fast. Ford picked it up really quickly though.

“I lashed myself about the head and shoulders for at least a couple of weeks before I really figured the thing out.”

– Harrison Ford

In fact, Harrison Ford got so damn good with the whip that he not only impressed the stunt team, he also convinced Spielberg to use the whip a lot more times than it was used in the script, as well as to let Ford do (pretty much) all his own stunt work too. So with Indiana Jones cast, and cast well too, they needed their leading woman.

Originally, Steven Spielberg wanted Amy Irving to play Marion Ravenwood (Spielberg was dating Irving at the time). However, Irving was not available… Or her and Spielberg split up and he pulled the offer of the role, depending on what story you want to believe. So the role was then offered to Debra Winger, who turned it down flat. That was when Sean Young was screen-tested with Tom Selleck and obviously, that didn’t work out for either of them. New York stage actress, Karen Allen was next on the list who had previously auditioned for the role. There used to be an image of Steven Spielberg doing a screen test with Karen Allen, with Spielberg playing Indy (as this was when they had no leading man cast) complete with the hat. But I can’t seem to find that picture anymore. Anyway, after a lot of dead ends, Marion Ravenwood was found and Karen Allen was given the part.


As for Indy’s main rival and antagonist of the flick, Rene Belloq. Italian actor, Giancarlo Giannini was almost cast. Steven Spielberg really wanted him for the role too. But before a contract could be signed, Spielberg watched the controversial drama-documentary Death of a Princess starring Paul Freeman. After which, Spielberg offered Freeman the part of Belloq. The rest of the cast also included (mostly) English actors, what with the production based in London, that made a lot of sense. Ronald Lacey famously played sadistic Gestapo agent, Major Arnold Toht. Denholm Elliott was cast as Indy’s close friend and colleague, Marcus Brody. And the part of Dr Jones’ guide when in Egypt, Sallah, was originally written specifically for and offered to Danny DeVito. However, DeVito’s agent demanded more money than the production could afford… Or were willing to pay. So the five-foot and twenty-two inches tall character was given to the six-foot tall John Rhys-Davies. When Davies learned the role was written for a much shorter actor, he spoke to Steven Spielberg and asked:

“What do you expect me to do, have surgery at the knees?”

– John Rhys-Davies

With the script done, the cast in place and everyone at Elstree Studios ready, Raiders of the Lost Ark began shooting on the 23rd of June 1980. And I’m going to end this lengthy part of the making of Raiders here as both you and I could do with a break. Part two looks at the filming of Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Please leave a reply/comment.

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s