Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Harrison Ford
Credit: Courtesy of National Geographic Society; Lucasfilm Ltd.

Almost from the day Raiders of the Lost Ark premiered 30 years ago on June 12, 1981, fans have speculated about who the real-life model for Indiana Jones had been. While researching his forthcoming book, Turn Right at Machu Picchu: Rediscovering the Lost City One Step at a Time (June 30; Dutton) journalist Mark Adams (brother of EW editor Jason Adams) investigated the background of one of the prime suspects — a dashing young Yale history professor, Hiram Bingham III, who found the ruins of Machu Picchu nearly 100 years ago. Here is an exclusive excerpt from the book:

Even before controversies sent Bingham’s reputation as a hero into steep decline, his role as America’s greatest swashbuckling explorer had been superseded by an even more indelible adventurer: Indiana Jones. There have been any number of attempts to prove that Bingham’s life was the source material for the movie hero: Both are university professors who dabble in archaeology, both search the blank spots of the map looking for important relics, both wear fedoras. The opening scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark, in which Indy outruns a gigantic rolling boulder, takes place in a part of Peru that looks like it could be within walking distance from Machu Picchu.

The most direct connection between Indy and Bingham is a 1954 B-movie titled Secret of the Incas. The movie features two good-looking stars: Charlton Heston, who plays Harry Steele, a hard-boiled treasure hunter based out of Cusco; and Machu Picchu, playing itself. Deborah Nadoolman Landis, who designed the costumes for Raiders, has said that she and her team watched Secret of the Incas multiple times and based Indy’s look on Harry Steele’s; both treasure hunters have a weakness for earth tones, leather jackets and, of course, fedoras. The most obvious connection between the two films, however, is Raiders’ famous map-room scene, in which Indy holds the staff of Ra and catches a beam of sunlight to reveal the location of the Ark of the Covenant on a scale model of the lost city of Tanis. In Secret, Steele consults a tabletop reproduction of Machu Picchu — which, much like Indiana Jones, he happens to possess the key missing piece of — then employs an ancient Inca reflector to direct a shaft of light to the spot where the coveted golden sunburst is hidden.

The link from Indy to Harry Steele is obvious — the beam-of-light trick in Raiders is pretty clearly a winking homage to the earlier film, the sort of thing Quentin Tarantino fans applaud in their favorite auteur. This hasn’t prevented cinema conspiracy buffs from pointing out that Secret and Raiders were both produced by Paramount and that Secret has never been released on DVD. (Producer George Lucas and director Steven Spielberg have always maintained that Indy was inspired by innumerable old adventure movies, a claim that is largely backed up by the transcript of the meetings in which they, along with screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan, hashed out the film’s plot.)

The leap from Harry Steele to Hiram Bingham is a little harder to make. What puzzled me the first time I watched Secret of the Incas was that it was loaded with slightly off-key references from actual Inca history, remnants from a not-quite-erased earlier story peeking through like a palimpsest. The American archaeologists’ Quechua helper is named Pachacutec; the foreigners are excavating at Machu Picchu in hopes of finding the tomb of Manco Inca; everyone in the movie is searching for the sun disk, the holiest relic from the Koricancha, which supposedly has been buried at Machu Picchu. Bingham’s Lost City of the Incas would have been far and away the most accessible source of this information. (From LCI, chapter nine: “The great golden image of the Sun which had been one of the chief ornaments of the temple in Cusco was probably kept here at Machu Picchu after Manco escaped from Cusco.”) The screenwriter Sydney Boehm, however, told the San Francisco Chronicle that he got the idea for Secret after meeting the Peruvian-born chanteuse Yma Sumac, who also appeared in the film, at a party.

The full story is a bit more complicated than that. Buried in Beverly Hills amid the hundreds of thousands of files in the archives of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences are the production notes of Secret of the Incas. In late 1951, Boehm (who had just written the screenplay for the noir classic The Big Heat) and a partner submitted three loose ideas to the head of production at Paramount. One of them was titled “Lost City of the Incas.” The film was planned as an adventure yarn set in Peru. Bingham’s widely publicized book of the same name had been published less than three years earlier. In another memo written a few months later, Boehm’s lead character had been fleshed out. Stanley Moore was a Yale-trained archaeologist, “a tall, slender man with an abstracted face” who was carrying out excavations at Machu Picchu.

By 1953, for whatever reason — a potential lawsuit from Bingham doesn’t seem entirely out of the realm of possibility — Boehm’s story emerged from the Hollywood sausage grinder with a new title and a new lead character, the rough-edged Harry Steele. Stanley Moore was stripped of his Yale credentials and relegated to a supporting role as the sap that doesn’t get the girl.

So in a roundabout way, Indiana Jones almost certainly had been inspired by Bingham’s discovery of Machu Picchu. Unlike Bingham, however, Indy knew his archaeoastronomy.