This month marks the 40th anniversary of Raiders of the Lost Ark, which seems wrong, but after carefully adding up the numbers, it is indeed correct. Also, for the anniversary, Paramount is releasing a brand new 4K set of the four Indiana Jones movies up until this point. (The fifth movie is, at long last, shooting as you read this.) But lets go back to that first movie, when Indiana Jones was just one of the aforementioned “Raiders” who was trying to get his hands on the lost Ark of the Covenant. Indy’s arch enemy in this quest was another archeologist named René Belloq, played by Paul Freeman.
And when speaking to Freeman (who is a very delightful man who, I can confirm, is not an evil archeologist) is well aware that, yes, he has one of the most famous head explosions of all time – a constant internet meme – and is considering putting that fact on his tombstone. Ahead, we spoke to Freeman about playing Indiana Jones’s arch rival and the fact he’s a little miffed that no one had the idea to make some spinoff prequel movies about Belloq. And, Freeman says, since Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom took place before Raiders, there was some talk about Belloq returning, but then he just never heard about it again (and, as we know, Belloq is not in that movie).
But Freeman, over the years, has thought a lot about Raiders of the Lost Ark and why it has such a lasting influence. And why Raiders is still the best of the Indiana Jones movies (with one reason being the other movies do not have Belloq in them).
When I was told I’d be talking to you I was excited.
Oh, good. Are you still excited?
I’m more excited.
It is a strange thing. So, you can get the first idea and think, oh, yeah, it’s really good.” And then just start to think about it and think, well, there’s no point in doing it now.
No, no. Just in regular life I say your character’s name a lot, but the way John Rhys-Davies says it in the movie, “Beloosh” and then Harrison saying, “Bellock! Bellock.” It’s just that exchange is always in my head. And that’s you.
Of course, in a strange way, it’s not me.
You’re not an evil archeologist?
If you keep going down that channel, you’re going to end up with somebody asking, “What did it feel like to have your head explode?”
Well, you do have one of the most famous head explosions of all time. That’s got to be nice, right? On the internet, you are a constant presence.
That should be on the gravestone, do you think?
I think so.
That’s the most famous head explosion of all time?
Hey, look, that’s more than almost every other human being has. When people hear something shocking, they will post memes of your head exploding.
Did you catch up with that news item about Ivanka Trump? Was it last year or the year before, where she’d gone to the Middle East and everyone said she dressed as Belloq. Did you see that?
Oh, yeah I did. What did you think of that?
I mean, of all the things that have arrived about Raiders since, that was the most bizarre.
What was going through your head that day? Yeah, she was wearing your outfit from that movie.
How dare she, without asking my permission.
Ruining the good name of Belloq.
Exactly. If you think I’m Belloq, you should see her. Just to talk about true villain.
If I try to put myself in your shoes, I don’t think I could quite process what that movie did. Especially at the time, Spielberg was coming off 1941, so this wasn’t the sure deal it seems like it is now.
Well, that’s exactly how it was. It was another job. A good job, obviously. A great start in the career. I had only done two movies before. There wasn’t a feeling around the set that it was going to be big. But that’s partly because the filming, as far as I knew, was very easy and very comfortable. And it all worked well. There were no histrionics, there were no divas. And having histrionics and divas doesn’t, by any means, imply you’re going to get a good movie at the end of it. Rather the reverse, I’ve always thought.
You, almost low-key, have some of the best lines in this movie. Like the line where you tell Indy, “Even you might be worth something someday,” gets me every time.
Oh, that’s right. Yes, yes. You see, I never remember these things and fans come up and say these lines. And I say, ah, I’m sure I don’t remember saying that. The fans remember much better than me.
You remember that one though, right? That’s a great line. Because then Harrison does the, “Ha ha haaaaa.” Then he calls you a cuss word.
Somebody today was talking about the sequence where I talked about burying the stopwatch. I’d forgotten that entirely. I couldn’t remember that.
Right, about how it’s junk and if we bury it for a thousand years, it’s priceless.
What’s your favorite scene?
Oh dear, I don’t know. I should’ve prepared for this.
It’s better that you didn’t.
Do you know, I’m not at all sure that I don’t think that opening sequence – it’s like the opening sequence in Saving Private Ryan – is not one of the best opening sequences of any movie I’ve ever seen. It’s a breathtaking opening sequence. And because he takes it at such a pace and it’s so interesting, it allows him to slow down the film for the next half an hour. And you get into all the college stuff and the history. It goes quite quiet and slow, the film, after that. But it’s a brilliant opening.
I know this gets brought up a lot, but it is amazing how you do not flinch for that fly that lands on your face.
That’s because there were a lot of flies around in Tunisia, for a start. I know if you take that scene apart frame by frame, you’ll see that the fly flies away. It’s the editor playing, he saw something very good here and thought, “We’ll cut that so it looks as though he swallowed it.” I got a great review in The New Yorker from Pauline Kael about it.
Yes, I’ve read that.
Yeah, yeah. Well, wonderful. So it was worth it. It wouldn’t be worth swallowing the fly to do it, but I’m sure I didn’t swallow it.
Well, to be fair, under that situation, it’s a pretty tense situation in the movie, I doubt the real Belloq’s going to like, “Oh no, a fly!,” and run off or something.
And you’re not going to stop shooting something. It’s like, “Excuse me.”
Right. “I know this is costing a lot of money, but there was a fly on my face. I need a break.”
“I’m not carrying on. Sorry. Got a clause in the contract against flies.” Wouldn’t do you any good in Tunisia!
I am curious what you think about that particular scene in general. Because it is a kind of a shocking thing, because Belloq is telling Indiana Jones to blow up the Ark, then grabs a rifle and points it at the Nazis. He took it up a couple notches by taking a gun and holding it at the Nazis…
You see, somebody clever should have then taken that moment and said, “Oh, Belloq could be an adventure spirit, too.” We could have started a whole franchise on Belloq movies.
Yes. If Raiders came out today, we would have five Belloq movies.
Because you’ve got Better call Belloq, or something-
The following Indiana Jones movie, Temple of Doom, was a prequel. You could have been in that.
Was it a prequel?
Yeah. Temple of Doom takes place before Raiders.
Oh, right. There was some talk about making it a prequel, that’s right. I’m coming back, but it disappeared. It disappeared in the ether.
Because that’s always something I really enjoyed about the relationship between Indiana Jones and Belloq, there’s obviously so much history between these two. And I think a thing Lucas always did well back then, not a lot of exposition. We are aware these two have a history, but we really don’t know much about it.
Yeah, yeah. That’s part of the wit, isn’t it? Of writers and their scripts. In the way that it goes from Tibet, to where they get in a plane, and you just see one of those wonderful maps going across, dot, dot, dot, you’ve crossed the world in the 30 seconds. Ridiculous.
And, obviously, all these movies are popular, but the first one has a special place in people’s hearts.
Well, I’m not surprised about the popularity of the first one. I do think the first one, it has to be said, is a cut above the rest. I think it’s got a speed and a humor and an energy that the others don’t have. I think they became a bit bulked down, a bit muddied as it were. The clarity of the vision doesn’t continue, in my opinion.
And you’re not in the other ones.
And, B, there is no Belloq. So obviously it’s not as good.
I was trying to put the really objective point of view. And you’ve brought it back to the subjective.
Well, you mentioned Raiders slows down. And as I got older, I appreciated that stuff a lot more because I’m like, “Oh, they’re actually talking about some really interesting things here.”
Yeah, yeah. And it carries right through, doesn’t it? To the very last frame of them coming down from the meeting with, I suppose they’re the FBI. And then we see the crate being stored away. That’s a wonderful moment. I think that’s a very good example of cinema shorthand, isn’t it? What is it saying about what is going on with historical artifacts?
When you’re looking into the arc, that face you’re making, what was the direction on that? What are you being told? What was going through your head? Right before your head explodes?
Because you went from such sheer joy to sheer horror. So, that’s why it sticks in people’s head.
Well, the line, “It’s beautiful. You’re beautiful!,” was in the script obviously. But what was going on was we’re standing there, we don’t know what is coming at us. Steven is yelling, “There are dogs coming up to you. They’re coming right for your head. Now, ah, it’s a very beautiful thing. You’re really taken by the beauty of it. And now it’s horrible. Now it’s horrible!” So he’s shouting all the time while we’re thinking, “What the hell are we doing here?”
And I assume you really had no idea what that was going to look like until you saw the movie.
No idea. Couldn’t tell from the script.
Do you ever get annoyed talking about Belloq? I get this is the topic today, but maybe when you’re trying to promote something else?
No, I’m never annoyed about it. I’m happy to talk about it. It’s still a great movie and it’s been terrific in my professional life. And I’ll be always grateful for it. And just great to be able to say that about something that one still enjoys so much. The film itself, I mean.
It still feels like a modern movie. It does not feel old.
Somebody else said that today. And I think the reason for that is the humor and the energy in it. It’s light-footed. It’s never pompous, never heavy.
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