Six Damn Fine Degrees #131: Men with hats, boys with tapes

Welcome to Six Damn Fine Degrees. These instalments will be inspired by the idea of six degrees of separation in the loosest sense. The only rule: it connects – in some way – to the previous instalment. So come join us on our weekly foray into interconnectedness!

It’s been too long now for me to know for sure: was Raiders of the Lost Ark the first Indiana Jones film I ever watched? Or was it Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade? What I can say for sure is this: I watched The Last Crusade at the cinema, but Raiders I saw on VHS, because it was the first official video release of a film that I ever owned.

Whether Raiders of the Lost Ark was my first encounter with Dr Henry Jones Jr or not, it feels like it was – because there was such a build-up to me seeing it. See, when I was a kid, back in the heady, neon days of the ’80s (which were a lot less neon and a lot more brown and beige than the movies would tell you), my parents were generally pretty eager to get in on new tech trends. We were among the first in our street to get a computer – a Commodore 64, to be more precise -, we were definitely the first in our neighbourhood to get a satellite dish for a long time, and we were also early adopters of that essential ’80s home entertainment device: the video cassette player.

Except, where others would eventually get a VHS deck, we got a big, boxy Betamax VCR. And while some people might tell you that Betamax was superior because the video signal was at a higher resolution, for me this mainly meant that once people started to get VHS tapes, years after we’d bought our Betamax, we were left out. Sure, my uncle in the UK sent us lots and lots of tapes of films and series recorded off of TV: for instance the original Star Wars, which my parents found silly and taped over the day after we’d watched it, an experience that still rankles, or season after season of M*A*S*H in the infinitely better version without canned laughter. But it was always a matter of luck what we’d actually get: it might be Zulu or The Poseidon Adventure, complete with vintage British TV ads from the ’80s, or it might be yet another tape of The Best of Benny Hill.

I’m thinking that most likely I watched The Last Crusade at the cinema before getting around to Raiders of the Lost Ark, and I suspect it was that experience that made me put together the money I’d saved, exchange it for British pounds and send it to my uncle with a letter asking him to get me Raiders on video. But by the late ’80s, you could only get these films on VHS, so a while later that’s what I got: the VHS release of Raiders of the Lost Ark. A video tape that wouldn’t play on our Betamax VCR, wouldn’t even fit into it.

I had some friends at school whose parents owned a VHS system, but somehow it was yet another few weeks before I would get to see my film, the movie I’d spent my money to buy. And somehow (I may be misremembering the details, but this version feels true) what happened was that I earned my right to watch my film by lending the tape to others so they could watch it first. By the time I finally got to watch Raiders of the Lost Ark, it felt like the end of a journey, the culmination of a quest. And differently from so many childhood stories of getting the thing you’d been wishing for and being disappointed by reality failing to live up to your dreams, Raiders proved to be worth the wait. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade was fun, and the dynamic between Harrison Ford’s Indy and Sean Connery playing his aloof dad remains wonderful even all these years later – but Raiders will always be where it’s at. The golden idol and the giant boulder, Marion’s bar in Nepal and the drinking contest, Tanis and the Well of Souls, the final conflagration when the Ark of the Covenant is opened. Harrison Ford’s crooked half-smile, Belloq’s amoral charm, Nazis melted and exploded by the wrath of God, and that warehouse at the end where the Ark is crated up and stored among countless other crates holding artefacts just as powerful.

Would I feel the same way about Raiders if it had been on one of those Betamax tapes my uncle sent, interrupted by ads for Hovis bread or PG Tips or Dulux paint? Or, let’s fast-forward a few dozen years: would it have been the same if Raiders had popped up on one of the streaming services I’m subscribed to? The film is great, one of Spielberg’s best in terms of sheer craft and artistry, but its effect on me was amplified by me saving up for the tape and waiting weeks before I could watch it. That kind of experience is rare for me these days: if I want a film, I get it on Blu-ray, it arrives a couple of days later, and that’s it. Perhaps getting that big Ingmar Bergman box came close, but it wasn’t the same. It couldn’t have been. Most likely, that feeling that you’re getting something special – the Raiders of the Lost Ark VHS, or the new Ultima game, or that insane, morbid, wonderful Six Feet Under box set – is pretty much impossible once you’re past a certain age, but it makes me understand why some people spend hundreds of whatever currency they have to buy a limited edition box of, I don’t know, 2001: A Space Odyssey, complete with film stills on celluloid, or Fallout 3 in a retro-futuristic lunchbox. (I got that one and don’t even remember why; Fallout 3 was an okay game, but it wasn’t worth spending more money on a silly collector’s edition.)

These days I watch Raiders of the Lost Ark on Blu-ray – unless I don’t feel like looking for it, in which case I just play it off Disney+. It looks and sounds better, they’ve even redone some of the special effects to remove telltale signs that we’re watching an effect that only became visible in Ultra HD – and it’s still the same wonderful film and an exciting ride. But I admit that part of me misses the feeling of holding that tape and knowing: soon I’d be able to watch the film for the first time. Not yet, but soon.

One thought on “Six Damn Fine Degrees #131: Men with hats, boys with tapes

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s