There’s an episode of The Big Bang Theory where Sheldon introduces Amy to Raiders of the Lost Ark (the first Indiana Jones movie) and, having expected her to be awash in amazement, is disconcerted when she asserts that it has a glaring story problem: “Indiana Jones plays no role in the outcome of the story.” The tenet here is that the Nazis would have found the Ark of the Covenant, gone to the island, opened it, and would have died as they did, regardless of Indiana’s involvement.
I don’t think this is true, and after countless minutes searching (yeah, I Duck’d it for a few minutes and found only a couple of articles including a discourse on movies.stackexchange– read, I invested no real time because I kept getting cookie notifications) I figured it’s time to document that here. I *hope* this is a cookie free experience but who knows what wordpress does.
Let’s start with the near-beginning of the movie, when Indy is introduced to the idea that the Ark is real and the Nazis are after it. The US Government has intercepted a cable sent by the Nazis saying they have “discovered Tanis” and need the “headpiece to the staff of Ra” and that they need to find “Abner Ravenwood, US”. The Government doesn’t understand what any of this means and Indy explains: Tanis is the resting place of the lost Ark of the Covenant (stone tablets of Thou Shouldn’t Really Do Anything to Piss A God Off), the headpiece is a shiny medallion like thingy that sits on top of the stick, no one really knows how tall the stick is, you use the piece on the stick in a map room to find the treasure, and he hasn’t seen or heard from Abner Ravenwood in ages because they had a “bit of a falling out I’m afraid”. (We discover later it’s probably because Indy was schtupping his daughter.) Indy says that he thinks Abner may be “someplace in Nepal”.
After some discourse with Marcus Brody (Indy’s boss? Chancellor of the University? Head of Archaeology? Curator at the Museum? I don’t think we really ever get to know his title) Indy books a trip (that we get to watch on an interactive map graphic) to Mongolia. We see as he boards the plan a nefarious character in all black (I prefer all black too but I’m not so nefarious — we know this guy is because the music changes) who eyeballs him and puts his paper up to shield his face.
Here is my first counterpoint to the argument: I don’t think the Nazis knew where to look for Ravenwood. The cable said, “Abner Ravenwood, US”. Indy asserted to the US Government folks (who said they couldn’t find any trace of Ravenwood” that no one really knew for sure and he thought Ravenwood was “somewhere in Nepal, I think”. Without the tail on Indy, they wouldn’t have known to go to Nepal, or at least in that general direction. I personally think the cable was leaked on purpose (though that is never stated in the movie).
After the map gets to Nepal, instead of seeing Indy’s arrival we see a drinking scene, and Marian Ravenwood closing her bar after winning it. Indy comes in, they fight with some exposition, he asks her for the medallion and she says she doesn’t know where it is, he offers her cash, he leaves. The Bad Guys come in after, having followed Indy (I think this further supports my point above, if the Nazis knew where Marion was before Indy went to her, they would have gone there first), and attempt to get the medallion. For various reasons they don’t get it but they get a print of one half of it. Indy and Marion escape with the real deal. And now we’re off to Cairo!
The Nazis are digging in the wrong place, which we know because they only have one half of the medallion. While we can say that’s because of Indy, we can also assume if they had both halves they’d be digging in the *right* place. Indy gets his digging team in the right place, he and Sallah bring up the Ark, the Nazis catch them, and now the Nazis have the Ark that they are going to attempt to fly out. Indy escapes with Marion and as part of that escape blows up the little airport (and at least one plane), and his rival French archaeologist (Belloq) and the German in charge of things (Dietrich) say they’re going to put it on a truck and get it out of Cairo that way.
Then of course Indy hijacks the truck, gets to a ship and Marion with Sallah’s help, and they’re now on a boat! Which of course gets waylaid by the Nazis and the two of them (and the Ark) taken *again*.
I’ve glossed over a lot that happened here and we’ll get into a more nuanced argument in a second, but let’s pause: let’s give the Nazis credit for craftiness and assume that they would’ve, *eventually*, figured out where Abner (or Marion) Ravenwood were, and would’ve eventually got the medallion, so they would be digging in the right place.
I don’t think they were originally going to take the Ark to the Island. The original plan was to fly the Ark out, but Indy blew up at least one plane and a bunch of fuel at the airport– and the German in charge’s next plan was to *truck* it out of Cairo. Without Indy blowing things up, the Ark would have been on a plane back to Berlin.
Here’s where the more nuanced part of this comes in: Belloq and Indy are old adversaries, and Belloq (it’s pretty clear from some of the dialogue) winces at his mercenary status. (He’s not giving it up though, because it gives him access to things he thinks are valuable, like the Ark). It’s clear that Dietrich doesn’t approve of him and that approval decreases over time with Belloq’s fancy with Marion, with Belloq’s apparent soft side, etc. But Dietrich allows for it because he knows he cannot get the Ark without Belloq, and as Belloq uses patience over time to get to the Ark this strengthens his position with Dietrich — meaning Dietrich has to give Belloq what he wants (Marion, specifically not torturing Marion, and then letting Belloq be the one to open the Ark) because Dietrich knows he can’t get what the Fuhrer wants without him. My point (and I know I’m laboring to get here) is that if the Nazis had got the medallion first thing, got to the map room straight away, dug up the Ark without Indy, and had their plane not blown up, that plane would’ve gone straight to Berlin — with Dietrich in tow, certainly, but none of the confrontation we see between Belloq-Indy would have fueled pursuant Belloq-Dietrich confrontation — I don’t think Belloq could’ve made the successful argument that they needed to divert an entire army to a small island to open a box. The blown up plane, the hijacked truck, the ship’s capture — all of that needled the situation to allow for it.
At this point we’re on the island, Indy bluffs with a grenade launcher and loses, and now Indy and Marion are tied to a pole. Queue opening the ark, ghosts come out, face melty things happen, and Indy and Marion survive because they close their eyes. If Indy had not been there, and if we say my second point is moot (we ignore “would they have gone to the island or Berlin directly”), YES, the Nazis would have opened it and all died anyway. Sure. But what would have happened is now you have a closed Ark on an altar in the middle of a presumably deserted island with some Nazi artifacts around it (remember, it consumed the bodies but left the camera – although it did fry the camera, so no video evidence). Without Indy, the Ark stays there. With Indy, the Ark goes to a warehouse in US Government custody. There is truth in the assertion that Indy’s original charter was to make sure the museum got the Ark, and that did not happen because US Government. But the Ark exists in the movie in that undefined warehouse because of Indy; otherwise it’d be either have discovered in Berlin (assuming no one opened it and it just sat in a Nazi-analog warehouse) or opened and left on a remote island, somewhere undisclosed. In the Big Bang Theory, towards the end, the boys (Sheldon and his friends) do acknowledge this, but then burn on Indy as he “couldn’t get it back to the museum”. Sure — that was his charter and he was unable to fulfill it (Thanks, Uncle Sam) — but it is not an argument on his not having a role in the outcome of the story.