3 Lessons Learned from Reading RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK

Archaeology professor Indiana Jones ventures to seize a biblical artefact known as the Ark of the Covenant. While doing so, he puts up a fight against Renee and a troop of Nazis.

After recently rewatching Raiders of the Lost Ark at a rooftop cinema and seeing that Disney has revealed a first look at the new Indiana Jones film, I had to go back and read the screenplay. Penned by Lawrence Kasdan with a story by George Lucas, Raiders of the Lost Ark is a fast-paced thrill ride and a priceless artifact.

Here are three lessons I learned from reading the Raiders of the Lost Ark screenplay:

  1. Use previously established side characters to aid the protagonist.
  2. Establish a flaw or fear, then capitalize on it.
  3. Craft moments of levity and connection amidst the action.

#1. On the following page of the Raiders screenplay, Indiana Jones seems to be between a rock and a hard place with his nemesis, Belloq, only to have unexpected side characters come to the rescue:

USE PREVIOUSLY ESTABLISHED SIDE CHARACTERS TO AID THE PROTAGONIST  These children in the script are side characters that I personally would not have expected to come back in such a crucial moment. It Is very cool to see the way Kasdan and Lucas crafted a twist that served numerous storytelling purposes including:

  • Surprising the audience in a fun way by using previously established side characters to save our protagonist from a deadly fight.
  • Making us, as the audience, like and trust Indy even more by using children to save him and show their affection for him. A similar effect can be achieved by showing characters interact with animals. A visual way to say that the character is pure of heart.

It’s also interesting to note that a moment written into the script as “the Arab patrons of the bar take an intense interest in the situation, shifting their weapons” wound up a bit different in the final film. “Intense interest” is shown as an eruption of laughter. This is a moment that likely changed on set and turned out exceptionally memorable.

“Next time, Indiana Jones, it will take more than children to save you.”


#2. On the following page of the Raiders screenplay, Indy has found the coveted Ark surrounded by snakes and works to retrieve it before the torches go out:

ESTABLISH A FLAW OR FEAR, THEN CAPITALIZE ON IT — Indy’s fear of snakes is established early in the film, after the iconic opening sequence with the boulder, when Indy is in the getaway plane and finds a large snake at his feet. He tells the pilot, “I hate snakes!” which comes up again and again throughout the Indiana Jones series.

In this much later scene, Indy has found the Ark but it is surrounded by his greatest fear. Venomous snakes cover the floor everywhere except near the Ark itself.

“Indy’s concentration is on the tide of snakes.”

Using intelligence and bravado (excellent traits for a deliciously active character like this), Indy maneuvers his way through the “tide of snakes” without being bitten and retrieves the coveted Ark. But the nightmare worsens when Belloq takes the Ark and leaves Indy to die. Using more intelligence and bravado, Indy finds a creative solution.

#3. On the following page of the Raiders screenplay, Marion and Indy are aboard the pirates vessel, safe with the Ark in their possession. A temporary victory. They get intimate in Indy’s cabin:

CRAFT MOMENTS OF LEVITY AND CONNECTION AMIDST THE ACTION — These kinds of moments are absolutely necessary for films like Raiders, which move at a breakneck speed. This scene allows the audience to breathe, absorb what has happened, and reinvest in the characters. In order for stories to achieve icon status the way that Raiders of the Lost Ark has, they must be populated with unique characters whom we want to succeed. And it is difficult for an audience to connect with a character if there are not enough character-driven scenes showing their hearts. We need to care about their goals. It also helps for the connections between the characters to ebb and flow, keeping us rooting for them to succeed on their mission, as well as in love.

Indy and Marion’s first scene of the film showed a rocky start with her punching him in the face and making accusations. Now, the lovers have (temporarily) succeeded at their mission and we see them let their guards down for one another. I love the way Kasdan phrased the kiss in this scene:

A smile jumps from her lips to his. He kisses her and they sink slowly to the cot.

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