Sunday, March 24, 2013

The Ark of the Covenant in "Raiders of the Lost Ark" (1981)

In honor of Holy Week, I thought I’d cover a very Biblical piece of art: the Ark of the Covenant in the first Indiana Jones movie, Raiders of the Lost Ark. The Indiana Jones movies are some of my favorites: if Raiders or Last Crusade is on- I have to watch it, I just can’t help myself. When you basically look at these movies: you have to give it to Steven Spielberg, if you didn’t already. He took the best parts of everything he had available: the old cheesy action movies of the ‘50s, the special effects he utilized in Star Wars, the talent of the great Harrison Ford, and basically the best action movie plots ever.
If you’ve never lived (i.e. never saw Raiders), it’s the story of an action-inclined archeologist, Dr. Indiana Jones, who is on the trail of the elusive Ark of the Covenant. Consequently, so are the Nazis, and Indy has to try to beat them from harnessing the power of the Ark for evil. There are exotic location, great fight scenes and pretty incredible sets.
The Ark of the Covenant is the macguffin of this movie: a mysterious object that propels the plot. The entire movie is based around the attainment and later protection of the Ark. It’s an object of unthinkable historical value as well as spiritual power.
One of the best aspects of the Indy movies are the mix of fact and fiction, and it’s very prevalent in Raiders. The Ark of Covenant is obviously a real object. According to the Bible, it was the box that held the Ten Commandments that Moses received from the Lord. According to some sources, Moses himself sculpted the Ark himself, on top of the mountain.
Tradition says that the Ark was a gold-covered box with an intricately carved lid with two cherubim on top. Historians now believe this may be slightly misleading, as very few Israelites would have actually seen the Ark, which was kept under very close security in the Tabernacle tent. What is known of the Ark is its tremendous power. When the priests holding the Ark entered the River Jordan, it opened up for the Israelites to cross into the Promised Land. By simply circling the city of Jericho with the Ark, the famous walls came tumbling down. And when the Philistines stole the Ark, a plague hit their land. According to the Bible, by simply touching the Ark itself was to bring death upon you.  
The Ark was lost in history after Jerusalem was looted many times by conquering armies. It is uncertain when the Ark actually disappeared but it has been sought for years by real archeologists. While several sites claim that they own the Ark, including one site in Ethiopia, none of these claims have been validated. That’s all fact.
In Raiders, Indy’s friend Marcus Brody tells the government officials who commission Indy to find the Ark, how the Ark has the power to “level armies” (a slightly misleading fact). In Raiders, the Ark is seen as a superweapon, which has the power to bring victory to whoever owns it. Obviously, the Nazis cannot be allowed to find and keep the Ark, as it would mean disaster to the rest of the world.
Cue the ensuing plot, during which, yes, Indiana Jones and his Egyptian friend Sallah find the Ark in the Well of Souls, when it then stolen. Cue more plot. I won’t give anything away. In the film, the Ark is seen, as above all, a source of divine power and its attainment obsesses the characters. It eventually leads to some of their demise, when their pride in believing they could harness its power proves to be fatal.
Because the object is lost, Spielberg had to rely on artistic tradition for the construction of the actual prop. Supposedly, he depended on the artist renditions of the great 19th century religious artist, James Tissot. If you look at his depictions of the Ark, this seems to be fairly apparent.
Spielberg turned to many members of his Star Wars artistic team, many who have gone down in history as some of the greats in modern Hollywood History. Joe Johnston helped design some of the early concept art. (See below).
The greatest contributions, however, go to other members of the crew. Ralph McQuarrie, who designed, among other things, the Darth Vader mask, helped complete designs for the Ark. His sketch of the Ark leveling armies is seen in Indiana’s bible.
The sculptors, Brian Muir and Keith Short also played a large part in designing and sculpting the piece itself. I don’t know exactly how much credit can be given to whom, but I do know that all these men played important parts in the design of the Ark. Their designs have gone down in the public mind as the actual Ark of the Covenant, regardless of the historical accuracy. The Ark is probably one of the most famous props in film history and in Biblical history as well- and as you should be able to tell from this length post- for good reason.


  1. I always learn so much from your posts! Here's a post from "The Big Think" that reminded me of something which might interest you:

  2. It sounds like a great exhibit- I simply love the art from that time- Sargent's portraits are some of my favorites. And may I commend you on your own posts. They bring me down SJS memory lane every time- which is a pure joy!


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