Raiders of the Lost Ark Has the Greatest Exposition Scene in Movie History

For Raiders of the Lost Ark’s 40th anniversary, we look back on the scene where Indiana Jones took us to school.

Indiana Jones and Marcus in Raiders of the Lost Ark chalkboard exposition
Photo: Paramount Pictures

“The people I brought are important and they’re waiting,” Indiana Jones is told early in Raiders of the Lost Ark. “[They’re] army intelligence and they knew you were coming before I did.” It’s a cryptic line of dialogue full of mystery, even for  a guy like Dr. Jones. Before this moment, Indy’s been revealed to be a man of many talents: grave robber, bullwhip master, even college professor. But a spy? The character, and more importantly his audience, cannot quite fathom what this is all about, but our interest is piqued to discover more. Especially, as we soon learn is forever his custom, Indy is going into this situation on the wrongfoot.

So begins one of Raiders of the Lost Ark’s most pivotal scenes. At its core, the scene where Harrison Ford’s Indy meets with two government stuffed shirts is an exposition dump, one intended to catch the viewer up on magical arks, occultist Nazis, and God’s wrath inside of five minutes. But it is written so elegantly, and staged so thoughtfully, that it elevates the most functional mechanics of Hollywood storytelling into something greater. Rarely has a scene tasked with the laborious duty of exposition appeared this lithe or engrossing. Hence why, in its own way, the moment where Indiana Jones excitedly runs to a chalkboard can be nearly as thrilling as watching him outpace a boulder.

The Hidden Perils in Exposition

Under normal circumstances, exposition is one of the most thankless aspects of a screenwriter’s job—and the worse they are at delivering it, the greater the burden becomes for actors, directors, and even audiences to make it work. Every conventional piece of narrative storytelling needs to establish its ground rules, of course. And exposition is nothing if not key pieces of information a viewer, reader, or gamer requires to follow along. But often the more high-concept the story, the harder it becomes for the narrative to organically share that information.

Hence as Hollywood has drifted toward big blockbuster spectacles that demand heavy-handed worldbuilding, exposition scenes have similarly become increasingly cumbersome. It’s what led to lazy choices like each Transformers movie starting with obligatory voiceover narration and table-setting flashbacks, or title cards for Every. Single. Character. in 2016’s Suicide Squad.

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Of course Raiders of the Lost Ark, along with other early successes from director Steven Spielberg and producer George Lucas, helped usher in this modern age of blockbusters. But in the case of the first Indiana Jones movie, they did it with such effective wit and intelligence that even the narrative dump became one of the movie’s classic moments. 

Raiders of the Old Movie Tropes

The concept of Indiana Jones is rooted, at least in part, in the James Bond movies and their serialized, travelogue thrills. It certainly was the initial appeal to Spielberg, who famously came to the project after being passed over by Eon Productions for the next 007 flick. So he and Lucas modeled aspects of the Jones character on the Bond formula, including the usually pat expository scene near the beginning.

You know the type: 007 comes into MI6 headquarters and is informed, often with typical British understatement, about the severity of a situation by M; the unflappable Bond makes a dryly humorous observation about the mission; he annoys his superiors, flirts with Moneypenny, and is off. By the time For Your Eyes Only opened in the same month as Raiders of the Lost Ark 40 years ago, the convention was designed with the precision of clockwork, and often featured the same amount of excitement.

The scene where Indy meets Maj. Eaton (William Hootkins) and Col. Musgrove (Don Fellows) plays much the same way. Authority figures have come to demand the expertise of a talented man of action they’re about to send around the world. He impresses, if also aggravates, the white collar set, and then off he goes.  Yet from the moment Indy’s museum pal Marcus Brody (Denholm Elliot) tells him Army intelligence is here, the actual presentation is ingeniously subversive. Before the scene is over, Spielberg’s version of 007 will be lecturing the proverbial M, instead of the other way around, about the mission and the implications of the MacGuffin. It is Indy and his intellectual equal in Marcus who understand what’s at stake, not the government.

This is of course by design. It’s even how the idea of the scene began when Spielberg and Lucas met with Empire Strikes Back screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan to break down what would become Raiders of the Lost Ark’s screenplay. In their famed story conference transcripts from 1978, Lucas suggested, “Our guy be the one who’s explaining it.”

Noting that it would obviously be the exposition scene of the movie, where the concept of the Ark of the Covenant is introduced to audiences who didn’t go to Sunday school, Lucas immediately won Kasdan over.

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“I like that,” Kasdan said. “They’re telling him, but he knows more about it than they do.” Yet Lucas took it further, going so far as to call the moment a “a puzzle scene” where the protagonist is solving a small mystery—it’s almost happenstance he also reveals the Old Testament’s Ark of the Covenant as a source of power so great it could level mountains.

Said Lucas, “The other way to do it is to let [Indy] know about the Ark, and not them. Having the Army guy say that they found the lost city. Hitler is going after all these artifacts. He believes in all the supernatural stuff and everything. We don’t know what they found out there, but it’s awfully important because they’re sending for this professor. Our guy is the one who puts two and two together. Then he sort of explains it. They have all the pieces of the puzzle, and they want him to get whatever the Germans are after. He says, ‘I’ll tell you what they’re after. They’re after the lost Ark.’”

Indiana Jones Takes You to (Film) School

Thus from its outset, the basic idea of the scene was always rooted in the most fertile soil for storytelling: conflict. When the scene begins, suspicious and cagey authority figures have summoned a man they expect to be an ineffectual academic; they wind up with a guy who’s instantly several pages ahead of them in the script. The reversal makes the ominous dialogue about the Ark of the Covenant inherently exciting, but how it’s played by the actors, and staged by Spielberg, elevates this into something else entirely.

When Ford’s Jones and the indispensable Denholm Elliot enter the scene, the audience is already a little giddy from the disorienting effect of the previous sequences. After all, the film introduced Indiana Jones as a mysterious, even faintly dangerous presence. He disarms a traitor in his tomb raiding party with a whip before we even see his face and he seems more at home with tarantulas on his back than chatting with Alfred Molina’s Satipo. And before the scene’s done, Indy’s escaped a falling boulder, two betrayals, and has been chased by the early 20th century notion of “natives.”

And yet, once he gets to his escape plane, the coolest hero audiences have ever met is revealed to be flawed, and frankly a bit neurotic. He nearly sounds like a terrified child when he sees a snake and screams, “I hate snakes, Jock! I hate ‘em!

Afterward, the rug is pulled again as audiences are whisked to Indy’s day job. Unlike 007, Dr. Jones’ life isn’t all international travel, fistfights, and seductions. In fact, he’s downright awkward, if ever still charming, as a university instructor swatting away advances from forward students. The movie thus quickly establishes that, unlike most matinee idols, this is a multifaceted action hero who’s just as comfortable in tweed and a bowtie as he is leather jackets and fedoras.

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In its way, this all sets the stage for the exposition scene where Indy winds up as everybody’s favorite guest lecturer. When Indy and Marcus enter the lecture hall with the G-Men, Spielberg has notably toned down some of the camp elements Lucas pitched in the story meeting (among them that the characters should be surrounded by a hall of mummies). It looks like a regular 1930s New England institution, with the director relying on the awkward silence of the good old boys getting settled to underscore the severity of the situation. Character actors Hootkins and Fellows play it completely straight when they invoke the words “Adolf Hitler” and “Nazis,” which still would grab the complete attention of 1981 audiences whose parents or grandparents fought in World War II.

“You must understand this all strictly confidential,” Hootkins says while looking over his shoulder, as if the movie is about to share a forgotten secret from the greatest conflict of the century. Only then does Spielberg start to move his camera, slowly dollying in on the Army man. “Yesterday afternoon, our European sections intercepted a German communique that was sent from Cairo to Berlin.” With deft efficiency, Kasdan’s script now lays out what Lucas called “puzzle pieces,” with Hootkins demanding total attention by breathlessly shouting the Fuhrer’s name. “Hitler’s a nut on the subject! He’s crazy, he’s obsessed with the occult!”

This is the setup for Indiana Jones to prove he’s the smartest guy in the room. But the way Ford plays this scene is what causes you to lean forward in your seat. When he’s asked about “the lost ark,” he’s as incredulous as a schoolboy who’s offended you’ve never heard of his favorite band. He’s both the biggest alpha and biggest nerd in the scene.

Yeah,” Ford enthuses so quickly his voice cracks, “the Ark of the Covenant, the chest the Hebrews used to carry around the Ten Commandments.” At this point, the government men are hopelessly lost and just repeat everything Indy says like it is an actual Sunday school’s call and response. “Yes, the Ten Commandments,” Indy continues,  “the original stone tablets Moses brought down out of Mt. Horeb and smashed—if you believe in that sort of thing.”

At once we understand the key elements that will propel Indy through the rest of the movie: he has the impetuousness of an action hero, the passionate curiosity of an academic, and the total lack of God-fearing faith that might get him in trouble when trifling with the Hebrews’ prize.

It’s economical character development at its best, which leads to the image of Jones before a literal blackboard educating you. Most of the characters on screen look up in awe, but as a director to never miss a great reaction shot, the one that Spielberg lingers on is Marcus’ fatherly admiration for Indy’s excitement. And it’s Marcus who provides a countering sense of awe to Indy’s impatience. Beneath the surface, there is even a subtler, more significant conflict being laid here that extends beyond this scene and carries throughout the rest of the picture. Marcus is of course acting as Indy’s de facto wingman, reeling the U.S. government in to pay for the expedition. “The army that carries the Ark before it is invincible,” Marcus says like a salesman closing the deal.

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But a moment earlier when he warns of how the city of Tanis was “wiped clean by the wrath of God,” there is in an uneasy sense of true believing fear in Elliot’s delivery. This warring juxtaposition between faith and curiosity will propel the movie from this point to the very end, right up until Indy learns to finally avert his eyes in the face of antiquity’s awesome legacy.

In fact, the only music in the whole sequence occurs when Indy opens a book of scripture to the spookiest image ever drawn of the Ark of the Covenant. Not coincidentally, this is also the exact moment we’re introduced to John Williams’ “Ark of the Covenant Theme,” which fills any scene it’s in with looming menace. And the way Indy dismisses it as “the power of God or something,” as he walks away from the camera? It only increases the movie’s sudden sense of doom. At last it dawns on the viewer that perhaps you’re seeing something you shouldn’t know—this is an adventure right into the heart of the forbidden.

The Stuff MacGuffin Dreams Are Made Of

All of which plays to how George Lucas famously differed from the likes of Alfred Hitchcock, or for that matter most modern blockbuster filmmakers, when it came to creating MacGuffins (the plot device characters will live and die for but audiences allegedly shouldn’t care about).

“The audience should care about it almost as much as the dueling heroes and villains on-screen,” Lucas once told Vanity Fair.

Never did that prove more potent than in Raiders of the Lost Ark’s exposition scene, a moment where the film turned the most menial of tasks into something intriguing, entertaining, and ultimately a little unnerving. Whether you went to Sunday school or not, like Indy you couldn’t stop after this moment until you, too, peeked inside that Ark. Which is why, as a piece of filmmaking and storycraft, this sequence remains one of Raiders’ greatest treasures.