"When Raiders of the Lost Ark" was released in June 1981, I had been reviewing movies for the Deseret News about three years. And I still remember how I felt seeing "Raiders" for the first time: It was one of my most joyous moviegoing experiences at that time.
Come to think of it, it's still way up there.
As was (and still is) the custom, "Raiders" was being shown a few days before its opening at one of those radio-sponsored evening screenings filled with a rowdy crowd that was goaded into being even rowdier by a hosting deejay.
We were in the old Villa Theatre on Highland Drive, a massive, old-fashioned single-screen building with 1,000-plus seats and a curved, Cinerama-style screen that had been installed in the 1960s. That curved screen wasn't great for everything; a small intimate character study could be overwhelmed by the format. But for an exciting adventure picture, it made the audience feel like it was smack-dab in the middle of the action.
There was a huge velvet curtain hanging over the screen that opened as the projector began churning, so on this warm June evening we saw the curtain part and that familiar Paramount logo of a snow-covered mountain peak gradually came into view. And when that painted peak faded into a South American mountaintop, the audience actually "ooohed" and "ahhhed."
The movie hadn't even started in earnest but already the crowd was in sync, a communal feeling that, by golly, this just might be something special. And, of course, it was. As we saw Indiana Jones for the first time and he began his debut adventure, it was as thrilling as moviegoing gets.
"Raiders" played exclusively at the Villa in 70mm and six-track stereo — the only place in town to see it. And it ran for more than a year as fans went back again and again. I saw it in the Villa several times and it was always a great ride — although you can never really recapture the excitement of seeing something for the first time.
A couple of years later, the first sequel, "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom," also played at the Villa. As did "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade." And in the late 1990s or early 2000s when the Villa was on its last legs, the theater ran a double feature of "Temple of Doom" and "The Last Crusade." The prints were worn and scratched and skipped here and there, and it seemed like a metaphor for the sadly failing Villa, which could no longer compete with multiplexes, home video and cable — and fickle audiences.
These are the memories of going to the movies that came flooding back as I spent this past week in St. George and discovered, to my surprise and delight, that a new digital 30th anniversary restoration of "Raiders of the Lost Ark" was being shown in a local theater.
The St. George theater is no Villa — but then, hey, what is these days? There was no curtain, no curved screen, no 1,100-seat auditorium (this one seats about 250). And you could hear "The Lion King" roaring from the next auditorium. But "Raiders" was nonetheless great fun to see on the silver screen again and every bit as entertaining as it was all those decades ago. (Will "Transformers" hold up this well in 30 years? I don't think so.)
Watching Indy outrun a giant boulder, encounter slithery reptiles ("I hate snakes"), blanch at a note written on a student's eyelids, meet up with an old flame who greets him with a sock to the jaw, figure out how to locate the Ark of the Covenant, repeatedly outwit a band of Nazis and an old French nemesis, and escape dozens of hair-raising close encounters is an amazing coalescence of all the right notes. And it holds up wonderfully.
And I think I had forgotten just how funny it is. "Raiders" is as much a send-up of old-time serial cliffhangers as it is a tribute to the genre, and it's often hilarious.
A successful filmmaker once told me that a movie that works is really just a happy accident. If that's true, director Steven Spielberg, producer George Lucas and star Harrison Ford have had more than their share of happy accidents. But "Raiders" was certainly one of the closest to perfection.
My only question is this: If it's available as a re-release for the film's 30th anniversary, why isn't it playing in Salt Lake City? The St. George theater ran it for a full week, four shows a day! In St. George!
Does every multiplex in the Salt Lake Valley really have to show all the same movies all the time? One of these theater chains can't dedicate a single auditorium to a "Raiders" reissue for a week?
True, it's not in 3-D like "The Lion King." (Although that would be something to see!) But I'll bet a lot of people would still love to see it again in a darkened theater surrounded by strangers.
I know I did.