Raiders of the Lost Ark: 14 revelations about its epic opening scene
Here are some things you probably didn't know about the greatest action movie opening sequence ever shot
The jungle. The temple. The traps. The boulder. The first 12 minutes of Raiders of the Lost Ark has been called the greatest opening sequence in action film history, launching not only the Indiana Jones five-film franchise but countless imitators. With director Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One opening this weekend, EW is revisiting one of the master’s greatest triumphs of the 1980s. Hold onto your fedoras for 14 behind-the-scenes revelations about how Speilberg and writer George Lucas made Hollywood history:
1. Indy leading his team through the jungle during the opening credits looks like it was all shot in the same location. Yet producer Frank Marshall tells EW those three minutes of hiking were actually filmed in eight-to-10 different spots all around Hawaii. And that famous fade-in from the Paramount logo to an actual mountain? “That was an idea Steven kind of sprung on us,” Marshall says, sending the producer scrambling across Kauai at the last minute until he found the perfect peak. This is one of those production problems that would never happen today, as a production would can easily create a mountain background with CG — yet knowing it’s real adds something, don’t you think?
2. Lawrence Kasdan’s original script contains several lines of dialogue during the jungle trek that were cut. The traitorous guide Barranca (who draws his pistol on Indy at the river) was to have the film’s opening line (“They’re talking about the curse again”) while Indy’s first line was to be “No, we don’t need them” as Barranca moves to gun down their fleeing native gear-bearers. Ultimately none of it was necessary, so Indy doesn’t speak until they reach the temple (“This is it. This is where Forrestal cashed in”).
3. Barranca’s exit was originally more elaborate, and fatal. Instead of fleeing after Indy disarms him with his bullwhip, Barranca was to get entangled with the whip, his pistol pointed at himself. Then Indy jerks the whip and the gun goes off, killing him. This would have come across a bit goofy for the suspenseful tone of the sequence, so it seems like a wise deletion.
4. Indy was originally going to be introduced with a “weird feather” sticking out of his iconic fedora. Inside the feather’s quill was hidden a tightly rolled map to the temple. Satipo was to have the other half of the map and they would put the pieces together outside the temple so Indy could form a game plan before they went inside. Ultimately, it would have just made the wind-up more elaborate.
5. The temple raid was shot inside Elstree Studios and has several wildly different inspirations that have been cited by Lucas and Spielberg over the years: Cliffhanging 1930s action serials (which is why Raiders opens with the climax of a previous adventure — albeit one the viewer has never seen before); Uncle Scrooge adventure comics from the 1950s (fans have speculated that one issue in particular, “The Seven Cities of Cibola,” was a specific influence), James Bond movies (the opening is not unlike some of the cold open set-pieces from the Bond films) and Disneyland dark rides such as “Pirates of the Caribbean.” “The piece should be like a real horror ride … what we’re doing here is designing a ride at Disneyland,” said Spielberg during the film’s earliest brainstorm meeting.
6. A long woody vine called Old Man’s Beard was used to decorate the outside of the temple. It’s the same kind used for the Dagobah set in The Empire Strikes Back. (Many of the Raiders crew members were culled from Star Wars).
7. One of the sequence’s creepiest moments is when Satipo (Alfred Molina, filming his first scene ever in a movie) finds himself covered with dozens of skittering tarantulas. But during filming the spiders, all males, wouldn’t move after being placed on his body, frustrating Spielberg who thought they looked fake. The crew’s spider wrangler solved the problem by adding one female to mix. “Suddenly all hell breaks loose,” Molina once recalled. “They’re running onto my face and Steven is going, ‘Shoot! Shoot! … Alfred, look scared!’ and [I’m all], “I’m scared! I’m scared!”
8. We were originally supposed to see Indy stealing other small pieces of art from inside the temple along the way to the golden idol. These pieces are actually shown in the film once Indy returns to Connecticut and he gives them to Marcus Brody.
9. The temple’s traps were originally a bit different: A mass of vines that could trigger a rock wall that crushes intruders was scripted and discarded (“there’s a whole pile of skeletons but they’re completely flattened,” Spielberg imagined). And the bottomless pit Indy and Satipo swing across was originally to be covered with dusty cobwebs, giving the deadly illusion of a false floor. Satipo was to carelessly step through the cobwebs and then gets quickly pulled back from the precipice by Indy, who then uses his whip to break the cobwebs and show that it’s a false ground. The trap that used a shaft of light to triggers spikes was always part of the plan, as were the stones in the floor that trigger deadly darts in the idol room. Both of the discarded ideas would later be revisited in rather different ways in the film’s sequels, Temple of Doom (the squeezing spikes room) and The Last Crusade (the optical illusion leap of faith chasm).
10. The gold idol was actually built with a mechanism inside that moved its eyes to creepily follow Indy. This effect does not end up visible in the film, however. Also, not a fact but rather cool: Indy runs sand through his fingers from the sack he uses to counterweight the idol’s pedestal, which is directly echoed later when the Nazis scoop very similar looking sand from the opened Ark — suggesting for a moment that Indy gave away in the beginning of the story is what he spends the rest of the film chasing.
11. The sequence’s most iconic moment is when a giant boulder chases Indy out of the collapsing temple. The original plan was for the fiberglass “rock” to be 65-feet wide (it was later downsized to 22-feet and roughly 500 pounds). Yet once on set Spielberg loved the massive prop so much he had the boulder’s ramp extended another 50 feet to give it a bit more screen time. While the boulder’s menacing crushing rumble was created by sound effects legend Ben Burtt from an amusingly innocent source: His Honda Civic’s tires rolling slowly across gravel.
12. In the original script, Indy loses his hat when running out of the temple and the boulder crushes it, rendering our hero hatless. This actually wasn’t a bad idea for the boulder to “eat” part of our hero’s ensemble as he’s fleeing, rendering him more vulnerable looking once facing Belloq, but this way his “uniform” is kept intact (and keeps us from wondering if he bought a new hat when he appears with one later on).
13. The pilot of the float plane, Jock, who rescued Indy was played by the same actor and professional pilot (Fred Sorenson) who piloted the helicopter that rescued the heroes of Jurassic Park at the end of the film. Marshall tells us that when filming the Jurassic Park scene, Sorenson sang the Raiders of the Lost Ark theme song off-mic as they took off.
14. Perhaps the raid’s greatest achievement: It’s a mini-movie establishing everything there is to know about Indiana Jones: His resourcefulness, capacity of violence, passion for treasure and flashes of humor are all there, along with an unusual amount of fallibility for an action hero — Indy trusts people he shouldn’t (like Satipo) and makes mistakes (like triggering the temple collapse). We’re also introduced to his use of a bullwhip, fear of snakes and even his love for his hat (when he snatches it back from the closing stone door). “It’s an amazing sequence, all of those things tell you what kind of movie it’s going to be,” Marshall notes. Even the raid’s ending gives away how every film in the franchise concludes: Indy loses the golden idol to his rival Belloq, like he eventually loses the Ark to the U.S. government, and just as he loses every treasure he ever seeks in all five movies. He’s an action hero whose appeal is not that he succeeds, but that he just keeps trying.
Raiders of the Lost Ark