Note: All summer long we'll be featuring this special offshoot series in addition to our regular Scenes We Love posts called Summer Scenes We Love, featuring some of our favorite scenes from summer movies of the past.
As a lover of all things gruesome and gory, it's probably no surprise that I adore the Ark of the Covenant scene in Steven Spielberg's Raiders of the Lost Ark. It may not have been a horror film, but it helped foster my appreciation for practical special effects work and love of the macabre. Plus, it scarred me for years -- the image of Major Toht's face melting off his skull in a bloody stream terrified and fascinated me as a child.
I think almost everyone in the world has seen Raiders by this point -- and knows all about Dr. Indiana Jones and his archeological exploits. So, rather than give you an overview of what the film's about, let's just dive right in to this classic scene.
Looking back, it's amazing to me now that Raiders of the Lost Ark was given a PG rating by the MPAA. It's not an overly gory film or anything, but this particular sequence and another featuring a large Nazi chopped up in an airplane propeller seem pretty gruesome for a movie that didn't require a parent or guardian for children under the age of 17. This scene, which finds the Nazis finally opening the Ark, is especially graphic and probably traumatized more kids than just me.
When the scene opens, Indy and Marion have been taken prisoner yet again by the villainous Belloq and are now tied to a pole. They're on an isolated island where the madman plans to test out the Ark's power for himself. Various soldiers and Nazi officers stand at a distance watching as a Nazi mystic says something then opens up the holy relic. They're shocked to discover that there's only sand inside -- it appears as if nothing is going to happen.
Looks can be deceiving, though, as suddenly the spirits of beautiful women materialize and swirl around the soldiers. Indy, knowing that no one who looks into the Ark can survive, tells Marion to keep her eyes closed no matter what. His fears are well-founded as the spirits change into monstrous demons and lightning bolts shoot out from the religious artifact. Toht's face melts like a candle (in one of the best moments in the entire film) and heads explode in a gooey mess. A cleansing fire sweeps across the island and then the lid to the Ark crashes closed with a clap of thunder. Indy and Marion are the only two survivors.
Industrial Light and Magic handled the visual effects for the sequence, utilizing various animation techniques and camera tricks. According to the film's Wikipedia page, Rod puppets were filmed moving through water to create the sensation that the spirits were floating in the air. Models exposed to heat lamps were used for the melting heads and so on. I prefer these old school effects to anything they'd come up with using CGI today. Some of the visuals in the Ark scene may not be cutting edge anymore, but they possess a certain low-fi charm.
When it comes to a film like Raiders of the Lost Ark, it's hard to pick one definitive greatest scene, but this one always hits home for me. Let me know if you agree in the comments section below.