Sunday, 17 February 2013

Chapter 5, Part 2 - Harrison Ford: Matinee Idol

Keeping Indie independent

Despite his enthusiasm for the project, one aspect of Raiders bothered Ford. ‘My only immediate reservation about playing Indiana Jones,’ said Ford, ‘was that in the script the character was a little bit like Han Solo. Steven Spielberg and I wanted to make sure that the characters were spread apart. We did that by making use of the opportunities that existed in Lawrence Kasdan’s screenplay.’

Time was too short for a re-write of the script. Yet Spielberg recognised in Ford a native ability with dialogue and wanted to implement some of Ford’s suggestions. What happened was like a scene out of a Let’s-make-a-movie movie. ‘The production was based in London,’ said Ford, ‘and Steve and I sat on the plane from Los Angeles and went through the script, line by line, for fourteen hours. By the time we got to Heathrow, we’d worked out the entire film.’

It’s just as well that they had, for no sooner had Spielberg and Ford arrived in Britain than the entire cast and crew were whisked off to La Rochelle in France to spend the first five days of the movie’s shooting schedule filming the submarine hijack of the Bantu Wind. It was during these five days that Ford was to get his first taste of the stunts he would be required to perform in the course of portraying Indiana Jones. ‘Swimming to the submarine didn’t involve danger,’ said Ford, ‘it only involved discomfort.’ The worst was yet to come.

Steven Spielberg directs Harrison Ford in the Peruvian Temple set
that features in the strong opening of
Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Star Wars had put the phrase ‘special effects’ into everyone’s mouth. Suddenly, after Star Wars opened, reviews were peppered with the words. It was as though George Lucas had invented the concept all by himself. With Raiders, Lucas was to elevate another previously ignored movie art to star status. Stunts.

Much was made, at the time, of the fact that Harrison Ford did many of his own stunts for the film. ‘Hell,’ he quipped, ‘if I hadn’t done some of the stunts in Raiders, I wouldn’t have been seen in the movie at all.’ Yet strangely Ford is no kind of keep fit freak. ‘People always ask me how I keep in shape. Every time the question comes up, I can manage to sneer. It’s a common enough question, considering Raiders. And I say, being in movies is enough exercise for me.’

In reality, Ford was lucky enough to have some of the best stuntmen and stunt directors in the business working with him. Stuntmen are always used for the most dangerous ‘gags’ for the simple reason that if the star of the film were to hurt himself and hold up shooting, hundreds of thousands of dollars would be wasted.

‘There were some very capable stuntmen doing some of the action bits, but I probably did a good deal more action stunts than an actor normally would do. That was important because we wanted to have our fights always be character fights, instead of just having whatever spectacular event a stuntman could come up with. Indiana Jones fights in a certain way, which Steven (Spielberg) let the stuntmen and me choreograph. Some of Indy’s battles are incredible. “How can Indy possibly do all this?” We had to take the edge off that with a bit of humour and at the same time not make fun of the material. So Indiana Jones had to be a character with a sense of humour. It’s Indy’s way of looking at life that makes our fights unique!’

Glen Randall was the stunt co-ordinator on Raiders. Says Randall, ‘They talk about the dangers stuntmen go through, wrecking cars and airplanes, but I think the stunt that gets the most people hurt in this industry is the simple fight routine. When you throw a punch, you’re throwing it with all the force you’d normally use to hit someone, but you’re missing them by inches. There are a lot of stuntmen who just cringe when they find out they’ve got to do a fight with an actor who’s not had a lot of experience doing them – ’cos nine times out of ten, they’re going to get hit!’

Harrison Ford raced the boulder ten times
- astonishing that he won every time.

One of the most spectacular thrills in Raiders is in the opening sequence when Indy races the giant rolling boulder for the exit in the Temple. It was Ford himself outracing the rock. ‘Looked a little scared that scene, didn’t I? I’d have to have been crazy not to be. It wasn’t a real boulder, but it wasn’t cardboard, either. It took 800 pounds of plaster to make it roll right. And if I had tripped, I could have been in big trouble. The director thought at first we ought to use a stuntman - but I thought I could do it and Glen Randall, our stunt coordinator, agreed. We all felt the more action scenes I could personally do, the easier it would be for the audience to identify with and believe in the character. But if I didn’t trust the stunt guys who were manning the safety devices and looking out for me, I never would have done it. No way!’ The scene was shot from five different angles, twice from each angle. ‘So Harrison had to race the rock ten times,’ said Spielberg. ‘He won ten times and beat the odds. He was lucky. And I was an idiot for letting him try!’ 

Indy’s escape from the Well of Souls provided an opportunity to the filmmakers for a really spectacular stunt. In an effort to break a hole through the wall of his prison, Indy topples a huge statue of a jackal god and rides it as it falls, a tip of the hat, perhaps, to Slim Pickens’ riding the Atom Bomb to his last round-up in Dr Strangelove. Harrison Ford, intrepid but not stupid, knew the time to step aside for professional stunt double Martin Grace.

As Glen Randall explained, ‘The Jackal was 28, maybe 29, feet high. Plaster of Paris but still incredibly heavy. And we put big hydraulic rams on one leg and hinged it at the bottom so we knew exactly the plane it was going to fall in. It could only fall one way, if everything went right. We had a huge breakaway wall for it to fall through.’

But for all the planning, something went wrong as the stunt was filmed. If you watch closely during this scene in the movie, you’ll see ‘Indy’ lose his footing for an instant as the statue begins to topple. ‘Yes, it went too soon,’ agreed Martin Grace. ‘And that’s when you have to think very fast. I was actually still hanging down when it started going. I should have been actually on my position ... Stunt people are usually very fast thinking people. In situations like that you have to think very fast and get it together. We’ve got sort of lightning reflexes, very sharp minds and that’s a great combination to come up with the goods.’ Grace emerged unscathed.

With Ford doing so many of his own gags, it’s no surprise that he had a couple of near misses himself.

‘There’s a scene where I run through the jungle,’ Ford told an American magazine, ‘swing on a vine, let go the vine, fall into the river, grab onto the pontoon of a seaplane that’s taxi-ing, get onto the wing and climb into the cockpit as it was taking off – and the plane crashed on take-off.

Of course Ford wasn’t hurt. But it does show that no matter how careful you are, accidents will happen.

Ford and George Lucas sit in the shade beneath
the Flying Wing aircraft on location in Tunisia.
Harrison Ford must have been on a lucky streak during the filming of Raiders. He had had another near miss on location in Tunisia during the shooting of the Tannis Dig sequence. Ford told the story to Prevue, the magazine published by Raiders’ concept artist Jim Steranko. ‘Indy has a fight which takes place in and around the propellers of a Flying Wing airplane. The engines are running full tilt and one set of wheels is chocked, so the plane’s going round in circles. The bad guy is supposed to throw me down in front of the wheels and I was supposed to roll over backwards to get away from the wheels.

‘All day long the technical crew was having trouble with the plane. It weighed a couple of tons, so they were powering it with low-gear, high-torque electric motors – the kind that can push through a brick wall without slowing down. They had to stay out of camera range, at the end of a cable 50 yards away.

‘I still wanted to do the fight myself. I’m able to add bits of character touches to moments like these, and when the audience recognises the actor, it adds credibility to what is normally straight action stuff. We rehearsed the scene several times, then decided to shoot it.

Ford wanted the audience to see it was really him fighting
the tough German soldier beneath the Flying Wing.

‘Everybody’s ready and the take begins. I go down and start to roll away – and my foot slips, right under the rolling plane’s tyre.

‘Everybody was yelling, “Stop! STOP!” while the tyre crawled up my leg. Luckily the brakes worked – inches before my knee was crushed – but I was pinned to the sand.

‘I’m not normally a worrier, I know they’re not going to kill the main character in a twenty million dollar film. I also know Indy wouldn’t look good with a peg-leg. I was a lot more careful about stunt work after that!’

And he’d have to be. Still to come was the hazardous chase in which Indy starts by leaping from a horse onto the speeding German truck that’s carrying the Ark, and ends with our hero falling from the front of the truck, crawling hand over hand beneath the vehicle, then being dragged for a couple of miles down the road in the dirt before climbing up the tail board. You’d think for that Ford would insist on a stuntman. He did, and he got one ... for the long-shots. In the close-ups, there was Ford, hanging onto the rear of the truck, scraping up the gravel road on his belly. As usual, Ford was dismissive. ‘It couldn’t possibly be dangerous,’ he said at the time, ‘because I have a few more weeks shooting the picture.’

It's pretty unlikely that it's actually Ford in this shot
- almost certainly stuntman Martin Grace.

Being so closely involved in so many of the gags on Raiders has given Harrison Ford a stuntman’s outlook as far as ‘falls’ are concerned. ‘The stuff that always turns out to be dangerous is the stuff nobody thinks about. It’s not the dangerous stunts – which you think about, protect yourself, calculate and worry about, so that you take the danger out of it – it’s the stuff you didn’t think was dangerous that sneaks upon you.’

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