Expert Advice from Epitome's Production Safety & Risk Management Specialists

THROUGH THE COVID LENS: Raiders of the Lost Ark

Reassessing “Raiders of the Lost Ark” in the Age of Coronavirus

Photo Credit: Paramount Pictures

Forty-one years ago this month, a film icon was born. Few characters in movie history are as recognizable as Indiana Jones. The fedora, the whip, and the brown leather jacket are as famous as the cape, tights, and cowl of any superhero. Played by Harrison Ford, Indiana Jones arrived in theaters in June of 1981, and the summer movie was born. 

“Raiders of the Lost Ark” saved a sluggish, lagging film industry by reinventing the action-adventure serials of the early 20th century. Created by the all-star team of George Lucas, Lawrence Kasdan, Frank Marshall, and Steven Spielberg, “Raiders of the Lost Ark” quickly became the highest-grossing movie of 1981

“Raiders” spawned three sequels (and counting), a television show, video games, several theme park rides, book series, toys, and numerous fan films. With the help of John William’s iconic score, “Raiders of the Lost Ark” has cemented itself as one of the most loved films of all time. To date, it has a lifetime, adjusted, global box office of over $800 million. The United States Library of Congress selected “Raiders of the Lost Ark” for preservation in the National Film Registry in 1999.

In this article, we take a closer look at this 41-year-old classic with an eye toward COVID-19 safety. We will break it down into three sections:

  • The single greatest COVID-19 risk
  • Production changes to increase safety
  • Final thoughts

This article is designed to help you better understand COVID-19 safety by illustrating how pandemic guidelines would have affected one of the greatest action-adventure films ever made. Let’s take a closer look at “Raiders of the Lost Ark.”

The Single Greatest COVID-19 Risk

When Lawrence Kasdan and Steven Spielberg met with George Lucas at Lucas’s house in Sherman Oaks in January of 1978 to hash out the story for “Raiders,” they never once stopped to consider the threat of a global pandemic. (If you don’t believe us, you can read the transcript of their discussion yourself.)

This is a film with many death-defying stunts, unforgettable fight scenes, and spectacular explosions. But none of them are as dangerous as travel. That’s right, in a pandemic, travel is the single most dangerous thing we can do with our productions. 

Throughout this ongoing series, we have looked at many different films, but this is the first one that has involved a lot of international travel. “Raiders of the Lost Ark” was filmed in the UK, Tunisia, France, and America. 

As we discussed in our article on production travel, company moves are not only expensive but extremely risky in the face of a global pandemic. As of this writing, the protocols and protections in place worldwide are a stew of conflicting and ever-changing information

For starters, France is currently a Level 2 Travel Advisory. To film in Tunisia, we would need wear masks in all public spaces. Proof of vaccination is often required to enter restaurants and bars in Tunisia. Travelers to Tunisia may be subject to random PCR testing. If travelers test positive, they must quarantine for five days.

The CDC has issued a Level 3 Travel Health Notice for the United Kingdom due to Covid-19. Over 2 million people currently suffer from Long COVID in the UK, a record.

It is also important to note that the CDC recommends that travelers “avoid all unnecessary travel” to France and the UK. To return to the United States, all passengers regardless of vaccination status must show a negative COVID-19 test taken within the last 24 hours.

If we want to safely make “Raiders of the Lost Ark” today, we would have to make some major changes to the production itself. 

Production Changes to Increase Safety

“Raiders of the Lost Ark” is a near-perfect film made by some of the most talented people in the business. We are not trying to change this classic film. We are simply looking at what it would take to produce this film safely during this pandemic. COVID-19 is the force that will be changing this iconic film. 

To make this movie today, we would want to stay in the United States. Keeping things local will minimize our exposure to COVID-19 and maximize safety.

So much of the magic of this movie is in the locations, the sets, and the design of things. There is a good chance that the creative team would not want to shoot this movie entirely in the United States. That is a justifiable objection. At that point, we would recommend postponing production until it is safe to travel to their first-choice locations. 

Productions must often move forward with less than optimal conditions, however. In fact, the constraints of production can sometimes lead to innovations that make the movie better. A great example of this comes from “Raiders” itself.

While filming in Tunisia, Harrison Ford contracted dysentery. On the day he was scheduled to shoot an elaborate whip-versus-sword fight scene, Ford was too sick to perform. So instead of the intricate fight choreography, Spielberg and Ford decided that Indy should just shoot the swordsman. As a result, this unforgettable movie moment was born. 

With the notion of constraints leading to innovations, we would keep the production in Hollywood as much as possible. One of the many reasons Hollywood ended up in Southern California was because of the immense diversity in the landscape. When filming “Raiders” in a pandemic, we would take advantage of that diversity as much as possible. 

It’s important to remember that none of the original film was shot where it was set. Tunisia was Egypt. Hawaii subbed for South America. France played the role of an exotic maritime location. The rest of the movie was shot on soundstages, mainly in the UK. 

The soundstages of Hollywood could certainly work just fine. There are world-class set designers in Southern California too. The Mojave Desert could sub in for Tunisia, and the rocky coasts of California could work in place of the rocky coast of the Mediterranean. We might still need to travel to Hawaii for the opening, but if we did, we would try to minimize the number of people required for that trip. 

Final Thoughts

“Raiders of the Lost Ark” is a bona fide classic because of the fun story, the great practical effects, the daring stunts, the talented cast, and the great direction. None of that would be affected by restricting production to America. 

Traveling right now is still too risky, far too complicated, and expensive. By keeping production in Hollywood, we would save money and maximize safety. George Lucas, Lawrence Kasdan, Frank Marshall, Steven Spielberg, Harrison Ford, and John Williams could collaborate to make a great movie anywhere. We are sure they would make “Raiders of the Lost Ark” a classic no matter where they filmed it.

Join us later this month when we look through the COVID lens at “Hoosiers.” 

Brian Smolensky is a graduate of the United States Air Force Academy and a former Air Force Full Spectrum Threat Response Officer with over 15 years of experience in film and television production. 

DISCLAIMER: This information should not be considered comprehensive and is not a substitute for hiring risk management professionals and personnel trained in COVID-19-specific procedures. Please consult with your insurance company, your investors, all applicable union reps, and health and safety professionals before starting production in a pandemic.