There’s a point in Raiders of the Lost Ark where Rene Belloq, the film’s villain, claims that he and Indiana Jones are distorted mirror images of each other, that all it would take would be one bad day to turn the film’s morally-ambiguous hero into a villain. This scene, to a certain extent, is the most important scene in the movie and gives the audience the clearest glimpse at who Indiana Jones truly is. This scene is especially impactful because it directly follows the one in which Jones believes Marion, his love, to have been murdered due to Belloq’s quest for the Ark. The audience knows Jones is filled with rage towards Belloq, and is left unsure as to whether or not he’ll kill him in cold blood. It’s one of the first times in the movie where Jones truly starts to show his dark side, and the audience starts to realize that there’s more to Jones than meets the eye.
Jones’ motives in the film are spelled out pretty clearly. He is motivated by both external and internal motivators, and the film leaves the audience to decide what’s more important to Jones. His external motivators are the US government, tasking Jones with going after the Ark so that it doesn’t fall into the hands of the Nazis. Jones knows that the Nazis might destroy the Ark if they get their hands on it, and wants to bring back the Ark to the museum. However, it’s his internal motivation to be the one who finds the Ark, to satisfy his curiosity and downright obsession, that truly drives his quest. Jones’ obsession causes him to cast aside all reason and wherewithal and forces him to act on instinct alone. When they’re escaping from the Nazi dig site and see that they’re transporting the Ark via truck, Jones tells Marion and Salah that he’s going to steal a horse and he’ll meet up with them later. When they question this decision, he responds with “I don’t know, I’m making this up as I go along”. While this could just be a line played for laughs, it does give the audience a good insight into the mind of Jones. He is obsessed with the Ark, and this obsession cannot simply be rooted in his anti-Nazi sentiments. He has no reason to fear what the Nazis will do to the Ark because, as he tells Marcus earlier in the film as he packs for his trip, he doesn’t believe the Ark to hold any mystical powers. The excuse that he doesn’t want the Ark to be destroyed and this is his primary motivation makes sense for most of the film, but loses all merit once Jones points a rocket launcher at the Ark and threatens to blow them all to kingdom-come. Jones is shot, stabbed, beaten, and dragged through the desert by a truck, all for the sake of keeping the Ark in his possession. A man doesn’t let himself get dragged through the desert by a truck and fight through a horde of Nazis unless there’s some sort of obsession at play.
The film cleverly uses the Nazis as a secondary villain to Belloq because they’re so easy to hate, and they make Belloq easy to hate by association. But their inclusion is a lot less important than one might think. Both Belloq and Jones are using the Nazis. Belloq is using the power of the Nazis to fund his search for the Ark, while Jones is using their threat as an excuse to drop everything and go after the Ark. The Nazis are the moral excuse Jones gives to himself. And so, once the audience realizes that Jones doesn’t actually care about the Nazis and is only hunting for the Ark for personal reasons, they start to draw comparisons between him and Belloq. When the audience examines Belloq’s motivations and actions, they start to find that they are not too dissimilar from that of Dr. Indiana Jones. Both Belloq and Jones are motivated by personal obsession with the Ark. While part of Belloq’s obsession is rooted in religion, with him repeatedly discussing his desire to “talk to God”, there’s more to it than that. Both Belloq and Jones want to find the Ark because they want to be the ones who can say they discovered the Ark of the Covenant. They both know it’s power, even if they don’t understand it, and they both wish to wield it. It’s not just their motivations that connect Jones and Belloq, but their actions as well. Both Belloq and Jones use people to get what they want. Belloq uses the Nazis, and Jones uses Marion. His obsession almost leads to Marion dying a fiery death. And so, in that scene in the bar when Belloq tells Jones that they are one and the same, Jones realizes this. He realizes that he’s used Marion and his obsession for the Ark has led him down a dark path. And so, when he stands to pull his gun to kill Belloq, the audience is truly afraid of what he might do. Because they know just as well as Jones does in that moment that Jones is not the hero he pretends to be, and that he’s just another man.
Belloq angers Jones because he can see the similarities between the two of them and Jones can’t, or rather, won’t. Belloq knows this, which is why he’s able to have the power over Jones for so much of the film. When Jones threatens to blow up the Ark in a mad scheme to save Marion, only Belloq is unafraid. He knows that Jones is far too obsessed with opening the Ark and bringing it back to the Western World to ever destroy it, and he only knows this because Belloq himself is driven by that same motivation. Belloq and Jones are two sides of the same Western coin. Jones represents the stories told in the West about how all those fascinating artifacts get all neatly arranged in museums thousands of miles away from where they’re from. Stories of brave men civilizing a savage world and finding treasures that only the civilized world could truly appreciate. But Belloq represents the truth of how those artifacts got there. They got there because they were stolen. Stolen by men and armies who brutalized and massacred whole civilizations in the name of empire, and got to keep these artifacts as trophies of their conquest.
One can definitely find a hidden critique of colonialism in Raiders of the Lost Ark. Going back to that scene with Belloq and Jones, it truly highlights how similar the two men are. They’re both obsessive, manipulative, homicidal men of faith who are obsessed with claiming ownership over something that belongs to neither of them. The Ark of the Covenant is a religious artifact, an ancient relic that has incredible cultural and religious significance to another culture. Despite this, no one in the film ever even considers giving the Ark back to its people. Belloq’s lack of respect for the Ark’s rightful owners makes sense, given that he’s working with Nazis, but what about Jones? Jones and Marcus speak earlier in the film on how important the Ark is, yet neither of them wants to give back to whom it belongs. If Jones truly was a hero, or even just a good archeologist motivated by impartial discovery, wouldn’t he want to give the Ark of the Covenant back to its people? Sadly, this is not the case. Jones, as has been established, is not motivated by an impartial desire to discover and respect the history of the world. Jones is motivated by obsession and greed, his desire to find the Ark and bring it back to the Western World. Belloq and Jones both wish to find the Ark, but each of them knows that they will not be one who ends up keeping it. Belloq knows he must give the Ark to the Nazis when he is done, and Jones knows that it will end up in a museum once he brings it back to America. Of course, the Ark doesn’t end up in a museum, but rather in a large, nameless warehouse owned by the US government. This is portrayed as slightly sinister, but why? Why is the big warehouse where the government ends up storing the Ark any worse than putting it into a museum? Is it because the people aren’t allowed to gloat over their loot, and they don’t get to benefit from it’s theft? That warehouse is the same as every museum in the Western world, filled with artifacts stolen from other cultures by men obsessed with their discovery.