In “Raiders of the Lost Ark”, the Ark of the Covenant is the Antagonist

No really, think about it! In Raiders of the Lost Ark, the Ark is on a seek and destroy mission.

The Nazis are too incompetent to find it, so the Ark drafts in Indy to locate it then hand off to them.  Indy gets… clingy and gets in the way – what? – twice. At last, the Ark has the Nazis where it wants them and pulls a St Valentine’s Day Massacre, before finally slipping away into hiding in a warehouse.

Otherwise the climax in which Indy’s role is basically “Don’t look or we’ll lose all our Sanity Points” makes no structural sense whatsoever.



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11 comments on “In “Raiders of the Lost Ark”, the Ark of the Covenant is the Antagonist
  1. Yep. However, this is kind of consistant with the OT stories of the Ark- touch the Ark, and you die. Put it in front of Dagon, and the idol falls over multiple times until its head and wrists break off and the people are stricken with hemrrhoids. Offer the wrong incense, you die. Go into the holy of holies in the wrong spirit, unclean, you die and have to be dragged out by the rope tied around you.
    However, once God left the Mercy Seat and was no longer with Israel (Ichabod- the Glory has departed) that stuff was no longer an issue (and the Ark disappears from the records- who knows what happened to it- possibly got broken up and distributed as spoils of war during some of the exiles of the Jews). So it was resurrected by Hollywood to make a movie that made… absolutely no sense whatsoever… but was exciting and had maps with dots showing the journeys of Indy traversing the globe. I always cover my eyes when the Nazi’s die. Their faces melting makes me throw up, and the spirits changing from beautiful to corpses freaks me out big time.

  2. James says:

    A Twitter pal notes: “wouldn’t that actually make God the Antagonist then? And make the Nazis the protagonists?”

  3. Very much in keeping with the Lovecraftian subtext in the Trilogy. A nicely spooky way to drive a plot is to use an inanimate object as an antagonist with it’s own agenda (Another example would be the One Ring).

  4. houseboatonstyx says:

    Otherwise the climax in which Indy’s role is basically “Don’t look or we’ll lose all our Sanity Points” makes no structural sense

    I’ve seen Raiders criticized for that — and Crystal Skull is pretty much the same. Some powerful objects/beings release their own power, and the best Indy and others can do is escape. Wasn’t the ending of the Holy Grail similar?
    Charles Williams’s “spiritual thrillers” were often like that (Many Dimensions iirc). And GOOD OMENS, which imo was a takeoff on Williams. And Lewis’s THAT HIDEOUS STRENGTH.
    And didn’t adventure stories of the Rider Haggard era often end with earthquakes and such when the jewel is removed from the idol, so that heroes and villains both scatter, llucky to get out with a pocketful of treasure?

    Imo the modern standard by which this is a flaw is too narrow. If really big powers woke up, the best any of us could do is scatter before we get accidentally stepped on. So the ‘helplessness’ of the hero at the climax, is the measure of the greatness of the power.

    Same thing in Narnia, though treated differently in LION.

    • mharoldpage says:

      Yes. It fits both the genre and – call it – RPG logic; Indy did what my characters did in more than one Call of Cthulhu game. Even so, it should have been vaguely unsatisfying and instead it was utterly right.

      I think it’s quite common for stories to have a force – usually thematic – acting like a player. So, Old Man and the Sea isn’t man vs fish, it’s man vs sea. Conan: Tower of the Elephant isn’t Conan vs a series of random antagonists, it’s Conan vs Civilization. Hangover I was Friends vs Vegas, Hangover II was Friends vs Bangkok.

      To me, it’s not clear whether the Ark has a mind of its own (or is god’s Sock Puppet), or exerts a virtual force “the lure of the Ark”, or acts as a force at the story level. I suspect a mix of the three.

  5. Tim says:

    In a way it’s a throwback to an older style of storytelling, isn’t it? Which I think is the point houseboatonstyx is making. A lot of the alien invasion SF films (like ‘This Island Earth’) are stuctured around humans being observers as they stagger from one disaster to the next, everything completely out of their control. I think (though I’m not in any way an expert) that a lot of Classical literature is structured in the same way, with an impasse reached in the final act that can only be fixed by the appearance of a deus ex machina.

    • houseboatonstyx says:

      Offhand, I’d say the works you describe are as far from Raiders etc in one direction, as the modern standard is far in the other direction. It’s only at the very last that what appeared to be a passive McGuffin (the Ark, the skull) releases power that breaks up the Indy vs villains pattern that has been trading punches till then. And note that these are GOOD powers; Indy is on their side. The Ark holds a Deus Ex if you like, but that would be the opposite of your This Island alien invaders. And even the trope earthquake that in Haggard era stories buried the evil idol forever was at worst neutral (counting your invaders as evil).

      Imo it makes a difference when the Machina is the McGuffin that everyone has been carrying around all through the story.

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  1. […] I don’t think this is accidental. Spielberg did something similar with Raiders of the Lost Ark in which the Ark itself is almost certainly the antagonist. […]

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