Everyone loves the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark because it’s the punchline to a joke that you never realized the film set you up for. The government claims that they have “top men” working on the mysteries that lie within the awesome divine relic, only for us to see the ark get shut up in a box and deposited in the recesses of a fully stocked warehouse, where it will likely never be found again. But let’s be honest here—do we really think that was the best possible solution? Given the havoc that the ark brought down upon the Nazis, why did the US government simply pack it away?
Think about this: Indiana Jones makes it back from his mission to retrieve the Ark of the Covenant. Said mission was initially given to him by two government stooges from Army Intelligence who approached Jones to find out why archaeologist Abner Ravenwood (that’s Marion’s dad) was mentioned in a Nazi communique; the whole retrieving-the-ark business didn’t come into play until Indiana and Marcus Brody made it clear that the Nazis were hunting a major biblical artifact of untold power and importance.
But now they’ve actually got the thing in their hands, and Jones debriefs and explains how he managed to make it home with the golden prize. This is what he’s able to tell them:
- He found the ark, but the Nazis stole it out from under him…twice;
- He tracked the ark to a secret location and was captured along with Marion Ravenwood;
- Belloq performed a Jewish ritual to open the ark and receive what the Nazis hoped to be invincibility at the hands of God;
- The commandment tablets stored in the ark had turned to dust;
- Something else emerged from the ark, and Jones—tied up with Marion about 20 or so yards from Belloq and the artifact—deemed it wise to close their eyes;
- Screaming begins, horror ensues;
- By the time they opened their eyes, the Nazis had disappeared—but were presumed dead.
There are two options for what the G-men think about Indy’s story, so let’s parse those out.
Maybe the agents believe the story happened exactly as Jones told it. The power of God does exist within the Ark of the Covenant, everything in report was true, and the artifact in question is a source of “unspeakable power,” as Brody puts it. This apparently empty box laid waste to a battalion of Nazi soldiers in moments for no discernible reason. The call for research likely isn’t even considered because the idea of gathering some scientists around to look into a vague idea of divine might is absurd. How would you begin to go about testing that? There weren’t even bodies left behind as tangible evidence for study. God clearly isn’t interested in humanity trying to figure Him out.
In this scenario, the government shuts that box up in a warehouse for one reason alone: they’re terrified of God. The Ark of the Covenant has proven that God’s will is still entirely actionable on this Earth, and shutting the ark up and stowing it away where no one can ever find it is a good way of making sure that the US government both knows where it is at all times and can prevent anyone from opening it ever again.
But there’s another possibility here that is rarely entertained… perhaps the government has decided that Indiana Jones is full of shit.
The G-men responsible for giving Jones the assignment are clearly not super devout types. They have very little knowledge of the ark or biblical lore, though they may bluster when Jones asks either of them if they ever went to Sunday school. They are mesmerized by the story that Brody and Indy tell them, but the likelihood of them actually believing that the ark makes armies invincible is pretty low. Sending Indiana Jones after the ark is more a matter of practicality; it makes sense to prevent the Nazis from getting their hands on an important religious artifact (and sticks it to Hitler real good in the process), Jones assumes all of the risk on the mission, and whatever they promised to pay him is still probably small beans in comparison to military spending in the lead up to WWII. If he fails or doesn’t make it back, then it cost them nothing at all. It’s a win-win, no matter how you cut it.
By some miracle (literally), Jones does come back with the Ark of the Covenant, and proceeds to spin this wild story about how it literally sucked up a bunch of Nazis for daring to open it. Now, even if these guys go to church every Sunday, it’s unlikely that they believe the ark can do what Jones and Brody have claimed. Even if they assume the ark really is dangerous, and that it somehow killed scores of men (who all conveniently vanished without a trace…), they may still reach for a human explanation.
In this light, the ending to the film and their stern placations of “Top. Men.” come off differently. They honestly don’t care if the Ark of the Covenant is researched. They got what they wanted out of this ordeal: Abner Ravenwood is dead and therefore not helping the Third Reich, they stopped one of Hitler’s ploys to get a major occult artifact, and in the process a lot of Nazis died.
Still a win-win.
And whatever that fancy box contains, it is now the property of the US government. If and when someone decides they have interest in the thing? Great, they can make a case for studying it, or opening it, or whatever it is that they have a mind to do. But in the meanwhile, it makes more sense to just tuck it away. Out of mind, out of sight. Like the whole thing never even happened.
Indiana Jones can grumble to his heart’s content. It’s almost comical that he doesn’t account for the possibility of their disbelieving his story when he didn’t go in for the “hocus pocus” either at the start of the quest. He really should have seen it coming.