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The Untold Truth Of Indiana Jones

There's not a lot of movie characters like Indiana Jones. You can only find a handful of other action heroes who attract the kind of anticipation that surrounds the news of a new Indy movie, let alone forty years after the first. And those lucky few — James Bond, Batman, Superman — were all multimedia juggernauts even before they hit the screen. 

Indiana Jones began with an odd, deeply personal idea that took a long time for a studio to get behind — what if George Lucas and Steven Spielberg could make a version of the low-budget action serials of their youth that was actually as good as they remembered them being? Lucas had proven that formula could work with Star Wars, and with Raiders of Lost Ark he applied it to the more earthbound adventures of his treasure-hunting heroes. In the process, he and Spielberg created a whole new genre of retro globetrotting action.

If most action heroes are either literally or figuratively superhuman, Harrison Ford's iconic performances gave us someone all too human. He can knock out a bad guy and steal his uniform, but it doesn't quite fit. He can survive a night in a tomb crawling with thousands of snakes, but it'll still scare him half to death.

Indiana Jones' fictional adventures have taken him to the most startling places around the world. Some of the adventures that went into creating him, as you'll see below, are almost as unbelievable.

The cast of Indiana Jones could have been very different

It's hard to imagine anyone but Harrison Ford portraying Indiana Jones with his world-weary smirk, but like every role, Dr. Jones could have gone to a number of different stars. GamesRadar reports that casting director Mike Fenton's pick was Jeff Bridges, who'd starred in The Last Picture Show and would go on to find his most iconic role in The Big Lebowski. In hindsight, it's easy to see Bridges' energy as too much of his time to play a '30s adventurer. The Jones abides?

The supporting cast went through some changes too. For Indiana Jones' Egyptian buddy Sallah, Spielberg originally wanted It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia's Danny DeVito, but the star wasn't able to work around his shooting schedule on Taxi. DeVito would get his chance later, playing the Sallah-like sidekick to an Indiana Jones-like archaeologist in Romancing the Stone.

Catching John Rhys-Davies in the Shogun miniseries on TV inspired Spielberg to get him on the phone. Rhys-Davies was skeptical when he saw the script: He tells Empire he asked Spielberg, "Well, look, it says here that Sallah is a 5' 2" skinny Egyptian Bedouin. Are you proposing surgery?"

Tom Selleck's casting inspired the most inside joke in cartoon history

The most famous might-have-been in the Raiders of the Lost Ark cast was Tom Selleck. Then a young unknown, he was Spielberg and Lucas's first choice for the part, and even got as far as a screen test in a custom-fitted version of Indy's iconic fedora and bomber jacket. Unfortunately, he didn't stay unknown once news of his casting got out, inspiring NBC to pick up his starmaking series Magnum, P.I. That soon took up all of his time, so the Raiders crew had to find a new Indy with a more open schedule.

It's the kind of story that circulates frequently through fan and industry circles, but not too far beyond that. It's certainly not the kind of thing you'd expect your average four-year-old to know. So that makes it downright surreal that this bit of Hollywood obscura became the basis for a popular cartoon series, but that's exactly what happened. 

In 1989, Chip and Dale Rescue Rangers reinvented Donald Duck's least favorite pests as action heroes, with costumes to match. Chip wears the classic Indy getup, and Dale wears a Hawaiian shirt that looks an awful lot like the one Selleck donned in Magnum, P.I. The obscurity of the reference doesn't seem to have hurt the show — Rescue Rangers ran three seasons, and Chip and Dale's crew is returning soon with a new movie.

The wranglers trained spiders with the power of sexual tension

The Indiana Jones series sets it tone from the beginning of Raiders of the Lost Ark, a classic, endlessly imitated mini-adventure of Indiana raiding a booby-trapped South American temple to recover a solid gold idol. Many of the series' trademarks are already in place, including its love of swarming creepy-crawlies when Indy and his guide, played by a young Alfred Molina, get swarmed by tarantulas.

As any contemporary viewer can tell you after seeing so many sophisticated special effects, there isn't a one in this scene — those spiders are the real deal. All kinds of movies have kept animal trainers on staff, and whole movies have been built around the tricks that dogs and monkeys can pull off. But that's only possible because of the intelligence of advanced species like dogs and chimps. How exactly do you train a spider?

Molina explains how in the documentary, The Making of Raiders of the Lost Ark, describing how at first the tarantulas just parked on top of him without doing anything: "I hear Steven saying, 'Why aren't they moving? They look fake!' And the spider wrangler says, 'Well, they're all male, you see. But we'll put a female in there, and then they'll fight.' And he gets a female ... and suddenly, it's like all hell breaks loose!"

"Raiders of the Lost Ark" found its most famous scene in a Disney comic book

The scene where Indy has to escape a giant rolling boulder in a South American temple has been copied and parodied more than almost any other scene in movie history, so much that even if you haven't seen the original version, you probably still have a pretty good idea what it's like. But believe it or not, even the original isn't totally original.

Carl Barks became a cult hero with his comics for Disney throughout the '40s and '50s, where he expanded the world of the Donald Duck cartoons with new locations and characters, most famously Donald's rich Uncle Scrooge. It can be hard not to think of Indiana Jones if you pick up most of his stories, with all their plots of adventures to recover ancient treasures from every corner of the earth. There's one in particular that should seem eerily familiar: In The Seven Cities of Gold (published in 1954), Donald and Scrooge discover an ancient city and narrowly escape when their rival treasure hunters the Beagle Boys attempt to remove a booby-trapped emerald idol, disturbing a boulder that destroys the whole place.

The connection should be obvious, and internet sleuth Brian Cronin was able to confirm it through Lucas' friend, Barks scholar Edward Summer. The screenwriter more than paid his debt to the artist who inspired him — it's not hard to imagine Raiders' success inspired Disney to bring Scrooge and friends to a wider audience in the Ducktales animated series. But Lucas certainly should not be ashamed — Seven Cities was also ripped off in the James Bond movie Goldfinger.

Steven Spielberg wanted a "heavy metal" Toht

Every hero needs a villain, and if you're going to set a movie in the '30s, you can't find a better villain than the Nazis. Ronald Lacey represents the Reich in an especially memorable role as the creepily soft-spoken Toht, delivering a performance Spielberg compares in Making of to the great '30s actor Peter Lorre. 

Instead of a physical threat, Toht's frightening in a much creepier, more subtle way, interested more in subterfuge and torture than a fair fight. Credit's also due to costume designer Deborah Nadoolman, who shadows Toht in all-black outfits and accentuates his beady little eyes with round glasses. He's the perfect villain for Raiders' comic book fantasy world, but Spielberg originally wanted to take it even farther. 

He told Empire, "Our biggest dispute was that I had this heavy-metal view of the character of Toht. I saw him with a prosthetic hand that was in fact a machine gun and a flamethrower. He was like The Terminator before The Terminator ... That's where George put his foot down and said, 'Steven, you're crossing out of one genre and into another.'" So they went the opposite direction, replacing the Terminator Toht with the unimposing, wormy creep we know and love to hate. Audiences craving a fight with a Nazi cyborg would just have to wait until Karel Roden took to the screen as Kronen in 2004's Hellboy.

The well of souls sequence was a nightmare to film

After surviving nine or ten different types of near-death incidents in the South American prologue of Raiders, we don't really see Indy scared until he makes it to safety in his buddy's plane and discovers a tame snake in his seat. "I hate snakes!" he snaps, and anyone who knows the principles of screenwriting should know that'll come back to haunt him later. Sure enough, when Indy lowers himself into the Ancient Egyptian Well of Souls to recover the Ark of the Covenant, he finds it carpeted wall-to-wall in thousands of snakes.

In Making of, Spielberg reveals he had originally ordered "two or three thousand snakes" for the scene. That sounds like more snakes than you'd want to see in a lifetime, but it still wasn't enough to cover the set. So the crew ordered a whole continent's worth of snakes from every breeder they could find all over Europe. That included pythons, which in Spielberg's words, are "not poisonous, but man, when they bite, they don't let go." He knows this because one of them latched on to assistant director David Tomblin, who casually asked if someone could take it off for him.

The snakes also weren't very cooperative. The documentary includes a hilarious clip from Spielberg's home movies on the set where he picks up a snake and lectures it, "In the script, you're supposed to hate fire! Why do you like fire? You're ruining my movie!"

"Temple of Doom" nearly had dinosaurs

Raiders of the Lost Ark was such a hit that it's inevitable Harrison Ford would don the fedora again for a sequel. But it took a while to decide what shape that sequel would take. 

Before settling on the plot that would become Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Lucas toyed with several other ideas, and some of them sound downright bananas in the best way. As good as Temple of Doom is, it's hard not to wish some of these rough drafts had reached the screen instead. One idea John Baxter discusses in his George Lucas biography, Mythmaker, is especially tantalizing. 

Lucas would have gone to the granddaddy of all adventure stories, Arthur Conan Doyle's The Lost World, for a story sending Indy to a lost valley where dinosaurs never got the memo on the whole "extinction event" thing. And if that doesn't sound exciting enough, the script also included a bike chase along the Great Wall of China.

Unfortunately, that Chinese setting turned out to be the sticking point, since the government in Beijing wouldn't agree to let Lucas and Spielberg shoot there. So Lucas started from scratch, coming up with a dark plot about cults, slavery, and mind control that eventually became Temple of Doom.

"Temple of Doom" got kicked out of India

Moving to India was only the beginning of Temple of Doom's production woes. According to Baxter, it seemed like smooth sailing at first. Spielberg even had official permits to film in the historic Jaipur Palace pending a script review. Then the government reviewed the script. 

We can't be sure what specifically the Indian government objected to, but it's not hard to guess. Could it be the portrayal of "savage" Indians serving up gross-out cuisine like monkey brains and snake surprise when real-life Hinduism requires vegetarianism? The even more blasphemous skewering of religious traditions in its portrayal of the goddess Kali as an unambiguous force of evil, opposed by Shiva who, according to the actual scriptures, is really her husband? The ending where the repressive British army, which India still celebrates its liberation from, arrives like superheroes to save the day?

For any (or more likely, all) of these reasons, Temple of Doom moved to Sri Lanka. This time, Lucas didn't give the script a rewrite to account for his location difficulties, which led to some odd inconsistencies. Most obviously, except for Bollywood star Amrish Puri as the big bad Mola Ram, most of the bit parts went to Sri Lankan locals. 

While most American audiences probably wouldn't notice, it must be hard for native speakers to ignore they're all speaking their native Sinhalese, even though they're supposed to be Indian. Of course, Indian audiences had to wait a while to pass judgment — Temple of Doom was banned in India for years.

An elephant ate a dress on the "Temple of Doom" set

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom introduced a new love interest and unwilling travel partner for Indy with Kate Capshaw as Willie Scott. Capshaw was clearly excited about the breakthrough role — in Best Defense, released the same year, her character whistles the theme music from the Indiana Jones movies in a subtle reference. 

The crew pulled out all the stops for her introduction, with an elaborate musical number inspired by Busby Berkeley's musicals from the era when the film was set. Her costume was even more elaborate: In Making the Trilogy, costume designer Anthony Powell explains that it was made from genuine antique beads and sequences from the period. That meant that, while most Hollywood costumes come with backups, there was only enough vintage material to make one. 

But before they could film the nightclub scene, Spielberg's crew had to film a later one where Willie leaves her dress resting on a branch in the forest while an elephant hangs out in the background. Powell realized, in his words, "the elephant was calmly eating the whole back out of the dress." Powell then described his embarrassment at filling out an insurance claim that listed the cause of damage as "Eaten by elephant."

As if that wasn't enough, after weeks of rehearsing her dance steps for the nightclub scene, Capshaw discovered the dress was so tight she couldn't even dance in it.

The prologue to "Last Crusade" references the producer's magic career

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade opens with the future archaeologist's early adventure as a young boy, played by River Phoenix. On a caving expedition with his Boy Scout troop, young Indy discovers a team of graverobbers in the process of stealing a priceless gold cross that belonged to the Spanish explorer Francisco Vázquez de Coronado. Indy chases the robbers across a moving circus train in a sequence that offers origin stories for all the things that make Indy Indy: His love of archaeology, his trademark hat and whip, his fear of snakes and the scar on his chin (in real life, the result of a Harrison Ford car accident in 1964).

But if you're paying close attention and have some inside knowledge, you can spot a reference to Indy's real-world origins too. 

All four of his cinematic appearances were produced by Frank Marshall. Producing isn't his only skill, though, as he's taken up an interest in magic as well. After using some tricks to cheer up his crew on especially tough days, Marshall's magic acts have become a tradition on his sets, eventually evolving into an elaborate performance called the Doctor Fantasy Magic Show. 

The crew of Last Crusade pay Marshall a little tribute on the circus train — watch the background and you'll see one of the cars is labeled "Doctor Fantasy's Magic Caboose."

Spielberg didn't like the plot of "Crystal Skull" either

Indiana Jones went on hold for decades after The Last Crusade before returning in 2008's Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Not everybody was happy to see him back: It got the lowest Rotten Tomatoes score in the series' history, and viewers were especially unhappy with the addition of aliens to Indy's world, with the phrase "nuke the fridge" becoming synonymous with "jump the shark" as an expression of the moment something began to suck.

In Indiana Jones: The Return of a Legend, Lucas gives a pretty logical rationale for embracing aliens: If the '30s-set movies drew from '30s B-movies, it's only logical for their '50s-set sequel to go to the sci-fi B-movies of the '50s. But if you don't buy it, you're not alone. Spielberg, who was happy to move on from proverbial childish things to his new career in heavier historical dramas like Schindler's List and Saving Private Ryan, didn't want anything to do with Lucas' plot: He remembers saying, "George, I don't want to do aliens! I've done two alien movies!" 

In retrospect, it was kind of hilarious watching Spielberg try to be diplomatic so he could sell his movie while just barely hiding that he didn't like the idea any better than the fans did. He has recalled a time when Lucas said he was dropping the aliens and saying, "George, I love you, that's the best news you've ever given me!" but then visibly deflating when he got to the part in the script where Lucas explained they'd be from another dimension, but they'd still look like aliens.

Spielberg hid a "Ten Commandments" crossover in "The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull"

Moses doesn't physically appear in Raiders of the Lost Ark, but he's still a major presence with his Old Testament exploits forming the basis for the legend of the Ark, which contains fragments of the original Ten Commandments. 

Until Spielberg got ahold of Raiders, the story of Moses had its most prevalent pop culture impact through The Ten Commandments, Cecil B. DeMille's 1956 widescreen epic starring Charlton Heston. The film was a special effects spectacular in its time, a clear forerunner to Raiders and the rest of Spielberg's work. So, it was only fitting that he'd pay tribute to DeMille's classic with Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.

That movie returns Indy to the cavernous warehouse where the Ark ended up at the end of Raiders. The plan was to reunite the Ark with another of Moses' miraculous artifacts, a version of his staff reproduced from the prop Heston used in The Ten Commandments.

Keep a sharp eye and you'll be rewarded as Cate Blanchett's Soviet villain Irina Spalko and her men break several of the crates open, searching for an alien corpse hidden somewhere in the stacks. According to Iconic Props, property master Doug Harlocker has said that Spielberg personally requested the crew design some supernatural objects to spill out of them, including the staff.