Is it true that in Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indiana Jones plays no real role in the outcome?
This was posited by the character Amy in an episode of The Big Bang Theory. She claimed that: “Indiana Jones plays no role in the outcome of the story. If he weren’t in the film it would turn out exactly the same. If he weren’t in the movie the Nazis would have still found the Ark, taken it to the island, opened it up and all died, just like they did.”
So is this anywhere near accurate? Did the greatest action hero of all time have no effect on, or (even worse) inadvertently hinder proceedings?
It’s all a fictional hypothesis, but you could argue that had Indy not arrived at the Peruvian temple at the very start, ahead of Rene Belloq and the Hovitos, then Belloq would have gone himself and probably died or just been trapped there behind a giant rolling boulder. Consequently the Nazis would not have had their archaeological expert to help them find the Ark. But given that the dig in Cairo was already well under way, it appears the Germans already had a decent idea of where the Well of Souls (and therefore the Ark) would be.
Further evidence to suggest the Nazis would have found it comes when Indy and Marion escape from the Well of Souls, and a huge chunk is shown as being above ground and highly visible. It was surely just a matter of time before they noticed this and had a look inside. Via the scenes with Indy and Sallah (“They’re digging in the wrong place!”), the headpiece to the Staff of Ra,and the map room in Tanis,everything that happened simply sped up the Nazis’ search for the point of their dig. Indy’s logic was sound — get the Ark in the middle of the night and hightail it out of there — but the fact they got caught just gave their enemies the very thing they were looking for. Where Amy’s notion is wrong, however, is that the Nazis would still have taken the Ark to the island.
After it was recovered by the Germans, Colonel Herman Dietrich planned to transport it back to Germany in the Flying Wing plane. This would presumably have happened had Indy not been there to interfere. It didn’t come to pass because Indy destroyed the Flying Wing plane after the fight with the Nazi. So instead it went on the truck to be flown out of Cairo. Indy then hijacked the truck, got on the pirate boat, which was then raided by Nazi submarines, who take the Ark to the island for a try-out.
In the final scene on the island he told Marion to keep her eyes shut, as he knew that gazing upon the contents would result in death. This saved their lives while the Nazis were killed. It’s surprising that Belloq didn’t know this, given that it’s mentioned in the actual Bible and forms a huge part of what we know about the Ark, and drawings show priests blindfolded and carrying the Ark with poles so as not to touch it. This is why Indy had to prevent Sallah from touching it when they discovered it in the Well of Souls.
The ignorance of the Nazis in this regard raises another important point. Had Indy chosen to stay at home and the Ark gone to Berlin as planned, and had been opened in front of the Führer (who we know was desperate to obtain it) at a ceremony in Berlin, the Ark of the Covenant would have killed Hitler and every top Nazi in striking distance. And considering the film is set in 1936, this would most likely have prevented WWII and the Holocaust.
To summarise, we can be pretty sure that without Indiana Jones intervention, Marion would have been killed in her Nepalese bar – or at least tortured by Major Toht. But aside from that, it could reasonably be argued that had Indy said at the start, “Yeah, that Ark mission all sounds great, Marcus, but I’m going to stay here in America as I’ve got this student who wrote I LOVE YOU on her eyelids and she’s totally into me, I’m going to pursue that instead,” then things would have still worked out alright. Probably better. But because he chose to get involved, he ended up inadvertently killing a few low-ranking officers, before reuniting with Marion and (as we later learn) having a child that causes Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull to happen. He chose… poorly.
For Esquire magazine