Movie Mistakes: The Incredible Shrinking Indiana Jones

Raiders Of The Lost Ark Map Room

Despite the ability to shoot a scene over and over until everything is just right, sometimes mistakes slip through to the final edit of a film. We’re not talking about small continuity errors but big obvious things that slipped by filmmakers and most audiences alike over the years. In this new feature, we’re going to take a look at such mistakes in both classic and recent cinema, starting off with one of our all time favorites from Raiders Of The Lost Ark.

Steven Spielberg and George Lucas’s Raiders Of The Lost Ark is one of the greatest adventure films of all time – a near perfect blend of action, romance, suspense, comedy and thrills. We say near perfect because one of the movie’s key scenes, in which our hero Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford), does some quick math to determine that the bad guys are looking in the wrong location for the lost Ark of the Covenant, also reveals that in the world that the movie exists in, everyone is about four feet tall!

The key to finding the lost Ark lies in finding where it was hidden in the ancient city of Tanis and the key to that lies with the Headpiece to the Staff of Ra. In a rather remarkable scene that we are all familiar with, Indy and his friend Marcus Brody describe to the two government officials how the Headpiece works in conjunction with the Map Room and what it means that the Nazis are looking for it. It is a great bit of  exposition that basically spells out to the audience what the next hour of plot will be.

Of course, for Indy, it isn’t as straightforward as he explains it. He still has to get the Headpiece and then have it translated to find out the height the Staff itself needs to be. And that’s where he runs into trouble.

Indy’s friend Sallah takes him to a wise old man named Imam who can translate the symbols of the Headpiece. Imam tells them that the Staff should be “six kadam high,” which Indy suggests would be “about seventy-two inches.” So, if you divide six kadam into seventy-two inches, we easily find that a kadam is equal to approximately one foot. But Imam then flips the Headpiece over and translates the symbols on the back, stating “But take back one kadam to honor the Hebrew God whose Ark this is…” Quick math tells us that the Staff should therefore be five feet high.

So what happens when Indy gets to the Map Room and stands next to a five-foot tall staff, topped by the Headpiece? It towers over him. Sure it makes for an exciting, cinematic moment. But it also visually demonstrates that Indiana Jones is only four feet or so tall. And that raises a whole load of questions about the world of the movies that we are not even going to get into.

Interestingly, this mistake was not baked into the film at the script stage. A look at the Revised Fifth Draft of the screenplay dated April 1980 reveals that Imam’s dialogue has him translating the back of the Headpiece as adding an additional Kadam or 12 inches to the staff, making the Nazi’s staff shorter, not taller, than it should be. And subsequently be closer to the visual we see in the film.

As this is the most recent draft before shooting began on June 23, 1980, it seems reasonable to assume that the change adding the words “take back” occurred either on set or in the post-production dialogue looping stage. The “And take back one kadam” is delivered while on a shot of Imam’s finger pointing to the inscription on the reverse of the Headpiece, so it could have been added at that late stage.

We may never know who suggested the change and why. And in the grand scheme of things, it doesn’t really take away from the film. But it is an interesting example of how something can be right under one’s nose, and in your over familiarity with the material you miss the obvious. Or, with Indy’s certain phobia in mind, if it were a snake, it would have bit them.

Avatar für Rich Drees
About Rich Drees 7040 Articles
A film fan since he first saw that Rebel Blockade Runner fleeing the massive Imperial Star Destroyer at the tender age of 8 and a veteran freelance journalist with twenty-five years experience writing about film and pop culture. He is a member of the Philadelphia Film Critics Circle.
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September 29, 2017 11:10 am

The shooting draft had it correct (Germans’ staff too short) but the dialogue in the film somehow got switched to Germans’ staff being too tall.

Fred Jenkins
September 29, 2017 11:43 am
Reply to  FilmBuffOnLine

In that case its Germans for the win..

Fred Jenkins
September 29, 2017 11:06 am

I was reading this and I’m confused. If the staff for the Germans is a foot too short and that puts the staff as stated on the medallion or head piece as 72” or 6ft so if you give another foot to god you would be at 84” or 7ft and the source image seems to be about s foot taller. Putting Indi at 6ft.

March 24, 2021 11:24 am

The staff is correct. The mounting platform is about 18 inches tall and indy is standing behind it… this entire thread is crap

September 19, 2022 1:03 am
Reply to  michael

Seems like he’s standing on the platform.
Kay Johnson
Kay Johnson
May 1, 2021 10:35 am

Thanks for the confirmation. The original script is consistent with what we see in the film, but the last minute dialogue change makes the film all wrong. I was surprised the unit of measure they used wasn’t cubits–a highly popular biblical unit equalling about 18 inches. Before finding this thread, I wondered if they meant cubits and Indiana Jones said the wrong line (“72 inches”) as if they had planned it to be a 16-18 inch cubit and he should have said, 96 or 102 or 108 inches.