“It’s Not The Years Honey, It’s The Mileage” – A Reflection On RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK At 35

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Earlier this month, I watched director Steven Spielberg’s boy-and-his-alien opus E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial; I hadn’t seen it in years and I wanted to test out some of Spielberg’s trademark misty magic hour images on a new TV. Naturally, it looked amazing, and I was enraptured for two hours – noticing all kinds of shots and little flourishes Spielberg sprinkled throughout the film to set it miles apart from typical alien encounter fare.

Experiencing the brilliance of one of my childhood cinematic staples again got me to thinking about Spielberg’s early years, particularly the post-TV movie/Sugarland Express period, and how prolific, masterful, and game-changing he was at his craft pretty much right out of the gate. Of course, this little observation I’m about to make isn’t going to come as any big revelation to Spielberg aficionados, but even if you are well-versed in his late 70s-early 80s oeuvre, it’s still utterly astonishing to think about what the man accomplished over the course of five motion pictures.

Between 1975 and 1982, Spielberg directed Jaws, Close Encounters Of The Third Kind, 1941, Raiders Of The Lost Ark, and E.T. The Extra Terrestrial. Now that is four hugely successful, massively influential, visually stunning, critically lauded, instantly classic entries into the canon of all time great cinema. Though it is an outlier (some would even say a horrible blight on Spielberg’s record), even 1941 showcases inventive and complex set pieces. Sadly, they get lost amidst a stormy sea of wildly uneven tonality and an albatross of a screenplay. But forget 1941 – it’s but a sandy patch on a vast, fertile field. To think that a young man in his early 30s invented the modern blockbuster with one film, crafted two thematically disparate, yet equally impactful alien encounter pictures, and shot the greatest adventure film in history—nearly in uninterrupted succession—is almost unfathomable.

Raiders of the Lost Ark

Apparently, my recent obsession with the Amblin Man was born out of something in my subconscious trying to remind me of some milestone. Sure enough, days later social media alerted to me to fact that the aforementioned greatest adventure movie of all time celebrated its 35th anniversary on June 12th. So, of course, I just had to pop in Raiders on blu-ray to mark the occasion.

Now, maybe it was the infatuation with Spielberg fueling me (or the big new shiny TV), but watching Raiders Of The Lost Ark (now unfortunately re-titled Indiana Jones And The Raiders Of The Lost Ark if you’re searching for a copy) on the 35th anniversary of its release gave me a whole new appreciation for the film. This particular viewing opened my eyes to so many of the ideas, techniques, and other things—oftentimes very little things—Steven Spielberg does over the course of Indy’s travels which elevates a seemingly simple homage to cliffhanger film serials of the ’30s and ’40s to the measuring stick by which all future action-adventure movies are held up. Raiders Of The Lost Ark is, inarguably, a masterpiece.

I say this without a trace of hyperbole: it’s a few slightly sloppy matte paintings and a couple convenient plot moments away from achieving literal perfection. (In case you’re wondering, check out the compositing on the plane Indy boards to Nepal, the warehouse painting at the end, and that fun, but completely nonsensical pre-arranged hiding spot for Indy after he successfully steals the Ark back in the Nazi truck.) However, these are minor squabbles when you pit them up against the absolute clinic in efficient and enlightening visual storytelling Spielberg implements in the film, particularly in the iconic opening sequence.

Visual Storytelling

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Everyone loves the opening of Raiders Of The Lost Ark; it’s quite possibly the greatest introduction to a character and a universe ever. Indy’s quest to attain the golden fertility idol is both visually stunning and memorable thanks to sequences and traps (reportedly cooked up by George Lucas and Spielberg on Hawaiian beaches and writing rooms) such as piles of tarantulas, spiked gates, dart-blowing carved faces in the walls, and the legendary giant boulder – but it’s also astonishing in what it manages to accomplish in such a short timeframe. In a mere 13 incredibly entertaining minutes, Spielberg builds a world and masterfully conveys everything we need to know about who Indiana Jones is through camera placement, the manipulation of light, character reactions, and ever-escalating danger.

In fact, Indy himself is a big mystery for almost half of the sequence. Spielberg’s camera mostly tracks Indy’s Peruvian guides, Satipo and Barranca, keeping them in frame and monitoring their fearful facial expressions while Harrison Ford is shot in silhouette with his face obscured, or only from the waist down, as he moves with purpose and utter fearlessness. Spielberg also employs a version of this storytelling device in E.T., never revealing the face of a male adult until the third act of the film. In that movie, it’s a stylistic choice meant to shunt the focus to the child actors while exaggerating the adults’ presence as blank authority figures, but in Raiders it’s done primarily to keep the audience guessing who this badass in the leather jacket and fedora is. And because we can’t immediately see his face, everything he does is amplified – we aren’t distracted by seeing Han Solo traipse through the jungle, we’re paying attention to his body language, and learning about how he approaches situations.

Via Spielberg’s deft visual storytelling choices, we know Indiana Jones is hunting for some kind of treasure because he has a map, we know by the way he carries himself that he’s done this countless times in the past, we know from the way Satipo looks back nervously as well as the poison dart found stuck in a tree that they are being followed and/or tracked by something, we know that the guides are afraid of the totems and potential dangers lurking in the Peruvian jungles and Indy’s not spooked in the least by any spiritual mumbo-jumbo, and when he finally steps out of the shadows to reveal his rugged face, it comes after a sudden, whip-crack fast beat of action as Indy disarms a would-be betrayer with said weapon. It’s one of the best character introductions of all time because it communicates to us what Indy is all about without him uttering a word, and because Spielberg is the master at buildup and payoff, something I’ll get deeper into later.

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Unfortunately for Indiana Jones, we also know by the end of this extraordinary opening act that he has weaknesses — snakes, both of the literal and figurative type. The cunning and opportunistic French archaeologist René Belloq, played with delicious pomposity by Paul Freeman, is Indy’s metaphorical snake, always slithering in to snatch the prize away from him after he’s done all of the work — a recurring thematic element that continues to haunt Indy throughout all three acts of the movie.

But what would a reminiscence of the opening of Raiders be without a mention of the actual reptile that serves as our first tactile indicator of Indy’s Ophidiophobia? In this case, it’s Indy’s pilot buddy (and huge Yankees fan) Jock’s beloved pet python Reggie, who ends up sharing a seat bay on the two-man seaplane with our panicked hero. The revelation of Indy’s fear of snakes really helps to humanize him and infuse some humor into what had been a fairly dark and deadly film up to that point. It’s also interesting to  note that Indy’s first two encounters with Belloq “in the field” (I’m not counting the philosophical tête-à-tête they have in the hooka bar) end up with Indiana being trapped in some capacity with his scaly nemeses.

Set-Ups And Payoffs

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Raiders Of The Lost Ark is chock full of character traits and thematic elements that are set up early on in the film and pay off later in various satisfying, plot-driving ways. For starters, Indy’s reaction to the snake in Jock’s plane makes the slithery sea of asps in the Well of Souls that much more horrific, but because of his cautiousness and knowledge of how to navigate his way through ancient tombs and temples—and his penchant for narrowly wriggling out of death’s grasp— we know there’s hope he can get out there once Belloq seals him up inside.

Speaking of that French nuisance, we quickly learn Belloq’s weaselly credo, “Again we see there is nothing you can possess which I cannot take away” is something to be taken quite seriously. After robbing the fertility idol from him in the opening sequence, Belloq, to the audience (and Indy’s) increasing frustration and annoyance, turns up in the second act to snatch the Ark away twice. It’s such an effective recurring device because it builds the audience’s hatred in Belloq, and makes us even more sympathetic towards Indy due to the hells he endures in his attempts to keep the Ark out of Nazi hands.

One of the most amusing set-ups in Raiders is our introduction to Marion in her seedy Nepali tavern, where she engages a massive, curly-haired oaf of a man in shot-for-shot whiskey drinking game. We see from the dozens of empty shot glasses on each side of the table that the match is nearing its end, and as Marion struggles to down her shot, it appears inevitable that she’ll black out, but she recovers and waves off the betting onlookers with a sly smirk. Improbably, the huge oaf crashes to the floor after downing his final shot, and Marion triumphantly collects her winnings.

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This moment, coupled with her badassery during the ensuing fights with Toht’s goons establishes Marion as a beautiful, but feisty and resourceful young woman who is more than capable of handling herself, which pays off beautifully later in one of the best scenes in the film. After being captured by the Nazis in the Cairo marketplace, Marion finds herself Belloq’s “guest” in his tent on the Tanis dig site. Belloq has no prior knowledge of what Marion’s all about, so he believes she’s a meek damsel in distress who can be easily plied by food, a beautiful dress, and his sleazy French charisma.

Of course, Marion being who she is, knows if Belloq can’t get what he wants out of her, the Nazis will eventually get around to torturing her to retrieve the headpiece, so when she’s brought a plate of food and given a slinky white dress to put on, she seizes the opportunity to slip a knife away. Then when a bottle of booze is introduced into the equation, Marion gets a gleam in her eye, and because the drinking contest earlier in the film was so memorable, we know she can easily drink this unsuspecting jerk under the table and escape.

However, things don’t go quite as planned to hilarious, entertaining results, and watching Paul Freeman and Karen Allen break down into drunken laughing fits is one of Raiders Of The Lost Ark‘s true joys. At a Q&A session sometime after the release of Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull, Karen Allen revealed that she and Freeman begged Spielberg to let them rework the entire scene, because as it was written, Marion simply tries to seduce Belloq rather than use her cunning or any of the pre-established character traits that endeared her to the audience. Both Allen and Freeman agreed that was not only a betrayal of Marion’s character, but also a rather uninteresting, trite device. Thankfully, Spielberg loved their re-worked, highly improvised drunken cat-and-mouse game, so he put it in the movie.

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One of the coolest things Spielberg does as a director is to take what appear to be simple, throwaway events or gags, and reveal their larger impact on the plot down the line. In the midst of the Nepali bar melee, Toht absent-mindedly grabs the headpiece of the staff of Ra which has been sitting in flames for several minutes, and proceeds to scream in agony as the heated metal burns the palm of his hand. After seeing the Nazi worm comically rush out of the bar to plunge his hand in the snow, the incident is quickly forgotten as the film’s unrelenting pace moves on.

Once the narrative shifts to the Tanis dig site, Indy learns from Sallah that the Nazis have pieced together enough information to start digging for the Well Of Souls, something that should have been impossible without the headpiece. In one of Raiders‘ most memorable images, we see that Toht has the impression of the headpiece seared into his palm when he Sieg Heils. This leads to the Nazis digging in the wrong place (because they can’t read the hieroglyphs on the back of the headpiece), allowing Sallah and Indy to nearly slip into the real Well Of Souls location to pilfer the Ark right under Belloq’s nose.This is a perfect encapsulation of Raiders‘ tightly-woven genius; most films would treat Toht’s burn as a simple sight gag and forget about it, but screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan and Spielberg made sure to infuse Radiers’ storyline with an unprecedented level of texture and cleverness.

Humor

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Steven Spielberg is actually an underrated comedy director; he has a solid grasp on the rhythms of humor and knows how to place it in his films for maximum impact. The great thing about the levity he inserts in Raiders, is that it never descends into outlandishness or camp; it never feels out of place or detracts from the life or death stakes unfolding in front of us. In fact, it has quite the opposite effect – the catharsis gained from laughter functions as an absolutely necessary respite from the exhaustive action scenes, creepy crawlers, and certain doom that assaults the senses.

Our first inclination that “hey, this movie’s going to be FUN, too” occurs about three-quarters of the way into the opening sequence as Indy is clinging onto a vine growing out of the Peruvian temple floor after making a desperate jump across a death pit. Harrison Ford lets out one of his trademark joyful, relieved grins, but it instantly evaporates as the vine begins to pull out of the dirt, almost sending Indy plummeting into the abyss. It’s a nice bit of physical comedy and offers just a glimmer of the laughs to follow.

Once the film switches to Nepal, there’s some great slapstick stuff in the bar fight like Indy grunting to Marion for “whiskey” as he’s being choked out on the bar-top, Toht’s exaggerated squeals as he’s extinguishing his burning palm in the snow. Later on in Cairo, the fun ramps up in the marketplace chase as Indy and Marion run through the streets, knocking over fruit stands, hiding in barrels, and even conking out a turbaned thug with a cast iron skillet. It’s an absolute blast of a sequence that invokes traces of the Keystone Cops, all set to Williams jaunty, whimsical, silent movie-esque score. It also features the instantly iconic huge Cairo swordsman gag – a scene trimmed down from a lengthy, choreographed fight to an abrupt and uproarious shooting thanks to dysentery ripping through Harrison Ford’s innards. The exasperated, “you’ve got to be kidding me” look on Harrison Ford’s face as he blows the swordsman away is one of the all-time great facial expressions in movie history.

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Also eliciting chuckles in the Cairo scenes is Marion’s monkey, who turns out to be a little snitch for the Nazis! The Nazi monkey is a stellar example of how Spielberg can escalate humor just as effectively as action, as evidenced by the beat where the Nazi Monkey’s eyepatch-wearing owner gives a hearty “Heil Hitler” to two Nazi officers hot on the trail of Indy, followed quickly by the monkey himself giving the Nazi salute! It’s a hilarious moment, but the scene gets twice as funny and is brought to an entirely new level by the simple act of the Nazis sheepishly acknowledging the monkey’s tiny Sieg Heil and returning the favor. Again, those little flourishes go such a long way.

Sallah, played wonderfully by the venerable John Rhys-Davies, is a consistent source of laughs through the second act of the film, delivering classic deadpan lines like, “Asps, very dangerous…you go first,” and “bad dates,” as well as singing and planting kisses on large, surly smugglers after getting a kiss from Marion before she boards the pirate ship. Once inside said steamer, there’s more comedy beats to be found, like Marion smacking Indy’s jaw with a full-length spinning mirror, and Indy falling asleep on Marion just when things are getting romantic in Captain Katanga’s cabin.

Visual humor is peppered throughout Raiders, such as the “I Love You” painted on one of Indy’s female student’s eyelids, the varied comical reactions Ford has to being punched or nearly killed, the rope made of Swastika flags Sallah plops down onto Indy’s face in the map room, and Toht’s coat hanger that Spielberg and actor Ronald Lacey brilliantly sell as some hideous torture device before completely subverting our expectations with a snap of the wrist.

Light

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Spielberg, along with his trusted cinematographer Douglas Slocombe, utilizes fire, the sun, shadows, lens flares, and especially the Ark’s soul-searing laser rays of God to great effect in Raiders, to the point where light and darkness become important emotional components of the scenes, and even characters in some ways. If there’s a filmmaker who uses light to greater effect than Steven Spielberg, I certainly can’t imagine who it could be. I mean, just look at how scary and disgustingly slimy Nazi toadie Arnold Toht appears as he holds that red-hot poker up to Marion’s terrified face.

Indy’s two big reveals, first to the audience in the opening fertility idol sequence and the other to Marion in her bar in Nepal, are unforgettable and are enhanced tremendously by the usage of shadow. When Indy first appears to the audience, he emerges from darkness until his identity is literally brought to light. However, when he reveals himself to Marion it’s via this iconic giant silhouette, which perhaps symbolizes the dark specter of his abandonment of Marion; a looming, larger-than-life presence that has affected her life for a decade. We also get an eerie shadow of Sallah, Indy, and the Ark projected by torchlight in the Well Of Souls.

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Light often signifies death in the film, as exemplified by the well-timed lightning strike illuminating the snarling face of one of the statues of Anubis (fittingly, the God of the Afterlife) in the Well Of Souls, which sends Sallah staggering back with a comical gasp, as well as the streaming sunlight pouring in through the Peruvian temple that triggers the spiked gate trap. The sun is also a way for Spielberg to reveal characters and plot points to the audience, like the laser beam it creates through the headpiece of the staff of Ra, pointing to the actual location of the Well Of Souls. There’s also plenty of Spielberg’s trademark “magic hour” photography in the Cairo portion of the film, the highlight being the darkened forms of Indy and his digging team atop the Well Of Souls framed against a scorching orange sky with an enormous setting sun.

The best light show in Raiders Of The Lost Ark though, is quite obviously the horrifying one-two punch of the ghostly, holy luminescence beaming out of the Ark and bathing the crazed, enraptured face of Belloq moments before it unleashes its terrifying angels of death and cleansing fire upon the Nazis.The sequence is a masterful, terrifying manipulation of light effects taken to the next level with the accompaniment of John Williams’ impossibly intense, spine-tingling score. Nazi bodies convulse as their very souls are scorched by the the Lord’s lightning; their eyes, mouths, and bellies aglow in a purifying white fire. George Lucas’ effects team at Industrial Light & Magic really outdid themselves on this gag, melting faces and exploding molds of the Nazi actors’ heads in a hellish haze of flame and creepy supernatural mist.

Ever-Escalating Thrills

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It’s well-documented that the legendarily relentless action sequences in Raiders Of The Lost Ark are built upon the inspiration of the multi-chapter adventure movie serials of the ’30s and ’40s, which would always end with the heroes facing certain death via an inescapable trap or some other calamity from which there was no coming out alive. Of course, next week the heroes would miraculously save the day or find some way out of the quicksand or burning building or crumbling temple. What Spielberg did so brilliantly in Raiders was to marry the concept of these crazy cliffhangers and mounting dangers that he and George Lucas watched in wide-eyed wonder on TV in the 1950s with modern stunt work and special effects, and shoot them all in convincing, real-world locations. Each action set piece is bigger than the last, and things go from bad to worse for Indy within each sequence – the stakes get higher and higher until ultimately Indy has to withstand the literal wrath of god in order to make it home.

I’ve already mentioned the tarantulas, spiked gates, and poison darts that Indy and Satipo have to deal with in the opening sequence, but it’s what happens after those traps are narrowly avoided where things truly get interesting, and the implementation of Spielberg’s escalation techniques begin to inform the audience about what type of breakneck ride the film is going to be. Indy misjudges the fertility idol’s weight, triggering the temple’s “lockdown mode” and full allotment of traps, has to rush past the dart-blowing wall carvings, and deal with his second betrayal of the film as Satipio leaves him stranded across a chasm in the floor without his trusty whip to swing him across.

Indy barely makes the jump across the chasm and slides under a massive stone door in the nick of time (the first instance of the grabbing the fedora before the door slams shut trope). There he finds poor Satipo impaled on another gate trap, and just when it seems he’s in the clear, idol in hand, the movie refuses to let up, unleashing the famous rolling boulder, which deposits Indy straight into the hands of Belloq and his bow-wielding, dart-blowing Hovitos.

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That ever-rising tension and blood-pumping pace continues on throughout the movie, transforming already impressive action scenes into next-level thrill rides. For instance, Spielberg elevates a simple scene of Nazi enforcer Toht and some goons attempting to torture the location of the headpiece of the staff of Ra out of Marion into a literal blaze of violence and excitement. The mere proposition of Indy fending off Marion’s would-be attackers with his gun and hist fists is action-packed enough, but the danger is compounded by the close quarters of Marion’s Nepali tavern, whizzing bullets creating a cacophony of shattering wood and glass, and brutes appearing out of nowhere.

There’s also the life-and-death stakes introduced via the raging inferno that threatens to burn the bar down onto all of them, creatively set off by the hot poker Indy whips out of Toht’s hands, as well as logs in the fireplace spilling out onto the floor igniting the wooden tables. I imagine a significant portion of Raiders’ budget went to flame-retardant jelly, because just about everyone in this scene gets lit on fire at some point. In one of the film’s funniest and most inventive gags, Marion pauses to swig some booze streaming out of a barrel pierced by a stray bullet before smashing a thug unconscious with a flaming log.

The whole bar fight is loaded with ingenious little gags like that, including a great moment where Toht orders his man to shoot both Indy and the guard he’s wrestling with, but is foiled when Indy turns the gun in his enemy’s outstretched arm back onto them. Oh, and by the way, in case all of that wasn’t intense enough, Spielberg also makes sure to put the headpiece itself in play (right in the fire, of course) in the room while all of this madness unfurls.

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And on and on it goes throughout the film’s Cairo set pieces, like the attempted kidnapping of Marion in the marketplace. It starts out with just a few thugs in turbans chasing our heroes through doorways and alleys , but by the end, Indy is facing down a guy with a sword as big as he is, Nazis with machineguns, and a truck loaded with explosives. But, that’s just one huge drop in a rollercoaster full of spine-tingling climbs and plummets, the next one being the battle on the airstrip following Indy and Marion’s escape from the Well of Souls.

It’s likely the simple sight of the massive German flying wing and Indy somehow blowing it up or stealing it would have sufficed for most filmmakers, but naturally Spielberg cranks the dial to eleven, continually piling on more adversaries for Indy to battle, and more escalating catastrophes to deal with. As soon as Indy knocks out one German mechanic, a gargantuan bald brawler appears and Indy has to deal with him while avoiding gunfire from the pilot on top of the plane.

Marion helps Indy by taking out the pilot with the wheel chocks, but in doing so, makes the situation exponentially worse because removing them sends the plane into a slow 360-degree turn when the unconscious pilot slumps over on the controls. Marion is then accidentally locked in the cockpit, and quickly slides into the gunner’s turret to blow away Nazi troop transports arriving to menace Indy. Meanwhile, the wing ruptures a fuel truck as it slowly rotates, spilling gallons upon gallons of flammable liquid underneath the fuselage, but right before the airstrip erupts into an enormous fireball, Indy manages to get the bruising German chopped to smithereens in the plane’s propellers, and frees Marion from the cockpit.

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The culmination of this rollercoaster ride, the biggest drop into a corkscrew and a loop, if you will, is of course the completely bonkers truck chase. It’s remarkable that, 35 years later, there is still no sequence of vehicular mayhem that can rival this stunning cinematic achievement, and that includes cars crashing through skyscrapers or falling off cliffs in the Fast & The Furious series. And if you haven’t seen it in a while, you owe it to yourself to revisit it, because it’s still jaw-dropping today as the day it was shot.

It’s absolutely astonishing that all of it was accomplished with actual humans (stunt-master Vic Armstrong and Terry Leonard, especially) with zero CGI or green screen trickery. Again,Indy racing to the truck on horseback, leaping onto it, and stealing it away from the Nazis would have been more than enough to illicit adrenaline-fueled fist pumps from the audience, but for Spielberg that’s just a foundation to build upon. He tosses in Nazi jeeps with heavy machineguns blasting away at the truck, Nazi soldiers crawling out of the back to swarm Indy in the cab, Nazi motorcycles crashing, jeeps falling off of cliffs, and the coup de grace, Armstrong’s beyond ludicrous shimmying under the truck gag.

Inaction Heroes

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One of the few critiques levelled at Raiders is that, despite the audience going on this long journey with Indy, he is merely an observer in the film’s Ark-opening climax, having zero effect on how the bad guys are vanquished or how the narrative wraps up. But I feel leaving your heroes helplessly tied up after all of the traveling to exotic locales, narrow escapes, and brutal fights is a brave choice by Spielberg, and the choice Indy makes as a character is even more powerful than any punch he throws in the movie.

All throughout Raiders, Indy is a skeptic—an “acquirer of rare antiquities”—whose only concern is to capture the prize and attain fortune and glory; he’s not a very emotional or sentimental figure, and he certainly doesn’t believe in any higher, supernatural power. All of that changes when Marion comes back into his life and he sees what men are willing to do just for the mere possibility of what the Ark’s power can achieve.

In the third act of the film, Indy becomes a believer; he has faith. Faith in both his love for Marion and in what the Ark represents, so much so that when he has a chance to destroy the Ark, he can’t bring himself to do it, because he has come to realize its significance. The final act in Indy’s transformative arc happens when the Ark is opened and he understand what is about to happen. By shutting his eyes, he is performing an act of faith; he’s choosing to believe that the spiritual world exists. Though his eyes are literally closed, they are metaphorically opened to something entirely new.

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About Author

Jeff Carter

Jeff is the defining voice of his generation. Sadly, that generation exists only in an alternate dimension where George Lucas became supreme overlord of the Earth in 1979 and replaced every television broadcast and theatrical film on the planet with Star Wars and Godzilla movies. In this dimension, he’s just a guy from New England who likes writing snarky things about superheroes, monsters, and robots.