The Scriptnotes podcast did an entire episode analyzing Raiders of the Lost Ark. Click on this link to download the MP3 or the transcript.
John and Craig said that Raiders isn’t, as I’d thought it was, the story of a hero retrieving the Lost Ark from the Nazis. No, Raiders is the story of a man who lacks faith and who is obsessed with things instead of people, gaining faith and learning to value people over things. Indy starts as the only person in the movie who doesn’t believe the stories about the Lost Ark. He just wants the thing.
Belloc, one of Indy’s main antagonists, is Indy’s shadow. He is Indy, with the same strengths and flaws, but just a little farther along the trajectory of that character flaw. He shows what Indy will become if he doesn’t change. Belloc wants the same things Indy wants, he’s just more ruthless getting them.
I like that interpretation a lot, because I like stories with ideas and character arcs. I believe that Larry Kasdan (the writer) had that arc in mind. But did it matter? I bet less than 5% of the audience thought that Raiders was a story about Indy learning not to be so attached to things. They enjoyed it anyway.
Did having that character arc make them enjoy the movie more, even if they didn’t know it was there?
Me personally, I think that most people miss it, but without it the story is less compelling. It’s the hidden depths that draw us in even if we don’t seem to register those depths.
We see the forest not the trees, yet without the trees there is no forest.