It is almost hard to believe, but this year marks the 40th anniversary of Raiders of the Lost Ark, in which we follow the fedora-wearing, whip-wielding, and Nazi-punching archeologist Indiana Jones on his quest for fortune and glory.
The film is now considered an action-adventure classic, still being watched and celebrated by fans around the world.
I recently talked to the one and only Karen Allen, who plays the feisty action heroine Marion Ravenwood in Raiders of the Lost Ark.
When we first meet Marion in Nepal, she’s kind of out of place, running a bar and drinking the locals under the table. Can you talk about how you came up with Marion’s backstory?
-Well, you know, it was in the script. In fact, it was the scene that they asked me to audition with. So, I guess when Steven Spielberg sat down to think about who he might want to cast in this role, there was quite a group of actresses he had to consider. And I know he auditioned a number of people, but he sent me that scene, the scene in the bar.
And that was really all of the script I had read up until that point. I lived in New York and he had me fly to Los Angeles and do some screen tests and auditions. So, I really fell in love with Marion in the process of just really working on that one scene.
I just thought it was such a beautifully written scene. And I thought it was such a really extraordinary way to introduce a character. We come upon her as she’s knocking back shots across the table from this 400-pound man. Meanwhile, people are crowded around exchanging money as to who’s going to pass out first. I thought it was a wonderful way to bring a character into a story.
There seems to be a history between Marion and Indy. Can you shed some light on what happened between them and what it meant for their relationship?
-The only thing we know is that he was a student of her father’s and that they had had some sort of a flirtation. I think was clearly in love with him, and he vanished. We talked about it quite a bit in terms of what the story was, and I gave it a great deal of thought. I was just convinced that they had developed a close relationship. How close I don’t know, because she would have been maybe 16 or 17 at the time. And her father was frustrated because he didn’t want him involved with his daughter.
He just disappeared one day. I think we get this feeling that in some way she felt betrayed or hurt and that he had done something that had made her really angry and heartbroken all these years. So, what I love about her too is that instead of going into some sort of long, psychological talk about how she feels, she just pops him in the face and puts it into a very simple expression of her feelings.
My impression is that Raiders of the Lost Ark was made in a time when strong female leads seemed to be the exception rather than the norm. Was Marion always meant to be the strong character we see in the film? And did you ever feel the pressure to conform to the “damsel in distress” stereotype?
-Well, it is interesting, because how they introduced her is this very strong, independent woman living by herself in Nepal after her father’s death, finding a way to survive by doing something as extreme as drinking people under the table. But as the scripts were written, there was not too much of this after she leaves the bar. There was a feeling at times that she wasn’t quite as developed as I thought she would be.
And there were times in which she went a little towards of damsel in distress stereotype, which I was very much against. Even though it can be fun to play the damsel in distress card, I felt that with Marion we had to stick with this really strong character we had developed from the beginning.
I often went to Steven and was very straightforward about how I thought we should portray Marion and try to make her continue to be as resourceful a woman as they had written at the start. Because I think the film was meant as a bit of a celebration of that certain type of film that was done in the 50s and early 60s. The kind of serial film where the woman’s role often was that of a damsel in distress. And so, I think it was fun to play with the genre and have her not fall into that same stereotype. Every time I felt that they had sort of tipped it too much that direction I tried to keep her very active. Whenever it appeared that she didn’t know how to respond to a situation I was always suggesting things that she could do to be more active instead of just waiting to be rescued.
I’ve read that Harrison Ford wasn’t the first choice to be your co-star. Can you talk about the casting process, and how you and Harrison became the leads?
-Yeah, Steven Spielberg had seen me. I had done three films up until that point, and all of them had been directed by friends of Steven. Animal House with John Landis, The Wanderers with Phil Kaufman and a film called A Small Circle of Friends by his friend Rob Cohen. And Steven had seen all these films, and when he was getting ready to cast, he asked to meet me.
And so, he flew to New York, and we met and spoke for maybe 15 minutes. And maybe a month later he asked if I would fly over to Los Angeles and do some screen tests with some actors. Tom Selleck was cast as Indiana Jones. But he had done the pilot for Magnum PI, and they wouldn’t let him out of his contract. So, he was heartbroken, but he had to let go of the role of Indy.
I flew out to Los Angeles, and I auditioned with an actor named Tim Matheson who had been in Animal House with me. And also, an actor named John Shea. And after two or three weeks I got the call and they offered me the role.
But they still had no Indiana Jones. And I guess Harrison was right there in their backyard because they had done the Star Wars films, and the second film was just about to come out. And I guess somewhere along the line, they just decided that they could play both Indiana Jones and Han Solo, even though both were slated to be in multiple films.
I think from the beginning that Indiana Jones was going to be a three-film story and that my character was always set to only be in the first one because they wanted to go backward in time. So, they would have gone back until Marion was about 16, and then I wouldn’t have gotten to play her anyway.
Looking back at it now, 40 years later, how do you feel seeing that Raiders has become such an iconic film, still being watched, and talked about by so many?
-Yeah, it is incredible that the films have lasted this long and become so iconic. It’s extraordinary to me. I mean, because you do a lot of different work over your lifetime and over a career as an actor. And some films, they have their little moment when they open and then they fall into obscurity.
And then there are films like this that are celebrated every decade or so. And every time there seems to be a whole new audience out there that are discovering the film. It is very satisfying and I feel very proud to be a part of it because it seems to be one of those handfuls of films that people love to share with their children and their grandchildren. And it has this kind of legacy that moves forward in the world.
I’ve sometimes found myself traveling in towns in Chile or something, and someone comes up to me in the street and says “Marion Ravenwood”? It is an amazing feeling. It does what films should do. It brings people together.