Raiders of the Lost Ark (also known as Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark) is a 1981 American action-adventure film directed by Steven Spielberg, produced by George Lucas, and starring Harrison Ford. It is the first film in the Indiana Jones franchise. It pits Indiana Jones (Ford) against a group of Nazis who search for the Ark of the Covenant because Adolf Hitler believes it will make their army invincible. The film co-stars Karen Allen as Indiana’s former lover, Marion Ravenwood; Paul Freeman as Indiana’s nemesis, French archaeologist René Belloq; John Rhys-Davies as Indiana’s sidekick, Sallah; and Denholm Elliott as Indiana’s colleague, Marcus Brody.
The film originated with Lucas’ desire to create a modern version of the serials of the 1930s and 1940s. Production was based at Elstree Studios, England; but filming also took place in La Rochelle, Tunisia, Hawaii, and California from June to September 1980.
Released on June 12, 1981, Raiders of the Lost Ark became the year’s top-grossing film and remains one of the highest-grossing films ever made. It was nominated for eight Academy Awards in 1982, including Best Picture, and won four (Best Art Direction, Best Film Editing, Best Sound, Best Visual Effects) as well as winning a fifth Special Achievement Academy Award in Sound Effects Editing. The film’s critical and popular success led to three additional films, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984), Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989), and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008), a television series, The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles (1992–1996), and 15 video games as of 2009. In 1999, the film was included in the United States Library of Congress’ National Film Registry as having been deemed “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”
In 1936, archaeologist Indiana Jones braves an ancient Peruvian temple filled with booby traps to retrieve a golden idol. Upon fleeing the temple, Indiana is confronted by rival archaeologist René Belloq and the indigenous Hovitos. Surrounded and outnumbered, Indiana is forced to surrender the idol to Belloq and escapes aboard a waiting Waco seaplane.
Shortly after returning to the college in the United States where he teaches archaeology, Indiana is interviewed by two Army intelligence agents. They inform him that the Nazis, in their quest for occult power, are searching for his old mentor, Abner Ravenwood, who is in possession of the headpiece of an artifact called the Staff of Ra and is the leading expert on the ancient Egyptian city of Tanis. Indiana deduces that the Nazis are searching for Tanis because it is believed to be the location of the Ark of the Covenant, the biblical chest built by the Israelites to contain the fragments of the Ten Commandments; if the Nazis acquire it, their armies will be invincible. The Staff of Ra, meanwhile, is the key to finding the Well of Souls, a secret chamber in which the Ark is buried. The agents subsequently authorize Indiana to recover the Ark with the promise of displaying it in a museum. Indiana travels to Nepal, only to find that Ravenwood has died and that the headpiece is in the possession of his daughter, Marion, Indiana’s embittered former lover. Indiana offers to buy the headpiece for three thousand dollars, plus two thousand more when they return to the United States. Marion’s tavern is suddenly raided by a group of thugs commanded by Nazi agent Major Toht. The tavern is burned down in the ensuing fight, during which Toht burns his hand on the searing hot headpiece as he tries to grab it. Indiana and Marion escape with the headpiece, with Marion declaring she will accompany Indiana in his search for the Ark so he can repay his debt.
They travel to Cairo where they learn from Indiana’s friend Sallah, a skilled excavator, that Belloq and the Nazis are currently digging for the Well of Souls with a replica of the headpiece modeled after the scar on Toht’s hand. In a bazaar, Nazi operatives attempt to kidnap Marion and as Indiana chases after them it appears that she dies in an explosion. While deciphering the markings on the headpiece, Indiana and Sallah realize that the Nazis have miscalculated the location of the Well of Souls. Using this to their advantage, they infiltrate the Nazi dig and use the Staff of Ra to determine the location correctly and uncover the Well of Souls, which is filled with snakes. Indiana fends off the snakes and acquires the Ark, but Belloq and the Nazis arrive to take it. They toss Marion into the well with Indiana and seal them both in, but they manage to escape. After a fistfight with a giant Nazi mechanic, blowing up a flying wing on the airstrip, and chasing down a convoy of trucks, Indiana takes back the Ark before it can be shipped to Berlin, despite being shot in the arm in the process.
Indiana and Marion leave Cairo to escort the Ark to England on board a tramp steamer. The next morning, their boat is boarded by the Nazis, who once again steal the Ark and kidnap Marion. Indiana stows away on their U-boat and follows them to an isolated island in the Aegean Sea where Belloq plans to test the power of the Ark before presenting it to Hitler. Indiana reveals himself and threatens to destroy the Ark with a rocket-propelled grenade launcher, but Belloq calls his bluff, knowing Indy cannot bear to eradicate an important historical artifact.
Indiana surrenders and is tied to a post with Marion as Belloq performs a ceremonial opening of the Ark, which appears to contain nothing but sand. Suddenly, spirits, which resemble the Old Testament description of seraphim, emerge from the Ark. Aware of the supernatural danger of looking at the opened Ark, Indiana warns Marion to close her eyes. The apparitions suddenly morph into demonic creatures, and lightning bolts begin flying out of the ark, gruesomely killing Belloq and the Nazis. The fires rise into the sky, then fall back down to Earth and the Ark closes with a crack of thunder.
Back in Washington, D.C., the Army intelligence agents tell a suspicious Indiana and Brody that the Ark “is someplace safe” to be studied by “top men”. In reality, the Ark is sealed in a wooden crate labeled “top secret” and stored in a giant government warehouse filled with countless similar crates.
Learn more about the concepts, principles and symbolism behind the subliminals found in this film:
First Published: Mar 10, 2012 – Last Updated: Feb 20, 2013