The Power of Film: Raiders of the Lost Ark

If, by chance, you’ve never seen Raiders of the Lost Ark and don’t know what happens in the movie, don’t read this article. Go watch Raiders first. This article continues our Power of Film series, in which thoughtful viewers share their experiences of meeting God at the movies. (SPOILERS are possible in this series.)

My earliest movie memory involves Raiders of the Lost Ark. I was born a few years after its theatrical release, so I didn’t get to see it in a theater until Saturday, when it was rereleased in IMAX in celebration of (or, more accurately, as promotion for) the series’ release on Blu-Ray on September 18. The restoration is beautiful, by the way, but more on that later.

I first saw Raiders when my parents rented it when I was four years old. I don’t remember watching most of the movie, but I do remember the ending. I remember the angels flying up out of the open Ark. I remember the wind and the sound. I remember the melting faces. I remember the screams. I remember the fear that enveloped me as if someone had poured paint over my head. My mother remembers seeing me standing watching by the edge of our coffee table and the terror overtaking me. She remembers thinking, “What have we done?”

I recovered eventually, of course, but I didn’t watch Raiders again until I was in my late teens. I’ve seen it many, many times now, but I still tremble inside every time I reach the end of Raiders. I still find it horrific even if I am able to watch it now without needing to hide in my mother’s arms. Raiders of the Lost Ark is, and I imagine, always will be, a thrill.

Not only is that my first memory of watching a movie, it’s also my first memory of a movie making me feel something deeply. It was the first time a movie moved me, and that experience set me on a lifetime pursuit of understanding how and why movies affect me like they do. Growing up, I watched movies constantly, and then in college, I began studying how movies work. I learned and am learning to appreciate well-made, artfully crafted, beautiful movies, paying attention to the formal, or “technical,” elements of a cinematic experience.

For instance, now when I watch Raiders, I see the rhythm of the plot, how the movie moves from well-defined action sequence to well-defined action sequence interrupted by brief respites where pertinent plot and character information is revealed. These breaks in the action both advance the story thematically and offer the audience a chance to breathe before Indy starts the chase again. The stakes are also higher each time a new action sequence begins. Indy is ever closer to losing the Ark, Marion, and his own life. Recent action movies could learn a lot from Raiders‘ rhythm.

I also now have a greater appreciation for Spielberg’s use of shadows and silhouettes. There’s the famous opening shot of Indy against the sky, Indy’s entrance into Marion’s Nepalese bar, Marion’s decision to accompany Indy as her bar burns, the silhouettes of Indy and Sallah’s diggers against the desert sunset, the shadow of the Ark’s cherubim against the walls of the tomb as Indy and Sallah transfer it to its wooden box,  Indy, Marion, and Sallah’s conversation in the doorway of a tent as the Ark is taken away in a truck, the silhouette of the island where the Ark is opened, and the silhouettes of everyone gathered to witness the opening of the Ark, among many other shadowed shots. I noticed on this viewing that the audience is never shown the Ark in full until it is on the platform about to be opened by Belloq and the Nazis. Before that moment, it is only myth and shadow.

This is a movie where everyone and everything is in the dark even in the unrelenting light of the desert sun. Everything is shadow. The light sources that cast these shadows are otherworldly – the sun, fire, and finally the Ark itself, which eerily glows with unnatural splendor and shatters all other human made light sources when it comes to life. (Incidentally, these shadows have never looked better than they do now having been restored for the Blu-Ray release of the Indiana Jones series and projected in IMAX. Go see it if you have the chance. It’s playing through the end of the week.)

To get back to the point though, even as I’ve begun to learn how movies make me feel, something was still missing. Nothing in the formal elements of filmmaking could account for the variable impact of movies upon my life. As I’ve watched movies multiple times over the course of my life, I’ve seen different things. I’ve felt different things. The light reflected off the screen or emanating from my television illuminates me differently. If my movie-going experience was simply my conscious and subconscious response to the formal elements of the movie, shouldn’t my response always be the same?

For instance, when I was four, Raiders awakened in me a fear of God’s power. When I watched it on Saturday night with my fiancée sitting beside me, I was struck by Indy’s need to abandon his pursuit of antiquities in favor of Marion. Something more influences me at the movies besides mere cinematic conventions.

I continued following my question about how and why movies move me to Fuller to study theology and the arts. There I learned a theology of general revelation, that God speaks to people broadly in the everywhere and always of human life, in nature, in reason, in history, in the created world, not only via supernatural means like scripture, formal worship, or miracles.

I learned to pay attention to what God might be communicating when I hike, when I share a meal with friends, and when I sit down to watch a movie. I learned to value those experiences as much as I value conventional worship. I learned to always be asking, “Where is God now in this? What is God inviting me to be part of in this experience of my life?” Often, for me, that happens during an aesthetic experience like at the movies, not always, but sometimes, and for some people, it happens more often than for others.

As I reflect now, I think it’s appropriate that my journey to learning to respect God’s presence in every aspect of my life began with my childhood viewing of Raiders of the Lost Ark. This is a movie where Indy’s character arc is from unbelief in powers beyond his own to deep respect for that power.

Every time God is referenced throughout the movie, Indy scoffs, and Indy’s environment visibly and audibly vibrates. Indy doesn’t notice. Then when the Ark is finally opened, and Belloq and the Nazis find nothing but sand inside, Indy smirks, self-satisfied at being right.

Then the Ark begins to glow brightly, Indy realizes his error, suddenly believes, and tells Marion to shut her eyes as he shuts his having finally learned respect for the power of God.

It’s at that moment though, that my path departs from Indy’s. I cannot shut my eyes. I won’t stop looking, because though at times I am horrified, mostly I am edified by the light coming from the screen as it illuminates me to the presence and power of God in my life.

Proverbs says that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. For me, that fear was first instilled by Raiders of the Lost Ark. So I will keep returning to the movies, hoping every time to find God there, and every time, being thrilled when I do.