It is 1936 and American Archaeologist Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) removes a golden idol from a Peruvian temple, avoiding many booby-traps, a duplicitous guide (Alfred Molina), and a hostile tribe, only to have his rival René Belloq (Paul Freeman) take the prize away. But Jones escapes in a plane flown by his friend Jock (Fred Sorenson). Back in the States, he is briefed by two Army Intelligence officers (Don Fellows and William Hootkins) that the Nazis are digging at Tanis, Egypt, in search of the Lost Ark of the Covenant. Legend says that an army marching with this sacred object at its head is invincible. They ask Jones to get it first.
At a bar in Nepal, Jones meets up with his old mentor’s daughter Marion (Karen Allen), with whom he had had an affair. Nasty Gestapo agent Arnold Toht (Ronald Lacey) shows up looking for the medallion Jones is looking for, which portrays a map of the Ark’s location. The bar is set ablaze in a gunfight and Toht grabs the medallion in the flames, burning the image into his hand, but Jones and Marion escape with the medallion. In Cairo, they meet Jones’s old friend Sallah (John Rhys-Davies), who reveals that Belloq is helping the Nazis, who have rebuilt the medallion from the burned impression on Toht’s hand. Jones is attacked by Nazi soldiers and mercenaries and Marion seems to have been killed.
An Imam deciphers the medallion, including what is on the other side, which the Nazis do not have. It is clear that the Nazis are digging in the wrong place. Jones and his allies infiltrate the dig site and use the medallion to locate the Ark, which is an ornate golden chest. But they are discovered by the Nazis and Jones and Marion, still alive and held prisoner by Belloq, are entombed with snakes. Why does it have to be snakes? But they escape and Jones takes control of the truck carrying the Ark. They transfer the Ark to a tramp steamer, but a German U-boat intercepts the ship Marion and the Ark are taken. Jones manages to ride the U-boat.
On an island in the Aegean Sea, Belloq intends to test the power of the Ark before presenting it to Hitler. Jones is captured as well and held with Marion. Belloq opens the Ark but finds only sand. Jones and Marion close their eyes so as not to see the sacred contents, but spirits, flames, and bolts of lightning emerge from the Ark and kill Belloq and all the Nazis. Back in Washington, the Ark is boxed up by the U.S. government and stuck in a huge warehouse.
The film was directed by Steven Spielberg and written by Lawrence Kasdan, based on a story by Philip Kaufmann and George Lucas, who had conceived of the story back in 1970, as a modernized homage to the matinee adventure serials of his childhood. As Lucas was rather busy with a little project called Star Wars, Spielberg took over. At first, there was little interest, but it became the highest grossing film of 1981. It received five Oscars, seven Saturns, and a BAFTA. It is now considered one of the great films of all time and sequels are still happening, not to mention the videogames, comics, novels, and theme-park attractions. The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles TV-series (1992-3) featured different actors playing Jones at different ages.
Indiana was the name of George Lucas’s dog, which was also the inspiration for Chewbacca. Many actors were considered for the role of Jones. It came down to Tom Selleck, but he was obliged to do Magnum, P.I. Spielberg had been impressed by Harrison Ford in The Empire Strikes Back. Ford thought the role was a hoot and tried to get in physical shape. Indiana is constantly battered and beaten, but never gives up and audiences love him. Karen Allen is a tough, no-nonsense babe who kills as many Nazis as Indiana does, but perhaps the best casting was Ronald Lacey as the Nazi villain Toht, based on Himmler, who reminded Spielberg of Peter Lorre and was hated on sight by audiences. Filming in Tunisia was Hell and everyone was sick except Spielberg, who brought his own food from England. The submarine was borrowed from Das Boot. An Egyptian boat was kitted out as a tramp steamer.
The crew was tortured by mosquitos in the jungles of Hawaii, pretending to be Peru. The loosely written script allowed brilliant actors to improvise. John Williams, of course, wrote the great music. There were literally thousands of snakes. One died--a python bitten by a cobra. Stanley Kubrick’s daughter called in the SPCA on the production. Industrial Light and Magic created much of the special effects, including the angels and demons from the Ark and the melting Nazi faces. Costume designer Deborah Nadoolman dumped hats all over the floor for Harrison Ford to try on, and when they had the right one, they covered it in dirt, sat on it, and stuck it under a mattress. Later, she rescued the hat from Skywalker Ranch and had it displayed in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.
Discussions about the film idea happened on vacation in Hawaii while Lucas and Spielberg were making a sandcastle. During shooting-breaks, Spielberg first discussed his idea for E.T. Famously, the scene in which Indie draws his gun and plugs a swordsman happened because he was sick and didn’t want to do the long fight scene. Also, freeze-framing reveals that R2-D2 and C-3PO appear in the Well of Souls carvings. The opening scene in the Peruvian temple is partially based on a story in a Scrooge McDuck comic book from 1959. The airplane starting up makes the same sound as the Millennium Falcon. All the German vehicles are accurate replicas. Indie’s stunt on the truck was a tribute to Yakima Canutt’s stunt in John Ford’s Stagecoach in 1939.