In the late 1970’s, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg were basking in their mutual successes of Star Wars and Jaws. The two influential directors were vacationing at Lucas’ ewok farm in Hawaii when Spielberg told Lucas that he wanted to direct a James Bond film. Lucas told him that he had a better idea: a womanizing, archaeologist by the name of Indiana Smith who travels the world seeking ancient artifacts and fighting Nazis. Spielberg jumped at the idea, and the genesis of Raiders of the Lost Ark began.
The heroic story begins in 1936 in a thick Peruvian jungle. Our anti-hero, the archaeologist Indiana Jones, played to perfection by Han Solo himself, Harrison Ford, is in search of ancient fertility idol that lies within a hidden jungle temple. The temple is protected by various booby-traps that only the astute Indy is clever enough to figure out. Well, almost figure out. After misjudging the weight of the idol, the temple begins to collapse, and Indy nearly becomes an artifact himself when he is betrayed by one of his guides Sapito. Narrowly escaping his jungle tomb, Indy is confronted by rival archaeologist René Bellog, who is assisted by the indigenous and deadly Hovito people. Surrounded and outnumbered, Indy is forced to surrender the idol to Belloq, but manages to escape a death by Hovito poison aboard a plane floating in a nearby lagoon.
Indy returns to the United States and his teaching position at Marshall College. Once there, he is approached by the U.S. Government in the form of two Army Intelligence agents. The agents inform him that Hitler, who is reportedly obsessed with the occult, has his Nazi soldiers searching for his old mentor Abner Ravenwood. The Nazis know that Ravenwood is in possession of the headpiece of the Staff of Ra. The Staff of Ra is the key to finding the Well of Souls, one of the possible last resting places for the Ark of the Covenant. Indy informs the agents that the Nazis are searching for the location of the legendary Ark. The archaeologist informs them that the legend states that any army that carries the Ark before them becomes invincible. The agents authorize Indy to recover the Ark to prevent the Nazis from obtaining it.
Indy first travels to Nepal in search of Abner and the headpiece. Once there, he discovers that Abner is dead, but Abner’s daughter and Indy’s former lover Marion is very much still alive. Marion still has the headpiece, and a ton of unresolved anger directed at Indy. She agrees to sell Indy the headpiece for a few thousand dollars. But before she can complete the deal, she is visited by the Nazi Toht and his thugs who try to take the headpiece by force. Indy manages to stop Toht and save Marion, but Marion’s money is burned up. Indy now has a sidekick until he can repay his debt to Marion.
Indy and Marion travel to Cairo, where they meet up with Jones’s friend Sallah, a skilled Egyptian excavator. Sallah informs Indy that Belloq is working with the Germans in their search for the Ark. While Indy and Marion do some shopping, the Nazis kidnap Marion and it appears to Indy that she is killed in an exploding truck.
After Marion’s apparent death, Sallah informs them that Belloq and the Nazis are digging for the Well of Souls with a replica of the headpiece, created from a scar on Toht’s hand from when he handled the superheated headpiece back in Nepal. They quickly realize the Nazi headpiece is incomplete and that the Nazis are digging in the wrong place. Jones and Sallah infiltrate the Nazi dig site and use their staff to correctly locate the Well of Souls. Jones, Sallah, and a small group of diggers unearth the tomb, but find that the Ark is protected by thousands of deadly snakes. Jones, whose only Kryptonite is his fear of snakes, enters the Well of Souls with Sallah and a few hundred gallons of gasoline to acquire the Ark.
Unfortunately, Belloq and Nazis are onto Indy. Once the Ark and Sallah are lifted out of the Well, the Nazis take possession of the religious icon, and throw the very much alive Marion into the pit with Indy before sealing the Well back up. Indy and Marion manage to escape their slithering coffin, and even manage to blow up the Nazi plane that was to transport the Ark back to Germany. The panicked Nazis remove the Ark in a truck and set off for Berlin, but Indy catches up to them on horseback and retakes the Ark. Sallah arranges for Indy and the Ark to be transported to London on a ship. Given a moment to breathe, Indy and Marion rekindle their romantic relationship while at sea.
However, the next day the Nazis arrive and intercept the boat. Belloq and the Nazis seize the Ark and Marion but cannot locate Indy, who secretly stows away aboard the Nazi submarine and travels with the Nazis to an island with a secret German base. Once there, Belloq plans to test the power of the Ark before presenting it to Hitler. Indy reveals himself and threatens to destroy the Ark with a bazooka unless they give him Marion, but Belloq calls the bluff and Jones surrenders rather than destroy such an important historical artifact. The Nazis take Jones and Marion to an area where the Ark will be opened and tie them to a post to observe.
Belloq performs a ceremonial opening of the Ark, which appears to contain nothing but sand. Suddenly, angelic, ghost-like beings, ala Poltergeist, emerge from the Ark and float around the assembly. Indy warns Marion to keep her eyes tightly closed and not to watch what happens next. However, Belloq and the others look on in astonishment as the apparitions are suddenly revealed to be angels of death. An unworldly vortex of flame forms above the opened Ark and energy surges out into the gathered Nazi soldiers, killing them all. As Belloq, Toht and the other Nazis all scream in terror, the Ark turns its fury on them, destroying them each in horrific ways. Flames then engulf the doomed assembly, save for Indy and Marion. The Ark’s lid is blasted high into the air before dropping back down onto the Ark and sealing it. Indy and Marion open their eyes to find themselves alone with the Ark and their ropes burned off. The reunited couple embrace and are thankful to be alive.
Back safely in the United States, the Army Intelligence agents inform Indy and Brody that the Ark is someplace safe and will be studied by “top men”. However, the Ark is shown being permanently stored in a giant government warehouse, which we learn later in the film series is Area 51, where it begins to gather dust again among countless similar crates.