Although this film classic launched into the stratosphere the career of Harrison Ford, it was nearly not meant to be. Originally cast to play the leading role was Tom Sellek, who had to eventually bow out due to contractual obligations with C.B.S. and his television series Magnum P.I., giving Ford the opportunity to team with Steven Spielberg and create this now legendary film.
In the first of a series now consisting of four films, Raiders of the Lost Ark finds our hero in search of the legendary Ark of the Covenant, described in biblical accounts as a golden chest wherein the clay tablets on which the Ten Commandments are inscribed are safely locked away. After surviving a harrowing search that includes clashes with Nazi forces, a battle of wits with rival archeologist Beloch, and winning back the love of an old flame, Indy finds the treasured artifact and delivers it as promised to representatives of the U.S. government, who promise to study the piece and its alleged powers.
The secret message hidden within this action packed film can be found in the symbolic identity of the Ark itself. Possessing mystical powers that the Nazis hope to use to make their armies invincible, the Ark, and the race between the Nazis and the U.S. government to acquire it, is used in the film to symbolize the historical race during World War II to acquire the atom bomb, a weapon that proved for the U.S. to indeed make its armies unbeatable.
As our story begins, Indiana Jones is on the trail of a solid gold idol that rests deep inside the jungles of South America. Once inside a booby trap laden tomb, Jones discovers the lifeless body of a competitor and predecessor, Forrestal, a name alluding to the Secretary of War and overseer of the development of the atomic bomb, James Vincent Forrestal. Jones’ “competitor” then, is a foil for his own character, as both are in search of the atomic bomb, symbolized by the Ark of the Covenant in our tale.
Upon finding the golden idol and exiting the tomb, Jones finds his chief rival, French archeologist Beloch, awaiting him, and is relieved of his prize. Telling Jones, “What was once briefly yours, is now mine,” Beloch is literally referring to the idol, but symbolically he is informing Jones the brief lead he once possessed in the nuclear arms race now belongs to him, with the idol just another nuclear warhead added to their growing stockpile.
Informing Jones that he “chose the wrong friends,” Beloch and the local Indian tribesmen who help him steal from Jones symbolize allies in the ongoing chess game of the cold war, with Indy’s chosen allies proving untrustworthy and weak.
Additionally, the idol Beloq holds aloft to the natives who bow to its power represents a single piece of a technology so superior in its firepower it renders the bows and arrows possessed by the tribesmen mere toys against such a destructive arsenal being amassed by our competitors.
Successfully eluding his pursuers through the narrowest of escapes, Indy climbs aboard Jaques’ seaplane amid a rainstorm of poison darts. Found written on the back of Jaques’ jacket are the words “Air Pirates,” his company’s name that hints Indiana Jones is no more than a pirate of Earth’s treasures, a “Raider” of lost artifacts and weapons of war.
Back at his university, Jones is told by Marcus Brody that he is confident Jones’ acquisition of the artifacts is in accordance with “The International Treaty for the Protection of Antiquities,” a group that symbolically represents the “North American Treaty Alliance,” a group whose purpose is to keep not antiquities safe, but the weapons they have come to symbolize in the film.
Another name in the story with a symbolic meaning is Abner Ravenwood, Jones’ professor and mentor in the art of building an arsenal of “antiquities,” as a raven is a bird that symbolizes death and war, the very events the stockpiling of the weapons the antiquities symbolize is utilized for.
In a briefing given by the government agents who wish to recruit him to find and deliver to them the Ark of the Covenant, Jones is informed that Hitler is currently amassing huge quantities of artifacts and that the German Chancellor is “crazy, nuts about the subject.” Symbolically offered as descriptive of the mind set of anyone, including the United States, who would pursue objects of such an immensely destructive nature, this will not be the last example of this link offered in our tale.
When Marcus Brody tells the agents, “An army which carries the Ark before is invincible,” the film’s biggest hint toward its secret message is provided as Marcus is symbolically stating that an army that carries the atom bomb before it is invincible,
After explaining the destructive powers of the Ark to the government agents, Indy adds, “If you believe in that sort of thing,” a comment that tells us that he does not believe the Ark contains such devastating powers.This point of view suggests it is the United States that fails to respect the dangers such an arsenal represents, as they continue to amass this kind of weaponry.
In a conversation Marcus has with Indy as he packs for his quest of the ark, Marcus warns the treasure is “unlike anything you’ve gone after before,” an allusion that suggests nuclear weaponry is nothing like weapons developed in the past. Shrugging this warning off, a laughing Indy irresponsibly tosses a revolver across the room into his luggage stating, “You know what a careful fellow I am,” alerting the viewer that symbolically those that pursue nuclear superiority may think they are acting responsibly, but in reality act far from it.
Locating his old flame Marion in a rough Nepalese saloon, Indy asks her for a bronze medallion that belonged to her father. Referring to the piece as “worthless,” Jones fails to understand the sentimental value the piece holds for Marion, who wears it around her neck in remembrance of her now deceased father. As a symbol of their individual motives, the medallion represents only one tool in Indiana’s quest for war, while for Marion the piece represents only love, indicating our hero has great things to learn from his former girlfriend.
When we meet Indiana’s friend Sallah, the Egyptian man informs Indy of the head start the Nazi’s possess in the search of the Ark’s resting place. This advantage is symbolic of the lead held by Germany over the U.S. in the quest for nuclear technology during the Second World War, an advantage the U.S. scrambled to make up. Adding that the Ark is “something that man was not meant to disturb,” Sallah is symbolically referring to nuclear weaponry as the dangerous power man was not meant to possess.
When Marion asks Indiana, “How come you haven’t found some nice girl to settle down with, raise eight or nine kids like your friend Sallah,” a distinction is made between Indy’s pursuits of a destructive power that is meant to take life as opposed to Sallah’s choice of a path that gives it, with the varying qualities of these opposing choices compared two scenes later in the film.
First, during Indy’s scramble to protect Marion from a horde of abductors, Jones is confronted by a towering Egyptian swordsman. Shrugging off the threat with a single shot from his revolver, Indy symbolizes the advantage held by those who possess nuclear weaponry over those who do not, a superiority that leaves the opposition with a defense as obsolete as the sword.
Believing Marion was killed by the Nazis, Jones confronts Beloq and attempts retribution for her death. When Beloq informs Indy that it is his own fault the girl is dead, he blames Jones’ obsession with the Ark as the reason for Marion’s death, an accusation that symbolically suggests an obsession with nuclear supremacy will only lead to similar tragedies. Further telling Indy that he believes they are “one in the same, just a nudge to make you like me, push you out of the light,” Beloq is suggesting that it is a fine line between being the “good guys” in the nuclear arms race and the “bad guys,” a line Indy is close to crossing. When Indy draws his revolver in retaliation for Marion’s death, a gang of rifle bearing Arabs draw down on him, symbolizing the escalation of violence the arms race inevitably brings. Coming to Indy’s rescue is a collection of children who, while blocking the gunmen’s path, escort the archeologist to safety. In a scene that connects the previous one where Marion suggested Indy settle down and have children like his friend Sallah, the Egyptian man declares the children “better than U.S. Marines” as he symbolically states the innocent youth of the world offer better protection of human life than the strongest army in the world.
Now close to discovering the resting place of the Ark, Indy once again chooses war over love when he chooses to leave Marion a prisoner of Beloq, deciding it would interfere with his quest for the Ark if she were discovered missing.
When Indy finally locates the Ark, his discovery symbolizes America’s victory in the race to develop the first atomic bomb. As Indy and Sallah work to remove the Ark from its resting place, the two men are cast as shadowy figures upon the tomb wall, bringing realization to Beloq’s assertion that Indy was a “shadowy reflection” of himself.
Chasing down the Nazis after they capture the Ark from Indy, Jones mounts a white stallion, the “pale horse” of biblical reference symbolizing death that foreshadows the inevitability awaiting those who seek nuclear supremacy. Once again taking possession of the prize, Indy and Marion prepare to depart via a cargo ship bound for an allied port.
When Marion says goodbye to Sallah, she kisses him three times, once each for “fire, children, and you.” In reverse order, her sentiments would read “you [father], children [son], and fire [Holy Spirit], with the Father, Son, Holy Spirit aspect of the Christian “Trinity” used as an allusion to the path of love and family that Sallah has chosen to take. In the next scene, the Trinity is again alluded to, as the Nazis, after once again reclaiming the Ark, take the mystical object to a remote location for testing. This test is an allusion to the real life testing of the atomic bomb the U.S. military carried out in a remote location near Alamogordo, New Mexico during WWII. Code named “Trinity,” these experiments mirror the test the Nazis of our story now prepare to undertake.
As the Nazis carry the Ark to the testing location, Indy sees for the first time the virtue of a path of love over war when he points a bazooka at the treasure and only demands the release of Marion in exchange for sparing the Ark an explosive demise.
Upon opening the Ark, Beloq and his men are disappointed to find nothing but worthless sand, a discovery symbolic of the value such a prize as nuclear supremacy holds for civilization. Additionally, the spirits that appear from inside the Ark and kill all those in witness symbolize the deadly force that will leave not leave a single survivor as a witness to its destructive fury.
Telling Marion to “close her eyes” when the Ark is opened, Indy symbolically warns all to ignore the lure of nuclear supremacy, an act that works to spare Jones and Marion, and symbolically civilization as well, from certain annihilation.
Upon arrival in Washington D.C., Jones successfully completes his mission to deliver to the U.S. government the treasured Ark of the Covenant, an allusion to the delivery of the first atomic bomb used in warfare by the U.S.S. Indianapolis [Indiana], as we now understand the nickname given our archeologist hero, “Indiana” Jones.
Indy, however, is frustrated to find the bureaucrats fail to understand what he has learned of the destructive powers of the Ark, a reflection of the ignorance displayed by governments concerning the development of nuclear arms. When Indy in protest claims the politicians “don’t know what they have there,” Marion answers, “Well, I know what I have here,” words that make it clear she and Indy have chosen the path of love over the quest for war.
Our story does not end on a positive note however, as the Ark is added to a growing stockpile of artifacts stored in a cavernous warehouse inside a secret base, a sobering allusion to the modern reality of the stockpiling of nuclear warheads by many of the worlds governments, a practice that casts an ominous shadow over a generation’s hope for a peaceful future.
This article was an excerpt from the book “Buried Movie Treasures.”