In 1936, archaeologist and adventurer Indiana Jones is hired by the U.S. government to find the Ark of the Covenant before Adolf Hitler's Nazis can obtain its awesome powers.
The year is 1936. An archeology professor named Indiana Jones is venturing in the jungles of South America searching for a golden statue. Unfortunately, he sets off a deadly trap but miraculously escapes. Then, Jones hears from a museum curator named Marcus Brody about a biblical artifact called The Ark of the Covenant, which can hold the key to humanly existence. Jones has to venture to vast places such as Nepal and Egypt to find this artifact. However, he will have to fight his enemy Rene Belloq and a band of Nazis in order to reach it.
As the Third Reich continues its reign of terror, Adolf Hitler is on a quest for the legendary Ark of the Covenant- resting place of the Ten Commandments- whose supernatural powers, legend says, can wipe out entire armies. The U.S. Government turns to Dr. Indiana Jones, for the mission. Relentlessly pursued by Hitler's henchmen, Indy infiltrates their massive digging operation in a race against time to discover the Well of the Souls, where the Ark has lain undisturbed for centuries.
With Adolf Hitler's Nazis rumoured to have pinpointed the secret resting place of the fabled Ark of the Covenant, the sacred artefact that holds the Ten Commandments, the U.S. government enlists the help of the American archaeologist, university professor, and man of adventure, Indiana Jones. Assumed to contain an unfathomable destructive force, Indiana travels to the dangerous mountains of Nepal, and then, to mysterious Cairo, where he teams up with his old flame, Marion, and his friend, Sallah. But, this is a frenzied race against time, and the road to the coveted relic passes through Indy's scheming arch-rival, Dr René Belloq, and the sadistic Gestapo commander Major Toht's armed-to-the-teeth army. Can Indiana Jones prevent the Ark from falling into the wrong hands?
Renowned archeologist and expert in the occult, Dr. Indiana Jones, is hired by the U.S. Government to find the Ark of the Covenant, which is believed to still hold the ten commandments. Unfortunately, agents of Hitler are also after the Ark. Indy, and his ex-flame Marion, escape from various close scrapes in a quest that takes them from Nepal to Cairo.
- 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 cocks the pistol's hammer, pulls out a bullwhip and disarms the man, sending him fleeing back through the jungle. The man who expertly wields the bullwhip is Dr. Henry "Indiana" Jones, Jr. (Harrison Ford), an archaeologist with a reputation for heavy-handed field work that takes him around the globe in search of ancient treasures.
Indy and his remaining companion, Sapito (Alfred Molina), 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 -- one of the traps is found to have impaled Forrestal. Jones finds the antechamber where the statue sits atop a pedestal and is protected by an elaborate system of pressure-sensitive stones that release deadly darts from the surrounding walls. Jones avoids the booby-trapped stones and makes it to the idol. He very deftly replaces the idol with a bag of sand, judging the weight of the treasure by sight. However, the weight is not precise, the pedestal sinks and the chamber begins to collapse. Jones runs, narrowly avoiding the darts. When he arrives at a bottomless pit he & Sapito had crossed earlier using Jones' bullwhip, Sapito crosses safely but refuses to give Jones his whip unless he gives him the idol. Indy throws him the idol but Sapito drops the whip and runs off. Jones manages to jump across and pull himself up and escape under the stone door that closes. He finds Sapito dead, killed by the same trap that killed Forrestal. Jones retrieves the idol and must once again flee while a large boulder rushes toward him. He leaps out of the cave's entrance just as the boulder hits, sealing it.
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 hands Belloq his pistol and the idol. When Belloq raises the idol and the Hovitos bow, Indy flees and is rescued by Jock (Fred Sorenson), flying a seaplane, though Indy, an admitted ophidiophobe, isn't pleased to find Jock's pet snake Reggie in the cockpit with him.
Back stateside, Indy teaches an archaeology class and is still upset over the loss of the statue, which he surmises Belloq is taking to Marrakesh to sell on the black market. Indy 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 not far from Cairo. When they read the cable, Indy and Marcus realize the Nazis have discovered Tanis, an ancient city long since 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. Indy quickly explains to them the need for an object mentioned in the communique, the headpiece to the Staff of Ra, which will reveal the location of the Ark at the Nazi excavation. The Army men are impressed by Indy's and Marcus' knowledge of the Ark but Indy tells them the man most qualified is Ravenwood, who has been living somewhere in Asia for several years. When Indy shows the agents a picture of the Ark, it depicts it using unimaginable destructive power. Marcus also says very gravely that any army that carries the Ark into battle is invincible.
Indy flies to Nepal (followed by a Nazi agent, Toht (Ronald Lacey)) to speak to Marion Ravenwood, who runs a restaurant and bar (and who can outdrink anyone) because he needs the headpiece to the Staff of Ra. 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 reveals that she'd been wearing the headpiece on a chain around her neck. She looks it over thoughtfully and places it on a small wooden sculpture on the table.
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 jumps out a window, trying to cool his hand in the snow. Outside the burning tavern, Marion tells Indy that she's his partner in the venture until he can pay her.
The two fly to Egypt to see Indy's pal, Sallah (John Rhys-Davies), one of the country's most successful excavators, who is working on the Nazi site and who reveals that the Nazis are aided by a French archaeologist (Belloq). Thought the dig has uncovered much of Tanis, Indy knows that they'll never find the Ark's location without the headpiece. Sallah says he knows a man who can read the ancient inscriptions that give the precise measurements of the staff.
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 casually 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 alcohol at a nearby tavern but is met by more Nazi agents who escort him to a table where he finds 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, surround Indy and escort him out.
Sallah takes Indy to see the shaman who is reading the headpiece's inscriptions 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 map room 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 finally reveal the roof of 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 stone chest containing the Ark. They remove it and place it into a crate. Just after Sallah hoists himself out, the rope is dropped into the hole and Belloq appears with Dietrich. Belloq brags about again stealing Indy's find and how he'll seal him in the chamber to die. Before the roof is closed up, Toht throws Marion into the chamber, over Belloq's protests.
While Marion and Indy fight off the snakes, Indy notices a wall with holes that snakes are crawling through. 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 a Nazi flying wing is waiting to fly the Ark out. 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 German soldier who pummels Indy before being punched backward and shredded to bits by the plane's propeller. 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. In the melee, Indy forces Dietrich and Belloq's car off the road, delaying their pursuit.
He and Marion board a tramp steamer that will take them to a safer location, but a Nazi submarine captures the ship. The ship's captain tells Belloq and Dietrich to take the Ark and leave Marion behind for their own amusement, Dietrich takes Marion aboard the sub with the Ark anyway. Indy suddenly appears as the sub leaves and boards it while the ship's crew cheer him on. The sub crosses the Mediterranean Sea and arrives at a small island in the Aegean that houses a German naval yard. Indy sees Marion being escorted off the sub and knocks out a sentry, stealing his uniform. Belloq, Dietrich, Toht and Marion all march inland. When they enter a canyon, Indy holds them all at bay with a German rocket launcher, threatening to destroy the Ark. 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, remembering an ancient code that requires people to close their eyes and not look at the now-freed spirits, yells for Marion to do the same. The two 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. Toht and Dietrich's faces melt as they scream in horror. Belloq himself explodes. The energy mass surges high into the night sky, carrying every corpse toward the heavens, 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.
However, the Ark is sealed in a wooden crate, stamped with a government serial number and simply wheeled into a large warehouse containing thousands of similar-looking crates.