Steven ‘The Butcher’ Soderbergh Part 3 – Raiders of the Lost Ark

Steven-Soderbergh-RaidersWelcome to the third part of a series on Steven ‘The Butcher’ Soderbergh, wherein I take a look at Steven Soderbergh‘s online video releases. Throughout these features I will not only look at the way in which these films do, or do not, work but also try to understand Soderbergh’s possible motivations.

The following appears on Steven Soderbergh’s site.


Of course understanding story, character, and performance are crucial to directing well, but I operate under the theory a movie should work with the sound off, and under that theory, staging becomes paramount…

It’s an excerpt from a reasonably lengthy explanation as to why he has posted a version of Steven Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark in black and white, and with all the sound replaced with various tracks from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross.

The posting of the film is, apparently, “for educational purposes only”. And watching the film in this manner is, of course, very educational.

It has long been a ‘trick’ among film lecturers teaching film theory to simply turn the sound off when showing their students a film, or section from a film, in order to encourage them to focus more heavily on what they are seeing and to consider how the film does, or does not, work without dialogue, sound effects or its score or soundtrack.

It’s an effective method and I have done it myself many times, particularly when looking at the way in which certain filmmakers have shot action. I have watched the playground fight from Police Story 2 a number of times in this manner and found it incredibly instructive; I urge you to do the same. But I digress.

Not only has Soderbergh stripped away the sound from Raiders of the Lost Ark, he has also stripped the film of colour. This provides an aid to focus when one is looking specifically at staging, as Soderbergh urges us to do here.

There is also some distraction to be found in watching an incredibly familiar film with a new aesthetic, and it come be diverting to notice just how different various elements do or do not now appear.

I was struck, for instance, by quite how powerful the map room scene looks in black and white, but also by how the film’s many deep shadows and bright highlights aren’t quite so effective when robbed of their colour.

But removing colour from Raiders of the Lost Ark also reveals some issues with the film.

The scene in which the two army agents speak to Indiana (Harrison Ford) and Marcus (Denholm Elliot) at Marshall College features, for instance, several problems, all brought into focus when watching this altered version. Rather than just highlight the brilliance in some of the staging, this experiment from Soderbergh also highlights many of the weaknesses.

This sequence appears to be a blocking nightmare from beginning to end. In an effort to make what is essentially just an exposition dump seem interesting, Spielberg and Unsworth have tried incredibly hard to liven things up through camera placement.

As a result, there is a piece of furniture jutting out into the foreground – props obscuring the view for no discernible reason is actually quite common in Raiders – and a recurring shot of a man’s back with the other characters awkwardly flanking him.

In Soderbergh’s own piece about this video he comments that David Fincher once said that “there’s potentially a hundred different ways to shoot something but at the end of the day there’s really only two, and one of them is wrong.” It seems very much to me like this is a great example of Unsworth and Spielberg choosing the wrong one.

There are some real highlights, however, particularly to be found in the film’s many action scenes. These, perhaps unsurprisingly, still make perfect sense despite the lack of sound. Ford’s highly expressive face constantly clues the audience in on the dramatic significance or comedy of any beat, and we are never lost in Mickey Moore‘s action.

The new version also shines a brighter light on the editing rhythms of Michael Kahn,and allegedly George Lucas, which come to full effect in the truck chase.

The bar fight sequence is shown to feature more pointlessly obtrusive props and there are many mis-steps with the fluidity of the action. It seems like continuity was a secondary, or even tertiary consideration, with the interrupted flow of action between edits suggesting either a serious lack of adequate coverage or a terrible mishandling of the footage in the editing room.

There is also a very serious problem with regards to the choreography, and a great deal of the fight’s climax depends on characters improbably not looking in certain directions. The moment in which Marion saves Indy after hiding behind the bar, for instance, rests entirely on the guy holding onto Indy not seeing her, which we’re told he never does, even while the eye lines of the shots tell an entirely different story.

In reference to his removal of the sound, Soderbergh comments that he has taken away everything “apart from a score designed to aid you in your quest to just study the visual staging aspect.”

The score has certainly been cut to fit the film, with some degree of matching made between the track playing and what we see on screen. As Indy flees the Covito people, for example, the action builds to its climax with Trent Reznor’s take on In the Hall of the Mountain King; and while we may not hear the propeller blades whirring in the airfield fight we get a definite substitute from the rhythmic sounds on Reznor’s 3:14 Every Night.

These are very playful choices and it again speaks to Soderbergh’s keen eyes and ears that he just about makes them work.

Below you can find a complete Spotify playlist of all the tracks featured in Soderbergh’s Raiders of the Lost Ark video, in the order that they appear, and you can watch the video in full at extension765.