Study Guide

Raiders of the Lost Ark Themes

  • Religion

    There's religion… and then there's RELIGION. Raiders tends to use all-caps when referring to its theology, seeing as how it ends with an actual deity doing actual smiting of people who richly deserve it. The undeniable nature of that, the fact that you can't explain it away as Aurora Borealis or something, comes smack dab against the hard science of Indy's background. Here's a guy who wants to understand the mystery: to find out where these things are and show them to the whole world. You can't do that with the Ark because its power defies understanding. Indy survives only because he comes to realize it. And good thing too, because how cranky would the audience be if his face melted off at the end?

    Questions About Religion

    1. At what point does Indy start to believe in the power of the Ark? Why that point specifically?
    2. In what ways does the Ark signify its power? What purpose do those manifestations serve in the story?
    3. Could a human being ever harness the power of the Ark? What would that require?
    4. Why does the U.S. government hide the Ark away? What do they gain from such an action? What do they lose?

    Chew on This

    Indy's protected from the Ark because he believes in its power and respects it.

    Indy doesn't respect it much. Only keeping his eyes closed prevents Indy from being burned up with the Nazis.

  • Exploration

    Hey, it wouldn't be a discussion of Indiana Jones without a little exploration, would it? It's kind of his thing: finding a place that no one has touched for thousands of years and taking the stuff there to show everyone in the world. The 1930s were the last time we had unexplored regions of the Earth, when jungles and deserts still seemed mysterious and no one quite knew what was waiting in those last hidden corners of the planet. After that, unless you counted outer space or deep sea, it was pretty much a question of where to set up the shopping mall. Raiders reminds us what the world was like with a little more mystery to it, and what happened when those mysteries were opened up to the light.

    Questions About Exploration

    1. How do the maps with the moving red line convey a feeling of exploration?What kind of visual cues does the film use to show us that a given place has been left unexplored?
    2. What are the consequences of exploration? What happens when Indy finds all of these places?
    3. Do the bad guys do any exploring? Why or why not? How do their methods differ from Indy's in this regard?

    Chew on This

    Exploration is more important to Indy's mission than the prizes he brings back. It's the journey not the destination, and all that.

    Exploration is incidental to Indy's mission. The goodies are all that matter. He just has to go through all this exploration to get them.

  • Transformation

    We use transformation as a catchall for one of the movie's most important themes: healing. Indy has to change on his adventure; specifically, he needs to recognize his misdeeds in the past (jerky boyfriend), make amends to the people he hurt (his formerly underaged girlfriend), and demonstrate that he's changed.

    This is echoed by the Ark itself, which demonstrates a different sort of transformation. It can alter the environment around it, melt faces off of bad guys, and even sear the Nazi logo off of the box holding it. Those overt transformations signal a more subtle emotional transformation in Indy as he goes about keeping the Ark safe from the forces of evil. Could the Ark be causing that change as well? Maybe not the Ark itself, perhaps, but we're guessing the deity behind it has some say in the matter.

    Questions About Transformation

    1. What kind of physical transformations does the Ark elicit in the world around it?
    2. Are there specific events or changes in the environment that can be attributed to the Ark, even though it isn't present at the time? What is it about these events that suggest the Ark's involvement?
    3. How does Indy indicate that his feelings have changed for the better?
    4. What are the roots of Marion's transformation, and how do we see it in the film?

    Chew on This

    The external changes wrought by the Ark are mirrored by the internal changes in the characters.

    The Ark's external changes are not related to the characters' growth, which comes about solely through their own experiences rather than divine intervention.

  • Wisdom and Knowledge

    One of the reasons we loves us some Indiana Jones here at Shmoop is because he's a smart guy. More importantly, he values learning and wisdom as essential survival tools out there with the snakes and scorpions and poisoned-tipped blowguns aimed right at your head. It's a real one-two punch: He becomes a professor of archaeology for the formal book learning and a mercenary tomb raider for what we like to call "life experience." Either way, we're looking at a hero who thinks his way out of trouble as often as he shoots or punches his way out.

    For a noisy action movie, Raiders of the Lost Ark sure likes telling us that learning is cool.

    Questions About Wisdom and Knowledge

    1. How many times is Indy saved by specifics things he knows? Conversely, how many times does he get hammered by the fact that he doesn't hold the particular bit of knowledge he needs?
    2. At what points does academic knowledge trump simple street-smarts, and at what points does life experience prove to be better than book-learning?
    3. Wisdom isn't always the same as knowledge. What things does Indy learn about himself and life in general that can't be quantified by books?
    4. How is Belloq's knowledge and wisdom different from Indy's? How is it the same?

    Chew on This

    Knowledge is shown as an absolute good in Raiders of the Lost Ark.

    Knowledge is both good and evil, depending on who uses it.

  • Politics

    It's awfully hard not to look at the characters in this film as the embodiment of their respective governments during this period. Indy's an American, but he's acting out of mercenary motivations rather than patriotic ones (he gots to get paid). The Germans are, um, well, they're Nazis: treating other people like garbage and pulling a lot of "master race" nonsense to cover for it. Belloq acts like nothing so much as Vichy France: feigning neutrality while happily doing the Nazis' will. Through them, we see the goals of their respective governments and the means by which they go about accomplishing them.

    Questions About Politics

    1. How do Belloq and Dietrich engage in political jockeying? Who has the most power between the two of them? How and when does that power dynamic shift?
    2. How does Indy represent American ideals and American principles? How do the Nazi characters embody the ideals of Fascist Germany?
    3. How do we see the dynamics between First World and Third World countries unfold in the film? Does the film have anything to say about those differences?

    Chew on This

    The characters can be seen as a microcosm of the battling political powers during World War II.

    The characters don't reflect geopolitical politics, but rather affect more general politics related to class and gender.

  • Good vs. Evil

    This isn't a subtle movie and it demands an equally unsubtle theme. The good guys and bad guys may have their little quirks that make them similar, but at the end of the day, we know who's batting for each side. Even more than that, there are no neutral parties here. Everyone who seems to be keeping out of the fight turns out to be either thoroughly corrupt (Satipo) or true-blue loyal (Katanga). That makes it remarkably easy to keep score, but unlike a lot of films, the villains end up making it a whole lot closer than we're accustomed to. Seriously, how often does God have to step in on behalf of Team Good Guys?

    Questions About Good vs. Evil

    1. Which characters in the movie are presented as ostensibly neutral? In what ways do they reveal their true intentions?
    2. How do Indy's methods for finding the Ark differ from his rivals? What does this say about the nature of good and evil?
    3. Why is the punishment of Belloq and the Nazis at the end presented in such frightening terms? Can "good" also be "scary"? How does the movie maintain that balance in the end?
    4. Is the U.S. government's decision to hide the Ark a moral or an immoral one? Why or why not?

    Chew on This

    The forces of good could have prevailed at the end without the screenwriters bringing God into it. It's Indiana Jones, after all.

    Only the intervention of the Almighty could have prevented the Ark from falling into the ultimate wrong hands, because the movie wants us to recognize that there are some mysterious and unexplained things in life.