As Marcus Brody says, "nothing else had come close." Roll up all the priceless jewels and secret documents that every movie character in history has tried to acquire, and you'll still only have a thimbleful of the cool that this bad boy has. And best of all, it has some serious religious and historical affiliations, which give us a lot more to chew on than its simple presence as a plot device.
It looks seriously cool, for starters: inlaid with gold and with kneeling angels on top of it. This is in keeping with its initial descriptions in the Old Testament, right down to the fact that you have to carry it around on poles instead of touching it yourself.
Mr. Spielberg, master of lighting, further augments that by lighting the Ark with very subtle golden light, making it appear to shine and glow even in a darkened room. He also emphasizes its holy qualities with a signature riff from composer John Williams: something that starts quiet and subtle when just hinting at the Arks powers, then goes full-bore double-barreled orchestral when the time comes for the smiting to start. It lends a singular and very powerful impression: This belongs to God, and while you can look, you do not get to touch. (It gets, um, messy if you do. Apparently Belloq hadn't brushed up on Leviticus chapter 10.)
On the most basic level, the Ark serves the same function as the jewels in a robbery film or the secret plans in a spy film. Everyone wants it and will do anything to get it: That's the only thing about it that really matters. It could be petunias or rowboats or a six-foot resin statue shaped like the letter "g." As long as the characters will cheerfully knife each other in a dark alley to get their hands on it, it will work. Alfred Hitchcock coined a term for it—"MacGuffin"—and you can see it in everything from The Maltese Falcon to Guardians of the Galaxy.
The Ark is a little different from those other MacGuffins, however, due to that whole "they wrote about it in the Torah" thing. It shows up in Exodus and was built to hold the shattered pieces of the Ten Commandments. More importantly, it represents a link between God and the Israelites: a physical sign of his presence on Earth. Through it, God told them where to go and what to do. His presence hovered over the Ark during their travels through the desert. He even used it to clear snakes and scorpions out of their path with cosmic flames. Handy.
But it was much more than just a cosmic CB and nifty pest-control device. It was linked to the power of God and that meant it had to be handled very, very carefully. If you approached it without the proper reverence, or failed to follow the complicated rituals involved, then your holy temple promptly got turned into the world's largest microwave.
Raiders of the Lost Ark incorporates all of those motifs into its presentation of the Ark (including its unknown whereabouts) in an effort to impress its holiness upon us. That makes it more than just a prize to be won; it's something to be treated with reverence. The Nazis don't figure that out, and thus get burned to a crisp. Indy does, and he survives. In the process, the experience might just bring Indy a little closer to God—or at least make him less of a jerk than he used to be.
The Pharaoh Shishak builds the Well of Souls in the city of Tanis to hide the mystical swag he stole from Jerusalem. The Bible mentions Shishak, but his stealing of the Ark is a fabrication.
The Well of Souls is a space that makes no ecological sense if you think about it, but nonetheless forms one of the most potent symbols in the whole film. It's filled with snakes from wall to wall. Snakes that have no earthly business being there and that would probably starve to death if left sealed up in a tomb for thousands of years. But hey, this is God's house, and if he wants them there, then that's where they will go.
"Why?" you may ask. It probably has something to do with the fact that Indy hates and fears all things snakey. If he wants to take the Ark out of there, he's going to have to confront the thing he fears the most. That's classic Campbellian imagery: from the descent into the Well to Indy's final emergence from it (which, you might notice, looks suspiciously like giving birth). This is the Innermost Cave, the location where the hero confronts all of his inner darkness and emerges stronger from the wisdom he discovers. Spielberg and screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan simply came up with a cool way to embody it: in this case, a lost tomb tailor-made for an old tomb-raider like Indy.
Oh, just one more question: Why'd it have to be snakes?
A simple bronze medallion with a crystal in the middle and some writing on the side. The key to the most fabulous artifact in the history of man. Karma in action for evil Gestapo agents who get a little too grabby with it. The Headpiece is all these things and more: an artifact from the city of Tanis that tells those who carry it exactly where to find the Ark of the Covenant.
On a basic level, the Headpiece acts a little bit like a mini-Ark: inflicting righteous pain on the unworthy (*cough* Toht *cough*) while guiding Indy and his friends where they need to go. On a slightly deeper level, it's a symbol of the past: in this case, Indy and Marion's past as much as the past of ancient Egypt. Abner Ravenwood gave it to Marion as a present, so it has connections to him and, by extension, to the pain that Indy inflicted on his daughter.
But it also represents Abner's continuing hold over Marion's life. Seriously, she doesn't care about Tanis. "Abner was sorry for dragging me all over this earth looking for his little bits of junk," she growls about her father, which doesn't exactly sound like a happy childhood. Her letting it go means that she's willing to rethink her relationship with Jones and, more importantly, that their mentor/guide no longer has influence in their lives. They're ready to go it alone.
That's a lot for one little medallion, but it makes for a neat way of conveying some important themes in the middle of all that Nazi-hand-burning.
The warehouse only shows up in two shots—the last two shots of the movie, as luck would have it. It's a vast storage facility stacked to the rafters with crates. There's nothing at all to differentiate one crate from another except a bunch of serial numbers, making it the ideal place to stash a spare Ark of the Covenant.
Besides making for a stunning closing shot (Best ever? We're gonna say "yes"), it helps emphasize one of the film's central concepts: that the Ark is just as lost at the end as it was at the beginning. This is God's Ark after all, and if he doesn't want it found, then chances are we ain't gonna find it. By showing us that via burying the Ark in an entirely different sort of desert, Spielberg stresses that nothing happens here without the Almighty's say-so.
It also helps draw Indy's newfound friendship with Marion into sharp relief. "He went through all of that for nothing?!" we'd say, followed quickly by an "oh wait, that girl he deflowered isn't angry with him anymore. That's something." The warehouse makes a neat little coda to drive that point home, not to mention letting Spielberg show off his unquestioned mastery of the matte painting.
Have you ever stopped to think about a movie explosion? Really sat down and thought about it? We're going to guess that the answer is "no." And why should you? There's only so much musing one can do on a giant fireball, no matter how much you overcrank the camera (Michael Bay, we're looking at you).
When it comes to Raiders, however, that climactic blast of noise and light operates on a completely different level. Literally. In short, all of that sound and noise in the climactic scene represents the Wrath of a Very, Very Angry God, smiting the unrighteous while sparing the virtuous conveniently tied up in their midst.
That's a great way of demonstrating who's been on the Almighty's naughty list. The villains go poking at it and get their just comeuppance by turning into a living anatomy lesson. Who knew people could melt like that? The heroes (particularly Indy, who has picked up the wisdom he needs to be a better man) keep their eyes shut and are spared. There's no better way to demonstrate that evil gets its just deserts, and no better way to show that our hero has grown and changed enough to earn a spot back on Team Good Guys.
But if the symbolism is fairly obvious here, the means by which the filmmakers show it to us is much different. This can't just look like a fireball. We have to sense the power of Creation in it as well, something so powerful and blinding that it would burn us to cinders if we even looked at it. And that takes more than just a crazy FX guy with a lot of detonators.
So Spielberg combines the overt stuff that costs a lot of money with some strong concepts that don't cost much at all. The phenomenon starts slow, with smoke and wispy phantoms rising up out of the Ark in a manner that prompts more curiosity than fear. They slowly become more distinct, looking more like people and less like anthropomorphic lens flares as each shot goes on. The Nazis are initially enchanted by it, though Indy and Marion have long since clenched their peepers shut. There's a sense of wonder to these images: They seem almost magical, as something more than just mindlessly destructive. Perhaps even something that might see fit to bring creatures like us to life.
That conveys the notion that God is, in fact, in the house. Now it's time to drop the righteous anger on them. One ghost melts into a howling skull as the heavy stuff starts. Fiery lightning moves from one Nazi to the next in a straight line, and when the flaming cloud comes down to claim them all, it comes like a wave. It strikes with purpose and moves like something being guided. At the end, the fire rises into an opening hole in the clouds, which closes again once the fireworks are over. It does all that while leaving Indy and Marion completely untouched in the middle of it all.
Again, that all comes in the storyboard session and in the editing, where Spielberg's shots can give the fire flow and function. It shows how filmmaking can convey a specific theme and impression—in this case, from a story perspective as well as a shock-and-awe perspective. That may explain why the scene holds up and why it still feels stronger than scenes shot with far more sophisticated technology.
The movie takes particular glee in subtly deflating the various symbols of Nazism. Sure, we get the gist of it whenever our hero pounds some goose-stepping moron senseless, but Raiders just loves ridiculing them whenever it can. We get a shot of a monkey giving the Nazi salute, after all, and you don't have to be a semantics expert to figure out what that means.
Similar images crop up every few minutes: Sallah using a German flag to create a makeshift rope in the map room; Indy pulling the Mercedes hood ornament off of the truck as he hangs on for dear life; the Ark itself burning the Nazi symbols off of the crate containing it. It ain't subtle, but it does the job, and when God's holy fire burns the Nazis to a crisp at the end, you can't accuse the movie of waffling on its opinions about them. Way to go, movie!
Ever notice that every blockbuster movie has the same fundamental pieces? A hero, a journey, some conflicts to muck it all up, a reward, and the hero returning home and everybody applauding his or her swag? Yeah, scholar Joseph Campbell noticed first—in 1949. He wrote The Hero with a Thousand Faces, in which he outlined the 17 stages of a mythological hero's journey.
About half a century later, Christopher Vogler condensed those stages down to 12 in an attempt to show Hollywood how every story ever written should—and, uh, does—follow Campbell's pattern. We're working with those 12 stages, so take a look. (P.S. Want more? We have an entire Online Course devoted to the Hero's Journey.)
In terms of the Hero's Journey, the first ten minutes of the movie don't count. They're basically the finale of some other Indiana Jones story that we never get to see. And they're possibly the best ten minutes of movie ever made.
From a Campbellian perspective, we start in the ordinary world. Indy's a teacher at a university, he has a nice little house full of clutter, and the worst thing he has to face is co-eds half his age flinging themselves at him. It's a pretty relaxing environment, but definitely in need of a little shake-up.
Calls to Adventure don't get more adventure-y than the U.S. government telling you to stop a secret Nazi plot to steal the Ark of the Covenant. Colonel Musgrove (Don Fellows) and Major Eaton (William Hootkins) arrive with some mishmash about a staff of Ra, and they want Indy to connect the dots for them. Once he does, they figure he can follow those dots all the way to the Ark. Buried under the sands and with a veritable army of cranky Germans scuttling around on top of it, it's not something a run-of-the-mill college professor can tackle. But it's got to be done because Nazis are really horrible people, and if they get the Ark, the whole world's going down the tubes.
Say what you will about Indy, he's not one to go all knock-kneed at the first sign of trouble. The closest we get to a refusal is Marcus' warning in Indy's office: "For nearly three thousand years man has been searching for the lost Ark. That's not something to be taken lightly. No one knows its secrets. It's like nothing you've ever gone after before."
Indy, of course, just laughs it off and packs his six-gun. No call refusal here: Tell the operator that Dr. Jones will accept the charges.
Strictly speaking, there's no mentor here: no Obi-Wan or Dumbledore to give Indy a hand. Then again, Indy's old enough that he doesn't need anyone pointing out the signposts to him. In fact, he's already cast aside his mentor, Abner Ravenwood, and skipped ahead in the story. We drop in early in Step 4 to find out what happened to the mentor (he's dead) and what kind of pesky task he might have left undone (the same task Indy's busy trying to solve). That lets the story fulfill some of the needs of the mentor without the mentor actually having to show up. Good thing too, since he's probably buried halfway up a mountain somewhere.
With Steps 3 and 4 basically skipped, this step takes place right after the Call to Adventure. It's when that famous map begins showing up in the background, directing us to Indy's various destinations. The map emphasizes that he's passed the known world and entered the wilderness (since you wouldn't need one for a place you'd already been to), and it provides a handy visual aid to show us just how far away he's gone.
There's a second visual image that shows us a threshold has indeed been crossed, and thankfully this one is quite literal. It's the Golden Gate Bridge, visible as Indy's plane takes off and symbolic of the western edge of the United States. Past there, it's only the ocean—full of sea monsters, we're betting—and a long road of trouble before reaching the prize.
Let's check 'em off here. Tests? How about Gestapo agents burning Nepalese bars down, thugs on the streets of Cairo, bars full of gunmen, poisoned dates, map rooms at dawn, possible exploding girlfriends, and that weasel with the scimitar whom Indy guns down in the streets.
And allies? He picks up Marion in Nepal, and though she's still pretty peeved, she's definitely on his side. Sallah proves pretty indispensable, too: able to sneak Indy onto the dig site and even sending his kids into the bar before any bad guys shoot him. They're only two, but they're friends worth having, which is a good thing because the bad guys are crawling out of the woodwork. Belloq's here, of course, and Toht with a freshly minted scar on his right hand. Throw in a gang of Arab criminals, a few more German agents, a whole army of Nazi troops, and that sneaky little monkey who gets one of the film's more poetic comeuppances, and the road to adventure gets stuffed to the gills.
The Innermost Cave isn't quite literal in Raiders, but it's close enough for government work. It's the Well of Souls, buried under the Egyptian desert for three thousand years and just waiting for an enterprising Campbellian hero to come along and crack its secrets. It's dark, it's dry, it's filled with deadly snakes, and no one has ever gotten to it and lived. Indy's smart enough to dig it up without notice, but if you know your Hero's Journey, you know that his troubles have just begun.
"Snakes… why did it have to be snakes?" We're hard-pressed to think of any other hero who has to confront his fears as acutely as Indy does in the Well of Souls. Snakes are the one thing we know he's terrified of, and there are literally piles of them between him and the Ark. Thankfully, fire is his friend, and it gets the snakes off his back. For a little while at least.
He's got the Ark! Oh wait, no he doesn't, 'cause the bad guys take it from him and bury him alive in a room full of snakes. From a Campbellian perspective, Indy's loss of the Ark comes as part of the whole Jonah-and-the-whale thing: His ordeal swallows him up and he appears to have died. He doesn't die here, but he has to fight off the thing he's most terrified of and pass through a hall of mummies once he breaks through the wall. You don't have to be Freud to figure out the symbolism involved.
Oh yeah, and he needs to seize the sword again, too. At least he knows where it is this time, which he didn't for the first half of the movie.
The road back is as fraught with peril as the road there, which stinks for Indy though he's kind of got it covered. First, there's the Late Unpleasantness with the plane, which ends with one guy carved into strudel and a bunch of others shot dead by machine-gun fire. Once he pulls Marion out of that hot mess, he has to take on an entire convoy of soldiers, all armed to the teeth. (Seriously people: He crawls under a moving truck. That's some big-time Test of Trials stuff.) Then, just when he thinks he can relax and take it easy, the Nazis pull his boat over and yank Marion and the Ark out from under his nose.
The good news is that he's got his priorities in place this time ("all I want is the girl," he tells the Nazis), though he still ends up tied to a post for his troubles.
Resurrection in this case isn't so much coming back from the dead as it is avoiding being killed by the fiery rage of Heaven. The film's climax arrives when the prize (the Ark) is opened and the reward appears. Only in this case, it's the kind of "reward" you wouldn't wish on your worst enemy. Indy survives by calling on some of his hard-earned wisdom ("shut your eyes Marion, don't look at it no matter what happens!") and by revealing that wisdom to the woman whom he hurt so badly. Thus does he share his prize with the whole community, even if the community is just that hard-hittin' gal he used to go out with.
Home again, home again, only to bury the Ark again beneath mountains of government bureaucracy. Indy protects the world by keeping the Ark out of the Nazis' hands, but Uncle Sam doesn't want to touch it, leaving it just as lost as it was in the beginning. Luckily, the feds are smarter than the Nazis; at least they don't want to go poking at it. And as long as they have it, no one else is going to stumble across it and think, "This could really help me with that global conquest I've been planning!" More importantly, Marion's back with Indy, and she's ready to buy him a drink. How can a priceless religious artifact compete with that?
Ostensibly, the setting is roughly divided into two general categories: the Known World (Washington, D.C. and Indy's university) and the Unknown World (everywhere else). That's in keeping with the Hero's Journey, which Raiders embodies so closely it felt like cheating when we were writing it up.
The Known World represents everything safe and secure: the things the hero goes out and fights for, like mom, apple pie, and the right to go about your business without Anti-Semitic knuckleheads goose-stepping down Main Street. It holds all the good things in the world, but it's being threatened, and unless the hero ventures forth, it's all going to go to pot.
Spielberg helps stress this by emphasizing its normal qualities. The lighting in these scenes is very soft and natural, coming from daylight instead of electric lights. It's rather muted in terms of colors too—a lot of grays and browns—and you'll notice that John Williams' score is very quiet during those scenes when it's playing at all. While the Known World is safe, it's also kind of boring, and for a young man (or woman) looking to strut their stuff, it's a place to get away from as quickly as possible. The film wants to show us as well as tell us, which makes all the Unknown World scenes that much cooler.
In contrast to the Known World, the Unknown World is colorful and busy. There's lots of crowds, and weird animals, and everything smells like frying meat. The light in these scenes is more direct (unlike the Known World scenes, which look like they had a lot of cloud cover) and the colors more vibrant. Seriously, have you ever seen foliage as green as that in the Peru sequences? This all comes on top of a sense of cultural exoticism: places like Egypt and Nepal, where people practice different customs and adhere to different cultural values. That's a pleasant way of saying stereotyping, which the movie can't quite escape.
But just as the Unknown World contains all kinds of fantastic things to see and do and have done in your name, so too does it carry danger. Serious danger, of all different kinds: from cranky headhunters to "now you gotta crawl under a moving truck, smart guy!" And here too, Spielberg plants all kinds of visual cues to let us know we're not entirely safe.
Beyond the mundane dangers like snakes and spiders and poisoned dates and the inherent menace of the locals (which, seriously, comes off as a little racist), there are more unpredictable concerns, like the weather. Indy visits Marion's bar in the middle of what appears to be a full-bore blizzard, while the desert outside of Cairo looks hot enough to fry an egg. As Belloq tells Marion,
"If you're trying to escape, the desert is three weeks in every direction."
The upside of this is that the Unknown World looks a little less unknown by the end of the movie. Indy's risked a lot, but he comes out of it with a better understanding of life (including a few of its cooler trinkets) and a sense that maybe all those dangers are worth it for the way they help him grow. Joseph Campbell knew how it worked. Lucky for us, the creators of Raiders of the Lost Ark did too.
We'd be totally remiss if we didn't mention the year in which this takes place, which is as important to the setting as the locations themselves. 1936 was a period of tremendous change, when the world struggled its way out of the Great Depression and Nazi Germany was developing big plans to ruin everything for everybody. There were still unexplored corners of the world: things we didn't understand, places no one had visited, and phenomena that still defied scientific explanations. But science was rapidly gaining ground, what with those new-fangled "radios," "airplanes," and "skyscrapers."
So on the one hand, fear and superstition were still out there. Darkest Africa was still pretty dark, and you could imagine that places like Atlantis were just waiting to be discovered. But on the other hand, you could see science and knowledge pointing the way to something better. Something grander. Something that didn't involve painting "Here Be Dragons" on the map and fearing for your life just because you wanted to take a trip across the ocean.
Indiana Jones stands perfectly balanced between those two points. He's a scientist and an explorer, someone dedicated to getting into all those dark corners and shining a light on them. But he studies the past and goes looking for things only whispered about in scary bars on murky waterfronts. He wants to bring those things into the light and help us all understand them. ("The Ark is a source of unspeakable power and it has to be researched!" his buddy Marcus says at the end in an echo of his sentiments.) But he also knows that science can't solve every problem and that sometimes lost things should stay lost.
Contrast all that with the Nazis, who took the exact opposite approach. They loved science and technology, but only as a way of conquering other countries and justifying their crazy ideas about master races, etc. They had a fixation on superstition and the occult (the swastika was a symbol used in numerous ancient cultures) and they aimed to destroy any culture that didn't match their notion of what people should be. They were opposite sides of the same coin, Indy and the Nazis, and the 1930s was the perfect time to set them against each other.
Raiders of the Lost Ark wasn't interested in breaking new ground with narrative technique. It was a big, bold crowd-pleaser aimed at honoring smaller, older crowd-pleasers. Getting cute with the narrative by, say, following a nonlinear timeline or changing the point-of-view halfway through just wasn't in the playbook. Time moves forward in a linear fashion, no voice-over narration intrudes on the story, and there's not even a dream sequence to break it all up. What you see is pretty much what you get here.
Within that framework, however, Spielberg finds a few ways to tweak the traditional narrative formula. The first one comes in the opening scene, which is actually the climactic close to an entirely different story we don't get to see. Why does Indy want the idol in that Temple? What did he have to do to get the map? How did he join forces with those two creeps he's with? We never find out and we don't have to. All we get is the payoff. It's a great way to introduce us to this character and how he does things, all without lot of chunky exposition. (In fairness, Raiders borrowed the technique from the James Bond films, which had been doing it for years.)
The narrative also needs to conform to the specific beats of movie serials, which differ slightly from the traditional narrative formula of rising action that your English teacher keeps going on about. The serials were originally broken up into multiple parts and screened one per week. You would watch Chapter 6, all fifteen minutes of it, and have to come back next Saturday if you wanted to see Chapter 7.
The filmmakers usually sweetened the pot by leaving things on a cliffhanger: The hero's stuck in a burning house, for example, or the heroine is about to get cut in half by a buzz saw. That left a whole lot of "mini-climaxes" instead of the traditional slow rise in action. (Stop snickering!) The final episode might be particularly epic, but beyond that the tone was pretty uniform, with no variation.
Raiders has to copy that formula, but because it basically crams all those episodes into one feature-length extravaganza, it has to follow the traditional narrative arc as well. It's a surprisingly tall order, but it manages the task nicely. We get specified beats of action—like the fight at the bar in Nepal, the brawl on the streets of Cairo, Indy and Marion getting buried alive, etc.—that still progress toward a big finale.
Each stop feels a little bigger, each threat just a little more dire. First Indy's got to get by snakes, then a pair of mechanics, then a whole convoy of Nazi troops, then a Nazi sub… You get the idea. Spielberg paces them to capture the rhythm of the old serials while still following through on the needs of a more traditional narrative. Like we said earlier, this movie makes us think about explosions far more than we thought we would.
Action-adventure is the name of the game and Raiders of the Lost Ark did it so well it practically defines the genre these days. They even added it to their ad campaign for the second film: "If adventure has a name, it must be Indiana Jones." They're claiming their turf and they ain't bein' shy about it either. If you had to pick one genre for the movie, it shouldn't be a difficult choice.
Underneath that umbrella though, we can find signs of a few other genres poking up here and there. The thriller, for starters: a genre related to adventure films but only indirectly. Fear-inducing threats like snakes and spiders become part of a near-constant stream of peril, as do the mummies, cannibals, and a really serious smackdown from the Creator of All Things. If your pulse doesn't race at least a little bit in this film, you might be dead, which means it has at least a little thriller in its DNA.
Satire plays a small but important role as well. While Raiders really wants to honor the serials that inspired it, it also wants to poke fun at some of their sillier clichés. Hence we get Indy beating up a guard and taking his uniform, only to find that the uniform doesn't fit. Add to that the fact that he gets beaten up almost as much as he beats other people up (something that never would have happened in the serials) and you have a mischievous side to the movie that isn't afraid to poke fun at itself a little bit.
Finally, no story featuring the Ark of the Covenant can escape at least some of the trappings of a religious picture. Raiders lends its Ark a sense of awe by lighting it in a golden halo at all times and putting John Williams' eerily reverential theme on the soundtrack. The end features God directly taking part in the proceedings, which by definition qualifies this for religious picture status.
That's a bit of a cocktail from a genre perspective. The good news is that it blends all those ingredients perfectly, creating a final film composed of pure awesome.
According to the book The Cinema of George Lucas, the movie was originally supposed to be titled The Adventures of Indiana Smith. Doesn't exactly grab you, does it? (Even without the whole weird Smith/Jones thing.) The powers that be eventually decided on Raiders of the Lost Ark, which is a lot grabbier. And given the film's success, we quickly forget what a strange and kind of awkward title it is. Who are these raiders? Why are they after the Lost Ark? Can you even raid a Lost Ark? How do you go about doing that? Are there classes you can take?
It raises a lot of questions, especially in this day and age when movie titles are as direct and to the point as possible. However, if you can get past the wonkiness, it's actually a very descriptive summation of the story. The "Lost Ark" part is fairly self-explanatory, and even in the barbaric Internet-free days of the early 1980s, you could probably piece together what it refers to with a trip to the local library.
"Raiders" quietly conveys the two-fisted action that the movie does live up to (and then some). "Raiders" is a suitably action-packed word: Someone going where he or she isn't supposed to and running a fair amount of risk in the process. Add to that the "Lost," which suggests unexplored vistas and hidden locations just waiting for some daring soul to find them. When you put them together, they lend a very strong impression of what the film is supposed to be about. Plus, it evokes the phrase "tomb raiders," which would get anyone interested.
The "Ark" part may lead to some scratched heads ("where are the animals?"), but it also acts as a little enticement: a mystery to get you into the theater. Once you're there, the film has you, of course, and a title must make a good marketing tool first and foremost. If it's enough to get us into the theaters, it can be as weird as it wants. And good marketing helps make the title look a lot shorter and less awkward. Beyond the title itself, the logo emphasizes the "Raiders" while making the other words very small. It even has that "whoosh" quality to suggest a lot of action and adventure. No wonder we all just call it Raiders. The title told us to.
You fight your way through an army of cranky Germans, risk life and limb to rescue a priceless artifact of stunning religious significance, and those clowns in the government promptly bury it in the biggest warehouse they can find. Where we come from, we call that "irony." And certainly there's a bit of a Twilight Zone-y twist to it all, as the Ark everyone went through a whole movie to find ends up just as lost as it was in the beginning.
But beyond that twist—actually because of that twist—the ending's meant to show us that real prizes don't come with price tags. Indy may have lost the Ark, but he won some seriously good karma at the same time. Marion doesn't despise him anymore. He's done right by her and closed the gaping emotional wound he left her with when she was a kid. She's feeling better about her life, and may even want him in it if he doesn't revert to his previous Jerk Boyfriend form. In the big picture of this Big Picture, that matters more than any kind of magic object, no matter how holy or revered.
Granted, Indy can't quite let go of it; "they don't know what they've got there" is his last line in the film. But we can't blame him for feeling like that after everything he went through. At the end of the day, he does head off with Marion instead of running back in and demanding the Ark's location from the nearest bureaucrat he can find.
The irony, then, is not that the Ark remains lost regardless of Indy's efforts, but that Indy lost sight of the real prize until it was almost all over. That sounds a lot wiser than just "sorry, the government screwed you," and ensures that the ironic ending nonetheless remains a pretty darn happy one.
Officially it's a PG film, but that's only because there was no PG-13 when it was released. In fact, its sequel Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom directly inspired the PG-13 rating. (There's something about yanking a man's beating heart out of his chest that sends parents into fits.) Frankly, Raiders probably merits an R. We get guys carved up by airplane propellers, guys killed by South American booby traps, guys run over by trucks, guys trapped in exploding vehicles, self-inflicted third-degree hand burns, and oh yeah: this little number.
It gets a little heinous. So we're giving it an R, no matter what those guys at the ratings board think.