Monday, July 19, 2010

Raiders of the Lost Ark: For the Kid in Us All

Remember those summers as a kid, where your imagination ran wild and adventure was everywhere?  We were explorers, wandering around those lazy days, searching for all that excitement we knew was out there, just waiting around the corner.  I miss those summer days as I break my back at a job that offers no adventure at all, only the same old drudgery.  Today's favorite of mine reminds me of those days long past, a wonderful remedy when life gets a little drawn.  Cause today I'm talking about "Raiders of the Lost Ark."

That's right, the first and best of the Indiana Jones films!  Released in June 1981, "Raiders" introduced us to Jones and his exciting world as an archeologist.  Set back in 1936, Professor Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) is commissioned by the US government to find the Lost Ark of the Covenant before the Nazis do.  So with the help of a former flame (Karen Allen), they travel to Egypt where the race to the Ark leads them into danger over and over again.

George Lucas came up with the story (then called "The Adventures of Indiana Smith") back at the same time he came up with the story for "Star Wars" (1977).  With the help of friend Philip Kaufman, the two developed the throwback story to the film serials of the 1930s.  However, they put it aside when Lucas decided to focus all his attention on developing "Star Wars" instead.  A few years later, while vacationing in Hawaii (and hiding from the "Star Wars" mayhem) with buddy Steven Spielberg, the two were hanging out on the beach when Spielberg mentioned he wanted to direct a James Bond film.  Lucas told him about Indiana instead, which Spielberg loved, and thus began the production of "Raiders of the Lost Ark."

With the assistance of screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan, who was working on Lucas' "Empire Strikes Back" (1980) at the time, the three men came up with a 100-page treatment for "Raiders" that took Kasdan six months to dwindle down into his first draft of the screenplay. They had so many ideas that just didn't fit so many ended up in the next Indiana film, "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom" (1984), like a mine chase scene, jumping from a plane with a raft, and a rolling gong for a shield.  Spielberg wanted Indiana to be much darker than Lucas did, more Bond and Bogart.  Luckily, both Lucas and Kasdan were able to persuade him otherwise, stating that his history already made him complex enough.

Now, originally, Lucas didn't want Harrison Ford to play Jones.  Ford was always Spielberg's first choice, but he had already appeared in the "Star Wars" films and "American Graffiti" (1973), and Lucas didn't want him labeled as "that guy in all his films."  So, Lucas convinced Spielberg to audition lesser-known actors for the part, like Tim Matheson, Peter Coyote, and Nick Nolte.  They finally decided on Tom Selleck, but unfortunately (or fortunately for Ford), Selleck's "Magnum P.I." schedule ended up conflicting with the film schedule.  Thus, about three weeks before filming began, producers Frank Marshall and Kathleen Kennedy, along with Spielberg, finally convinced Lucas that Ford was just the right man for the part.

You know what makes this film so great?  It's that B-movie style Spielberg purposely went for (something he lost sight of for the fourth Indiana film, "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull"(2008)).  Since the story was essentially a modern version of those B-movie favorites, and because the budget for "Raiders" was small, Spielberg deliberately shot things as fast as possible, in 4 or 5 takes instead of 20.  Because of this, he storyboarded "Raiders" more than any other film he has done.  And other than the special effects during the grand finale sequence, all the rest are real men doing real stunts in real locations.  None of this green screen, CGI cra...ridiculousness that comes out today (including "Crystal Skull").  Ironically enough, Spielberg stated after "Raiders" that if he had had more money to do things more thoroughly, "it would have turned out a pretentious movie."  If only he had stuck with that advice.

All in all, "Raiders" is a fun film made by a couple of grown men remembering their favorites of youth.  I'm all for that!  So, get out that fedora (I know you have one), remember those days gone by, those summers filled with adventures, and watch "Raiders of the Lost Ark" again...and again...and maybe again.  Until next time.  Have a great week, everyone!

(Post-tidbit: Many of the temple's booby traps in the opening sequence were actually inspired by old Scrooge McDuck comics from the 1950s, of which both Lucas and Spielberg were fans.  You can find the flying darts, the idol mechanism, and the rolling boulder in those comics.)

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