A light pierces the dark, an antique BBFC certificate flashes across the screen and an old, beautiful mountain fades into an even older, even more beautiful mountain. Welcome to Raiders of the Lost Ark – on the big screen.
On Monday night, my local Odeon showed Indiana Jones’s first, classic, adventure as part of a series of nights dedicated to cinematic masterpieces. It was a snip at £4 admission and the house was, predictably, packed. Goodfellas, Heat and Tim Burton’s Batman will be shown in forthcoming weeks, but apart from The Rocky Horror Picture Show (which was screened two weeks prior to the Indy showing), Raiders of the Lost Ark is the oldest film on the bill. And it looked it. Grainy, bleached out and seemingly edited with Indy’s Temple of Doom machete, the print showed every one of its 31 years. And it was beautiful!
This was cinema as it’s supposed to be: imperfect. Now we’re in the digital age, we’ve forgotten the beauty of physical film. Celluloid has given way to pixels, projectionists have been replaced by automated machines and even the box office is being usurped by self-service drones. This is only natural, of course, and film needs digital technology to preserve the classics of yesteryear and keep itself relevant in the modern age. However, watching Raiders of the Lost Ark as it was released in 1981 was a great reminder of what we’re losing as we march forwards. The film seemed alive in a way cinema simply doesn’t these days, with all the wonderful imperfections of celluloid dancing across the screen. It was a piece of cinematic history and it felt every bit as thrilling as watching a live band or a theatrical production.
Raiders is by no means the first classic I’ve seen on the big screen recently. Last year, I watched The Lion King, Jurassic Park and Ernst Lubitsch’s The Shop Around The Corner. Before that, I caught up with Die Hard and Taxi Driver, and when Beauty and the Beast (trailered before Raiders) hits cinemas later this year I’ll be seeing that too. All these experiences were great, but only Die Hard and Taxi Driver came close to the intoxicating wonder of Raiders. Why? Because like Raiders, they were original prints. The Lion King and Jurassic Park were digital restorations, while The Shop Around the Corner was screened from a DVD. None had grain, none had little bits of green flying across the screen, and none felt half as alive as Indy.
Crucially, these films also lacked the sight of a man dangling from the back end of a truck by a whip. Flippant though it may seem, this is important, because (and I’m sorry Indy fans) the truck chase has never really done much for me. I’ve always considered it too long and too distracting from the plot to really entertain; a tagged-on set piece in an otherwise seamless production. I still stand by that (it needs the human element the basket chase possesses), but only just. On the big screen, with John Williams’s score booming and Harrison Ford’s battered and bruised body filling an entire wall, the truck sequence became everything it’s not on DVD – raw, brutal and breathlessly exciting. It felt like an entirely different scene. That’s the power of the cinema.
Kingdom of the Crystal Skull aside, Raiders is the first Indy film I’ve seen on the big screen and I hope it’s not the last (Last Crusade is much better than Temple of Doom, so Henry Jones Snr next please!). But why stop there? As the successes of Hugo and The Artist prove, there’s now a genuine hunger for classic films among the public, and studios and cinema chains should take advantage. It’s a great way to make cinema stand out against home entertainment and video-on-demand and perhaps the only way to remind people that cinemas really do offer a singular experience. I’m living proof. I’ve seen Raiders of the Lost Ark hundreds of times, but last night I watched it for the first time. So come on cinema chains: forget Jack and Jill. Bring on the Jonses.