Sunday, June 12, 2011

The Great Adventure: My Personal Journey with 'Raiders of the Lost Ark'

30 years ago today, filmmakers Steven Spielberg and George Lucas unleashed a collaborative effort upon the world that would prove just as influential as either of their breakthrough films.  Though I was far too young to fully understand or grasp the genius of Raiders of the Lost Ark at the time, my senses were acute enough to recognize when I was in the midst of something world changing.  That film became a defining event of my youth, one that would go on to inform and influence other parts of my life.  Today I see it as the manifestation of a precious life lesson that my father tried to pass on to me.

I was 4 years old in 1981.  Even then, movies played a major role in my life.  My father instilled in me a deep appreciation for movies, particularly the blockbusters of Lucas and Spielberg.  I was knee deep in Star Wars toys for the first few Christmases I can remember.  I hadn’t even seen the first Star Wars yet, but I was intimately familiar with the universe and its characters thanks to those action figures. 

Indy (Harrison Ford) happens upon the remains of a traitor (Alfred Molina).

One night, I overheard my father talking with his friends about a new movie called Raiders of the Lost Ark.  He was and still is notoriously hard to impress, yet he was raving about it.  My four year old curiosity was immediately piqued.  When my parents informed me that it was made by the guy behind Star Wars, my curiosity blossomed into full blown obsession.  Alas, there was one very huge obstacle that prevented me from attaining my prize.

I was consummate coward as a child.  Almost everything scared me, particularly movies.  I hated the dark, so the prospect of watching a frightening image projected onto a screen in a darkened theater paralyzed me with fear.  Previous attempts by my parents to take me to the cinema became comic debacles.  Family outings to go see The Empire Strikes Back, Flash Gordon, and Superman II ended with me crying and/or shivering inconsolably.  I was my own worst enemy in that regard.   

A Nazi foot soldier is "illuminated" by the power of the Ark.
Thankfully my father found other ways to appease my Jones for Indiana (pun very much intended).  He recorded a “making of documentary” that aired on CBS.  Since the program refrained from showing the scarier moments, it was suitable for me to watch.  I viewed it dozens of times.  The show helped me to understand that movies were not real, that it was basically a team of guys working to achieve a grand illusion.  In his own way, my father was teaching me how to look at these things.

However, another documentary he showed me scared the living shit out of me.  It was a PBS special that gave an even more in depth look at the film.  This one focused squarely on the spooky supernatural moments, particularly the ending where Belloq and his Nazi benefactors open the Ark and are attacked by angry angels of death.  The images were too much for my tender brain to handle, and they completely dashed any hopes I had of one day viewing this amazing film.  Still, my obsession lingered.

Arnold Toht (Ronald Lacey) paying the price for looking inside the Ark of the Covenant.

My hopes were further trounced when I began to study the history of the Ark during Bible classes at the private school I attended.  To my horror I learned that the Golden Box from which vengeful, face melting spirits emanated actually existed.  That wreaked havoc on my young imagination.  The threat was hard enough to manage when I thought it was just a movie, but to learn that the horrible box was real? 

In 1984, Raiders was finally released on VHS.  My father and his friend put together some money to purchase the tape (movies on VHS were rarely priced to own back then).  Somewhere within the next two years, I finally was able to make my way through a screening of the film (with my mom serving as a dutiful censor, informing me when a scary part was coming).  The film played a bit intensely for me than it did for most people due to my aforementioned sensitivities, but it was an amazing experience regardless. 

Indy (Harrison Ford) duking it out with a Nazi Mechanic (Pat Roach).

In the subsequent years, my appreciation for the Lucas/Spielberg masterpiece grew considerably.  It combined some of my darkest childhood fears with some of my brightest childhood fantasies.  It challenged my fragile resolve.  Indy was a hero, and I wanted to be one too.  Spielberg and Lucas taught me that a proper thrill ride should scare you a little in order to be truly fulfilling.  That was but one of the many lessons that I learned from them over the years, but none of those compared to what my father shared with me.  I am thankful to all three of them, but mostly to my dad. 

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