5 More Random Films from the American Film Institute’s 2007 List of the 100 Greatest American Films and Their Comic Connections
1. The Wizard of Oz (#10)
Since its premiere in 1939, The Wizard of Oz has become one of the most-watched and beloved films of all time. But for all the magic that viewers saw up on the screen, the biggest miracle might be the fact the film ever got finished. Ask Jack “Tin Man” Haley himself, who once had this to say about working on the film: “They say ‘Must’ve been fun making The Wizard of Oz.’ It was not fun. Like hell it was fun. It was a lot of hard work. It was not fun at all.”
What did he mean by that? Well…
The hours were brutal.
Margaret Hamilton, who was a single mother at the time, got into an argument with the studio over time on the set, and she only agreed to take the role of the Wicked Witch of the West three days before filming started. Five weeks of agreed-upon work stretched into three months. Not that she was the only person on set dealing with grueling schedules; the cast’s call time was 4 a.m. every day with filming often lasting until 7-8 p.m. at night.
The first Tin Man nearly died from his makeup.
Better known to TV fans as Jed Clampett of The Beverly Hillbillies, Buddy Ebsen was the first actor tapped to play the Tin Man. Nine days into filming, he suffered a severe allergic reaction to his makeup, an aluminum powder that got inside his lungs and made him unable to breathe. Ebsen ended up in hospital fighting for his life, and it would take several years before he was well enough to return to acting.
Hamilton had her own near-death experience on the set.
While filming the Wicked Witch’s fiery exit from Munchkinland, Hamilton suffered first-degree burns on her face and second-degree burns on her right hand when the flames shot up before she had descended through a trapdoor. Her burns were so serious she was in hospital for six weeks, and even after she returned to work she wore green gloves to hide the fact her hand had not fully healed.
Hamilton’s stunt double had her own near-death experience on the set.
When Hamilton returned to filming, she refused to do the “Surrender Dorothy” scene and risk another accident. Her stand-in, Betty Danko, performed the scene instead… which led to Danko becoming severely injured herself when the “broomstick” (actually a smoking pipe) exploded on the third take — sending Danko to the hospital for 11 days and permanently scarring her legs.
Not even being a background performer guaranteed your safety.
During the haunted forest scene, several extras playing the winged monkeys were injured when the piano wires suspending them from the roof snapped, dropping them several feet to the floor of the sound stage.
“And your little dog, too!”
Toto (actually a female Cairn terrier named Terry) broke her foot when she was stepped on by one of the Wicked Witch’s soldiers. They had to bring in a dog double while she recuperated for two weeks at Judy Garland’s residence. (On a happier note, Terry – who changed her name to Toto after the film’s release – enjoyed a happy film career, appearing in 16 films until her death in 1945.)
Wearing the Tin Man costume was no picnic.
When Ebsen had to drop out because of his health, MGM immediately recast his part with Haley (who was never told why Ebsen had left). The metallic sheen on Haley’s face was done with an aluminum paste that was definitely less lethal than the dust used on Ebsen. Even so, Haley developed a severe eye infection from the makeup. Also, his costume was so stiff that Haley had to lean against a board to rest between takes.
Wearing the Cowardly Lion’s costume was agony for Bert Lahr.
Lahr’s costumer was made from real lion fur and weighed 90 lbs. This made it unbearably hot to wear, especially under studio lights that raised temperatures on the set to 100F (37C). Lahr would sweat so much the costume would be soaked through by the end of the day; there were two people on set whose only job was to spend the night drying out the costume.
The Scarecrow costume left a lasting impression, literally.
While it may not have been as uncomfortable as the costumes for the Tin Man and the Cowardly Lion, Ray Bolger faced his own challenges with his Scarecrow costume. His sweat had nowhere to go underneath the rubber mask, and his skin would often crack and bleed when the mask was removed. When filming finished, the mask left a pattern of lines on his face that took more than a year to fade away.
Not even Dorothy could escape uncomfortable wardrobe choices.
Judy Garland was 16 at the time of filming, and she had to wear a painful corset-style device around her torso so that she would appear younger and flat-chested to play the role of a younger child. And those famous ruby slippers? They made Garland’s feet hurt so much she could only wear them for shots when they would be on camera.
Just don’t breathe too deeply during this scene, Dorothy.
In the famous poppy field scene, the “snow” that falls on the characters and causes Dorothy to fall asleep was actually industrial-grade chrysotile asbestos – a substance that was often used in early Hollywood because of its resemblance to snow. The special-effects people went with that option despite the fact the health hazards of breathing in asbestos were known even back then.
Not getting the performances you want from your cast? Go ahead and slap them!
Lahr was a constant joker on the set, and he ad-libbed a lot of his dialogue in the film. Garland had a major giggle fit during the scene where she slaps the Cowardly Lion, frustrating director Victor Fleming. To snap her out of it, he took her aside and surprised the actress by slapping her right before the next take. (Note to aspiring directors: do not try this at home.)
But at least they were well rewarded for all the suffering they did for their art, right? Yeah, about that…
Although The Wizard of Oz was nominated for six Academy Awards, it took home only two trophies (for Best Song and Best Original Score), losing Best Picture to Gone With the Wind. None of the cast was nominated for an acting award, though Garland received an honorary Academy Juvenile Award for her work. As for financial rewards, the highest-paid actors on the set were Bolger and Haley, who each made roughly $3,000 a week compared to Garland’s $500. But after production shut down, that was it. Whenever he was asked if he received any residuals from annual telecasts of the film or any of the merchandising, Bolger would say: “No, just immortality. I’ll settle for that.”
The moral of the story? Even when things look tough and you can’t help wondering if you’ll ever get through the tough times, just remember to keep on down, keep on down that road together with your friends. Do that, and you’ll be over that rainbow in no time. “If I only a brain…”
Speaking of hanging out with your buddies: the Marvel/DC co-production MGM’s Marvelous Wizard of Oz came out in 1975, some 36 years after Dorothy committed her first act of homicide by house.
As the story goes, both companies were working on their own separate Oz projects at the same time. When Stan Lee heard of DC’s plans, he proposed they joined forces to share production costs on the tabloid-sized treasury edition. I’ve no evidence to dispute these broad details, but it’s helpful to consider the context behind this first-ever joint venture between the two longtime rivals.
The early ’70s was a tough time for both publishers — all comic publishers, in fact. The Silver Age was definitely over, and waning interest in their books wasn’t helped by the shrinking number of retail outlets willing to give shelf space to their increasingly unprofitable books. Throw in stagflation and soaring prices on everything from paper to oil for the presses, and you can see how some folks in the comic business might have had a hard time seeing any rainbows ahead.
While there was much to celebrate on the creative side, innovative and much-hyped experiments like Kirby’s Fourth World books, the Green Lantern/Green Arrow “relevance” run and Marvel’s slate of black-and-white monster magazines didn’t translate into higher sales. So the publishers turned to fads and gimmicks to appeal to a wider audience. While neither publisher ever went as far as My Pet Rock: The Comic, there were enough books starring kung fu fighters, exorcists, Dirty Harry knock-offs and motorcycle daredevils to suggest someone was eager to see what would stick.
Add adaptations to the list of ideas flung at that wall. Following the cancellation of Gilberton’s literary line in the early ’70s and the retreat of Dell (a major player in the film/TV adaptation genre) from the marketplace in the 1960s, the field was wide open for the remaining players on the board to get in on the licensing game.
Why The Wizard of Oz? After its first theatrical run, MGM sold the television rights to CBS in the 1950s for $225,000 per broadcast; by the 1970s, its annual airing on television made it one of the most-watched films in history. Garland’s death in 1969 and the film’s release on Super 8 film for the growing home video market in the 1970s also added to a revival of interest in the film. (Plus, it should be noted that few classic films have the kind of dazzling visuals found in Oz that translate nicely to the comic page — even if the musical numbers were left out for obvious reasons.)
An ad in the back of the book promises more adventures in Oz with Marvelous Land of Oz (“on sale November 11th wherever yellow brick roads are found!”), and Marvel did put out the one-shot Marvel Treasury of Oz later that year… but the company wouldn’t return to the land of Munchkins and flying monkeys until 2008, with Eric Shanower’s and Skottie Young’s wonderful series The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, which was followed by Ozma of Oz, Road to Oz and a few other short-lived series. Well worth checking out.
2. The Searchers (#12)
Early in their search for the Comanche raiders who killed his family and kidnapped his nieces, Ethan Edwards’ search party finds the shallow grave of a Comanche killed during the raid. As they prepare to get back on the trail, Edwards shoots out the corpse’s eyes.
“What good did that do ya?” Rev. Clayton asks. “By what you preach, none,” Edwards replies. “But what that Comanche believes, he ain’t got no eyes, he can’t enter the spirit land. He has to wander forever between the winds.”
John Wayne’s character in this classic 1956 film is not a hero. He may resemble the stoic, justice-seeking archetype seen in hundreds of other Westerns, but Ethan is a man living with serious trauma. A former Confederate soldier who arrives unannounced at his brother’s doorstep three years after the war ended, it’s clear there’s a lot he isn’t telling his brother’s family about what he has seen and where he’s been since he left home.
He’s also an unapologetic racist, calling Martin — the young man who was taken in by his brother when his own family was massacred — a “blanket-head” because of his partial Cherokee heritage. Ethan’s racism against Native Americans is so ingrained he even tries to kill Debbie (Natalie Wood) when he finds her on account of her now identifying as Comanche — and after spending five years with him on the hunt, Martin (played by a pre-Star Trek Jeffrey Hunter) knows Ethan is capable of doing that and a lot more to feed his rage (“He’s a man that can go crazy wild and I intend to be there to stop him in case he does”).
Ethan is not the only person in the film living with trauma: Martin has lost two families to violence, and Brad — who was in love with Lucy, Edwards’s other niece who was abducted — breaks down upon discovering she was raped and killed by her captors. Even Scar, the Comanche chief whom Edwards spends years tracking down, talks about how the deaths of his sons at the hands of white men led to his violent reprisals against the settlers encroaching on his lands. There’s also plenty to suggest other characters — like Mose, a half-witted man in search of a rocking chair to call his own — have seen things they wish they could forget.
What the audience sees as the film goes on is what happens to men who allow their trauma to consume them. Brad snaps and dies in a hail of gunfire trying to avenge his lost love. Scar is killed during an attack on his tribe. And Ethan? Well, he doesn’t kill his niece in the end, choosing instead to bring her back with him to her remaining family. So we think they may be hope for him yet.
But that hope is short-lived. As she’s brought inside their home in the final scene, the camera — positioned from inside the house — shows Ethan standing alone outside, framed on all four sides by the darkened beams of the doorway, then turning around to walk back into the wilderness. After everything he’s seen, everything he’s done… he might have been the kind of man that was needed to help birth this new society in a harsh land, but part of him knows he will never really be a part of the new nation that Mrs. Jorgensen says will someday rise from their efforts to create it. No, he can’t see a place in that that future nation for himself, and so he must wander apart from the spirit land — forever between the winds.
Perhaps more than any other director, John Ford (1894-1973) created the American Western. He directed more than 140 films over a span of 50 years, many of them cited as the most successful examples of the genre like The Searchers and Stagecoach. He’s also more responsible than anyone else for making John Wayne a star, casting him in 24 of his films over 35 years.
The Searchers was the only Western Ford made between 1950 and 1959, and while it received no Academy Award nominations it was a box-office smash during its original run, and it has since been hailed as one of the greatest (if not the greatest) Western ever made.
Its influence extends even beyond the Western genre — filmmakers like David Lean and George Lucas (think of the scene where Ethan and Martin return to find the homestead in flames) have cited the film as an influence; even Ethan’s catchphrase in the film (“That’ll be the day”) inspired one of Buddy Holly’s best-known songs.
Given all that, it’s easy to see why Dell would commission a comic adaptation (Four Color Comics #709, 1956) — it was a John Wayne film, and Westerns were hugely popular with the kids at the time. But given how poorly the comic captures the spirit of the film, it’s fair to ask why they even bothered.
It’s not just that the book fails to capture Ford’s incredible images of Monument Valley, where the film was shot on location. Several crucial elements in the film’s plot — including the pivotal scene where Martin shields Debbie from Ethan’s gun — are left out entirely, and Ethan’s complicated character is smoothed down so much he’s barely distinguishable from any of the hundreds of other generic Western heroes that appeared in the comics and films of that time. Even the film’s most famous shot — its final one showing Wayne alone outside the doorway — is completely omitted, the outside back cover ending the story with Martin and his girl happy to be reunited.
I suspect these changes have everything to do with Dell’s “Pledge to Parents,” which takes up the lower right corner of the final page. In those early days of the Comics Code Authority, Dell — which didn’t submit its books for approval to the CCA — was likely sensitive about publishing any material that might be considered offensive or too much for kids to handle, and I have no problem believing that a well-intentioned Dell editor decided his young readers didn’t need an exact re-creation of the film’s plot points to get the gist of the story (“It’s called The Searchers, right? They search for the girl, they find her, boom, there you go”).
And now I’m wondering if this reluctance to adapt complex Western films and novels accurately — with popular TV shows and comics at the time aimed at kids feeding the notion that Westerns were essentially “kiddie stuff” — was part of the reason why the genre began its long ride into the sunset not long after this film came out.
3. Taxi Driver (#52)
After Travis Bickle asks Betsy out for coffee, she compares him to a line from a Kris Kristofferson song: “He’s a prophet… he’s a prophet and a pusher, partly truth, partly fiction. A walking contradiction.”
It’s an astute assessment considering how little she knows about him. Because he is a walking contradiction. He condemns the “scum” and “filth” in the city he drives around in but spends much of his free time in porn theatres. He claims to be infuriated with corruption and crime but carries unlicensed guns that he bought from an illegal gun dealer (who also sells drugs on the side). He talks about eating healthy but pours Schnapps on his breakfast. He writes about his life needing “a sense of someplace to go,” but he spends most of his waking hours lying in his bed, driving a cab and watching television in his squalid apartment (when he’s not trying to pick up dates at the porn theatre’s concession stand).
It’s also interesting that Betsy quotes a famous country-western singer to describe Travis. Later in the film, Travis is nicknamed “Cowboy” because of his choice of footwear, and he carries a sizable Bowie knife with him in addition to his firearms. Furthering the Western connection is Harvey Keitel’s appearance; as Sport, the pimp to an underage Jodie Foster, he wears his hair long and “sports” feathers in his hat, giving him a Native American appearance.
These connections are not a coincidence. Paul Schrader’s screenplay for Taxi Driver was inspired by The Searchers: both films star loners peering at society from the outside, both men are war vets who don’t talk about their physical and mental scars, both are obsessed with rescuing women who may not want to be rescued, both have world views colored by their harsh environments and racism, and both end the film seemingly where they began — still standing outside the society they long to be a part of despite their heroic actions in the story.
There’s one notable difference between the two (besides their differences in time and place, of course). Where director John Ford used doorways as a framing device (both literally and metaphorically), Martin Scorsese relies on windows to do the same job. Count the number of times Travis is separated from the rest of society by windows.
- In the taxi office at the start of the film, he’s separated from the other cabbies by a window behind the boss’s chair.
- He stares at Betsy through the windows of her campaign office.
- He views the city streets from behind the glass of his taxi windows as he monologues about the “scum” and “filth.”
- The partition behind his seat separates him from his passengers, like the time Jodie Foster’s Iris jumps in his cab demanding he drive and he sits motionless while her pimp grabs her back.
- When he buys his guns from the dealer, he pretends to aim at people on the street from his upper-story window.
- He views a woman’s silhouette through a window while her husband (played by Scorsese) sits in his cab ranting about how he’s going to kill her for cheating on him.
- If we choose to see movie and TV screens as “windows” of another sort, they’re also a major way through which he sees the rest of the world — passively watching the things he sees, not even engaged enough in what he watches to visibly react to the things he sees on those screens.
- Even mirrors, a looking-glass of another sort, serve to keep him apart from others; notice the number of times the camera cuts to a close-up of Travis’s eyes or a passenger’s in his cab’s rear-view mirror, suggesting another degree of separation between him and everyone else.
And of course there’s the famous “You talkin’ to me?” scene with Travis talking to a mirror while he indulges in his vigilante fantasies. The line is followed up by “You must be talkin’ to me, I’m the only one here” — the truest line in the film because, he is the only one there inside the world he’s created in his mind — and he has no idea how to invite anyone else in.
Travis Bickle is a desperately lonely man in desperate need of making some kind of connection: “Loneliness has followed me my whole life, everywhere,” he says in one of his more self-aware moments. “In bars, in cars, sidewalks, stores, everywhere. There’s no escape. I’m God’s lonely man.”
The great irony in this statement, though, is that while he sees himself as “God’s lonely man,” he doesn’t seem to realize how everyone else in the city — even the “dogs” and the “screwheads” and more racially offensive terms he uses — could just as easily take that label for themselves. As comedian Lily Tomlin once said, “We are all in this alone” — it’s our capacity to recognize the loneliness that others feel and empathize with them that allows each of us to break out of the downward spiral that Travis experiences near the end of the film.
We hardly know anything about Travis Bickle, and even the things about him that we do know are suspect because of his tendency to lie even to himself. We can be fairly certain he served in Vietnam based on his jacket, and he has a massive scar and pill habit that suggest some kind of physical and/or mental trauma — but beyond that it’s very hard to tell what’s truly him and what’s a product of his paranoia and mental instability.
Even so, he still fascinates us more than 40 years later. Taxi Driver is a powerful film because it’s a brutal depiction of one man’s loneliness and his inability to understand how to not be lonely — and that’s probably why so many people connect with him even now. All of us have felt as alone as Travis at some point in our lives. Most of us are just better at dealing with it.
Another contradictory aspect of Travis Bickle is his relentless journaling. Much of his dialogue consists of voiceovers while we see him writing down his thoughts — a curious activity for someone who says he disdains “morbid self-attention.”
This need to document his disgust with the crime and corruption that he chooses to immerse himself in night after night might sound familiar to fans of a certain mini-series created by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons in the 1980s.
While Arthur Fleck in the 2019 film Joker may have gotten more attention for his many similarities to his cinematic predecessor, the Watchmen’s Rorschach also shares much of Travis Bickle’s DNA, right down to the formative experience in his life involving the desire to save a young girl from her captor.
I can’t find any evidence that Moore was directly inspired by Taxi Driver’s anti-hero while creating his masterpiece, but while talking about his 2009 film Watchmen director Zack Snyder said he lifted his film’s version of the city straight out of Scorsese’s masterpiece. “We took frames from Taxi Driver, then painted them with the Watchmen colors so the end result is both period-correct, pop-culturally referential and graphic-novel layered,” he said at the time. “One of the bars on the street came directly from Taxi Driver.”
Given how Rorschach and Travis both operated in the grimy streets of New York City at the same time, it’s not hard to imagine their paths crossing in the night. And that’s exactly what happens in 2013’s Before Watchmen: Rorschach #3, in a scene that sees Travis pick up an unusual fare. “There are still some good people in this world,” Bickle says while driving Rorschach, showing his approval for the masked vigilante’s methods for cleaning up the city.
4. Duck Soup (#60)
In his 1962 autobiography Harpo Speaks, Arthur “Harpo” Marx wrote about a trip he took to the Soviet Union. In 1933, three days before the release of Duck Soup, Marx boarded a ship bound for the USSR as part of a goodwill tour that would see him become the first American artist to perform there since the U.S. recognized the Communist state.
It got tense at times. At one checkpoint, a group of guards ordered him to open his trunk to see its contents, and they removed 400 knives, two revolvers, three stilettos, half-a-dozen bottles marked POISON and a collection of red wigs and false beards, moustaches and hands. “I told them they were all props for my act,” he said. “‘Act? What act?’ I said I had come to Russia to put on a show. ‘Americans do not entertain in Russia,’ they said. I had better tell the truth.” Despite his fame and credentials, it was only through the intervention of another American that Marx avoided imprisonment (or worse) and was allowed to board the train to Moscow.
His show was a hit with the Russians — not much chance of a language barrier being a problem when you’re Harpo Marx — but on the way back to America, Marx said he couldn’t help noticing how serious everything was in Russia, how nothing happened without some justification for its being: “I never saw anybody do anything just for the hell of it. I never saw anybody pull a spontaneous gag.”
“Just for the hell of it” is a very good way to describe Duck Soup. The plot, such as it is, sees Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho) appointed the leader of the nation of Fredonia by the wealthy Mrs. Teasdale. The ambassador from neighboring Sylvania sees a chance to take over the country, and so he hires two spies (Chico and Harpo) to dig up dirt on Firefly and steal Fredonia’s war plans. After a series of insults leads to all-out war, the scheming ambassador surrenders while Mrs. Teasdale sings Fredonia’s national anthem.
Does any of that make sense? No, and that’s the point. The movie — all 68 minutes of it, making it the shortest film on the AFI’s Top 100 list — is really just an excuse for the Marx Brothers to run wild with their non-stop puns, jokes, sight gags and physical humor. In one scene, Harpo disguised as Groucho pretends to be his mirror image. In another, he emerges fully clothed and soaking wet from his hiding place in a bathtub — while another man is sitting in it and wordlessly watches him leave the bathroom. In another, Harpo is showing Groucho his chest tattoo of a doghouse — and an actual, barking dog pops out.
(My favorite gag, though, happens near the end of the film when Fredonia is at war. As we switch back and forth between scenes, Groucho is seen in a different uniform every time: a Boy Scout uniform, a Confederate Army uniform, a marching band uniform. Nobody points this out or remarks on it, it’s just one more rat-a-tat blink-and-you’ll-miss-it piece of visual comedy that makes the film a repeat experience.)
People who like to think lofty thoughts about comedy (i.e. academic types who want to justify spending their working hours watching screwball comedies by using fancy words like “tautology” and “semiotics”) might argue Duck Soup was the Marx Brothers’ attempt at political satire. They could be right about that — the world in 1933 was a restless place, with people on both sides of the Atlantic a little too eager to forget the lessons of the First World War and a little too willing to embrace authoritarian rule as a way out of their economic troubles. In that context, it makes sense that Groucho and the gang would find fodder in the self-seriousness of contemporary leaders who were willing to march their people right back into war.
I’m not sure I entirely buy that, though — the film makes fun of politics and militarism, sure, but it also makes fun of everything else; it’s too anarchic and scattershot with its humor to settle on any one point that it might be trying to make. If it is trying to say something, maybe it’s this: when everything has to be rationalized and forced to justify its existence, then there’s no greater act of rebellion than to be silly when you have no reason to be silly — or, as Harpo might put it, “just for the hell of it.”
Why the title? In the ’30s, “duck soup” was slang for something that was easy to do, like we’d say “a piece of cake” today. It was also an animal-themed title that fit nicely with previous Marx Brother films Monkey Business and Horse Feathers. When Groucho was once asked for an explanation, he said, “Take two turkeys, one goose, four cabbages, but no duck, and mix them together. After one taste, you’ll duck soup for the rest of your life.”
Continuing in the vein of “just for the hell of it,” here’s a page from the story that introduced “Rufus T. Hackstabber” into the Marvel universe, from 1975’s Giant Size Master of Kung Fu #4.
From the good folks over at The Marvel Appendix: “Rufus T. Hackstabber is an accomplished taxi driver, as there are very few obstacles he fails to hit while driving at breakneck speed. He occasionally carries a tennis racket, and always has a cigar in his hand. He also has a knack for being at the right place at the right time. As well as the wrong place at the wrong time. Come to think of it, he has a way with places.”
Visually and verbally patterned on Groucho Marx, the fast-talking Rufus joined Shang Shi for a few adventures before fading into the background, no doubt in search of a Mrs. Teasdale type of his own to settle down with. (“Will you marry me? Did he leave you any money? Answer the second question first.”)
5. Raiders of the Lost Ark (#66)
Let’s be clear: there is never a bad time to punch a Nazi. But Dr. Henry Jones Jr. — “Indiana” or “Indy” to his friends — picked an especially good time in history to punch some Nazis. No, I don’t mean the year 1936 in which the film was set; I mean 1981, the year Ronald Reagan was inaugurated as the nation’s 40th president.
America, as Reagan’s campaign team correctly assessed, was ready to feel good about itself again. After more than a decade of civil unrest, Vietnam, Watergate and various crises involving oil and hostages, it’s understandable that American audiences feeling nostalgic for simpler times were ready to cheer for a swaggering hero who looked like he stepped out of an old-school adventure serial to save the day.
(And sure, Indiana Jones might have been one of those egghead college professor types, but everyone knew that was just his secret identity. When duty called, Dr. Jones would take off his glasses like Clark Kent and race to adventure with his trusty pistol and bullwhip at his side. You know, the way real archaeologists went to work.)
Raiders had its genesis in 1977, when Stephen Spielberg and George Lucas took a Hawaiian vacation together with their wives. Spielberg, who made his name with Jaws, was taking a break from Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Lucas was learning from media reports just how big his pet project was becoming.
These two directors on top of the world started planning their next project. Spielberg was thinking James Bond; Lucas had another idea. Inspired by adventure serials from the 1930s, he had come up with a script for The Adventures of Indiana Smith, and the two of them fleshed out the idea; a year later, they met with up-and-coming screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan to figure out the story.
“What we’re doing here, really, is designing a ride at Disneyland,” Spielberg kept telling the others. It’s easy to see how his love for upping cinematic stakes led to the series of breath-taking cliffhangers throughout the film; in fact, the movie was written backwards, with the team coming up with the action set pieces first and then figuring out how to string them together with a plot. As two huge movie nerds, Spielberg and Lucas were fully aware they were less interested in capturing the human condition as they were in writing a love letter to the old-school adventure films that ignited their love for filmmaking.
One big difference between those old serials and Raiders is Indiana Jones isn’t some perfect square-jawed hero. He has a phobia about snakes, he doesn’t always win (Belloq sees to that when Indy escapes the giant boulder at the start of the film), and Marion (Karen Allen) might have a thing or two to say about his commitment issues. And as the film’s ending shows us, sometimes there are powerful forces out there that are simply stronger than us, no matter how many top men (“Top. Men.“) we put on the case.
But an America working through a few issues of its own was happy to overlook his flaws — so much so filmgoers made Raiders the No. 1 movie of 1981 and turned Indiana Jones into one of the biggest icons in 1980s cinema, with three sequels, a TV show, theme park rides, novels and many comic issue sporting his name.
Raiders tapped into something bigger than Hollywood ever imagined (it was famously turned down by several studios despite the involvement of Spielberg and Lucas, with Paramount offering a mere $18 million budget to make it), and it still resonates today because of what the film represents: a movie that offers a hell of a ride at a time when people want to feel good cheering for their heroes (especially the Nazi-punching kind).
Like I said, there are plenty of Indiana Jones comics that establish a comic connection for the film, but there’s one comic connection that’s even older.
In “The Seven Cities of Cibola” from 1954’s Uncle Scrooge #7, Carl Barks sends the ducks in pursuit of treasure in a lost city. When they find it, Uncle Scrooge is about to remove an emerald idol from its pedestal when the boys notice it’s booby-trapped to release a giant boulder if the idol is removed. (The Beagle Boys, who follow the ducks to the treasure, later grab the idol and cause the entire place to collapse.)
That the rolling boulder scene in Raiders was an homage to this comic story was accepted as a given for decades by Barks fans, even if the boulder sequence in the story doesn’t play out in the same way in the film. The connection was reinforced in the 1980s when when Lucas wrote the introduction to a collection of Carl Barks’ stories and mentioned the influence that Uncle Scrooge’s globe-trotting treasure hints had on his ideas for the film.
In his “Comic Urban Legends” column for CBR, Brian Cronin said he contacted Edward Summer, the filmmaker and journalist who put together the Barks collection with Lucas’s introduction, and Summer confirmed Lucas had told him he was a huge fan of Barks’s work and specifically cited “The Seven Cities of Cibola” as the inspiration for the boulder scene.