Since possession of the Ark will supposedly make the Nazi army all-powerful, Jones must find the Ark first. Because it is a movie, Jones' hottie brunette former girlfriend Marion (Karen Allen), who runs a bar in remote Nepal, possesses the only ancient badge that can reveal the burial site of the Ark. Somehow, both Jones and the Nazis know this, and arrive nearly simultaneously at Marion's bar.
Jones gets the best of the Nazis in Nepal, and travels to Egypt with Marion. Marion is kidnapped by the Nazis. Jones teams up with gregarious Arab excavator Sallah (John Rhys-Davies) and they infiltrate the Nazi excavation side, disguised as Arab workers. They find the Ark's burial site, nearby, and because they are stupid enough to dig during daylight hours, are promptly discovered by the Nazis, who seize the Ark and put it on a truck to Cairo.
Because it is a movie, Jones single-handedly sabotages the Nazi effort and gains possession of the Ark. Not only that, he rescues Marion. The two are soon onboard a ship with the Ark headed to the West and captained by African pirate Katanga (George Harris).
But the Nazis get wind of this, and commandeer the ship from a U-boat. They capture Marion, again, but Jones escapes by swimming to the U-boat and hitching a ride. The Nazis now have the Ark. They take it to a German naval base on a small island. Jones attempts to seize it again but is captured.
Instead of killing him, as common sense would dictate, the Nazis merely tie him up, along with Marion. The Nazis finally open the Ark, but vengeful spirits emerge, and kill them all except for Jones and Marion, because they kept their eyes closed. Jones turns the Ark over to the U.S. military, and it's a happy ending at last.
How others will see it. Raiders of the Lost Ark was a spectacular box office hit, the biggest of the year. It was also a critical favorite, nominated for nine Oscars and winning five. But it lost in its prestigious categories, Best Picture and Best Director, though Spielberg won that coveted Oscar the following year for E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial.
Today, the film remains highly popular, though nearly as much time has passed since 1981 as had occurred between 1936, when the film was set, and 1981. The movie has a humongous 831K user votes at imdb.com, and a lofty user rating of 8.4 out of 10. It is true that older audiences like it more than do younger viewers (8.7 versus 8.3), and American viewers like it more than do foreigners (8.8 versus 8.3), but the bottom line is that most everyone likes it. Fewer than 10% of viewers bestow a grade of 6 or less.
The user reviews are steeped in praise, e.g. "how a blockbuster was meant to be", "brilliantly crafted entertainment", "my favorite movie of all time!", "one of the greatest action movies of all time," "I have seen it several hundred times."
How I felt about it. I recently reviewed The Untouchables, another big-budget period action-adventure made during the 1980s. I panned it as "comic book alternative history." The present film grades 33 points higher, and its action is possibly even more preposterous. After all, Indiana Jones escapes Nazis boarding his ship by swimming to the Nazi's U-boat, and hanging onto the periscope outside for presumably several days until the U-boat reaches land.
Not to mention the usual outrunning of bullets, poison darts, hissing snakes, shirtless pugilists, murderous spirits, and sinister Nazi henchmen. It's all in a day's work for Jones, who gets to do it all over again in multiple sequels.
There are indeed reasons why Raiders of the Lost Ark is much better than The Untouchables. For one, the story and characters are completely fictional, instead of dubious history. Also, the casting is pitch perfect. except possibly Karen Allen, who lacks the gravitas of, say, Sigourney Weaver. Harrison Ford provides just the right amount of camp, something Kevin Costner wallows in without knowing it. In The Untouchables, Sean Connery was too old for his role, and Charles Martin Smith too ridiculous as a firearm-toting badass.
The likable cast and characters helps immensely. And Spielberg keeps the story moving along swiftly, thowing in plenty of comedy. Perhaps a little too much physical comedy. Does Indiana Jones have to be hit by Marion's swiveling mirror?
Spielberg intended the film as a tribute or send-up of the 1930s serials, which hardly anyone alive has seen. The serials were cheaply produced and stocked with second-tier actors. They had formulaic plots and stereotyped characters. They were made for an audience of preteenaged boys. Episodes had cliffhangers, where the hero was cornered by the villain, and it looked like for sure he was doomed this time. At the beginning of the next episode, the hero would make an unlikely escape.
But, thankfully, Spielberg makes much better serials than the films that provided his inspiration. So, forget about Flash Gordon (1936) and watch Indiana Jones instead.