Imagine this: The Paramount Pictures logo fades away into a real mountain as a fedora-topped man and his men travel through the jungle. We see this man in the shadows, from behind, and from the chest down -- all shots obscuring his face. Finally, when they get to a stream and the fedora man pulls out a map, one of his men pulls out a gun. However, before he can shoot, the gun is whipped out of the man's hand with a simple flick, and a thick, mustachioed Tom Selleck walks out of the darkness.
This is what Raiders of the Lost Ark could have been -- a Magnum PI-led adventure film -- had that same show not spirited Selleck away and forced Steven Spielberg and George Lucas to find someone else. They tested Tim Matheson, Otter from Animal House. They tested Peter Coyote -- an actor who went on to play Keys in ET. But no one compared to Harrison Ford, who came in and made Indiana Jones an ageless icon of adventure and archeology. While there are many great films that have graced the screen, few hold up to the test of time. That is not to say that a classic film cannot still be appreciated, admired, and honored. But few shrug off the weight of age and look like they were made just yesterday. Raiders of the Lost Ark is one of those films. It's not just because the film is set in the '30s. Raiders is shot in a way that's almost always free of those tell-tale and obvious '80s effects. Better yet, it doesn't have the super-obvious '80s style in retro clothing. It simply becomes a portal into a fantasy-filtered past.
We all know the story by now. By day, at home, Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) is a super-sexy, yet subdued, Clark Kent sort of archaeologist who teaches hordes of adoring female students the wonders of archeology. Overseas, however, he's a tough and uber-cool action hero who finds himself in a myriad of scrapes, yet always seems to come out with the prized piece of history he was searching for. This time, he sets out to find the Ark of the Covenant, the vessel said to have stored the Ten Commandments.
But the path never seems to be easy for Indy. Dr. Rene Belloq (Paul Freeman) is the archaeological thorn in his side, Major Arnold Toht (Ronald Lacey) is a creepy Nazi out to get the Covenant for Hitler, and even Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen), an old flame of Indy's, is not too pleased with the adventure seeker. All of these actors, plus the bellowing John Rhys-Davies, Denholm Elliot, and the short stint by Alfred Molina set up a wild adventure that is not only wonderfully played, but also smart and fun.
Favoring stunts over effects, Raiders of the Lost Ark skillfully brings to life the illustrated graphic novels from the '30s and allows you to be pulled in just as much as when it was released almost 30 years ago. All these years later, it's still fresh, vibrant, and, thankfully, modern.
Unlike the sequels, which paired Indy up with the high-maintenance Wilhelmina or the cold and desperate Dr. Elsa Schneider, Raiders reveled in smarts from both sides of the genetic pool. Allen's Ravenwood might have to be rescued a few times, but not as a damsel in distress. She remains strong throughout the film, whether she's drinking men under the table or wielding a frying pan.
But each of these other pieces only thrives because of Harrison Ford. He made Indiana Jones a natural and realistic hero; one who is tough, smart, fun, and charismatic. When Ford grabs that whip and John Williams' score plays -- you can't help but be sucked in.
And just for a little bit of extra casting trivia:
Did you know that Sean Young was once considered for the role of Marion?
Or, better yet, did you know that Danny DeVito was originally set to play Sallah?