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Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark Essay

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Updated: Sep 18th, 2022

Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark is a 1981 action-adventure film directed by Steven Spielberg and produced by George Lucas, who also wrote the story on which the script is based. The movie was a huge box office and critical success and won numerous awards, including five Academy Awards. It has inspired a variety of filmmakers and spawned a highly successful franchise that includes three film sequels, a TV series, comic books, novels, toys, theme park attractions, and video games. It had a significant impact on popular culture and is considered one of the best action-adventure films ever made. The film is regarded by critics as pure entertainment, but, on a deeper level, it can be viewed as a manifestation of the director’s feelings towards Nazism and an exercise in playing with the political and religious agenda.

The plot is set in 1936 and follows the adventures of Indiana Jones, a treasure hunter and archeologist, hired by the American government to find the lost Ark of the Covenant before the Nazis do. Adolf Hitler, who is obsessed with the occult, believes that the artifact, containing the original stone tablets with the Ten Commandments, can make his army invincible. Teaming up with his former lover and the daughter of the fellow archaeologist Marion, Indiana Jones races to stop the rival treasure hunter Dr. Rene Belloq from guiding the Nazis to the Ark and its power.

The film is generally viewed by critics and the audience as a pure adventure, filled with dazzling high-paced action, light humor, and a well-balanced blend of fantasy and romantic elements. In his review for Variety, Steven Klein claims that The Raiders of the Lost Ark, “steeped in an exotic atmosphere of lost civilizations, mystical talismans, gritty mercenary adventures, Nazi arch-villains, and ingenious death,” is “an exhilarating escapist entertainment” (Klein). It includes a number of remarkable action scenes and gags, one of which features Indiana Jones shooting an Arab swordsman, who appears before him, swinging his weapon and vigorously inviting Jones into an epic duel (Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark). It is a consummately entertaining adventure that blends action, fun, and romance into a mix that has not lost its appeal since the 1980s.

However, while the movie’s action-adventure value has been much commented on, there are themes touched in The Raiders of the Lost Ark that are often overlooked. Its conflict is centered around the main characters’ confrontation with the Nazis, and the movie itself can be seen as the manifestation of the director’s feelings toward Nazism. Steven Spielberg grew up in an Orthodox Jewish family, feeling embarrassed “by the outward perception of the parents’ Jewish practices,” and suffering from anti-Semitism at school (Jungreis-Wolff). In 1993, he directed Schindler’s List, a movie about a man who risked his life to save 1,100 Jews from the Holocaust, which became Spielberg’s attempt to embrace his Jewish heritage. In The Raiders of the Lost Ark, shot twelve years earlier, the Nazis are also the main villains, but the theme is approached from a different perspective.

The plot is set in 1936, five years before World War II, and features the Nazis in the search for the lost Ark of the Covenant. The order is given by Adolf Hitler himself, who is obsessed with the occult and believes that the Ark’s magic powers can make his army invincible. The Ark of the Covenant is essentially a Jewish artifact that has its origins in the biblical Book of Exodus and is believed to contain the stone tablets of the Ten Commandments, given to Moses by God. The Nazis in the film embark on a quest for the mystical legacy of the ancient Hebrews, wanting to steal their heritage and use it for their own victory.

Throughout the film, multiple examples of Nazi symbolism and mild religious satire can be found. When Indiana Jones grabs the Mercedes emblem on a truck, it breaks off. When the Ark is transported in a Nazi ship inside a wooden crate, the swastika and other Nazi markings spontaneously catch fire and are obliterated. When a Nazi character grabs a sacred relic, it burns stigmata into his hand. There is even a historically accurate joke about the French archeologist who tries to play both sides, just as occupied France did during World War II. The culmination also has a symbolic meaning, with the Nazis being punished for their ambitions not by Indiana Jones or other characters but rather by God himself, whose power they attempted to harness.

The Nazis are considered traditional villains in B-movies, easily portrayed through accents and uniforms. In The Raiders of the Lost Ark, they are depicted as pure evil, striving to steal the Jewish heritage to conquer the world. They are classical villains: cruel, ambitious, and willing to take any means to achieve their goal. But for Steven Spielberg, using the Nazis as villains has a personal dimension. In the movie, they are punished not for their evil beliefs, and the action is seasoned with a political and religious agenda.

However, the movie’s purpose is still primarily to provide entertainment. The personalities of both the protagonist and villains are shallow, the plot has many fantasy turns, and there are no emotional insights or deliberations on the theme. In his review of The Raiders of the Lost Ark, Roger Ebert notes that it is “the work of Spielberg’s recaptured adolescence” (Ebert). He claims that “it contains the kind of stuff teenage boys like, and also perhaps the daydreams of a young Jewish kid who imagines blowing up Nazis real good” (Ebert). It is shot with teenage enthusiasm, and the religious and political connotations only become evident to the curious and observant viewer. Overall, while the movie has been called impersonal for its focus on pure entertainment, on the hidden level, its foundations are very personal and emotional for the director.

Overall, Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark is a great action-adventure film with a hidden level of meaning. It is suitable for any age, although its religious and political implications can be discovered only by an observant viewer, willing to look for a deeper meaning behind the familiar scenes. Spielberg’s relationships with Nazism are personal, which is later to be revealed and elaborated on in Schindler’s List. In Indiana Jones, the references are subtle and do not get in the way of the movie’s purpose to entertain. Raiders of the Lost Ark is an exciting non-stop action with charismatic characters and authentic villains that can be enjoyed regardless of whether the viewer is willing to look into its political and religious agenda.

Works Cited

Ebert, Roger. Review of Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark, directed by Steven Spielberg. Roger Ebert, 2000, Web.

Indiana Jones and the Raiders of Lost Ark. Directed by Steven Spielberg, performance by Harrison Ford, Lucasfilm Ltd., 1981.

Jungreis-Wolff, Slovie. Aish, 2015, Web.

Klein, Stephen. Review of Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark, directed by Steven Spielberg. Variety, 1981, Web.

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