A Classic Raiders Of The Lost Ark Moment Was Improvised By Harrison Ford For A Gross Reason

"Raiders of the Lost Ark" set a new standard for action adventure epics while paying homage to the serial films creator George Lucas grew up on. With its globe-spanning narrative and high-intensity action scenes, "Raiders" introduced a new kind of action hero with Indiana Jones — one who isn't necessarily always one step ahead of his enemies but who always manages to find his way out of trouble in the end. Which is pretty much the story of the film's production, too.

By now, fans are very familiar with behind-the-scenes tales of filming woes and stunt performers narrowly avoiding death. Director Steven Spielberg was amazed that star Harrison Ford and his stunt team survived filming "Raiders of the Lost Ark," given the multiple dangerous stunts and set pieces. Even Ford himself took on many of the perilous feats, including running from a real 300-pound boulder during the film's famous opening segment. But it wasn't just dangerous stunts that made "Raiders" a tough film to complete. The crew endured multiple setbacks during the 1980 shoot, including a particularly rough on-location experience in Tunisia, which stood in for Egypt.

Tunisia provided one of the biggest hurdles for the embattled crew of "Raiders" to overcome, in the form of a widespread case of dysentery that affected Ford himself. That famously led to one of the most memorable scenes from the film, in which Indy finds himself confronted on the streets of Cairo by a sword-wielding foe who he dispatches with a single shot from his revolver. The story of how this hilariously anticlimactic moment found its way into the film has been told in pieces since the film's release, but lucky for you we've collated all the info here so you can get the most comprehensive insight into this legendary Indiana Jones moment.

The definitive whip vs sword fight

"Raiders of the Lost Ark" was conceived as a series of set-pieces by George Lucas, who eventually tapped screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan to come up with the connecting narrative. And after a slapdash writing process, the "Raiders" we all know and love was born, complete with Lucas' vision for elaborate stunts and memorable action sequences. But not all of those original plans made it into the final cut.

In the case of the Cairo sword fight — one of the coolest moments in all Indiana Jones movies — Tunisia's unforgiving climate and an unfortunate case of dysentery forced Steven Spielberg and his team to adapt their plans. Temperatures would hit 130 degrees in the Tunisian desert, a problem compounded by the fact there were also water supply problems. All of which meant Spielberg had to work hard to stick to the shooting schedule, reportedly averaging 35 setups a day in order to keep pace. The director, who managed to stay healthy by bringing his own food and water from England, where he had been shooting prior, had initially planned to film an elaborate sword and whip fight between Indy and his scimitar-wielding adversary.

According to Spielberg, there was originally a three-page sequence planned, wherein Indiana Jones would have "the most definitive whip against sword fight." Harrison Ford told Entertainment Tonight that the director had "searched the world for the best swordsman," who he found in Terry Richards. Over the course of a decades-long career, the capable stunt performer, who passed away in 2014, faced off against everyone from James Bond to Luke Skywalker himself. But his most memorable role would prove to be as Indiana Jones' ill-fated foe in "Raiders" — and not quite for the reasons Richards would have hoped.

'Why don't we just shoot this sumb***h?'

Steven Spielberg, writing for the American Society of Cinematographers, recalled the original fight between Terry Richards and Harrison Ford was scheduled for a day and a half of shooting. As Ford said, via The Independent, "[Richards] had trained and trained and trained, and we had to tell him that he was gonna die." By the time the crew was ready to film the meticulously-planned scene, as producer Frank Marshall told a Hollywood Reporter roundtable, the crew "had been shooting in Tunisia in 130 degrees for six weeks and had three days left."

Those three days had been set aside for the showdown between Indy and his attacker, but with an intestinal disease compromising Ford's health, and having endured an arduous shoot in Tunisia, the actor was keen to find a way to make things easier. As he told ET, "I went up to Steven as soon as I arrived and I said, 'Steven why don't we just shoot this sumb***h?' and Steven said, 'My god I was thinking that, too.'"

Harrison Ford had already been given an unusual amount of creative control on the "Raiders of the Lost Ark" and he used his sway to give he and the crew a break. But shooting his attacker instead of playing out the elaborate fight turned out to be an inspired choice. Not only did it make for a memorable moment of levity, it also made sense within the context of the film's narrative. In the scene, Indiana Jones is desperately searching for Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen), after she disappears during a confrontation between Jones and Nazi-allied local mercenaries in a crowded bazaar. As such, it would make more sense for Indy to shoot Richards' swordsman and get on with his search.

It was about more than Harrison Ford's gut

Aside from the fact that shortening this scene gave his struggling crew a break, Steven Spielberg wrote in his ASC piece that cutting the fight scene meant "We were then another day ahead of schedule." On such an ambitious project as "Raiders of the Lost Ark," which Spielberg had struggled to sell to studios given its massive $20 million budget, that mattered. And the fact that the scene which appeared in the final cut got such a big laugh was just a bonus. So, while you may have heard this whole debacle was down to dysentery, there was more to it.

Recalling the filming in a Reddit AMA, Harrison Ford wrote:

"We'd done a brief rehearsal of the scene the night before we were meant to shoot it, and both Steve and I realized it would take two or three days to shoot this. And it was the last thing we were meant to shoot in Tunisia before we left to shoot in England. And the scene before this in the film included a whip fight against 5 bad guys that were trying to kidnap Marian, so I thought it was a bit redundant."

While he was undoubtedly motivated by the fact that it was "inconvenient to be out of [his] trailer for more than 10 minutes at a time," there was clearly good reason for Ford to suggest shortening the sword fight scene. And the final film, with its now famous single shot moment, is proof of that. Still, Ford laments the fact that "the poor guy" who "was a wonderful British stuntman who had practiced his sword skills for months in order to do this job" didn't get a chance to showcase the combat choreography he'd honed so finely.

The legacy of a 15-second scene

Interestingly enough, you can see the beginning of what the fight was intended to be here, in a clip that suggests it would have taken a little while to get going as Indy cracks his whip multiple times to fend off his sword-wielding opponent. Thankfully, the 15 seconds we did get have undoubtedly become a legendary Indiana Jones moment, which has been referenced in pop culture multiple times since, even within the Indy movies themselves.

In the prequel, "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom" there's a moment when the titular archeologist is confronted by two Thuggee cult members with swords, who much like Terry Richards' scimitar specialist from the first movie, face down Indy by demonstrating their proficiency with the weapons. In the scene, which uses a similar music cue to the one used during the bazaar scene in "Raiders," Ford's hero reaches for his gun, only to realize he lost it earlier in the film.

And it seems there's a more subtle reference in the upcoming "Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny," if the trailer's anything to go by. The teaser shows Indy intimidating a room full of thugs by cracking his whip, only for the group to draw their guns and fire at the aging adventurer as he ducks below a table. That bodes well for the sequel in the sense that it shows the series hasn't forgotten how important humor is to its success. And Ford himself was reportedly not scared to get physical in his latest Indy outing, which unfortunately led to him suffering a shoulder injury during filming. Still, at least he dodged dysentery this time around.