On June 12, 1981, the world was introduced to a fedora-wearing, whip-cracking archaeologist who instantly became a movie icon.
Raiders of the Lost Ark was hardly a stealth success. As a collaboration between the two most celebrated pop filmmakers of their time -- Steven Spielberg and George Lucas -- and starring Star Wars hero Harrison Ford, it was the kind of movie that would have been blogged about incessantly if it were making its debut today. But audiences fell in love with the loving, fast-paced homage to cliffhanging adventure serials, making it the most successful release of 1981 (and still among the top 20 North American releases all time when adjusted for inflation).
Because Ford put on the fedora three more times subsequently -- and because Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull was such a crushing disappointment to so many -- it's easy to lose sight of what a strange concoction Raiders was. Its hero was a man of action, sure, but he was also a university professor and a scientist. He had his foibles -- including his infamous fear of snakes -- and he was matched with a hard-drinking, hard-fighting woman in Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen) who was no mere damsel in distress (which is part of what made Kate Capshaw's character in Temple of Doom so grating). Perhaps most strangely of all, it capped off its relatively conventional action set-pieces with a supernatural, wrath-of-G-d finale. It's ingredients were not the obvious stuff of legend.
Yet Spielberg's masterful pacing and Ford's singular way with a fallible hero gave Raiders of the Lost Ark a sense of pure cinematic fun that many subsequent films have tried to duplicate, and generally feel forced and awkward while doing so. So what if there are rumors of another sequel in the works. As a defining blockbuster movie moment, the original still can't be whipped.