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.
Call to Adventure
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.
Refusal of the Call
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.
Meeting the Mentor
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.
Crossing the Threshold
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.
Tests, Allies, Enemies
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.
Approach to the Inmost Cave
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.
Reward (Seizing the Sword)
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
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.
Return With the Elixir
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?