GITS Script Reading & Analysis: “Raiders of the Lost Ark” — Character

September 26th, 2012 by

This week we are analyzing the screenplay for Raiders of the Lost Ark, the beloved 1981 action-adventure movie [screenplay by Lawrence Kasdan, story by George Lucas & Philip Kaufman].

You may download a copy of the script [August 1979] here.

Today we discuss the script’s characters. Here is a list of the primary ones:

Indiana Jones

Marion Ravenwood

Dr. René Belloq


Dr. Marcus Brody

Major Arnold Toht

Colonel Dietrich

How would assess each of these characters and their respective narrative functions?

Today we are fortunate to have Part 1 of a two-part analysis of Raiders by screenwriter John Gary:

A few years ago, I was at lunch with a friend and we were talking about character and theme and he said something and then I dropped my fork.

“You know how Ferris Bueller doesn’t have any character arc, it’s the Arc of Awesome, like RAIDERS, where he changes the world around him but he doesn’t change at all –“

And I dropped my fork because it was slippery from the salad dressing but also I couldn’t help but think that that just wasn’t true. Of course Indiana Jones changes in RAIDERS. Of course he has a character arc, and it’s a full one, a complete one.

I have many favorite movies, but RAIDERS is probably the one I’m closest to, owing to it being the one and only VHS tape my family owned for a good four years, from the first day we bought a VCR in 1983 until my dad brought home TOP GUN in 1987. My sister and I watched the movie on an infinite loop for days on end, the soundtrack bleeding into my ears while taking a history test, the design of the cobra’s hood embroidered on the inside of my eyelids when I shut them tight at night.

And then there was Mystery Man on Film – it’s a long-ago shuttered blog written by a guy who had some interesting thoughts on movies, and he also used to write for Script magazine. He posted a scan of the RAIDERS story conference transcripts. At 126 pages, it is a long read, but worth digging into if for no other reason than the realization that yes, George Lucas really does have that many amazing ideas and no, Steven Spielberg is not infallible, serving up some real stinkers. So after Mystery Man posted the transcript, he wrote an article for Script titled “The Case Against Character Arc.” I haven’t been able to find it on line, but RAIDERS is one of the primary examples he uses to prove his point. He answered questions about the article in a blog post, talking further about RAIDERS.

The third thing that happened was during a conversation about central dramatic arguments, which is a way of thinking about theme more organically and creative originated by Craig Mazin. Someone else mentioned that Indy doesn’t change – it’s the world around him that changes, and there is no theme to RAIDERS.

This, of course, is all bullshit.

RAIDERS is a master class in integrating theme and character. Almost every single scene in the film explores the central dramatic argument in a new and different way, and Indiana Jones most definitely changes. RAIDERS shows how potent marrying theme and character can be, and that cohesiveness is a key element in the movie’s strong, magical power.

Let’s phrase the theme like Craig Mazin does, as a central dramatic question, discussed on Craig’s site a few years ago and on the ScriptNotes podcast more recently. I like this way of looking at theme, because it asks a question that should be answered by the end of the script. It also allows for a deeper examination of the theme, and it’s just easier to phrase the theme like this. The central dramatic question of RAIDERS is, “Must you kneel before God?” Nearly every single scene revolves around it.

And even better – Indy answers that question differently at the beginning of the movie than at the end. Oh, look, that’s right, it’s character arc. This is big-time movie-making, you guys: the central dramatic argument of a movie is the question the main character answers differently at the beginning than the end. The character’s growth centers around the movie’s theme.

It’s right there in the first sequence, with Indy in South America capturing the fertility idol. He’s savvy, he’s smart, and he has no time for religious mumbo-jumbo. He’s infiltrating a sacred space, but his only concern is getting in and out alive with the prize. He’s foiling traps, but he doesn’t proscribe to the superstitions of the guides who run away at the site of the statue.  So he grabs the idol and escapes, and who does he run into?


Belloq is a fantastic character, mostly because he’s the yin to Indy’s yang, he’s just like Indy except he doesn’t change. And this is what gets him into trouble at the end, of course. Indy and Belloq start out believing the same thing – no need to kneel before God, because they don’t believe in his power, or at least they don’t fear it. The Hovitos answer the question differently; when Belloq holds up the fertility idol, they all bow in supplication.

Belloq and Indy see the idol and other relics as treasure to be possessed. The Hovitos see the idol as a symbol of their gods.

So just in case you had any doubts about what the movie is about, this next scene lays it all out for you. Indy’s in class, he’s teaching, and what is he talking about? “One of the great dangers of archeology … I’m talking about folklore.” Even in class he mentions he doesn’t believe in superstition! Indy could be talking about anything, he could be telling a story about breaking into a tomb, he could be discussing methods of preserving vase fragments, but no. He’s talking about something related to the theme.

The next scene is Indy meeting with the OSS guys, learning about Hitler’s quest for the Ark. Indy tells us right here how he feels about the power of the arc: “Yes, the actual ten commandments, the original stone tablets that Moses brought down out of Mount Horeb and smashed, if you believe in that sort of thing. Didn’t you guys ever go to Sunday School?” The OSS guys seem about as believing as Indy – rolling eyes and shrugging.

I love the bit where they’re all looking at the picture in the bible. “Good God,” one of the OSS guys says. “Yes, that’s just what the Hebrews thought,” replies Marcus. “What’s that supposed to be coming out of there?” “Lightning. Fire. Power of God or something,” says Indy. Disbelief, casual apathy. He’s interested in the mystery and the treasure. Marcus, though, has a much greater sense for the gravity of the situation, and he’s the voice of warning. “The Bible speaks of the Ark leveling mountains and laying waste in entire regions. An Army that carries the Ark before it… is invincible.“ Marcus’s unease carries straight through to the next scene –

When Marcus goes to tell Indy the good news, that he’s been approved to go after the Ark, this is what Marcus says: “For nearly 3000 years, man has been searching for the lost Ark. It’s not something to be taken lightly. No one knows its secrets. It’s like nothing you’ve ever gone after before.”

If you had any doubts what this movie was about, Indy says it right here, loud and clear: “I don’t believe in magic, a lot of superstitious hocus pocus. I’m going after a find of incredible historical significance, you’re talking about the boogie man.” By the end of the movie, he’ll believe in a lot more than the boogie man.

And we’re just 22 minutes in to the movie, and that’s the fourth scene.

Tomorrow Part 2 of John’s analysis of Raiders.

We have another live Tweet-Cast on Wednesday, September 26 at 8PM Pacific. What’s a Tweet-Cast? Everybody lines up a DVD, Netflix, or whatever version of the movie, then hits “Play” precisely at the top of the hour. During the movie, we comment on it real time on Twitter.

We generally have a group of professional screenwriters participate including Tom Benedek, Scott Frazier, John Gary and myself, and anyone is invited to drop by. It’s a lot of fun, but also a great way to break down and analyze a movie. Hashtag: #ROLATC

If you know of any great behind-the-scenes videos or interviews about Raiders, please post them in comments.

For all of the other screenplays and commentary in the GITS Script Reading & Analysis series, go here.


See you in comments to discuss characters in Raiders of the Lost Ark.

10 thoughts on “GITS Script Reading & Analysis: “Raiders of the Lost Ark” — Character

    1. johngary says:

      Glad you found the original Mystery Man on Film character arc article, Teddy. I don’t know why google didn’t scare that up for me.

  1. Vic Tional says:

    Interesting insights there from John – have to say I hadn’t thought about Indy that way. There’s something to be said for the central dramatic argument in question and it is indeed arguable that the movie raises this issue and bats it around at various points. What’s interesting is that the script, this version anyway, does not. Not really.

    So what’s worth mentioning here is the difference between what first makes it to the page and what we end up seeing on screen, and in this instance the character development is quite striking.

    John mentions the lecture and Indy being dismissive in his references to folklore. Well, he doesn’t in this draft. ‘If you believe in that sort of thing’, he says as he relays the origins of the Ark. Only he doesn’t say it. Again, not in this draft. ‘Yes, that’s what the Hebrews thought’. As does Indy perhaps, because it’s him and not Marcus who gets this line in the script being discussed. ‘Lightning. Fire. Power of God or something’. No such flippant remark to be found in this draft. The line about whoever carries the Ark before them is invincible? Indy’s line. Marcus’s little ominous warning? Doesn’t happen. Talk of magic, hocus pocus, the boogie man? Yep, you know where this is going. Indy’s not even there when the Ark goes batshit, never mind warning Marion not to look at it.

    I haven’t read all of the story conference transcript but I have read a lot of it, and there’s no mention of this theme being explored through the character of Indy. Also, just as a side note, no, Spielberg is not infallible and some of his ideas strike a bum note. Nevertheless, his storytelling sensibilities, in particular what can be rendered visually, are very apparent and really shine through in the transcript. The tarantulas thing was one of his suggestions, likewise the spikes with skeletal remains, the whole boulder sequence – the piece de resistance – and a bunch of other stuff that makes it into later Indy adventures. Indy using the bull whip to reel in a girl came out of this session and shows up in Temple of Doom, as does having Indy wake up on a plane with no pilot and use an inflatable boat to escape. Spielberg mentions using a Dietrich-esque German double agent in Raiders, and we get one in Last Crusade. So yes, as none of you know, Spielberg’s kinda brilliant.

    Back to character, and the transcript’s really illuminating in that respect. Early on, Lucas states ‘We want him to be extremely good at what he does’ as regards the protagonist, and this happens so often in movies that it’s almost a rule of screenwriting in itself. The group also talk about Indy the adventurer and Dr Jones the lecturer, and this dichotomy is one of the reasons why Indiana Jones is such a classic creation. Spielberg also asks ‘What’s he afraid of?’, and Indy’s fear of snakes is another memorable hallmark of this character. But again, this is basic stuff – protagonists always need a fatal flaw (ref. John’s discussion about religion), a weakness. The image of the character Lucas had in mind also come through very clearly – leather jacket, khakis, hat, pistol, bull whip – and becomes so iconic that Indy is one of few movie characters you can recognize by silhouette alone.

    Back to the whole script-to-screen transition, and it’s interesting to note how two of the defining character moments in Raiders came about after this draft was finished. Marion drinking someone under the table is such a great character intro and sets her up perfectly – so much better than what we get in this draft. And, of course, the famous scene where Indy shoots the swordsman. This was a matter of happenstance rather than specific, deliberate character development, but damn if it ain’t one of Indy’s defining character moments.

  2. I wrote an extensive analysis of this draft of Raiders for my own screenwriting blog, which analyzes this draft and compares it with the final cut of the film.

    I wholly agree with the idea that Indy DOES change over the course of the screenplay–at the film’s beginning, Indy is an intrepid, skeptical adventurer that’s obsessed with treasure yet incapable of forming a solid relationship with someone. Through his quest for the Ark, he not only achieves a much more profound respect for the artifacts he obtains, but most importantly restores his damaged relationship with Marion–while also confronting his two biggest fears: snakes and commitment.

    Feel free to check it out!

  3. John, describing MMoF as “a guy who had some interesting thoughts on movies” is a bit of an understatement, don’t you think? The guy wrote some great script analyses and articles about film.

    “The third thing that happened was during a conversation about central dramatic arguments, which is a way of thinking about theme more organically and creative originated by Craig Mazin.”

    Am I understanding this correctly? Are you saying that Craig Mazin first thought of central dramatic arguments?

  4. Hi Scott, having just taken your class “Creating a worthy Nemesis” I’m finding this Protagonist/Nemesis relationship to be that of Shadow/Light.

    Belloq is the physicalization of Indy’s shadow. This makes him a powerful Nemesis.

    How odd that is should end this way
    for us, after so many… stimulating
    encounters. I almost regret it.
    Where shall I find a new adversary
    so close to my own level?

    Try the local sewer.

    I know you despise me. We always
    hate in others that which we most
    fear in ourselves. And you and I
    are very much alike.

    Now you’re getting nasty.

    We have always done the same kind of
    work. Our methods have not differed
    as much as you pretend. I am a
    shadowy reflection of you. But it
    would have taken only a nudge to
    make you the same as me, to push you
    out of the light.

    Indy knows he is looking at a mirror image of himself. Be it a funhouse mirror image. In the remainder of the scene, Indy struggles to stay afloat and find distance.

    Thankfully, he is soon reminded of an important difference. He still stands in the light and there is an innocence within that will save him.

    Indy takes a drink.
    You know, if it’s God you want to
    talk to, maybe I can arrange it.

    You have not changed. But, please,
    do not reach for your weapon until
    you are ready to die.

    The front door of the bar slams open and all nine of SALLAH’S CHILDREN scamper in and over to a surprised Indy. Two of the smallest hop into his lap.

  5. Chris Lites says:

    Lucas has stated in the past that Indy’s arc is going from an atheist to an agnostic. While the analysis is interesting, the gentleman claiming Lucas intended no arc is incorrect.

    The Ark is there, it’s clear. In addition to the above arc, Indy also goes into the light. He becomes something other than Belloq. If you look at Temple of Doom he’s after “fortune and glory.” At the end he gives the Sankara stone back to the village. At the end of Raiders he fails to destroy the Ark, his obsession. But he doesn’t get pushed out of the light. Belloq has already been down that path and suffers the consequences.

  6. Teddy,

    Many thanks for providing that link.

    I just finished the article, and learned quite a bit.

    A lot to think about there . . .

    John A

  7. Scott,

    You mention the podcast with John August and Craig Mazin. Towards the end of it, they reference “Cars 2” by Pixar, and discuss profitability. Craig says: “They’ve sold more crapola, more Cars stuff . . .”

    You can’t walk down ANY street in Moscow – on the complete other side of the planet – without seeing those sappy little smiley-faced cars staring back at you in a toy shop, at a kiosk, or on a vendors table. They are absolutely everywhere.


    John A

    ps: the only other Pixar toy we see for sale here is Buzz Lightyear. He’s fairly common, too, but nowhere near as ubiquitous as Cars stuff.

  8. This is definitely an interesting argument, but I’m still not convinced. I don’t think that Indiana Jones changes in any significant, permanent way – he is momentarily enlightened but it doesn’t translate into real change.

    One reason why I think he doesn’t truly change is that his motivation in looking for the Ark never significantly changes. Initially, he’s agreed to look for it for money and the promise of another artifact in the museum. In this version of the script (I haven’t seen this movie since I was a kid, so I’m only working off the script), that motivation is still present at the end: the government has given Marion money (and perhaps Indy, too) and Brody is asking to keep the Ark. They still want the same things they wanted in the beginning, which makes me think that in Indy’s next (imaginary) adventure, his motivation would still remain money and a museum piece, which would mean that he hadn’t really changed. In the middle of the script, Indy’s main motivation in going after the Ark is to rescue Marion, along with perhaps a touch of patriotism and professional rivalry. I don’t see a single moment in here where Indiana Jones is motivated by the power of the Ark or God, but wouldn’t that a necessity in John Gary’s argument? At the end of the day, the Ark is still just an artifact, a thing, to him, a device through which to get something else, and I don’t think that ever changes.

    In the second post, John wrote, “What does Belloq do? He looks inside, watches, they all watch, he wants to know more, he wants to see the treasures he believes are there, he wants to speak to God. And what does Indy do? He says, ‘Shut your eyes, Marion.’ He knows whatever is about to happen is going to be bad. His whole existence is predicated on revealing ancient relics, and here is the most fabled of all relics and he does not want to witness the reveal. He shows supplication in the face of the power of God, and for that? For that he lives.” But in this version of the script, it seems that Indy has only momentarily been awed by the power of the Ark, and thus not permanently changed, because at the end, when they’re meeting with the government officials, Indy himself wants to research and examine the Ark. He too wants to look at God – the difference between Indy and Belloq now is just that he’s not being allowed. It still remains a treasure to be possessed, looked at and examined.

    of course, most of my argument is predicated on the assumption that the end of the film is the same as what’s in the script version we read. :)

    On a different note, there are two main thrusts to this screenplay: the recovery of the Ark and the relationship with Marion. The other thing that bothers me about Indy’s character arc, or lack of, is the way things play out with Marion. He gets her back, but he doesn’t have to change in any way to do it. He never apologizes or atones for whatever happened in the past – all he does is rescue her, a physical achievement. There’s no emotional growth.

    Thanks for your two posts, John Gary. They’ve made for some good conversation and thinking.

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