It’s not the years, honey – it’s the mileage.
I don’t know about you, but I’ve clocked up quite a few miles since June 12, 1981, when Indiana Jones, the world’s most famous archaeologist, first donned his fedora in Steven Spielberg’s action adventure Raiders of the Lost Ark.
Back then, I was a spotty 16-year-old youth. My bedroom wall was covered in movie posters, and my shelves were stacked high with Star Wars models. I was excited to see Raiders, not least because the studio publicity had been making a big deal about the movie being a collaboration between Spielberg and his buddy George Lucas. Talk about a marriage made in heaven.
And yet, I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect. The trailer was enticing – full of groovy action beats and enigmatic references to some kind of Biblical artefact called the Ark. Say what? The only Ark I’d heard of was the one built by Noah, and somehow I couldn’t imagine that old tub making an appearance here. So what was this movie actually about? I had no idea.
Not that it mattered. From the very first shot – that cheeky dissolve from the Paramount logo to a mountain peak in Peru – Raiders of the Lost Ark had me thrilled and enthralled. What really blew me away was Spielberg’s mastery of the medium. Here was a filmmaker using every department, every tool at his disposal, with a single purpose in mind – to tell the story.
Take the first reveal of Indy, made unforgettable by Douglas Slocombe’s gorgeous cinematography. Initially glimpsed only in shadow, from behind, or through closeups of his hands, our hero finally steps into the dappled jungle light about three minutes into the opening sequence, having used his bullwhip to disarm his treacherous porter. Next time you watch the film, make sure you appreciate that first heroic closeup. Next, check out how many times Indy moves from shadow into light throughout the rest of the film. In fact, try making a note of every time Spielberg and Slocombe manipulate light and shade in the service of the story. Seriously, Raiders of the Lost Ark is the best black and white movie ever made in the era of colour.
If you doubt me on that particular point, try watching the film in monochrome, a task made simple by master filmmaker Steven Soderbergh, who has put together a colourless, soundless version of Raiders of the Lost Ark for educational purposes, drawing attention to the incredible staging not just of the scene I’ve described above, but every scene in the entire film.
Speaking of silence, let’s talk about sound. Not only did John Williams compose one of most whistleable movie themes ever for Raiders of the Lost Ark, but he also layered in music cues spanning the whole gamut from action to humour, romance to horror, suspense to downright awe. Woven through the music is Ben Burtt’s perfectly synchronised array of deliciously crunchy sound effects, from the deafening blam of Indy’s pistol, to the quirky cough of the seaplane’s starter motor, to the cracks of thunder that accompany the opening of the Well of Souls. And yes, there’s even a Wilhelm scream in there.
Visual effects play their part too, although frankly, when that effects-mad teenage version of me sat down to watch Raiders of the Lost Ark, he wasn’t expecting much in that regard. Imagine his delight when he spotted matte paintings, cloud tank effects, and a plethora of ghosts that looked like live-action out-takes from the Night on a Bald Mountain section of Walt Disney’s Fantasia. Again – and here’s the thing – every single visual effect exists purely to serve the story.
To illustrate, let’s return to the beginning of the film. We’re a few minutes further in, at the point when Indy and Satipo have gained access to the temple containing the golden Chachapoyan fertility idol. As they use Indy’s bullwhip to swing across an open shaft in the floor, we get a couple of shots looking up at them from below. Rather than excavating a big hole in the ground, the filmmakers combined a live-action plate shot from a low angle with a matte painting produced by Industrial Light & Magic.
As visual effects shots go, it’s far from showy. Granted, things get amped up later, when a rain of boulders accompanies Indy’s scramble back across the now-collapsing shaft (to create that illusion, ILM cameraman Jim Veilleux photographed individual boulders moving under motion control against bluescreen, which the optical department then matted into the rest of the scene). But in essence this is a pure storytelling shot, a carefully chosen angle selected through the storyboard process, perfectly pitched to describe the action and enhance the sense of peril.
Not that Raiders of the Lost Ark is lacking in splashy effects. For the finale, ILM visual effects supervisor Richard Edlund used every trick in the book to fill the frame with supernatural apparitions. There are cel-animated ghosts, ghosts brought to life by dragging puppets through a tank of water, an angelic performer flying on a mechanical rig, replica heads rigged to explode, collapse or melt on cue, and a pillar of fire that literally opens a pathway to the heavens.
Watching Raiders of the Lost Ark for the first time on my local movie screen was a big deal for me. It was the moment, I think, when I finally gave myself permission to be an effects enthusiast. Up until then, I’d half-believed that being interested in this rather esoteric craft made me a geek, and that my time might be better spent just enjoying these films rather than picking them apart. Incidentally, I suspect Mr. Spielberg was behind that feeling as well. After my first viewing of Jaws early in 1976, I recall annoying my friends by telling them the blood that came out of Robert Shaw was probably just tomato ketchup.
Raiders of the Lost Ark changed that. It proved to me that loving a story, and also loving the mechanics by which it was told, were entirely compatible. It was okay, whenever a juicy matte painting appeared on the screen, to lean forward in my seat a little, and narrow my eyes a little, and mutter under my breath, “Nice.”
If I did that now, of course, I’d spend entire films hunched forward and muttering to myself. There are only a handful of visual effects shots in Raiders of the Lost Ark, whereas modern action films commonly contain over 1,000. If it’s a big summer tentpole, you can double that.
The escalation of effects has brought some astonishing images to our screens. However, from time to time I like to remember special moments from those older, simpler days. Like the moment during that first viewing of Raiders of the Lost Ark, when a spectacular Alan Maley matte painting allowed a Nazi truck to fly off an unexpectedly vertiginous cliff, causing the entire audience – myself included – to gasp aloud in surprise and delight.
It’s good to remember moments like that, because when every shot is gasp-inducing, nobody gasps. It’s a simple truth that Raiders of the Lost Ark demonstrates most elegantly.
Less, as they say, can sometimes be more.
This week marks the 35th anniversary of that first release of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Do you remember those halcyon summer days as well as I do? Did you gasp when the truck went over the cliff? Which is the Indy moment that sticks most firmly in your memory?
Raiders of the Lost Ark photographs copyright © 1981 by Lucasfilm Ltd.