October 6, 2012

The Opening of the Ark

by James Folta

Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) - dir. Steven Spielberg

To me, one of the great horror scenes is the orgy of face-melting at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark. For those of us brought up in more secular households, a brush with the biblical can often be a reminder of just how rad the Bible can be. Raiders was one of the first films I truly loved and probably as a result, one of the first times I took notice of the Book of books. Looking at the Ark in the Bible now (read: Wikipedia’s filtration of such), I'm not surprised that it's the center of an action-adventure film. The Ark is the pivot-point around which excitement swirls: the city of Jericho falls by the mere parading of the Ark for a week, always wrapped, always concealed from the eyes of the priests. The Philistines steal it and everywhere they tote it, pain and death follow until they finally lash it to a cart and send it on it's way unaccompanied. The Ark parts seas, it kills people, it bends and decapitates statutes (Dagon in Ashdod – even the names seem ripped from Slayer songs.)

It is the ideal object of attention for both power-hungry Nazis and the bang-crash archaeologist Henry Indiana Jones. There's such power associated with it, a hush-hush decorum surrounding its every mention. Of course, as an ancient and storied relic, it is of academic interest to Indy and his backers. But the fear is the real power – the Ark is a weapon that can transform armies into unstoppable conquerors. If those damn Nazis got their hands on it, they would steamroll over the world. So the Ark becomes a Biblical Chekhov's gun, it's inevitable blast heightened by all the blood spilled for it. Hell, even the whip-smart academic Indy threatens to bazooka the relic over the fear of its power.

But this power is only spoken of; we have to see the Ark opened up. And the payoff is terrifying. In Cairo, the Nazis headed by the evil trinity of Belloq, Dietrich, and Toht have captured Indy, Marion (this film's Jones Girl), and the Ark. Everyone's dressed according to their station and the Nazis (ever documentarians) are recording the unveiling. With the correct incantations, the Ark is opened. At first, Belloq finds only sand; it seems all the Nazis’ efforts have gone unrewarded and there's a moment where we all fear an anticlimactic ending. Really, sand? Is this just a lesson in hubris?

Of course not. Smoke pours forth, cameras sizzle, and a thunderstorm swirls inside the Ark. Then: screams! Lightning! Dead Nazis! The Ark's terrible power is loosed and Belloq, ever the optimist, comments on it's beauty. As a little kid, this is where I looked away: as ghosts fly around and lightning smites Wehrmacht, Toht sees a beautiful angel transform into a horrible skeleton. Toht and Dietrich die screaming as their faces melt – it's dated and satisfying. The final victim is Belloq, whose head explodes all over his ceremonial garb. (This death is obscured by fire, as this one shot would have forced an R rating.) The ghosts and sand swoop around Indy and Marion, a column of flame shoots up piercing the clouds, and then retreats, slamming the Ark's top back on. Indy and Marion peel their eyes open to see the carnage.

The scene is such a satisfying moment of horror not only because of the viscera and gore but because of the justice of it. This is one of the few times in life I've cheered on God – even that Guy hates Nazis! This is the terror of the Old Testament brought down to bear against the terror of the 20th century – maybe he'll do Osama next. This is religious justice in a secular world. The whole film is a violent race to this moment and the payoff ends like a Shakespearean tragedy where only a few walk away. The Ark is justified as an object of this chase, and is seared in our minds as one of the best MacGuffins of all time. It belongs in a museum? It belongs behind bars.

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