Structure: Raiders of the Lost Ark

The first film of the Indiana Jones quadrilogy was created by Spielberg and Lucas, two of the greatest filmmakers of their generation, and offers a timeless piece of entertainment. This is a text book example of a Hero’s Journey, and an excellent starting point for screen story study.

Did I mention it is also great fun?

A structural overview of Raiders of the Lost Ark (L. Kasdan, Story by G. Lucas and P. Kaufman 1981)


Sequence A

00.00  Jungle Explorers, being followed.
04.00 Indiana Jones and Satipo enter the cave.
05.00 They find Forestal impaled but continue.
06.00 Indy avoids traps to take the little statue.
08.00 They escape from the cave, Indy is betrayed by Satipo.
09.30 Arriving outside, Indy is surrounded by Belloq and his men.
10.00 Indy manages to escape Belloq, he runs towards the water.
11.00 Indy boards the seaplane, in mid-air he finds the pilot’s snake.

Sequence B

12.30 Indy teaches, the girls are adoring him. Marcus enters.
15.00 Visitors tell the Nazis have found Tannis, are now onto the Ark.
19.30 Marcus got Indy the job, he needs Abner, wonders about Marion.
21.30 Indy boards a plane, but is followed (DI)
22.30 Nepal: Marion in drinking contest. (POV)
24.00 Marion: Abner’s dead. She will give Indy the bronze medallion.
28.00 Nazis come in, claim what Indy wanted, threaten Marion. (POV)
30.00 Indy comes to the rescue, fire. “I’m your goddamn partner.”


Sequence C

32.30” ‘Cairo, Sallah as ally, tells about Belloq who found the chamber.
35.00” ‘Monkey runs off to the Nazis (DI)
36.30” ‘They’re attacked, but Jones fights them off, Marion abducted.
39.30” ‘Indy chases the basket, it goes on a truck, which explodes.
40.30” ‘Indy mournes Marion; Belloq: “I’m a shadowy reflection of you.”
44.00” ‘Indy saved by kids & Sallah, followed by man w/ eye patch (DI).
45.00” ‘Sallah saves Indy from poisoned dates: Nazis in the wrong place.

Sequence D

47.30 Nazis are impatient, tell Belloq they want results. (POV)
48.00 Indy and Sallah approach the site.
49.00 Indy descends into the chamber, light beam; Sallah taken away.
53.00 Indy gets out, finds Marion but leaves her.
54.00 Indy finds the place of the Ark.


Sequence E

54.30 Belloq and the Nazis (POV)
55.00 Indy starts digging, a storm brews.
58.00 Indy opens the cave, finds a snake pit.
58.30 Belloq releases Marion, gives her a dress to wear //
60.30 Indy descends, burns snakes // Marion drinks // Indy & Sallah find Ark.

65.30 Marion is sober, takes knife, stopped by Nazis.
66.00 Indy and Sallah carry the Ark, lift it out.

Sequence F

67.30 Belloq notices the digging, alerts all.
68.00 Nazis take Ark out, throw Marion in and close the cave.
70.00 Indy and Marion argue in the snake pit, finally break through a wall.
72.30 They find an escape to the side.
73.00 Indy climbs the monowing plane and fights a guard.
75.00 Marion jumps in but Indy rescues her before it explodes.
78.00 Indy hears the Ark is on a truck for Cairo. Makes it up as he goes.


Sequence G

79.00 Indy on a horse, following the truck.
81.00 Indy boards the truck, overpowers driver and takes over.
85.00 Indy drives truck into town, it is hidden from the Nazis.
86.00 They celebrate with Sallah before boarding the ship with Katanga.
88.00 On the boat, Indy and Marion kiss.

Sequence H

90.00 Engines have stopped, German submarine enters.
91.00 The Germans take the cargo and Marion.
93.00 Jones climbs on board the submarine.
94.00 Jones follows the Ark from the islan submarine base onto the island.
96.30 After a standoff, Jones has to give in.
100.0 Belloq initiates a ceremony that calls in the spirits who kill the Nazis.
104.0 Indy and Marion are free, all Nazis have disappeared.

Sequence I

104.3 Washington DC: Indy is unhappy “Top Men are working on it.”
105.3 Indy and Marion off to have a drink.
106.0 Ark is stored as “Top Secret – Army Intel”

Full Synopsis:


In the spring of 1936 an exploration party penetrates thick jungle on the South American continent. When the group’s leader stops to examine map fragments, another of the group pulls a gun. The leader, hearing the click as the turncoat chambers a round, pulls out a bullwhip and disarms the man, sending him fleeing back through the jungle. Thus does Dr. Henry “Indiana” Jones, Jr. (Harrison Ford) stay alive.

Indy and his remaining companion enter a dank and oppressively vast cave, where a competitor of his, Forrestal, disappeared. Inside the cave are several traps rigged by the ancient people who hid a small, valuable statue there — and one of the traps is found to have snared Forrestal. The two men find and retrieve the statue, but the cave is rigged to collapse when the statue is moved. Indy barely escapes the cave, while his companion betrays him and is killed trying to escape.

Seemingly safe, Indy is cornered by the Hovitos, the local tribe, who are led by Dr. Rene Belloq (Paul Freeman), an arrogant French archaeologist who is a longtime rival and enemy of Indy’s. Indy flees and is rescued by Jock (Fred Sorenson), flying a seaplane, though Indy isn’t pleased to find Jock’s pet snake Reggie inside.

Back stateside, Indy teaches an archeology class and is still upset over the loss of the statue, which he surmises Belloq is taking to Marrakesh; he has found pieces he feels will pay for a trip to Marrakesh to find Belloq, but Indy’s friend Marcus Brody (Denholm Elliott) dashes that hope by informing him that two Army Intelligence officers want to talk to him about Abner Ravenwood, his former teacher, who was his friend until Indy broke up with his daughter, Marion (Karen Allen).

The Army officers are concerned because they’ve intercepted a German cable concerning a mammoth archaeological dig in the Egyptian desert. When they read the cable, Indy and Marcus realize the Nazis have discovered Tanis, an ancient city buried in a gigantic sandstorm in 980 B.C. and the possible burial site of the Ark of the Covenant. The Ark was built by ancient Hebrews to hold the stone tablets on which Moses inscribed the Ten Commandments. It holds immense mystical power — enough to allow the Nazis to level mountains and lay waste to entire regions.

Indy flies to Nepal (followed by a Nazi agent, Toht (Ronald Lacey)) to confront Marion Ravenwood, who runs a restaurant and bar (and who can outdrink anyone) because he needs the headpiece to the Staff of Ra, whose crystals will allow him to determine the exact location of the Ark. Marion, still bitter over their breakup, nonetheless accepts when Indy offers her $3,000 and the promise of more when they return stateside. She is cryptic about the headpiece, and after Indy leaves she ponders it as she wears it around her neck.

Toht and several Sherpa heavies enter the bar and hold Marion hostage, with Toht ready to torture her for the headpiece. Indy returns and a firefight erupts during which the fireplace is dislodged and the building begins burning down. Toht finds the headpiece but when he grabs it he’s badly burned — leaving an image of one side of the headpiece branded on his hand. He escapes while Indy and Marion do likewise


Indy and Marion fly to Egypt to see Indy’s pal, Sallah (John Rhys-Davies), who is working on the Nazi site and who reveals that the Nazis are aided by a French archaeologist (Belloq).

Later, while shopping at a Cairo bazaar, Indy and Marion are attacked by sword-wielding Arabs working for Nazi agents. Indy fights them off but in the confusion Marion is trapped in a large basket and taken by two of the terrorists. The effort to track her down is held up by a man brandishing a sword in intimidating fashion. The swordsman is shot down in short order by a thoroughly unimpressed Indy.

Soon Indy spots a basket carried to a truck filled with explosives and is fired on by a submachine-gun-wielding assailant. His Nazi commander orders the Arabs to take off, but Indy shoots them and the truck crashes, exploding and destroying the basket.

Disconsolate over losing Marion, Indy drowns his sorrows in drink but is met by more Nazi agents who escort him to a table at which is seated Belloq, who gleefully talks about finding the Ark. Indy, no longer caring whether he lives or dies, reaches for his sidearm as Arabs inside pull rifles — only to see Sallah’s large brood of children rush in and the “Arabs” to turn out to be US Marines, much to the embarassment of Belloq.

Sallah takes Indy to see a shaman who is reading the Ra headpiece after both men have learned that Belloq and his Wehrmacht aide, Colonel Dietrich (Wolf Kahler), have obtained a copy of the headpiece. (Neither man is aware that it is a duplicate traced from Toht’s burned hand.) The shaman reveals two critical facts: first, that the headpiece gives the precise height of the Staff of Ra, and second, that the staff the Nazis used was too long — so their excavation is over a mile away from the Ark’s actual burial site, which is known as the Well of Souls.

Infiltrating the mammoth site, Indy is lowered into an underground maproom containing a precisely detailed miniature of the city. Using the Ra headpiece, he identifies the precise location of the Well of Souls. Sneaking further around the gigantic camp, Indy is shocked to find Marion, alive but bound and gagged. Indy starts to free her, but when she reveals that the Nazis keep asking about him and what he knows, he realizes he can’t cut her loose without revealing his presence to the Nazis.

Late that afternoon Indy and Sallah sneak a digging party of their own to the actual location of the Well of Souls.


Late into the night they dig open the chamber, and to Indy’s horror it is filled with dangerous snakes. Indy clears an area of snakes with burning torches, then lowers himself into the chamber and burns many of the snakes alive with flaming gasoline. Sallah follows and the two eventually find the gigantic chest that is the Ark.

By now it is dawn, and only now does Belloq notice the commotion a mile away. The Nazis surround the site and Indy is left trapped inside, but Dietrich leaves him with something else — Marion, who is thrown into the chamber and the area closed off.

Indy notices a wall where snakes are entering. He climbs a mammoth statue and with all his might breaks it from its foundation and it crashes through the wall. The two find an opening to the surface, and discover the airfield at the excavation camp, where there is a bizarre Nazi transport plane. The two sneak up to the plane, but Indy is attacked by a mechanic and a prolonged fight ensues that is joined by a burly Nazi who pummels Indy before being punched backward and shredded to bits by the plane’s propellers. Marion seizes one of the plane’s machine guns and opens fire on Nazi soldiers, in the process setting a fuel dump aflame. The fire destroys the area and the plane explodes, but Indy and Marion escape.

Dietrich orders his men to transport the Ark by truck to Cairo. When Sallah finds Indy and Marion, he is overjoyed they’re alive and tells them of Dietrich’s plan.


Indy takes a horse and pursues the convoy, seizing the truck containing the Ark and surviving a brutal chase and fight with Nazi soldiers to drive the Ark to safety.

He and Marion board a ship taking the Ark back to the US, but a Nazi submarine captures the ship. The Ark is taken aboard the sub and Marion taken prisoner for Belloq. Indy, however, escapes Nazi pursuit and rides the submarine as it sails on the ocean surface to an island where Belloq and the Nazis trek to the top of a mountain.

Indy has grabbed a rocket launcher and intercepts Belloq, vowing to blow up the Ark unless Marion is freed. But Belloq calls Indy’s bluff, knowing Indy wants to know what the Ark contains as much as anyone. Indy finds he can’t carry out his threat, and is seized.

At an elaborate ceremony atop the mountain Indy and Marion, tied to a pole, can only watch as the Ark is opened, but it contains nothing but sand, the remains of the stone tablets. No sooner is it opened, however, than its spirits suddenly appear. Indy and Marion, remembering an ancient code that requires people to close their eyes and not look at the now-freed spirits, withstand the mayhem that ensues as the energy of the Ark surges forth and its spirits attack the now-terrified Nazis, killing the entire contingent and destroying Belloq in gruesome fashion. The energy mass surges high into the sky before returning to the Ark and resealing it, leaving Indy and Marion drained but freed.

Weeks later Indy and Marcus feud with the Army officers over the whereabouts of the Ark, Indy angry that the Army has no idea what it has in the Ark — though it appears they in fact do understand what they have, as the Ark is sealed in a large crate and stored anonymously in a gigantic government warehouse, never to be seen again.

Full synopsis courtesy of IMDb.

13 thoughts on “Structure: Raiders of the Lost Ark”

  1. Hi there,
    I read your act breakdown of “Raiders” with great interest. However, I disagree with your assessment that this is a classic three-act structure. I count more like six. So, I think this needs discussion in your article, otherwise I feel it is incorrect.


  2. I am no expert on perceiving a story’s structure. I wish I was better at reading through them, and I did take Robert McKee’s seminar to learn how. In it, he used ‘Raiders’ as an example of a seven act story. How exactly you discern that, I couldn’t tell you, but what’s encouraging is that perhaps it is a subjective study, and no one is an expert. Either that or somebody’s wrong.

  3. I am puzzled why you feel the break into Act 3 is the truck chase. I know it’s the proper amount of time but the story has not really changed direction at that point. I would say that Act 3 more accurately begins when Marion is captured by the Nazis on the submarine. At that point, the drive of the main character changes from pursuing the Ark (Act 2) to rescuing Marion (Act 3). The truck chase is part of the Post-Midpoint action which up until the boat scene is all about getting the Ark back after it was stolen.

  4. Here’s my structure analysis:

    Act 1: Peruvian Jungle – Intro. Act
    Act 1 Climax: Belloq takes the idol/Indy escapes

    Act 2: Retrieving the Medallion
    Inciting Incident: Indy chosen by government to retrieve Ark
    Act 2 Climax: Medallion retrieved/Indy and Marion partners

    Act 3: Nazi Plots
    MS Act 1 Climax: Marion apparently killed in truck explosion
    Act 3 Climax: Poisoned dates/Nazis digging in the wrong place

    Act 4: Finding the Ark
    MS Act 2 Climax: Marion alive/Indy leaves her tied up
    Act 4 Climax: Nazis and Belloq take Ark, leave Indy and Marion to die in snake pit

    Act 5: Reclaiming the Ark
    Act 5 Climax: Indy steals back Ark in truck

    Act 6: Losing the Ark
    Act 6 Climax (Penultimate Act Climax): German sub— Nazis retake Ark and girl

    Act 7: Letting the Ark Go
    First Crisis Decision: Will Indy destroy the Ark? He doesn’t.
    Act 7 Climax (Story Climax): Nazis/Belloq open the Ark
    Second Crisis Decision: Will Indy seek the knowledge of the Ark? He resists. (“Don’t look at it.”)
    Climax: Nazis and Belloq killed/Indy and Marion live

    Resolution: Ark stored away in warehouse, one faceless crate among many. Indy and Marion go off to get a drink.

    There are also subplots with Marion and Belloq, not included above. The Marion subplots (survival and love) start with the Act 2 Climax (when Indy burns down her bar while retrieving the medallion). The Belloq subplot begins with the Act 1 Climax (when he steals the idol). I believe all three climax at the end of the film (Final Act Climax), although one might quibble on the Marion Love one.

    So yeah – all in all, I count seven acts.

    • Hello Brendan

      From what I read of your structure analysis, the ‘Ark’ appears to drive the narrative. While Karel’s structure analysis assumes Indiana is driving the narrative. Thanks.

    • What would you say distinguish an act? Seems like you can define them differently… I’m writing a script right now. Does it matter if I identify three acts, five or seven?

      • I distinguish acts by character action/objective. Act 1 ends when the story’s main goal/action is set up, and Act 2 starts with the first action in pursuit of that goal. The principles to define the end of Act 2 are more complex, and I would like to write a more elaborate article about that.

  5. I have a small error to correct in your summary. When Indiana Jones is saved by a group of children from Belloq and the arabs in Act IIa, the arabs are not U.S. Marines.
    Sallah says: “Better than the U.S. Marines, eh?” – referring to the children, who saved Indy simply by charming the arabs.

    • Thank you, Michael. Good point!
      I copied the synopsis from IMDb, including errors. ;)
      I’ll correct this when I have a moment.

  6. “the greatest filmmakers of their generation”
    Eh? You must be a cinematographically illiterate, I imagine you binging on Star Wars, Indy Joneses and Jaws, never watching anything better if you really think so. They aren’t even the greatest in USofA, you hopeless nutcase.

    • You’re damn right, and after eleven years I’ve finally corrected it. However, it could be argued that at the time they were the most successful, if you measure success by audience response.


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