Here’s why, 40 years after the release of “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” we still love Marion Ravenwood: When she gets trapped in a runaway Nazi plane and her ex Indiana Jones is battling some German bruiser in a fight that he totally shouldn’t win, Marion doesn’t hide and cower. Nope, she mans the gun and goes to town on any swastika-bedecked bad guy who happens to be in her sight.
Not only was Marion always up for a fight (or a drinking contest) but so was the woman playing her. Every time Karen Allen found a moment of weakness with Marion in the original “Raiders” script that didn’t seem right, “we just had to weed them out,” the actress, now 69, tells USA TODAY. “I’m sure sitting in a room writing it can seem like a funny thing to have her suddenly become this nervous Nellie or something, but that was just not who she was.”
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Allen made her film debut in 1978’s “Animal House” and appeared in Woody Allen’s “Manhattan” a year later. But it was director Steven Spielberg's “Raiders” (which hit theaters June 12, 1981) that really put her on the map playing the former flame of Harrison Ford's Indy. In the classic film, the duo reunites and becomes partners again during the archaeologist's globetrotting 1936-set quest to find the biblical Ark of the Covenant before the Nazis.
Allen says she modeled Marion after "those roles that I had watched as a kid growing up" played by the likes of Katharine Hepburn, Barbara Stanwyck, Bette Davis, or Lauren Bacall.
Co-star Paul Freeman adds that Allen played her to the hilt. "The great thing (was) being able to do all the physical stuff as well as the wit, with such a wicked sense of humor," says the English actor, who played French archaeologist – and Indy's archrival – René Belloq.
The fifth "Indiana Jones" movie is in production now, though time will tell if Marion will be back again. Allen, who reprised her role in 2008’s “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull,” discusses her memories of “Raiders” (which is out now on 4K Blu-ray and via digital platforms) and if Marion and Indy belong together.
Question: When you think about or watch the original movie now, what most immediately springs to mind?
Karen Allen: Just that it has been this extraordinary theme in my life. We made that film and over the last 40 years, it has been passed from one generation to another. I take great pleasure in the fact that it has worn so well over time and that people still are discovering and loving the film. It's very special and rare, you know? It doesn't happen with every film that you make.
Q: When you first read the “Raiders” script, did you get the feeling that, aside from the snakes and the large boulders and the adventure, there was a lot of character stuff for you?
Allen: I definitely did because the first thing that they gave me to read, long before I got a chance to read the whole script, was (Marion's introductory) scene. This woman’s living alone in a bar in Nepal, her father has died, she's had to find a way to survive there and she's chosen drinking men under the table for a living. She shoos them out the door when she's done with the day and then (Indy) comes in and she pops him one in the jaw based on some piece of history between them that we don't know anything about. It's just one of those delicious roles that they put on paper that I was lucky enough to get the chance to embody.
Q: Marion’s definitely a sparkplug. How much of that feistiness did you bring yourself?
Allen: Well, some of it was on the page. They wrote this incredible introduction to the character, and then as the film went on, she moved dangerously toward being a damsel in distress, which I understood was of the genre but I had gotten so protective of the character at that point. Any moment that she was given nothing to do to look after herself, I was constantly going to Steven and saying, "She should really do this." I didn't ever want her to be somebody who was like, “Ahhh, Indy, what do I do?!”
'Raiders of the Lost Ark' celebrates 40 years of Indiana Jones
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Q: Looking back on the franchise, how cool is it that Marion was that one true love who pretty much ruined every other woman for Indy?
Allen: I like that! In a very sincere way, she fell in love with him when she was 16. He was the one true love of her life. This is pre-’60s, pre-“if you can't be with the one you love, love the one you're with” – this was when people were more sincere. (Laughs) I very much fought for that as well. I didn't want her relationship with Belloq to verge on that this could have been an affair. Belloq was somebody who was paying her a lot of attention and was kind to her and maybe wanted her to be in love with him but she was using that in order to be able to escape.
Q: Belloq definitely takes a shine to Marion. How much fun was doing that desert drinking scene between them?
Allen: That was one of my favorite scenes because it wasn't really written in the script and we got to develop that. Paul and I snuck off to the tent at lunchtime for a few days in a row and we just did little improvisations. We showed Steven what we had come up with and he said, "That's great, we'll do that."
Paul came up with this idea that this was a liquor that was in (Belloq’s) family for many years, so he was fairly used to it, and Marion, who had such stamina in her drinking life, was sort of thrown by the fact that she ends up becoming quite drunk. She was trying to get him drunk so that she could get the knife she'd hidden and escape from the tent. How she was going to get anywhere in that white dress, I have no idea, but that's a whole other story.
Q: When you came back for “Crystal Skull,” what was the trickiest thing about revisiting Marion after so long?
Allen: It was so easy to step back into her shoes. (She and Indy) hadn't been together for, say, 20 years, and she had gone and had a whole other life – she married somebody else, and the child (played by Shia LaBeouf) was Indy's child. Then her son ends up running into Indiana Jones and they end up being pulled back together. Maybe the most challenging thing was to really take this (idea) she'd been living in a whole other world and to try to bring that world onto the screen, with very little history to it.
Q: The last time we saw Marion was on her wedding day with Indy. Do you think they broke up again, like on the honeymoon?
Allen: No, they're really meant to be with each other. The point at which they got married, they'd been through so much and I don't think they would have broken up again. It's Indy and Marion forever.