‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’ at 40: How Karen Allen Kept Marion Ravenwood from Ever Being a ‘Damsel in Distress’

As the star of the first Indiana Jones film celebrates its latest big anniversary, Allen tells IndieWire about the scenes she changed to stay true to Marion and what to expect from the fifth film.
RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, Karen Allen, 1981
"Raiders of the Lost Ark"
Courtesy Everett Collection

Karen Allen struck gold with her first major starring role in a studio film. Just 28 years old when she was cast in Steven Spielberg’s “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” Allen wasn’t wholly unfamiliar with big-ticket fame — she’d made her debut in “Animal House” when she was 26 — but her role as Marion Ravenwood in the franchise-starting Indiana Jones film was still something new. Forty years since the making of the film, Allen remains a steadfast champion of the steely Marion, an enduring member of the (still-going!) franchise, and an insightful performer who keenly remembers the choices she made that turned Marion Ravenwood into the anti-“damsel in distress.”

On Wednesday, Allen will appear at a special event honoring the film’s 40th anniversary, held to benefit two local western Massachusetts arts organizations close to her heart: the Norman Rockwell Museum and the Berkshire International Film Festival (if you’ve ever seen Allen darting around another festival, she’s likely there to help scout for BIFF, her hometown festival she’s long been associated with). Has it really been 40 years already? It doesn’t feel that way to Allen.

“It feels like it’s gone by in a flash,” Allen said during a recent interview with IndieWire. “It’s hard to even conceive of it as 40 years ago and yet it was. Suddenly, you turn around and somebody is mentioning that you have a film that’s 40 years old and it takes you by surprise.”

Even four decades on, Allen remains delighted by the series’ enduring appeal, and while its hold on pop culture is something of a surprise, she always knew they were making a quality film. As she tells it, “Raiders” had all the pieces right from the start: “extraordinary” rising filmmakers like Spielberg and George Lucas, a “wonderfully fallible” hero in Harrison Ford’s Indiana Jones, and a purity to its stunts and danger that’s hard to imitate in “CGI extravaganzas” that seem to dominate the landscape these days.

“Whether or not a film is going to turn out well and is going to really find its audience, it’s always such an unknown, you just don’t know,” Allen said. “Films have to find the right time, they have to hit the culture at a certain moment in which people are going to embrace a certain kind of film. This one, it was very successful in its own time and then the fact that it has remained such a film that people love to pass from one generation to another, from parents to their children and children to their children and it just goes on and on and on and keeps being sort of rediscovered, is wonderful.”

It also boasts one of modern cinema’s most uniquely self-possessed leading ladies in Marion Ravenwood, a true “strong female character” who, much like Dr. Jones himself, is charming because she’s fallible, funny, flawed, and very real. That has never been lost on Allen.

Allen auditioned for “Raiders” using scenes from the film’s introduction to her character, when she and Indy are reunited in her rough-and-tumble Nepalese bar. “It was so much fun to do those scenes, because I thought they had written one of the best introductions of a character I had ever come across,” she said. “It’s really the only time we see Marion in her normal habitat, this is where she lives and where her life is, and then all of a sudden, she’s pulled out of that, and she’s moving at this pace through this world that she knows very little about. Those scenes were a lot of fun for me, because it really did help me ground into the character.”

RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, (aka INDIANA JONES AND THE RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK), from left: Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones, Karen Allen, 1981. ©Paramount Pictures/courtesy Everett Collection
“Raiders of the Lost Ark”©Paramount/Courtesy Everett Collection

There were, however, a few later scenes that Allen was eager to help shape, all in service to Marion’s character. One in particular: a sequence that sees a kidnapped Marion trying to outsmart the double-crossing René Belloq (Paul Freeman), who is holding her hostage in a tent located inside the Cairo dig site where he (and the Nazis) are attempting to locate the eponymous ark. As Allen explains, the original version of the scene saw Marion attempting to seduce Belloq in order to gain the upper hand. That didn’t jive with Allen’s take on Marion, and she and Freeman soon hashed out a new take on the scene.

“One of the most fun scenes I ever did was the one with Paul Freeman in the tent where I decide I’m going to try to get him drunk and it turns out that he has this family liquor that he grew up with, that he can tolerate to a much larger degree than I can,” Allen said. “I end up starting to realize that I am getting drunk and he is not, and it was just a fun scene that he and I invented together that wasn’t really on the page.”

Allen said that Spielberg was “very open” to the changes. “He basically said, ‘Well, if you can come up with something better and you want to show it to me, we’ll shoot it,'” she recalled. Allen and Freeman continued to workshop the new scene during lunch breaks. “We came up with this idea that the reason I put this dress on is in order to hide this knife that I’ve taken from the food that they’ve brought me,” she said. “It’s all about escaping. It’s not about a seduction that gets stopped, which is what it had been in the beginning. We made it about her trying to fool him or lull him into some sort of belief that he was going to seduce her and then she was going to turn the tables on him.”

It wasn’t the only sequence that Allen balked at, and the actress — despite the obvious pressures of the film making her first major starring role — said she always felt able to fight for what was right for Marion. “There were moments where this wonderful, bright, intelligent, talented boys’ club that had written the script, had, I thought, left her in the lurch in certain moments throughout the story,” Allen said. “They created this very resourceful, very independent, very strong woman and then sometimes they would, whether it was for comic effect or whether it was unconscious, whatever it was, it felt sometimes like there were moments in which she did become a true damsel in distress.”

The actress stayed vigilant, always pushing for what was right for Marion, a decidedly very Marion approach. “I was really constantly looking for where those places were and trying to say, ‘No, she’s not a person that just throws up her hands and says help. She’s somebody who is looking around and figuring out how to help herself and how to help somebody else,'” Allen said. “She’s not a shrinking violet type of person and you can’t really, just for the fun of it, make her be that, because you can lose a sense of truth to her character. I really felt that was worth fighting for.”

RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, Karen Allen, 1981, (c) Paramount/courtesy Everett Collection
“Raiders of the Lost Ark”©Paramount/Courtesy Everett Collection

Spielberg and Ford went on to make two more “Indiana Jones” films without Allen — as she assures, that was always the plan and she was aware from the start that her role would be “a singular job” — though Allen and her Marion returned nearly three decades later for the series’ fourth film, “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.” The film had been rumored for years, so while Allen wasn’t surprised it happened, she was delighted that screenwriter David Koepp had written such a meaty role for her.

“When there was talk of doing a fourth, I really didn’t know what direction [there was] in terms of the possibility of my character even reentering the story,” she said. “Steven called me himself and he said that they had a script that they really liked for a fourth one and that my character figured in the story and he wanted me to come into New York and sit down and read it and we’d talk. I was completely taken aback. It was not only a surprise, but it was sort of this wonderful opportunity to reenter that world.”

The timing was good, too. Allen had mostly stepped back from acting in the ’90s after the birth of her son. “It was always a huge juggling act to figure out how I would be able to do something, which is when I started directing in the theater, which was something I could do and stay in one place,” she said. “I think by the time he was six or seven, it had become quite clear to me that you can’t ‘have it all.’ It’s a huge myth that they threw onto us is that you can have it all. You can have what you choose to have and it can be what you truly, ultimately want, but you can’t really be a fully functioning, working person in the world, at least, in the film world where it’s all about traveling and 15 hour days, six days a week, you can’t have that kind of life and be there for your child simultaneously.”

But when “Crystal Skull” came up, Allen’s son was nearly an adult, and suddenly, going back to set for an extended period of time was no longer a distant dream. So, is Allen possibly getting ready to do that all again? The actress is understandably cautious when it comes to talking about the currently filming fifth feature in the series and if she’ll appear in it — “it’s sort of a mum’s the word kind of situation” — she does seem to be pretty up to date on the current comings and goings of the James Mangold-directed feature, and she’s thrilled about what it will mean for the series as a whole.

INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL, (aka INDIANA JONES 4), executive producer George Lucas (center), Karen Allen (far right), on set, 2008. ©Paramount/courtesy Everett Collection
George Lucas and Karen Allen on the set of “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull”©Paramount/Courtesy Everett Collection

“You know, the fourth one left a lot hanging,” she said. “I think Steven always had the intention to make at least one more. I think Harrison too. I’m very happy that they’re doing it. Everybody says this will be the last one and I think that makes sense, that they want to bring it all to a kind of sense of closure and completion.”

As for the possibility of spinoff films or shows, Allen has some ideas, too. “We could meet Indy when he was working with my father, when he was 20 years old or 25 or something and my character would be 16 or 17,” Allen mused. “That’s an interesting area to explore if they want to keep going, but that would be, of course, with completely different actors. People love my character so much, and they are always saying, ‘I would love to see what Marion was doing all those years where we lost track of her.’ I always say, ‘Well, it’d be great if they would want to do something like that,’ but I doubt that that’s ever going to come to pass.”

Still, given the protracted road the fourth and fifth films traveled before being made, all those years of chatter and back-and-forth, it seems that anything could still be possible. Reminded that you never quite know where things might end, especially in a world gone wild for spinoffs and sequels and remakes, and even Allen conceded with a laugh, “You never know, it’s true!”

Allen will speak this evening at a special benefit for the Norman Rockwell Museum and the Berkshire International Film Festival. This year’s Berkshire International Film Festival will roll out in a virtual format, September 9 – 12.

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