(For some earlier thoughts on this movie, including my son Sam's reaction, I direct you to here.)
For the young screenwriter being taught classical three-act structure, the screenplay for Raiders of the Lost Ark would seem like a bizarre, off-kilter mess. There are at least four acts in here, but the more I look at it the more I become convinced that there are at least ten, each lasting somewhere between ten and twelve minutes. This would be in keeping with the movie's roots in 30s serials -- each one of these segments would make a perfect one-reel short, and a few of them would stand as classics of the short form even if they weren't part of one of the most propulsive, engaging features in its genre. These individual units, or "chapters", can be grouped together into four acts. What I'd like to do here is walk through each part and chart the path of the protagonist throughout.
ACT I (0:00-33:44) Act I of Raiders introduces Indiana Jones, sets up the argument of the drama, and sends Indy to Nepal to meet up with one-time girlfriend Marion Ravenwood. Once Indy and Marion are together, they set off on their adventure.
CHAPTER 1 (0:00-12:49): The bit in Peru. It would be difficult for me to overestimate the power of this sequence. The infamous "rolling boulder" looms so large in the memories of the audience of this movie and even in the minds of those who have never seen it that it's hard to remember that the whole gag goes by in a few seconds. It's become an icon unto itself, as recognizable a symbol as Bogart's fedora and the prow of the Titanic. The other day I happened to be in a stereo store with my 5-year-old daughter Kit and Raiders happened to be playing on one of the systems. This opening sequence was showing, and Kit, who knows nothing of Indiana Jones, said "Is this the part with the rolling stone?" Indeed it was, and I got to watch her five-year-old face go slack with wonder and excitement as the latter half of this sequence unfolded before her hungry eyes. I don't know why the rolling rock works, I've seen the sequence too many times to analyze it in any rational way, but it's one of the handful of indelible moments that form the spine of this movie (two others being the shootout in the Cairo market and the melting Nazi faces at the end).
Part of the reason this sequence works like gangbusters is its kinetic brilliance, but none of that would mean anything if the stunts and gags were not rooted in character. As the sequence starts, Indiana Jones is shown in shadow, a mysterious, difficult-to-read figure ("is he a bad guy?" worried Sam, 6, when Indy whips the gun out of the hand of the Peruvian guy). He is calm, authoritative and magnificently prepared. His li'l Peruvian pal Doc Ock is the perfect stand-in for the audience in the early scenes -- he is as frightened, amazed and in awe of Indy and his capabilities as we are. Then, once the idol is in Indy's hand and the temple starts to come apart, all that calmness and skill goes right out the window and Indy becomes panic-stricken and improvisatory, relying on speed and forward momentum to keep himself alive. (This is, of course, an apt metaphor for the entire movie.) Then Indy emerges from the temple cave barely alive, only to have his prize taken from him by Belloq, who has been following Indy's party for days in hope of exactly this outcome. Belloq takes the idol and Indy runs away, pursued by the savage hordes. We spend the first half of the sequence in awe of Indy, then when the sequence turns we are placed into his shoes, running for our lives as the character who was "us" (Doc Ock) betrays Indy and makes a quick, violent exit. By the end of the sequence we're laughing at Indy as he's reduced to a hapless clown, attacked from all sides, scared of his pilot's pet snake. The sequence is a perfect introduction to the character, compresses his essential nature into twelve minutes, gives us the movie's villain, outlines the essential nature of the protagonist's conflict, and creates a miniature adventure drama that leaves us incapable of any response other than instant love.
(There's a great stunt toward the end of the sequence, where the traitorous Peruvian porter falls down dead, face first, flat and motionless, with two dozen poison arrows in his back. After seeing this scene a hundred times or so, I finally decided to find out who was responsible for this flawless bit of physical comedy. It is, in fact, Ted Grossman, the Estuary Victim from Jaws.)
CHAPTER 2 (12:49-22:18): Indy at his "day job," teaching amorous young women (and one apple-polishing young man) about archeology. Obviously, no one in the room is there to learn about ancient civilizations, they're all there to gaze upon sexy young Indy (I wonder if young women still look at him like that in the new movie). We learn about his attitude toward the artifacts he searches for: he is interested in them only for their historical value, whereas antagonist Belloq is interested in them for the power they will convey unto him (which we see instantly in the Peru scene). (The fact that Indy routinely destroys ancient temples in pursuit of religious artifacts doesn't weigh very heavily on the movie's mind -- the object, not the location seem to be the important thing.)
We also see Indy's skeptical nature -- he doesn't buy into any religious significance of any of the items he pursues. Religion is folklore to Indiana Jones. He is a modern man, and the fact that he keeps stating this stance in movie after movie regardless of the magical wonders he witnesses, makes him more modern than ever.
Chapter 2 introduces Indy as a down-and-out loser archaeologist in a dead-end job and brings into his life a pair of US government agents who have the unhappy task of drawing poor Indy and his pal Dr. Brody through a sadly tedious expository scene. I probably had to watch this movie fifteen times or so before I even had any idea what the hell anyone was talking about in this scene -- the headpiece of the Staff of Ra, the lost city of Tanis, the Well of Souls, the Ark of the Covenant, it all comes spilling out of characters' mouths with no dramatization and precious little visual stimulus.
The dramatic point of the chapter is that Indy is getting a second chance at glory after having his Peruvian idol snatched from him. He gratefully leaps at the chance, even as Dr. Brody warns him in plummy tones that the Ark is a dangerous, dangerous artifact, "like nothing you've gone after before." Indy starts the chapter as a desperate loser and ends it as a cocksure winner, back on top and reckless as he tilts his head back on the plane to Nepal and covers his face with his famous hat while a sneaky Nazi peers at him over his copy of Life magazine. This Nazi will become a worth Second Villain to the piece, although at this point we think he is First Villain.
CHAPTER 3 (22:18-33:44): Indy flies to Nepal to see Abner Ravenwood, his mentor, but instead finds Abner's daughter Marion, tending bar and drinking the locals under the table. We had gotten a little Marion backstory in Chapter 2 and we get more here: apparently, "ten years ago" Indy loved the teenage Marion and left her, which destroyed his relationship with Abner and now puts him in a dicey position with regards to his pursuit of his goal. He needs Marion to hand over the Headpiece of the Staff of Ra (the significance of which is explained in Chapter 2, if one can follow the dense exposition). This requires a little sweet talk from Indy, a task he is not prepared for and executes clumsily. Having failed, he exits the bar on uncertain terms. The Nazi From The Airplane, Toht, enters with a team of henchmen and tries a different approach to acquiring the headpiece, Nazi-style torture.
(Spielberg loves to have two different teams pursuing the same goal for different reasons and with contrasting methods. He uses it in Close Encounters and The Lost World, to name two of the most obvious.)
Indy re-emerges in the role of Clumsy Rescuer, bumbling his way through a complicated fight and shoot-out until Marion can step up and prove her worth as partner to the protagonist. His charm fails but his improvisatory rescue does the job, and Indy and Marion get out of Nepal alive and a step ahead of Toht.
So Indy begins this chapter as a cocksure winner, enters Marion's bar cautiously as a repentant lout, and ends as a clumsy, scorched-earth rescuer, repeating the dynamic of Chapter 1, and once again destroying the building containing his prize. There are, of course, two prizes here, the Headpiece of the Staff of Ra and Marion, and the remainder of the narrative will dramatize Indy's struggle to balance the comparative worth of the love of the woman he betrayed and the object he pursues.