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Defining Moments: A Brush With History

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The Arch Nemesis of Indiana Jones Calls the Hero’s Bluff

“Defining Moments” is a continuing series exploring key scenes or sequences from Lucasfilm’s many productions. It examines storytelling craft, behind-the-scenes insights, and cultural legacies from each selection. Revisit an old favorite or discover something brand new…

Production: Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) has one last trick up his sleeve. Sneaking his way onto a nameless Mediterranean island, he steals a Nazi uniform, and follows the villainous party into an arid mountain range. The enemy plans to open the Ark of the Covenant, the ultimate prize. But they’ve also taken Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen) prisoner. High atop a ridge, Indy catches the group in a barren canyon and aims a grenade-launcher at the Ark, threatening to blow it up unless they release Marion. Though Jones’ persistence is surprising, arch-nemesis René Belloq (Paul Freeman) has his own last trick up his sleeve.

In reality, the desert canyon was in North Africa, near Tozeur, Tunisia. The Raiders crew filmed in spots around the country in September 1980. This canyon was a familiar spot to some, like executive producer George Lucas and associate producer Robert Watts, who had worked on Star Wars: A New Hope. Over four years earlier, in March of 1976, they’d filmed scenes with R2-D2 and a band of scavenging Jawas in the same place. That scene left R2-D2 a prisoner of the desert creatures. Now the canyon would see Indiana Jones give himself up to Nazi captors.

Indy and Belloq share much in common. “I am but a shadowy reflection of you,” the cunning Frenchman tells Indy earlier in the film. Both are archaeologists, each lusting to obtain prizes. Only their methods differ. At the end of their exhaustive pursuit of the Ark, Belloq calls Jones’ bluff. He dares him to “just blow it up,” to “blow it back to God.” He appeals to their desire to uncover the knowledge of the ancient treasure, and attain fortune and glory. “You and I are simply passing through history,” Belloq says. “This, this is history.”

Indy says nothing. He lowers his weapon. Belloq is right. He won’t blow it up. But what the Frenchman doesn’t realize is that Jones is willing to let it go to save Marion. He’s even willing to forego discovering the secrets within the Ark to ensure her safety, and his own. So the hero and villain part ways, and Indy and Marion close their eyes in the face of a supernatural power.

Raiders of the Lost Ark is a barreling adventure full of chases and escapes. But in quiet moments of dialogue, words outdistance punches or explosions. Belloq’s rhetoric stops Indiana Jones in his tracks.

“Harrison [Ford] is giving the performance of his life, which I’m sure he’ll top in his next film,” director Steven Spielberg commented during the production. “But at least up to now this is the best I’ve seen him. He’s just amazing, every day. But it has to look effortless and it does.” Ford, Paul Freeman, and all the Raiders cast brought subtlety to a brawling action epic.

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