Death of the Damsel in Distress
Marion Ravenwood in "Raiders of the Lost Ark"

2021 marked the 40th anniversary of director Steven Spielberg’s “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” Along with an assortment of colorful characters and exciting action sequences, the film introduced movie goers and popular culture to the unassuming yet larger than life character of Dr. Henry “Indiana” Jones Jr. Despite the film’s obvious central focus being on “Indy,” actress Karen Allen’s supporting role as Marion Ravenwood introduced audiences to another memorable character in her own right, and one who likely influenced many cinematic action adventure heroines that followed after. 

At the beginning of the 1980s there was a distinct shift in actresses playing the proverbial damsel in distress for yet another action adventure movie in which the male protagonist does all of the hard work while the female lead essentially waits to be rescued, most likely in a torn dress. Karen Allen’s work in 1981’s “Raiders of the Lost Ark” showed signs of the turning of the tides for this worn out cinematic trope.

The film’s introduction of Marion Ravenwood finds her in a cold and dingy tavern somewhere in the far reaches of Nepal. She is dressed in what appears to be comfortable pants, with functioning pockets. The scene begins with Marion and her male challenger several shots into a one on one drinking contest as a crowd of rowdy locals looks on after having placed their bets on the two competitors. Marion appears completely capable and self-assured despite the size and intimidating presence of her burly opponent. Shortly after Marion wins the drinking contest, trouble soon turns up when a small cadre of Nazi cronies gangs up on and interrogates her in their desperate search for an elusive ancient artifact they believe she possesses. Initially, Marion appears to be fully capable of taking care of herself, at least when she is not unfairly outnumbered. 

illustrations by Alison White

Although the film did give her moments of individual daring and bravery, it still saw the character of Marion devolve from a scrappy, independent, and resourceful woman to more of what could be considered a more socially accepted version of herself. In what was largely one of the most regretful aspects of the film, despite the fact that she was essentially an independent business woman, she still was made to seem as if she needed saving from the direction she’d taken with her life.

Similar to Marion’s introductory scene at the beginning of the film, in a later scene Marion challenges her Nazi ally captor, Rene Belloq, to a drinking game for which the opening scene clearly established her as a formidable opponent. It was this scene in particular where Allen suggested a change. 

In an August 2021 IndieWire article by author Kate Erbland, Karen Allen spoke about how Marion Ravenwood, was initially supposed to “seduce her way out of the Nazi camp but had the scene changed.” Allen suggested to Spielberg, who turned out to be open to the change of direction for the scene, that such a move would not be in keeping with who she felt the character was. With this divergence from the original scripted direction for her character, Allen completely altered the way in which audiences would perceive Marion. 

What makes Marion so unique is that even though she is female, she relies more on her wits than on her tits. Additionally, Marion boasts no elaborately coiffed hair or excessive make-up. At least, not until the final moments of the film. After going through several adventures alongside Indy, as well as several costume changes in which she gradually shows more skin, the film ends with Marion in a sharp, polished skirt suit.

When it comes to the direction in which Allen’s influence altered what could have been a less original and memorable version of the character, one thing I will give the film credit for is our last glimpse of Marion’s singular authenticity. With her arm hooked around Indy’s, instead of walking off into the sunset with Indy having the last word, they stroll off in the direction of the nearest bar for “a drink,” at her suggestion. Girls will be girls. 

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