Okay, so let’s crack on with this next part covering the making of Raiders of the Lost Ark. It was the 23rd of June 1980 when shooting finally began on the film. Even though the production was set in the legendary Elstree Studios in London, that’s not where the first day of shooting was. The crew were around a hundred miles north of Bordeaux, in the French resort of La Rochelle, where they met a German film crew making their own movie. So we have an American production based in England, filming in France, crossing paths with a German film crew. Anyway, that flick the Germans were making was Wolfgang Petersen’s war epic, Das Boot. The production crew of Raiders struck a deal with the crew of Das Boot to use their submarine. Yes, that sub in Raiders was the very same vessel from Das Boot. When not in use, the sub rested in a submarine pen, that pen was also used as the Nazi base sequence in Raiders. Not only that, it was a genuine World War II Nazi submarine pen, complete with German writing on the walls from the war. An actual German sub and a real Nazi WW II structure too, can’t get much more authentic than that.
All of the water/boat scenes of Raiders were the first things shot, all in France too. Before filming began, the production team sought out a 1930s tramp steamer to be used as the ship seen in the flick, the Bantu Wind. You know the one that was supposed to take Indy, Marion and the Ark to London before they were boarded by Nazis. But they could not find a ship that looked right for the era they wanted. So a replica was built instead… Only it wasn’t seaworthy and couldn’t be used. This was just a few weeks before shooting began and they didn’t have a ship they could use. Fortunately, an almost perfect old-timey ship was found in an Irish port. The production crew commissioned the ship for a month and had it retroactively ‘downdated’ to look like a typical 1930s tramp steamer by the art department. It was then sailed to France to be used for the film.
While everything was in place for filming to commence, the weather was not on the crew’s side. On the first planned day of the shoot, there was a rainstorm and the North Atlantic Ocean was too unstable to be used. The second day wasn’t much better either. Bearing in mind that the pressure was on to get this film made on time, or George Lucas would have to pay Paramount some hefty fines. Day three was far better and they got out on the sea to film what they needed. It took about a week to get everything required before the production moved on to Elstree Studios for interior shots.
It was the 30th of June when the first studio build sets were filmed. It was the home of Imam that was the first to be filmed. Imam was the guy from Cairo who translates the inscription of the head-piece medallion. You know, the whole ‘bad dates’ scene. It all just goes to show how amazing the art department were, because that scene looks very authentic and Cairo based… When it was actually filmed on a stage in London. But that’s nothing compared to what was next. Quite easily the most famous scene in the entire film, the South American temple. Yup, that spectacular booby-trap laden, golden idol stealing, giant boulder escaping scene was filmed on a stage in London too. A truly amazing set that looked like something directly out of one of those classic matinee serials that Lucas was influenced by. I don’t really need to cover this scene, as I already did that in another article.
On the 14th of July, filming began on the Well of Souls scenes where the Ark of the Covenant was kept, and yup, all filmed on those Elstree Studios sets. The set build was huge, in fact, it was too big and the two thousand snakes that Steven Spielberg originally arranged for the shoot just were not enough to cover the floor. At the last minute, another four and a half thousand snakes had to be brought in from Denmark to make the scene a lot more snakey. Three thirty-five-foot jackal statues dominated the set as Indy is lowered and then falls onto the snake covered floor. They were real, venomous snakes too. To ensure the actors were safe, Frank Marshall found and secured a ‘serum-man’ (as Marshall called him. However, serum-man couldn’t deliver on the serum, and he was the only serum-man in the country too. It really was a very dangerous set with real venom packed snakes and as the crew didn’t have a serum, the film shoot could not continue. After a few phone calls, the production crew found a hospital that had some serum they could use. Only when at the hospital, it was discovered that the serum was out of date and couldn’t be used. Finally, a useable serum was tracked down in France and flown into London. Even with a serum, the set was safeguarded as much as possible. The main doors of the set were left open with an ambulance just out of shot. Two medical experts in white coats stood on either side of the ambulance, with a syringe in each hand ready to act if someone was bitten. Everyone on set had to wear protective clothing, thigh-high rubber boots, extra-thick trousers and jackets, gloves and more. Everything was fine… Until the king cobra was brought onto the set.
Now, for those not in the know, the king cobra is one of the most dangerous and venomous snakes on the planet. A bite from a cobra can kill a human in fifteen minutes, they’re pretty effective killing machines really. And yes, that was a real king cobra on the set too. And yes, Harrison Ford was that close to it, inches away. Now, if you’ve seen the older print of Raiders of the Lost Ark, then you’ll know there was a sheet of glass placed between Ford and the snake. You can even see reflections in the glass of the older prints, which have since been removed digitally. Still, even with the glass between them, that must’ve been a pretty daunting thing to film. Here’s a little titbit for you. The cobra did actually kill while on set. There was another snake, a python, that was getting a bit rowdy and it bit the first assistant director, David Tomblin (he was fine). The cobra then bit and killed that same python, as if it was protecting the humans.
But there were even more snake shenanigans to follow. Vivian Kubrick (daughter of Stanley Kubrick who was filming The Shining at the studios at the time) visited Elstree Studios while the whole Well of Souls scene was being shot. Anyway, Kubrick complained that the snakes were being mistreated. Steven Spielberg assured her that they were not, and that the crew would take care of the snakes. She was not happy and called the RSPCA to file a complaint. The production was shut down for a day and extra measures were put in place to make the snakes more comfortable.
Both Harrison Ford and Karen Allen had to work with thousands of snakes on the set. While Indiana Jone suffers from ophidiophobia (fear of snakes), Ford himself loved them. In fact, he used to collect them as a teenager. Allen though, well that was a different story. She hated the things. Plus you have to remember what she was wearing for that scene too. Harrison Ford was fine in his Indy gear, leather jacket, trousers, boots, etc. But Karen Allen was wearing a white dress, her legs and arms bare, along with her feet.
Multiple times while filming, Allen walked off the set out of fear of the snakes. Her stunt double, Wendy Leach, had to step in a few times to finish the scene. Even the animal handler, Steve Edge, played Marion for a few shots. He had to shave his legs and put on the dress. So yeah, several times when you think you’re looking at Karen Allen’s amazing legs in the film, may not have been her at all but a male animal handler with shaved legs.
Right next to the Well of Souls set was the Catacombs one. You know where Indy and Marion escape from after crashing one of those huge jackal statues into a wall. That Catacombs set really was as tight and claustrophobic as it appeared on screen too. Only the bare minimal of crew could fit in it to film the scene, what with Harrison Ford, Karen Allen and a load of decayed bodies too. Tom Smith, who created those corpses, actually went to the London College of Surgeons and researched just what a dead body would look like after being buried for so long. He took measurements of real skulls and bones to ensure they were as accurate as possible. Smith then created multiple bodies in various states of decomposition, all in horrifically accurate detail. That escape scene took around eight days to film too, with plenty of dead bodies and dust having to fall on Karen Allen. It was not a pleasant experience at all.
“Huge amounts of dust falling into my eyes and mouth. Before, we had spent two weeks in the snake pit. At times it was challenging to figure out what I was doing, with snakes all over the place. It was difficult and unsatisfying in a way. I’ve done films like that since, such as The Perfect Storm, where sometimes you spent a whole day just drinking a lot of water, fighting for your life and screaming. But at the time (shooting of Raiders), I couldn’t figure out what it had to do with acting.”
– Karen Allen
It has been said that Kaen Allen really disliked Steven Spielberg’s methods of directing at the time. He never let her rehearse too much, or explore her character either. Plus, just going back to the Well of Souls scene for a second. Spielberg would often throw snakes and tarantulas at Allen to get her to scream more… Probably why she would walk off the set. After the whole Well of Souls and Catacombs escape was in the can, it was time for something a bit more ‘civilised’. Still at the Elstree Studios on another great set, it was time to shoot The Raven scenes.
No, not a big blackbird, The Raven was the bar that Marion Ravenwood owned in the film and the character’s introduction. Set in the Himalayas (filmed on a stage set in London), the very remote bar really looked amazing. Highly detailed and accurate for the 1936 setting, right down to the drinks. The furniture, the fireplace, everything was researched and re-created to be period-perfect. Aside from the amazing set design, the Raven scene also filled the viewer in on a lot of backstory and Indy’s history. Just a shame most of it was cut out of the film. Most of the dialogue that explored Indy, Marion and Abner’s relationship from that scene was cut, much to the disappointment of scriptwriter Lawrence Kasdan.
“Some of the best writing I’ve ever done was in that scene, but all that’s left is its beginning and end.”
– Lawrence Kasdan
Almost all of the interior scenes for the film were done, there was just one more location that needed to be covered. It was the 14th of August 1980, production moved from Elstree Studios and went on location to the Rickmansworth Masonic School in Hertfordshire. The school served as not only Marshall College (named after producer Frank Marshall), where Indy taught his students. But it also doubled for the Washington D.C. Government office at the end of the flick where Indy is told that the Ark will be looked after by ‘top men‘. With that, all of the set and internal filming for Raiders of the Lost Ark was done. Time for some globe-trotting.
North Africa was the first major location of the shoot. The backdrop for the German excavation site in the lost city of Tanis, the Tunisian desert of Sedala was the location used (yes, the same place that George Lucas shot Star Wars at). It was summer in North Africa… It was hot. Perhaps that is a bit of an understatement, as it got to 130° fairly often. Around six hundred Arab extras were hired and they began to complain when there just wasn’t enough water. Steven Spielberg was working fast too, he had to, to keep Paramount happy. Spielberg would average around thirty-five setups a day. That’s not thirty-five shots, thirty-five setups. A setup, by the way, means changing all the cameras, lighting, etc to suit the shots needed. They require a lot of work as all of the equipment is moved into position each and every time. Films tend to try to use as few setups as necessary (around twenty to twenty-five is average for a big Hollywood picture) to cut down on the workload, so doing thirty-five a day is pretty demanding… in 130° heat.
Through the shoot, Harrison Ford did most of his own stunts. This was a huge risk as he was the star and the production was under massive pressure to get done on time. If anything went wrong and Ford injured himself, that could put delays on the filming, and delays would mean huge fines that George Lucas and Steven Spielberg would have to pay to Paramount Studios. Ford did suffer a few cuts and scrapes, but nothing that would take him out of the picture.
“It’s true, you can do a lot of stuff yourself. And I’m glad to, if the stunt is coordinated so that there is an advantage for the film in my doing it myself. I don’t want to do it for glory. But sometimes, I begin to feel more like a football player, a battered football player than a movie actor.”
– Harrison Ford
One such injury occurred during the fight with the Nazi mechanic (Pat Roach). It’s the part in the flick where Indy and Marion have escaped the Well of Souls and try to get the Ark back by stealing a plane. During the fisticuffs, Indy is knocked down and does a backward roll to move out of the way of the plane’s wheels. This was rehearsed over and over to ensure it was safe, after everyone was happy and well practised, the camera rolled. As practised, Harrison Ford rolled backwards to avoid the plane’s wheels, only his foot slipped in the sand and slid out towards the wheel. Ford’s toe got caught and the tyre rolled up his tibia bone, stopping short of crushing his knee as the brakes were applied fast to stop the plane. Harrison Ford was pinned to the hot sand by the wheel. Thankfully, that 130° heat actually helped out as it made the tyre of the wheel soft, which prevented any serious injury, though he did tear the anterior cruciate ligament of his knee. Ford was checked over, bandaged up and he got right back to it. Just for the record, only thirty-four years later in 2014, Ford fractured his tibia bone on the set of Star Wars: The Force Awakens.
After that, it was onto filming one of the greatest chase sequences ever. The awesome truck chase which involved a truck, several cars and jeeps, a motorbike… And a horse. A second unit directed a lot of this scene using doubles while Steven Spielberg was busy filming elsewhere. However, for all the close-up stuff that is very clearly Harrison Ford, Spielberg directed every second of film. And yes, Ford did most of his own stunts again. That is him hanging off the front of the truck. For the bit where Indy goes under the truck, that was a stunt double, but Ford was actually being dragged along the ground behind the truck (very slowly, the footage was sped up in post-production). Also, to keep the blood down to a minimum during this scene (to avoid a stricter age rating), instead of liquid, a red powder was used instead. Only the powder was made using cayenne pepper and when the squibs exploded, they sprayed that cayenne pepper everywhere… Including into people’s eyes.
With the truck chase done, it was time to film Cairo. Only it wasn’t Cairo, filming was done in the city of Kairouan in Tunisia. The first thing that had to be done was the removal of more than three hundred and fifty TV aerials from the roofs of the buildings. I guess 1980s tech doesn’t belong in a film set in 1936. This is also where one of the more well known behind the scenes stories of Raiders happened. During the iconic swordsman scene, where the big Arab guy shows off his sword skills. In the script, a big fight scene between whip and sword was written and it was even rehearsed several times too. However, pretty much everyone on the crew had come down with a nasty bout of dysentery due to the food in Tunisia. Everyone except Steven Spielberg, as he had brought some canned food with him from London and just ate that. Anyway, to put it politely, Ford had to keep running off to the toilet every few minutes and wasn’t really in the mood to shoot a big fight scene. He pulled Spielberg to one side and suggested a quicker resolution to the encounter and just shoot the guy instead. It was filmed, it got a laugh and Harrison Ford (probably) ran off to the toilet shortly after. If you do watch that scene again, pay attention to Ford’s face, you can tell he was ‘uncomfortable’.
On the 29th of September, the production moved on to Kauai, Hawaii to shoot the film’s opening. All the heavy equipment had to be lugged into the jungle and up some pretty steep inclines. Steps had to be built to aid with the getting to and from the location. But what a location it was, an amazing pool of water with a waterfall where Indiana Jones is introduced to the world for the first time. As beautiful as the location was, it was still in the jungles of Hawaii. The pool attracted mosquitoes, thousands and thousands of mosquitoes. Before every shot, a guy armed with a mosquito fogger had to spray the location down. The crew and actors were covered in anti-insect-bite oil. Even so, those little insects still made a meal out of the cast and crew.
The filming of the opening also requires two donkeys. Due to all the walking, the donkeys went lame and were unable to be used anymore. It took two days for two more donkeys to be found, only they were the wrong colour. The original donkeys used for some of the shoot were brown, the new ones that were found were grey. So the production team used a temporary dye to colour them brown. Then, they had to shoot on the Nāpali Coast in the northwest of Kauai. A mountainous and very difficult place to get to. So a helicopter had to be used to transport the actors, crew and equipment… Including the two donkeys. A crate had to be used and the donkeys were blindfolded, put in the crate one at a time and then flown to the location. Then there was the memorable biplane that Indy escapes in after running away from the natives.
Yup, that’s the one. Anyway, it took a while for the crew to find a suitable plane to use. Finally, they found an original 1930s Waco biplane in Oregon. The plane was owned by Henry and Alice Strauch. It was painted and it was production designer Norman Reynolds who added the Star Wars reference. Once the shoot was done, the plane was returned to Henry Strauch in Oregon where he used it to fly to and from work. Oh, and there was a bit of an accident with the plane too. Harrison Ford doing his own stunts (again) had to run away from the natives, swing into the river and swim towards the plane. Then he had to climb on board while the plane was moving. Ford climbed onto the wing as the plane was about twenty foot in the air, his leg got caught in the right flap, which made steering almost impossible. As the plane flew behind some trees, it crash-landed. Thankfully, it was only a twenty-foot drop and the pilot managed to bring the plane down without any injures. Once the plane was recovered and the shot set up again, Ford did another take.
And with that, Raiders of the Lost Ark was ‘in the can’, as they say. Filming took seventy-three-days, within the eighty-five-day timeframe Paramount wanted. Steven Spielberg just made his first major film on time, for the first time. Still, there’s just the post-production and release of Raiders of the Lost Ark to cover… Which I’ll be doing in part three.