It began in the summer of 1977. George Lucas was vacationing in Hawaii as his space epic Star Wars broke the box office records all over. With Lucas was his friend Steven Spielberg, fresh from the successes of Jaws (1975) and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977).
A collaboration was in the wind. Spielberg said he wanted to make a James Bond film. Lucas contended he had an idea “better than James Bond”, and proceeded to narrate the plot of Raiders of the Lost Ark.
Raiders was developed in 1973, as part of Lucas’s The Adventures of Indiana Smith. Much like Star Wars, Lucas saw it as an ode to the fantasy swashbuckling B-movie serials of the 1930s and 1940s. He had worked with writer and director Philip Kaufman on the first adventure of a college professor and archaeologist adventurer, who was a womaniser and frequented nightclubs. Kaufman convinced Lucas to do away with the character’s womanising aspect. They decided on the Ark of the Covenant as the of the plot. But the project was stalled as Kaufman was hired elsewhere.
Spielberg, in the meantime, came to immensely love the idea of Raiders. He thought of it as a Bond film without formula restrictions and suggested a more American sounding surname for their hero. Lucas took the advice, and it was changed to “Jones”.
Envisioning the series, casting Harrison Ford
Next, Lawrence Kasdan was brought onboard. By 1978, Lucas, Kasdan, and Spielberg had an outline of the story and various set pieces in mind. Kasdan developed a detailed screenplay – polished further to suit Lucas and Spielberg’s vision. The script effortlessly served a concoction of genres such as romance, mystery, suspense, action, humour and horror, and was ready by December 1979.
Lucas approached every major Hollywood studio. The shrewd businessman and creative genius that he was, he wanted $20 million for the film, along with complete creative control and say over licensing rights and sequels. The studios rejected the idea.
Beyond Lucas’s many conditions, the studios were wary of Spielberg’s involvement. He, despite his success, had a reputation for going over schedule and over budget. To top it off, it didn’t help that Spielberg’s recent effort, 1941 (1979), was not a huge hit.
But Lucas insisted on Spielberg. And it was the then Paramount Pictures president Michael Eisner who finally saw merit in the script and struck a deal with Lucas and Spielberg. There was a caveat, Eisner added a clause that would impose strong penalties if the film exceeded its budget or schedule.
For the film’s cast, Lucas preferred a relatively unknown actor whose image wasn’t cemented in the minds of the audiences. He also wanted the actor to commit to a trilogy ostensibly spanning 10 years.
Harrison Ford was Spielberg’s first choice, but Lucas was hesitant. Ford was a huge star after playing Han Solo. Lucas doubted if the audience would accept him as Indy and, most importantly, if he would commit to three films.
The makers auditioned various actors and finally settled on actor Tom Selleck for the part. However he was unable to sign on since contractually obligated to his television series Magnum, PI.
The lack of any other suitable candidates left Lucas with no choice but Ford.
Ford loved the script and also signed on to the three-picture deal. He negotiated a seven-figure salary, a percentage of the profits, and the option to re-write his dialogue and have inputs in the script. The movie was filmed in France, Hawaii, England and Tunisia.
Spinning the magic of an unusual hero
The schedule in Tunisia was nightmarish. It was scorching hot and most crew members, including Ford, developed amoebic dysentery. The filming was delayed by many days.
Further on, production was shut down for weeks in the UK following complaints that crew members were engaging in animal cruelty mistreating snakes that were required for a crucial scene.
But when confronted with such seemingly insurmountable challenges the human spirit often finds a way to rise and triumph against all odds. The magic was spun as people on the sets innovated, improvised, and tossed all their artistic acumen into the film.
If Raiders was just another escapist adventure with a series of handsomely mounted action set pieces it would have been a hit and melted into thin air later. The reason Raiders is a landmark is because it delivered the intimate in addition to the epic.
Indiana Jones’s obsession to acquire the Ark sets the stage for the film, but the protagonist eventually comes to prize human relationships more, particularly his relationship with the love of his life, Marion. Indy has a moral awakening and his mission evolves from obtaining the Ark to keeping it away from the Nazis. The film also invokes the divine or the supernatural – the powers within the Ark that reject the forces of evil.
Indiana Jones was a fundamental departure from the celluloid heroes before. And the casting of Harrison Ford, as Spielberg also opined, seemed to have made the series the phenomenon that it is.
The audiences knew their hero would triumph when they watched Clint Eastwood or James Bond. These heroes were fearless, unflappable, and larger than life. This made them aspirational figures, but seldom relatable.
But Indy was far from an infallible hero. Despite his most heroic first appearance in Raiders and looks of a traditional hero, with his fedora, leather jacket, gun, bullwhip, and khaki trousers.
This was largely due to Harrison Ford, a unique superstar, who possesses the attributes of a leading man and an acton hero with the charisma, rugged good looks and the physique, yet came forth as relatable. Most of Ford’s film roles, have him play a regular man who rises to the occasion when placed in extraordinary situations.
Ford’s interpretation of the character was as an academic first, and an adventurer second. The writers always placed Indy in situations where he was out of his depth. Ford relished depicting the occasional clumsy side of Indiana Jones as he often tumbles, struggles, bleeds, and endures a beating.
Unlike other hallowed heroes, Indy suffered from an almost debilitating fear of snakes and expressed it without hesitation. Indy often suffers failures and setbacks during his missions, but he is seldom dispirited and never gives up.
Indy seemed heroic not because of his noble powers but his indefatigable spirit, toughness, resourcefulness, and his ability to seamlessly adapt. He put to use his knowledge of science, and history, in addition to his abilities of analysis and deduction to find his MacGuffin.
The character of Bond was lauded because he did what no man could do, but Indy was enthralling for his resilience and his spirit to overcome fear and impediments. When Daniel Craig attempted to make Bond more realistic, the character appeared sullen, morose, and even miserable. But Indy was different. He often used humour as a crutch to rise up, even as things went astray for him.
It was the skill of the writers, the maker and, above all, Harrison Ford’s interpretation, who delicately balanced all aspects of the character without allowing any attribute to overwhelm the character. His nickname “Indy” also dispelled the elusiveness of a hero.
Despite the fantasy-like settings, Ford and makers also insisted on realism. During action sequences, audiences were never allowed to forget that Indy was in real peril. Ford did most of the stunts on his own, adding to the realism.
The film is also a depiction of the awakening of Indy’s morality. In the beginning, he is driven by greed, and is full of conceit. But as he confronts evil, he has a moral epiphany.
The film contrasts Indy with the French archeologist Belloq. Driven by self-interest, Belloq chooses to overlook evil. In a strong Nietzschean subtext, Belloq is at times a bystander and on other occasions an enabler of evil – he is as much a villain as the Nazis in Raiders.
It is essential to mention the spirited background score of John Williams that matched the spirit of Indy. The masterful camerawork by Douglas Slocombe that gave the film a distinctive look, while Michael Kahn’s editing kept its pace brisk.
In the case of Raiders, despite the impediments, it was clear that the cinematic gods were showering their blessing on the film.
Raiders may be a cinematic milestone today, but a lot that could have gone wrong.
Lucas could have made Raiders in 1973 with Indiana Smith as the protagonist. It would have been directed by Philip Kaufman and would star another actor. The lack of experience of pre-Star Wars Lucas and the absence of Spielberg and Ford would probably have made it a forgettable affair.
The film could have starred Tom Selleck as Indy. Selleck is a fine presence but he lacks the gravitas, sardonic humour, and everyman appeal of Ford. With Selleck Raiders may have succeeded but would have become a phenomenon.
It was also a time of redemption for Spielberg, who was keen to prove himself after the 1941 setback. The film was shot efficiently, within the budget and schedule. This, possibly would have been different in absence of the 1941 tumble.
The setbacks even had an impact on specific scenes. A key scene in Raiders had Indy battling a flamboyant swordsman. Ford was supposed to use his whip to seize the sword from his attacker's hands. But as he was unable to exert himself because of food poisoning, he suggested that the attacker be dismissively shot. Spielberg loved the idea and this improvisation became one of the most memorable scenes of the film.
In many ways, the hardships endured by Indy paralleled the hardships endured by the makers.
The magic of Raiders was never ever going to be replicated, yet the makers did well with two engaging and one outstanding sequel.
Second in series, controversies that followed
The follow-up to Raiders was Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984). The film was made with conscious efforts to be different from Raiders. It began with a song filmed in Shanghai, straight out of a musical extravaganza from the golden era of Hollywood.
Moments later, Indy crash landed in India, kicking off his adventures. The film was entertaining but much darker, with elements of a horror film. And once again, it was Ford’s portrayal of Indy that elevated the film. The movie also starred Amrish Puri as Indy’s nemesis.
The film was deemed offensive for its depiction of India and its culture. The Indira Gandhi-led government ordered changes to the script as the makers sought permission to shoot in India. The negotiations led to the producers shifting the shoot location to Sri Lanka.
The final film was never released in India. The film was an enormous success at the box office but polarised critics and younger audiences. A section of the Indian media branded Amrish Puri as “anti-national” for his role.
Ford and Connery’s riveting chemistry
Next, the makers turned back to a territory closer to the Raiders. In Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989), our hero once again battles the Nazis.
When Indiana Jones’s father, Dr Henry Jones, mysteriously disappears while looking for the Holy Grail, Indy embarks on a mission to save his father and possibly acquire the Grail before the Nazis. The film stands out among the sequels on its strong emotional note emanating from the father-son relationship.
Sir Sean Connery, the first actor to play James Bond on the big screen, is Indy’s father.
Ford and Connery’s chemistry was riveting. The two characters are often at odds with each other in their approach to life and archaeology. But as the film progresses, their respect and admiration towards each other builds on.
Eventually, the father-son relationship and the many poignant and comical situations that result from it becomes the core of the story, with Indy’s quest for the Grail relegated to the backdrop. The film, intended to be the epilogue of the series, was a blockbuster and also received wide critical acclaim.
Return to the big screen
About two decades later, Ford returned with Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. The film was set during the Cold War and paid tribute to the science fiction B-movies of the 1950s.
The film was the series’ highest-grossing instalment when not adjusted for inflation and the second-highest-grossing film of 2008. The reviews from critics and audiences were again polarised.
The film has all of the elements that made the previous films of the series a huge success. But it lacked the magic that accompanies Spielberg’s touch and the spirit of boyhood. It often appeared formula-driven and calculated.
The only aspect of the film that resoundingly worked was Harrison Ford. He was excellent as an older, wiser and more world-weary Indy. He looked great and seemed to both literally and metaphorically fit into the costume with ease.
Those who hadn’t seen the previous three enjoyed the film greatly. However, for Indy fans, who had waited for so long and had sky-high expectations, this was a disappointment. Some have conceded that the film has aged well and the disappointment was the result of unreasonable expectations.
Now, more than 40 years after Raiders and 15 years after the last instalment, Indy returns to the big screen with Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny. In a business that is obsessed with youth, it is refreshing to see Ford, now an octogenarian, leading the big budget action extravaganza.
Ford said this will be his swansong to the series. The film revives the magic of the trilogy in a breathtaking adventure that spans over two decades. There are plenty of thrills, cliffhangers and unexpected twists.
Ford once again carries the film on his shoulders. He embraces Indy’s spirit of adventure and his flaws, advancing age and existential dilemma in the latter part of the film – a fitting farewell to cinema’s most endearing characters.
The film ends on a poignant note. There is an assurance to the fans that while the series may be ending, Indy’s adventures will continue.
For his masterful portrayal of Indiana Jones, Ford deserves all the acting accolades. Alas, action-adventure films such as Indiana Jones are regarded as pastiche and hence unworthy of ‘prestigious’ awards.
While the award juries have a chance to redeem themselves next year, what Harrison Ford certainly has is the appreciation and affection of audiences – for bringing to life one of the big screen's most endearing and enduring heroes.
Update at 10.30 am, July 4: This piece has been updated with details on how Tom Selleck was auditioned, Ford’s background, and how much could have gone wrong with Raiders – but did not.
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