It's 1933. Dr. Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford), an archaeologist of some renown, is approached by the U.S. government to begin a dig of some importance: find the Ark of the Covenant, the receptacle of the 10 Commandments that God bestowed upon Noah. The Ark, which is alleged to possess mystical powers, is being sought by the Nazi government, and the American officials want Indie to find it before the Nazis. To do this, Indie must revisit his past, in the form of Marion Raven (Karen Allen), daughter of his former mentor, and Indie's one-time lover. Much more than hijinks ensue, as Indie has to face Marion, the Nazis, and his rival, the unscrupulous Dr. René Belloq (Paul Freeman).
I'm going to spend a moment venting my minor annoyance at the American Film Institute's Lifetime Achievement Award. Not that I think the folks who have received it aren't worthy - they most certainly are (and Mr. Williams is no exception). But what annoys me are the huge gaps. They won't give the award to someone deceased (it's hard to have a dinner given for you if you are dead) or to someone who won't COME to the dinner (so Katharine Hepburn never got the Award. She wasn't about to get dressed up for an award), so the people that, for example, Mr. Williams admired (like Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Miklos Rosza, and Alfred Newman), will never enter the pantheon. Plus, out of 44 awards, only one has gone to a person of color (Morgan Freeman) and only eight have been given to a woman (Bette Davis, Lillian Gish, Barbara Stanywck, Elizabeth Taylor, Barbra Streisand, Meryl Streep, Shirley MacLaine, Jane Fonda). It really irritates me. Rant ended.
Many stories on the history of this film exist. Perhaps the most famous is that Harrison Ford was not the first choice (or even the second or third choice) to play Indiana Jones. Tom Selleck was the initial selection for the role, but he had a contract with CBS for an already filmed (but not optioned) pilot, Magnum, P.I. CBS decided to exercise their option, Selleck decided to honor the contract, and the rest, as they say, is history (both film and television. After all, the Smithsonian Institute has both Magnum's and Indie's hats!). Among the many actors considered for the role were: Nick Nolte, Steve Martin, Bill Murray, Chevy Chase, Tim Matheson, Nick Mancuso, Peter Coyote, Jack Nicholson, and Jeff Bridges (who was offered the part, and declined). These articles on Raiders trivia from Moviefone and Business Insider (which also has a clip from Tom Selleck's screen test) have more information.
Ford is such an overpowering presence in the film, that we sometimes forget about the other wonderful actors who appear in supporting roles. Denholm Elliott as Indy's boss at the University, Dr. Marcus Brody is just delightful. Alfred Molina, in his screen debut, appears as Satipo, in the first segment of the film (Satipo does not fare very well in the caverns). But, stealing the show is John Rhys-Davies as Sallah, Indy's friend and colleague in Cairo. A big bear of a man, Sallah is smart and resourceful. At one point, he uses his children to rescue Indy from the clutches of Belloq and the Nazis. The character would appear again in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. John-Rhys Davies has had a broad career - he appeared as Gimli in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, in Star Trek: Voyager (as Leonardo da Vinci), as Joe Gargery in the BBC Great Expectations (1991), and in I, Claudius (1976).
Let's not forget the wonderful Karen Allen, who makes Marion a force to be reckon
The film garnered a number of awards, including Oscars for Art-Set Direction and Sound, and a Special Oscar for Sound Effects Editing. It was also nominated for Picture, Director, Cinematography, and Music. The list of other awards and nominations is too long to go into here. I suggest you visit the IMDB Awards page for the film, to see the extensive list. The AFI has also honored the film outside of its achievement awards to George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, and John Williams: it is #60 AFI Greatest Movies and #10 100 Years, 100 Thrills.
I'll leave you with the trailer to the film. It's been announced that there will be an Indiana Jones #5, with a tentative release date of 2019. I'm (not so patiently) waiting!