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His reverie centered on a college professor who, when not off on foreign adventures, could be found in a nightclub with a slinky, '30s-style blond on each arm. With a little help from Writer-Director Philip Kaufman, who worked on the story for two weeks, the blonds and the nightclub disappeared. Lucas' archaeologist hero (along with anthropology, it was the producer's favorite college course) finds himself recruited by the American Government, circa 1936, to foil, singlehanded, a huge German team that is on the brink of rediscovering the long-lost Ark of the Covenant, in which the tablets containing the Ten Commandments were placed after they were brought down from Mount Sinai.
Beyond its intrinsic value as the ultimate object of religious veneration, the ark is believed to be capable of conferring mystical power on its worldly possessor; legend has it that an army with the ark in its van is invinciblehence the scramble between Nazis and Yanks.
There the story rested until Lucas, cooling out on a Hawaiian beach after launching Star Wars, began embroidering his tale for Spielberg, his friend. "I felt like I was eating a barrel of popcorn at a noon matinee," Spielberg recalls. Two years later they called in Screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan, who shared the screenplay credit on Empire, for a marathon "pitching" session. For five consecutive nine-hour days the three men shouted, argued, paced and acted out the story until its line was firm. "We are general practitioners," explains Spielberg. "The best work I do is when I'm locked in a room with people I respect and have fun with."
Ruling out Bondian improbabilities, they settled on the adventure-serial structure. Cliffhangers usually came in twelve parts, and by a happy coincidence there are a dozen major menacing situations in Raiders. Each time there appears to be no way out for the hero, Indiana Jones (named after Lucas' beloved Malemute dog, whose "character" was previously borrowed for Star Wars' Wookie), or the heroine, Marion, a reincarnation of the "Hawksian woman," that sexy, spirited lady the late director Howard Hawks always included among the boys in his action films. At one juncture it appears that Marion, played by the lovely Karen Allen, 29, may have been killed in an explosion; at another she faces a choice between dishonor (offered by oily No. 1 villain, Paul Freeman) and slow death (eagerly threatened by No. 2 menace, Ronald Lacey). If Indiana finds a secret passage out of a sealed tomb, you may be sure he's soon going to have to grapple with a goon amid whirling airplane propellersand then, bloodied and bushed, roar off on a spectacular chase. The great difference between Raiders and its humble progenitors is that one doesn't have to wait a week to find out where the escape hatch is hidden.
There are moments when the audience can catch its breath, but they are brief and shrewdly calculated. Says Lucas: "My films are closer to amusement-park rides than to a play or a novel. You get in line for a second ride." If that were their only distinction, they would not be substantially different from any reasonably well-made action-adventure picture.
What gives them their uncanny appeal is a depth, a resonance, that works almost subliminally on the viewer.