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Help Support Features Articles DeMille's Influences
Cecil B. DeMille's Influences on Spielberg:
Raiders of the Lost Ark as example
by Arnaud Palisson - posted on November 20, 2006

Spielberg's movies contain a huge amount of references to a fistful of classical movie directors: John Ford, Howard Hawks, Victor Fleming, David Lean, etc.

Recently, we have evoked the Hitchcock influences on Spielberg in Raiders of the Lost Ark. This movie had been chosen among others, as an example, because this effect can be noticed through Spielberg's whole filmography. On the contrary, despite his considerable influence on Spielberg, classical director Cecil B. DeMille is obviously referenced in just a couple of films. Such allusions appear first in Close Encounters of the Thrid Kind (CE3K) (1). But the most important references come into view in Raiders of the Lost Ark: in a formal way, through the use of a distorted logo (2), and with a similar thematical approach, depicting Indiana Jones as a Champion of Yahweh(3).

1. The CE3K precedent

Four years before Raiders of the Lost Ark, in CE3K, Spielberg had already referred to DeMille, twice in the same scene: in the evening, at Roy Neary's home, the children are watching The Ten Commandments on TV. And later, Roy tries to explain arithmetics to his elder son by creating an accident, on the miniature train set lying on the living room table.

The Ten Commandments on TV
& miniature train accident in

Actually, when he discovered DeMille's The Greatest Show on Earth in a theatre, 10-year-old Spielberg was mostly impressed by the Barnum train accident.

And filming miniature train accidents became one of the boy's first occupations when he got the permission to use his father's camera.
So, during the opening gambit of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, we shouldn't be surprised to discover that the train on which Young Indy climbs is the train of a circus.

Greatest Show vs. Last Crusade circus trains.

Moreover, Spielberg is well known for his recurrent use of cloud effects in order to visualize a divine intervention. In CE3K, the arrival of Mother Ship over Devil's Tower is concealed by a huge wave of clouds. This reference illustrates a topic similar to The Ten Commandments' theme: a man climbs up a mountain and there encounters God.

Clouds over Mount Sinai and Devil's Tower.

This very DeMille's religious reference is important because it announces much more sensitive ones in Raiders of the Lost Ark.

2. Distorted logo

The first shot of Raiders of the Lost Ark consists in a distorted logo of Paramount Pictures.

Opening shot of Raiders.

Let's notice that, when the movie was released, in 1981, the Paramount had been using another logo for six years. Raiders of the Lost Ark should have begun with this picture. But Spielberg creates an original Paramount logo, deeply inspired by the 1954-1975 one. This anachronism is not fortuitous.

1954-1975 1975-1989

Actually, the shape of the mountain on the more recent logo does fit much more the shape of the peruvian mountain, in Raiders' first picture. But Spielberg preferred to use the older one to make the first visual distorted logo of his career.

Nowadays, the distorted logo is frequently used. It was not 25 years ago. And before Spielberg, it was rare. A few directors used it once through their whole filmography, hardly twice, never more. One exception needs to be pointed out: Cecil B. DeMille begins three of his movies with the distorted logo of the same major company, Paramount:

Samson and Delilah (1949) - this distorted logo does not appear on every copy of the film.

The Greatest Show on Earth (1952)

The Ten Commandments (1956)

So, this is not accidental that Raiders of the Lost Ark begins with a distorted logo of Paramount Pictures. By doing so, Spielberg creates a subtle relationship between DeMille's movies and Raiders, by placing his film on the track of the same popular cinema.

This is mostly significant concerning The Ten Commandments: from a distance of 3000 years, this movie and Raiders both tell the history of the same religious artifacts : the Tablets of the Law and the Ark of the Covenant – the chest that contains them.

3. Indiana Jones, another Champion of Yahweh

In Raiders of the Lost Ark, two scenes use cloud effects similar to the one mentioned in CE3K:

  • The storm over the Well of the Souls, as Indy unearths its entry.
  • Yahweh capturing the impure bodies and souls of the Germans, at the end of the Ark opening scene.

Storm over the Well of the Souls
and end of the Ark opening scene.

These pictures stand for references to the cloud movements over the Red Sea, at the end of The Ten Commandments.

Clouds over Red Sea.

Despite their similar cloud effects suggesting the same DeMille's movie, the premises of CE3K and Raiders largely differ:
CE3K shows us a man finding his way to God. It is almost a contemplative movie! Roy Neary is a chosen one, he searches God, he meets Him and leaves earth bound for Heaven. He has no mission to fulfill. Just answering the call for godliness.
On the contrary, Raiders tells us the story of a fight. Jones is a chosen one too: he has been called by God (well... through the army intelligence services) but he remains on earth. Indy surely serves God (and he will serve the Old Man again two years later). So Jones must be considered as a Champion of Yahweh, just like two Jewish heroes described in the Holy Scriptures and Cecil B. DeMille's movies.

Besides the cloud effects, the Red Sea sequence in The Ten Commandments shows us, the jewish hero standing in the foreground. Same representation with Spielberg. The hero in the foreground is not jewish but he will be saved because, through his fight against the Nazis, he deserves to be considered as a part of the chosen people.

The power of God flooding impure bodies
and souls of the Egyptian- & Nazi soldiers.

The main difference between the two scenes lies of course in the form of God's power: the water vs. the fire. But this destructive fire
evokes obviously another form of God's intervention in The Ten Commandments. It is such a flame that carves the Tablets of the Law on Mount Sinai and retains the Egyptian soldiers as the Hebrew cross the Red Sea.

God's flame in Ten Commandments vs. Raiders.

And Moses is not the one to be compared to Jones, because of his holy fight.

Let's remember when Indy makes the huge statue of Anubis fall and destroy a wall in the Well of the Souls. In the original screenplay, Lawrence Kasdan had imagined the fall of a simple pillar. But Spielberg had replaced it by the statue of Anubis. Is it just an aesthetic choice? Maybe not.

Falling statue of Anubis in Raiders.

At the end of DeMille's Samson and Delilah, Samson (Victor Mature) is chained to the pillars of the philistine temple. But thanks to his strength, the jewish hero breaks two columns and so makes the statue of Dagon fall and destroy the whole temple, over the pagans.

Falling statue of Dagon in Samson and Delilah.

Seeing Samson destroying the pillars, a Philistine says the Jew has got the strength of a demon. But the Saran of Gaza (George Sanders) corrects him "No, the strength of a god".

And when God's power is at work, Samson doesn't see it. Remember: at the end of the movie, he's blind! That's why Jones shuts firmly his eyes in order not to see the unchained power of God emerging from the open Ark.
Furthermore, blinded Jones and Samson even tell their partner how to be saved from God's wrath.

Jones telling Marion vs. Samson telling Delilah
to "close her eyes" in order to be saved.

In the Book of Samuel, the Bible tells us about the Philistines, stealing the Ark of the Covenant and bringing it to the temple of Dagon. So Jones does the same thing as Samson: he makes a gigantic pagan god statue fall and destroy the temple where a pagan civilization had brought the Ark they stole to the Hebrew.

If Raiders of the Lost Ark is such a masterpiece, it surely owes it to a strange alchemy: Cecil B. DeMille was a deep Christian movie maker; however, at that very time of his life, Spielberg was not keen on considering his jewish inheritance.

Nevertheless, Raiders of the Lost Ark comes out as an ecumenical movie and Spielberg's first step of on the path of belief: it shows the fight of a christian unbeliever (Jones) gaining faith by saving the Ark of the Hebrew. And twelve years later, a former jewish agnostic will tell the story of a Nazi who opened the Blood Sea and saved hundreds of Jews.


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