At last, after an entire month of Raiders at 40 articles, it is the grand finale of my grand finale.
So, the filming of Raiders of the Lost Ark took seventy-three days, post-production took a couple of more months. This is where all the special effects, music, sound and smaller shots that didn’t require the main cast (for the most part) could be done. It was George Lucas’ Industrial Light and Magic (ILM) studio that took care of all the special effects. Long before CGI was common use in film. The first effects work done was for the big finale, the opening of the Ark. Just how the opening of the Ark would kill all the Nazis was unknown, even the script rather vaguely described the scene as ‘they open the Ark and all hell breaks loose’, that was it. While George Lucas and Steven Spielberg knew they wanted it to be a spectacular finale, neither of them knew exactly how that finale should look or even what should be in the Ark when it was opened.
For the task of creating that spectacular and very vague finale, Lucas and Spielberg approached several storyboard artists and gave them carte blanche to do whatever they wanted and display ‘the power of God’ their own way. One came up with the idea to have the Ark spit out a mass firestorm, another drew up a series of storyboards featuring terrifying ghosts, the another suggested that lighting should be what kills the Nazis. All three ideas looked great when storyboarded, so Lucas and Spielberg decided to use all three. It was artist, Joe Johnston who was tasked with making all three ideas work as one. Quick aside, Raiders of the Lost Ark won an Oscar (it actually won five) for its effects work in 1982, with Johnston being one of the Oscar-winning team. ILM were actually doing effects work on two films at the same time. Raiders and Dragonslayer, so the team were doing double duty.
The first thing to tackle was how to make a ghost look convincing on screen. The original idea was to have them be animated with hand-drawn art. Early tests proved to be a bit of a disaster and the animation idea was pretty much thrown out… Pretty much. Instead, puppets were used, and they were filmed underwater in a big tank… Well, a cloud tank to be precise. Steven Spielberg had already used cloud tanks in Close Encounters, so he already knew how to use them well. Most of the ghosts in the finale are just man-made clouds, but puppets filmed underwater were also used to create that floating element for the more detailed ghosts. Plus there was some use of an actor in a classic white sheet. Oh, and there are a few frames of hand-drawn animation in there too. All of those elements were brought together to make those ghostly apparitions that you see flying around the Nazis in the flick.
Then there was the infamous face-melting. It was Steven Spielberg who came up with the idea that the Nazis should suffer a truly horrific and gruesome end… Spielberg coming from a very Orthodox Jewish family. Moulds were made of the three actor’s faces that were to be destroyed. Each of the three all had a different demise. Makeup artist, Chris Walas, was the man who had to rebuild the actor’s faces using the moulds. Colonel Dietrich’s (Wolf Kahler) head was hollow, but had inflatable bladders filled with air. When shooting the scene, the air was sucked out of the bladders and this gave the effect that his head was being deflated, as if all life was being drained from his body. Major Toht’s (Ronald Lacey) head was made up of several layers of a specially created gelatin compound. The head was then melted via an off-screen, high powered dryer. Finally, there was René Belloq’s (Paul Freeman) head, which was made of plaster. It then had a large air cannon pointed in front of it, a couple of shotguns placed behind it and even explosive charges. Inside the head itself was a thinly made ‘skull’ which contained things like (fake) blood bags, bits of dried latex and the like. The head was then blown up, the blood and bits flew everywhere… And it had to be filmed three times to get it right too. Only there was a problem, it was way, way too gory to go into the film. So the idea to superimpose a fire effect to cover most of the gore was added. Seriously, go and watch that whole face-melting, head-exploding scene in slow motion, it is truly horrific.
While that iconic finale was being finished with effects work, another unit was busy working on another iconic part of the flick. The way that Lawrence Kasdan had written it in the script, he wanted to use montages of Indy travelling the world in order to reach the numerous locations in the film. This would prove to be too costly, what with filming so many locations. So to save some money, and to pay tribute to the classic films and serials that inspired Raiders, Spielberg suggested that they use a map and a line to show the route taken. A lot of 1930s/40s pictures used the same idea, The Humphrey Bogart flick Casablanca as an example.
The very last thing to be shot was the (almost) very end of the film. Originally, the flick concluded with Indy arguing with the government when they keep the Ark for themselves as ‘top men’ look after it. Cut to the shot of the Ark being put into storage, and the credits rolled. But there was no resolve between Indy and Marion, there was no idea of how Indy felt about being screwed over. It was George Lucas’ wife, Marcia who pointed out that the film needed a bit more of an impact. So Steven Spielberg got Harrison Ford and Karen Allen together for one final shot. The scene filmed on the stairs of the government building was added. It was filmed in San Francisco and it added that final bite the film really did need. It showed how annoyed Indy was with the government and it showed that Marion stood by her man until the end.
It has been said that Steven Spielberg’s first cut of the film came in at slightly over three hours (I’d actually like to see that version). Raiders of the Lost Ark was an epic film sure, but it wasn’t a ‘film epic’ and Spielberg knew it needed to be trimmed, no one would sit through a three hour, glorified and stylised B-movie. Enter editor, Michael Kahn. Spielberg and Kahn worked at getting the film edited down to a slightly more suitable two hour and some change film. With his cut of the film done, Spielberg handed it over to George Lucas and Lucas held a private screening with an audience to gain some feedback. The next morning and Lucas called Spielberg and told him that he thought the film was great, but it just needed a bit more trimming. George Lucas got into the editing room with Michael Kahn and they cut out a further seven minutes from the first half of the film to tighten up the pacing. Editing that Steven Spielberg was actually pretty happy about.
“I would trust George with any movie I ever direct to edit in any way he sees fit. He knows the secret of what an editor can do to a movie, how he can enhance the film.”
– Steven Spielberg
After the final bit of editing (which would go on to win an Oscar), Raiders of the Lost Ark had a runtime of one hour and fifty-five minutes (with credits). And with the film now fully edited and ready, it needed to be scored. There was really only ever one man who could provide the music to this George Lucas and Steven Spielberg collaboration, the mighty John Williams. Of course, Williams also did the scores for Star Wars, Jaws and so many other Lucas and Spielberg flicks. Williams gave each of the main characters in the film their own music with their own themes and ideas. Even the Ark itself had its own music. The Ark was this deeply religious artefact, so Williams gave it an orchestral, foreboding like tune. Marion as the romantic lead was given a softer and more gentle piece of music. The Nazis had a very nefarious and darker piece. Then, of course, there was the theme of Indiana Jones himself, the main Raiders tune that is one of the most iconic and recognisable pieces of cinematic music ever created. A tune you can whistle anywhere in the world and everyone will know exactly what it is. Of course, there were variants of those four main themes in the film too.
Filming done, special effects done, editing done and music done. Raiders of the Lost Ark was finished and ready to be released. It was a Friday, the 12th of June 1981 and Raiders hit cinemas across America. A few weeks later in July, Raiders of the Lost Ark saw its international release and it soon became the highest-grossing film of 1981 and the number one flick around the world. Harrison Ford was catapulted into the limelight and he became a huge Hollywood star. Yeah sure, Ford was known because of Star Wars and Empire Strikes Back, but it was Raiders that made him a real star. The cast and crew of the film even embarked on a worldwide promotional tour, appearing at as many premieres as they could around the globe.
That opening fifteen or so minutes of the flick where Indy is introduced was always meant to feel like you just walked into a film already playing at the cinema. In the ‘good old days’, that is how cinemas worked, you paid for a ticket and just walked in to watch a film, start, middle or end. It’s where the phrase ‘this is where we came in‘ originates from. Anyway, Spielberg wanted to recreate that feeling of watching a film that had already started and that beginning was supposed to feel like the end to a film that you just missed.
“It’s not part of Raiders at all. It belongs to the film that comes before it, Raiders of the Lost Fertility Idol, if you like.”
– Steven Spielberg
Of course, that opening of Indy on a seemingly unconnected mission is also a call back to those James Bond openings. And the way Steven Spielberg got involved in this whole thing, back on that beach in Hawaii, was because he told George Lucas that he wanted to make a James Bond flick.
Aside from making Harrison Ford a worldwide star, you can’t talk about the making of Raiders and not give Karen Allen a special mention. I mean, while she did play the damsel in distress, she played the character with balls. From the moment we are introduced to the Marion character and her socking Indy in the chops with a right hook, you just know this damsel was fierce. Also, she was the only main female in the whole flick too.
Raiders of the Lost Ark got a second wind of success after the 1982 Oscars where it was nominated for nine Academy Awards. It would go on to win five. Just for the record, Raiders won the Best Art Direction-Set Decoration (Norman Reynolds, Leslie Dilley and Michael Ford), Best Sound (Bill Varney, Steve Maslow, Gregg Landake and Roy Charman), Best Film Editing (Michael Kahn), Best Effects, Visual Effects (Richard Edlund, Kit West, Bruce Nicholson and Joe Johnston) and Special Achievement Award For Sound Effects Editing (Ben Burtt and Richard L. Anderson) Oscars. Not too shabby for a B-movie flick that no studio even wanted to make.
Theatrically, Raiders earned $384 million worldwide. Then in 1983, it was released on VHS, where it became the first-ever film to sell a million tapes. Paramount were very happy as they made $49 million from the video rentals alone, seeing as they put in $22 million for the production, that’s a decent profit. Spielberg ended up pocketing more than $22 million, which was more he earned from all of his previous films combined. Lucasfilm as a company made $21 million, but Lucas himself only got £2.5 million as the film’s producer. The cast and crew all shared $7 million in profit percentages as a bonus after being paid their normal fee.
All in all, Raiders of the Lost Ark was a gargantuan success. It took many old-timey cinematic methods and brought them into the eighties. It modernised action cinema by going back to its roots. It made Harrison Ford a household name. Steven Spielberg became one of the most revered and popular filmmakers on the planet. George Lucas and the Lucasfilm company became one of the most powerful studios working in film (okay, so Star Wars helped too). And a true film hero was born. Indiana Jones and Raiders of the Lost Ark is the epitome of action films, a 40-year legacy that spans a multitude of mediums. Films, video games, comic books, novels, TV shows, theme park attractions and so much more. Everything Indiana Jones related can all be traced back to this flick, a film that no studio in Hollywood initially wanted to make at the time. One which most probably never would’ve happened the way it did if not for George Lucas’ love of 1930s serials and taking a trip to Hawaii after the release of Star Wars.