“They sent therefore and gathered together all the lords of the Philistines, and said, ‘Send away the ark of the God of Israel, and let it return to its own place, that it may not kill us and our people.’ For there was a deathly panic throughout the whole city. The hand of God was very heavy there; those who did not die were stricken with tumors, and the cry of the city went up to heaven.” ~ 1 Samuel 5:11-12
By chance I caught that today was the end of a limited engagement showing of Raiders of the Lost Ark in IMAX and managed to get my good friend to go with me. We were a little early–other “classic” re-screenings I’ve been to have been packed, especially a showing of Back to the Future at the same theater two years ago. This theater was anything but packed, but our punctuality was rewarded with extra minutes of advertising drivel, leading into more drivel in the form of the preceding trailers. I’m not sure why the particular trailers were chosen–Frankenweenie and Hotel Transylvania, possibly others–but I was particularly struck by their willfully ignorant loudness, content to be sloppy audio-visual assaults being passed off as entertainment. I’ll be going to see The Master this month, thank you very much, and none of these.
Of course, if Raiders is anything it’s a loud, busy film, downright assaultive in its unrelenting momentum. But from frame one it is clear the movie has been crafted with patience and intention. The South American peak and the foregrounded Jones fill the screen, gloriously magnified in IMAX, the first of many sharp compositions to prove revelatory when writ large rather than shrunk for a home-bound screen. Spielberg puts so much on the screen, whether the lush vegetation of the forest or the carefully crafted arcana of a subterranean crypt. It’s less than the hyper-intricate sound and fury made possible by the digital era but so much more effective cinematically.
Without the hindsight of the series in toto, it is by no means obvious at any point that the film will head in the potently supernatural direction of its face-melting climax. The characters are hardened skeptics, men of orders and men of science, pontificating on “becoming” history and the “religion” of archaeology while dismissing the numinous as “the bogeyman” and “Sunday school”. As silly as some of the sequences are (why don’t the Nazi truck drivers ever just step on the damn brakes?), they evoke the gravity of real stakes and keep the hero vulnerable and black and blue. Jones might be winking at us, but he’s bleeding on us too.
I paid special attention in this viewing to the film’s various faces awash in golden light. As a recurring motif it seems to signify deep desire and fixed attention, occurring first as it does when Indy lays eyes on the golden idol at the film’s beginning. As he approaches the gape-mouthed figure (with white eyes and brown irises! Never noticed that on the small screen) his face is lit from below with an abundance of the yellow hue. Read literally, it can’t be possibly emanating from the idol given the angle it shines from, underscoring it as an illumination of Jones’s deep motivation and pleasure: the hunt, the adventure, the prize.
Our next golden faced character is Marion, who lights up while holding the medallion in one hand and the cash in another, drunkenly contemplating Jones’s offer and probably Jones himself. Her motivations are crossed between the purely financial and the emotional, choosing even between her father (the medallion) and the money she needs to get out of Nepal.
Of course her indecision is cut short by Toht, who lights up as he closes in on her with a mind to torture her with a hot iron. Spielberg has silently established deep facts about the main characters with this motif, and can therefore turn it unexpectedly to suggest something about the unknown evil depths of this laconic Nazi stooge hunting mystical artifacts in the Himalayas.
Finally, the ark itself is bathed in golden light, streaming up from beneath it as it is uncovered by Jones and Sallah, thereby suggesting–what? That the ark itself is compelled to some end? Or that the deep desires felt by these central characters are somehow encapsulated by this most sacred object? As it is the pursuit–the raiding–of this object that drives the whole film, this seems a reasonable conclusion. The ark is intensely desired but for what reasons? Greed, romantic love, and hate all drive the raiders of the lost ark, but not devotion to the God of Israel. And Spielberg’s thrilling surprise is that Yahweh will have none of it.
By contrast, when Belloq and the Nazis open the ark the scene they are not lit with yellow/gold light but with white. It suggests a shift from the human gaze of desire to a holy presence, the transcendent otherness of the one indwelling the ark, the purifying judgment of God. The irony of the film, in an explosive twist of sorts on The Maltese Falcon, is that the object of everyone’s desire will not submit to those desires. As an both an echo of that film and as a singularly astounding film climax, Raiders‘ conclusion really is the stuff that dreams are made of.