In 1979, it is doubtful 30-year-old Lawrence Kasdan knew what was buried between p57 and p59. For the sophomore screenwriter, it was likely just a standard lead-in, a plot propellant that gets us into the thick of the adventure. In truth, it was to soon become an unparalleled moment in screen history, the Citizen Kane of adventure sequences – INT. MAP ROOM – DAWN.
Fast-forward twelve years; the film opened, had 450+ days in cinemas (yeah, that’s right), jumpstarted careers, spawned sequels, and became a classic for the ages. But on this day, a 6-year- old boy was about to shove a commercial-full, SLP recording (because dads) of the 1986 ABC television premiere into the VCR. A home cinema this was not. This was a trailer in South Arkansas and a very dim, 19” Magnavox console TV housed in a giant wooden cabinet. All this didn’t matter to the boy. His aesthetic taste hadn’t been developed. The adventure he was about to go on, however, was undeniable, and to this day he still feels the same affinity for it.
Now it’s 2021, a couple more decades (and a lot of life) have passed, and that same boy, now a filmmaker, film lecturer, and father of two wonderful humans, sat down to revisit Kasdan and company’s work. For those who haven’t picked up on the cryptic nature of all this, I was watching Raiders of the Lost Ark for the 30th time. Apologies.
Okay, back to it. All of this revolves around scene 86, INT. MAP ROOM. It’s unlikely I need to describe the scene in detail. Surely you’ve seen it – let’s assume so. The DVD chapter has ended and the little-boy-now-grown-man can’t help but drop his jaw to the floor. His 6-year-old daughter has the same jaw issue. We look to each other and agree this thing needs to be rewound. Neither needed or offered an explanation. Second time around – pain, pain from smiling too big for too long. Rapturous. Glorious. Religious. Euphoric. That’s it. If the Map Room in Tanis sequence had to be distilled to a single word, maybe it’s euphoric – every tentpole of the cinema (written word, performance, photography, design, music, and editing) coming together to build a sensory- enveloping, euphoric sequence – a staple of the cinematic zeitgeist at the time. Sigh…
We were left speechless perhaps because the scene itself is speechless. Outside of a few incoherent German lines in the background, there’s not a single word uttered for 4+ minutes. The elephant (nay brachiosaur) in the room is Spielberg, and while he had an eternal lot to do with the onscreen magic, Kasdan’s script does a tremendous job of building that vision. The pages currently in hand, it’s undeniable it’s all there. Maybe it’s a bit less euphoric than the screen version, but the words are a solid building block for Spielberg to build a masterful sequence.
As a cinematographer, I imagine Doug Slocombe sitting in prep, script in hand, building the storyboards, getting to THE MAP ROOM, and thinking, “Hmm, this could be exciting.” Then on set, he and operator Chic Waterson wrapping the sequence on the day and sharing that look. You know the one – the one where you nailed it and in that moment only YOU know. I wonder whether at the time Slocombe and Waterson knew how special their accomplishment was. Or was it at the premiere they realised this? Or did they see it for the first time and think, “Eh, it could have been better.”?
On the day, I wonder if Martin Evans, the film’s gaffer, and head rigger Red Lawrence thought the light gag they created for the sun spilling across the room was going to be as magical as it ended up. Were they filled with glee given the opportunity to create such a unique, plot-pivotal gag – something that doesn’t happen as often as it should? In recent years, the only example of a live gag I remember working so well is the flare sequence from 1917. It helped make that particular sequence intense and give justifiable illumination to a realist vision, but unlike Raiders it wasn’t plot pivotal.
Oh and that staff! That ROOM! In my 15-year career, only twice have I worked in the art department, but being part of the Oscar-winning team who created The Map Room, man, that seems it could be a one-and-done, retire happy sorta instance. It is flawless, the monochrome walls and ceiling and floor all yellowish-orange but never bland or boring. It is a study of tone rather than colour and could probably shift to black and white (like Raiders roots – but I get ahead of myself) and still be effective. The individually hewn and painted blocks and the curvature of the steps are all wonderful examples of creating texture and intrigue and not taking an easy way out as a designer or art director. The bit of German graffiti (mentioned in Kasdan’s script) on the scale model of Tanis is the perfect touch, letting the audience subconsciously know that the Germans had been there, found it worthless, trashed it like petty criminals, and abandoned what was ultimately the key to discovering the Ark of the Covenant. All that with no dialogue, no voice over, nothing but sweet, art department visuals.
AND THE MUSIC. JESUS CHRIST THAT MUSIC. I respect John Williams’ ability to create a great theme, but he is not a composer I listen to for fun – BUT THIS SEQUENCE, the ark theme coming in at 80mph, glorious, rapturous, just (kisses hands) perfection. When Indy finds the correct spot for the staff and then turns and looks to the sun, the swell of the brass comes in hard announcing, “Hey kids, this shit’s about to get special.” Then the great Michael Khan decides the next shot, the sunlight creeping along the wall and onto the model (The gag that Evans and Lawrence created), should go on for (what today seems) an absurd amount of time. But it is not boring. William’s music keeps us there, progressing the story all by itself.
Then for my favourite part, a slow boom down (thank you Colin Manning) from the top of the staff to Indiana Jones’ awe-struck face. The camera hits Jones, and the John Williams’ choir swells in like an orchestra of fleeting, dissonant banshees wailing their haunted hymn. Yeah, that’s exactly what it sounds like, and it perfectly foreshadows the horror coming for those face-melting Nazi bastards when the angels of death show up at the end of this picture. For 40 years, we’ve hummed the ark theme, and this is its crescendo.
In proofing this review up to this point, I realise it is disjointed, sporadic, and makes me seem a complete fan boy of Spielberg. These days, I far prefer Bergman to Spielberg, but to borrow from Miles Davis, “Good music is good music…” Perfection can be found in any genre, in any era, in any filmmaker, and oftentimes when you are not looking for or expecting it. And for the cinematic highbrows of the world (to which I like to think I belong), it may be easy to write Spielberg off as popcorn. And he is popcorn, but it is damn fine popcorn and tastes great.
It is too easy to forget just how groundbreaking this film and the filmmaker(s) were on its release in 1981. 34-years-old, and with two hits (Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind) and two turkeys (The Sugarland Express, 1941) to his name, Spielberg’s career was still a bit up in the air. Pitching a unique, modest-budget adventure film inspired by James Bond, pulp serials, and Lawrence of Arabia would likely result in a big NO from any play-it-safe studio today, but Paramount took a little gamble on the success of Harrison Ford and George Lucas and prayed it worked. It’s hard to believe, but no other studio would give them and this film the time of day. Their reasoning, perhaps, was that historical epics fizzled out in the mid 60s. To be honest, though, Raiders roots were far older and far riskier being more akin to the silent and early technicolour adventures of Douglas Fairbanks and Errol Flynn from the 20s and 30s. But thank the cinema gods Kasdan, Spielberg, and company got the chance, that someone paid Larry to put those words on the page, put up the money to assemble their team to create a tremendous film and one of the greatest sequences in cinema history.
If I can experience one more INT. MAP ROOM – DAWN in my lifetime, I’ll be a very happy man. And if Spielberg and Kasdan deliver it, how much better would that be? So much.
Oh, and E.T. was coming up next. Man, that guy…Spielberg not E.T.