Sunday, 17 March 2013

Chapter 5, Part 3 - Harrison Ford: Matinee Idol

‘Snakes. Why did it have to be snakes?’

Most people would think that an actor who also did so many of his own stunts, like Harrison Ford, would have enough on his plate in a film like Raiders of the Lost Ark. Not so. The folk who made Raiders knew that the more severe the trials suffered by the hero, the more the audience would be rooting for him. Also, a hero with a failing seems more vulnerable and easier to identify with for an audience. So the filmmakers gave Indiana Jones a fear of snakes and needless to say, Indy met more than just a few snakes during his adventures in Raiders. The Well of Souls was filled with them.

‘Steven Spielberg kept wanting more and more snakes,’ said Ford, ‘but he had to make do with six thousand garden and grass snakes flown in from Holland, and used bits of garden hose to fill the spaces the boas and pythons couldn’t.’

Fords’s co-star, Karen Allen, wasn’t mad about doing the scene in the Well of Souls at first. ‘Harrison has on his boots and gloves, and leather clothes, and I have naked arms and nothing on my legs or feet. In the beginning it was tough, because I just couldn’t stand the snakes on my feet. But I got used to them.’

Producer Frank Marshall, who shot some of the snake footage, wasn’t wild about reptiles, either. ‘I had to cure myself of a common phobia of snakes. But once you see other people, like a snake handler, not worry about it, then you touch one. Then I got to be real comfortable with them. Some of the shots I did were a real challenge. Snakes aren’t afraid of anything, they’d even go right into the fire. So we had to invent a way to get them to stay away from the fire.’

Though most of the snakes used in the scene were harmless, the crew did use a couple of cobras, whose bite can kill, to add a little real danger for Indy.

‘When we used the cobras,’ recalled Howard Kazanjian, the film’s co-executive producer, ‘we had a hospital gurney on the set, and outside the stage we had ambulances with open doors. On the end of the gurney was an open medical kit with a hypodermic needle placed into the phial of serum from India.’ This does sound like a typical piece of studio hype.

The publicity folks obligingly airbrushed the cobra's
reflection out of the picture in this still, but
you can see it quite clearly in the movie.

In the shot where Indy comes face-to-face with the angry cobra, it’s pretty easy to see the cobra’s reflection in the sheet of glass that separates them. The gurney and the hypo were probably for the unfortunates whose job it was to handle the snakes off-camera.

Harrison Ford dismisses Indy’s fear of snakes with his characteristic easy smile. ‘They don’t bother me at all. When I was a kid, I worked in a boy scout camp as a nature councillor, I used to collect them. Used to run and catch every snake we could. And I’m amazed that that’s the most frightening scene for most people.’

But, as I said, all heroes must have a failing. There is something the intrepid Ford doesn’t like. ‘Spiders!’ he told Movie Star magazine. ‘Not because they’re creepy, but inside my house they multiply, and then their kids have kids. Ugh. All those spiders all over the place.’

One particularly gruesome scene in Raiders does just happen to have a few spiders in it. The scene in the Temple in Peru. But unlike the scene with the snakes, it was the spiders that had to be watched out for rather than their human co-stars. ‘It’s funny how people think tarantulas are so dangerous,’ said producer Frank Marshall, ‘when in fact they’re very fragile creatures. If they fall or you drop them, they die. You have to be very careful with them. We did lose one of them one day when two got in a fight – a battle to the death.’

But for Ford, it was the snakes that had the last laugh: shortly after the opening of Raiders, Ford told author Tony Crawley of a strange incident. ‘Back home,’ said Ford, ‘just the other week – you’re not going to believe this – I got bitten by a damn snake in my garden!’

‘I put as much of myself into the characters as possible.’

The only other thing Harrison Ford had to do in Raiders of the Lost Ark was portray the character of Indiana Jones. Director Steven Spielberg had nothing but praise for Ford’s abilities as an actor. ‘Harrison is a very original leading man,’ he said. ‘There’s not been anybody like him for 30 or 40 years. In this film he is a remarkable combination of Errol Flynn in The Adventures of Don Juan and Humphrey Bogart as Fred C. Dobbs in Treasure of the Sierra Madre. He carries this picture wonderfully.’ 

Ford effortlessly conveyed the many aspects of
Indy's character - scholar, brawler, adventurer, scoundrel.

Ford was well aware of what was expected of him. ‘It’s a question of responsibility to define the character for the audience, to make the film as good as you can.’

But he had a good ally in Steven Spielberg. ‘Steve allowed a kind of collaboration that was really a lot of fun for me. I like to become really involved as much, and as long, as possible. If I had a little bit of an idea, Steve added to it, and then I added to it, and then he added to it, and it built into something we both thought was better than before ... or so stupid we both ended up rolling about on the floor with laughter.’

And, in the spirit of Indy’s line in the movie, ‘I’m making this up as I go,’ Ford and Spielberg were making changes to the script even during actual shooting.

‘My only impulse to change lines comes when the words are impossible to get out of my mouth,’ said Ford. ‘The process of film-making involves so many situations and personalities that it becomes a very liquid medium. The physical presence of actors and crew are concrete factors, but the script should relate to them more like a road map of probabilities than a rigid blueprint.’

The biggest change Spielberg and Ford made to the script was to delete the ‘Sword vs the Whip’ duel that was written as a climax to the battle in the marketplace in Cairo. In the film, Indy comes face to face with a giant of a swordsman. The swordsman performs an intricate routine with a huge scimitar. Indy, unimpressed, pulls out his revolver and shoots him. Not sporting, but efficient.

‘I was in my fifth week of dysentery at the time,’ recalled Ford later. ‘The location was an hour and a half drive from where we stayed. I’m riding to the set at 5.30am, and I can’t wait to storm up to Steven with this idea. I’d worked out we could save four whole days on this lousy location this way. Besides which, I think it was right and important, because what’s more vital in the character’s mind is finding Marion. He doesn’t have time for another fight. But as is very often the case, when I suggested it to Steven – “Let’s just shoot the sucker” – he said, “I just thought the same thing this morning.” Sure, the idea was nothing. Putting it on film, that’s the most difficult part.’

The whip vs scimitar battle would have been fun, but Ford
and Spielberg were right to drop it. Indy had to save Marion ...

That scene also told the audience much about Indiana Jones. The world-weary expression on Indy’s face as he draws his gun, sums up the character’s directness. As Ford explains, ‘Indy is a kind of swashbuckling hero type, but he has human frailties. He does brave things, but I wouldn’t describe him as a hero. He teaches, but I wouldn’t describe him as an intellectual. I wanted to avoid any elements in the role that might be too similar to Han Solo. But Indy doesn’t have any fancy gadgetry keeping him at a distance from enemies and trouble. The story is set in 1936, after all, and he’s right in there with just his battered trilby and a bull-whip to keep the world at bay.’


‘All I care about is good acting,’ George Lucas was once quoted as saying. ‘Star value is only an insurance policy for those who don’t trust themselves making films.’ But when Raiders of the Lost Ark opened in America on July 12th, 1981, that’s exactly what Harrison Ford had plenty of.

‘There’s more excitement in the first ten minutes of Raiders,’ said Playboy’s Bruce Williamson, ‘than any movie I have seen all year. By the time the explosive misadventures end, any moviegoer worth his salt ought to be exhausted.’

Just about all the reviews were of the same opinion. Raiders was a masterpiece of popular cinema. ‘Surely destined to go down in history as one of the great, fun movies,’ said Britain’s trade journal, Screen International.

Raiders represents Spielberg’s best work in years, a return to the briskness and coherence that have been missing since Jaws,’ said Time magazine.

At the press screening I attended in 1981, the opening twelve minutes received a standing ovation from the several hundred jaded film hacks in attendance. Now that’s a reaction.

The film’s reception at the box-office was nothing short of exuberant, which came as no great surprise, ending up as the highest earning movie of 1981. Its position in the all-time box-office hit list is just as impressive, with the film at the 40th position earning a US gross of over $242 million.

At the 1981 Academy Awards, Raiders was nominated in the categories Best Music, Best Cinematography, Best Director and Best Picture, and won for Best Sound, Best Special Effects, Best Art Direction and Best Editing. The film also earned Ben Burtt and Richard Anderson a Special Oscar for Achievement in Sound Effects Editing.

Ford himself was happy about his involvement in the film and the end result.

Indy and Marion share a Gone with the Wind moment
as they're reunited after all those years.

Raiders is really about movies,’ he explained. ‘It is intricately designed as a tribute to the craft. I’m quite in awe of the film, and the way it was accomplished. Steven set out to make an epic film, technically complex, on a short schedule. He finished twelve days early and under budget. He didn’t waste any time in retakes. Steve was very fast and efficient, and that’s the way I like to work.’

Yet his experience on Raiders did leave Ford with one cautionary thought ‘I occasionally wonder how much longer I can perform in heavy action roles,’ he told an interviewer. ‘Working in sub-zero blizzards and 130 degree deserts is incredibly demanding, physically. Sometimes I think the most difficult part of being in films is being cool as an airplane rolls over your leg – and acting like it doesn’t hurt at all.’

As Harrison Ford’s next film project drew closer, his attitude had mellowed a little ‘With me,’ he said, ‘the last film is always the toughest. I’ll soon be down on record as saying Blade Runner was the toughest.’

By the time Ford had finished with Raiders in late 1980 and returned to his home in Benedict Canyon, Melissa had moved in with him and the tabloids were inexplicably in another feeding frenzy. One of the first guests they welcomed as a couple was British film director Ridley Scott who was courting Ford for the lead in his next picture, a science fiction detective yarn based on the Philip K. Dick novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?