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40 Years Ago: Raiders of the Lost Ark Starts Production

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Indiana Jones Makes His First Appearance Before Cameras

By the middle of June, 1980, The Empire Strikes Back had been in theaters one month and was beginning a wider release. Unlike most sequels of the time, it was fast becoming a sensation. But Lucasfilm was already onto its next project, and in partnership with Paramount Pictures and director Steven Spielberg, were ready to start making a different type of adventure film: Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Though production was based in England, principal photography commenced on location on the southwest coast of France. On Monday, June 23, 1980, cast and crew assembled for the first day of shooting at the Port de la Pallice in La Rochelle. The location was an authentic German submarine pen from their occupation during World War II (playing the part of a secret island base in the Mediterranean Sea). Inside, a full replica U-boat had been constructed for the 1981 film Das Boot, and was on short-term loan to Lucasfilm. As associate producer Robert Watts noted during production, the location “even had German writing on [the wall] from the war.”

Crew had been onsite for a week making preparations. Actors, including Harrison Ford (Indiana Jones), Karen Allen (Marion Ravenwood), and Paul Freeman (Rene Belloq), had arrived over the weekend (none of them had worked with Steven Spielberg before). The Monday’s shoot involved 59 extras as German soldiers for the scene where the Ark of the Covenant is unloaded from the submarine, and Indiana Jones attempts to hide nearby, managing to swap his own attire for a disguise. (It’s curious to think that during Harrison Ford’s first days playing Indy, he was wearing a German uniform rather than his iconic fedora and jacket!) It was a smooth, efficient day.

Succeeding days were anything but smooth, as cast and crew put to sea for filming aboard the Bantu Wind and submarine. Though seasickness took many victim, the days were successful, and by the end of the week, they’d wrapped in France and returned to England. A great adventure was underway. Before it was over, cast and crew would spend weeks at Elstree Studios, and weeks more on location in North Africa and Hawaii. Remarkably, the complex production came in under schedule, and Raiders of the Lost Ark was released on June 12, 1981, less than a year after the first day of shooting.

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