19 movies: Scene in Chicago

We’ve talked travel around the world and we’ve talked survivor types… now let’s take a virtual tour of Chicago via the movies.

Now, there’s a lot of movies set in Chicago that could be included in this list, but were not included, because of the following reasons:

1) set in Chicago, but didn’t really travel around Chicago or stayed in one neighborhood (like Home Alone, filmed mostly in the northern suburb of Winnetka), or stayed entirely inside, so views of Chicago are not a big part of the movie nor is the city really part of the storyline — in other words, the movie’s setting could’ve been Anytown, U.S.A.

2) set in Chicago, but actually filmed somewhere else — for example, My Big Fat Greek Wedding and its sequel (which both used only some stock footage to establish Chicago as their location), and ironically enough, the musical Chicago, were both filmed in Toronto; ­­­­

3) set in Chicago, but so transformed by certain elements as to be quite different. I, Robot was set in 2035 Chicago ­­­­­‒ and it looks like Chicago of the future ­­­­­‒ but it was actually filmed in Vancouver and transformed via CGI into Chicago.

If you view these movies in the order that they were filmed/released, you can see how the city changes over time. Links to trailers are provided in each summary.

19. Running Scared (1986)

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Most popular “cop films” are shot/set in either New York City or Los Angeles, and at the time, the hottest police show on TV was Miami Vice. Running Scared put Chicago on the map, both as a filming location, and as another great place to set police films.

Billy Crystal (in his breakout role) and Gregory Hines play a pair of long-time wisecracking partners who, after nearly getting killed on the job, decide they want to retire and move to Key West to open a bar. But before they can do so, they get dragged into one last case.

Filmed around the city, the L train practically plays a character on its own, and the Thompson Center in the Loop is a setting for a major scene.

18. Divergent (and its sequels, Insurgent and Allegiant) (2014-2016)

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In science fiction films, one city is often used to stand in for another, or a city is so transformed by CGI as to be unrecognizable. Divergent and its sequels are a little different, as while Chicago is transformed into dystopian, post-apocalyptic Chicago of an undetermined future date, it is still very recognizable as the Chicago we know, and one could visit some of the landmarks in the film. (Don’t jump off the L, however.)

In this future, the residents are divided into five factions, and the Faceless, who have no status. At 16, regardless of which faction they grew up in, teenagers decide which faction they will spend the rest of their life with. Central character Beatrice, going for her aptitude test, finds out she is Divergent – meaning she cannot be controlled by the government – which makes her a danger. If you’re into dystopian storylines, you’ll enjoy these movies – or the original novels they’re based upon.

17. Transformers: Dark of the Moon: (2011)

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This is the third film in the six-picture live-action Transformers series, which started in 2007. Dark Side of the Moon is not fully set in Chicago, but one of its major battle scenes takes place in the heart of the city, where numerous buildings on the north side of the Loop and along the Chicago River are destroyed/toppled like dominos in a heart-pounding action sequence.

If you don’t like Chicago, well, then this might be the movie for you. If you love Chicago, but get kind of a vicarious thrill when something strange is done to the city in the movies, then this film is also for you. (Click to watch the trailer, and you can see some of that action — I had seen the first Transformers film but not the second, and it’s the only reason I went to see this one in the theaters.)

Best if you’ve seen the first two Transformers films so you know what this one is about. Best one overall in the series? Well, that’s a personal choice.

16. Nothing in Common (1986)

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Nothing in Common was Jackie Gleason’s last role — he was suffering from terminal cancer when it was filmed.  It was also perhaps Tom Hanks’ most pivotal role, marking his move from more comedic roles like Bosom Buddies, Splash, and Bachelor Party, to more dramatic films like Big and Forrest Gump.

Tom Hanks plays an advertising executive who is surprised when his parents split after 36 years of marriage. His father has just been let go from his job of 35 years, and it turns out that he is facing diabetes-related surgery. Hanks’ character must deal with his parents adjusting to life without one another, his father’s illness, and his own recent breakup, as well as simultaneously trying to produce a major campaign at work that could lead to his long-desired promotion to partner. It’s a film about family and the ties that bind (and occassionally gag).

15. My Best Friend’s Wedding (1997)

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The main reason My Best Friend’s Wedding makes this list is that it jumps all over Chicago.

The problem is that it jumps allll over Chicago, sometimes in some really terrible ways, and anybody who lives in Chicago can point out a huge amount of continuity errors. (Would anybody flying into O’Hare but going to the North Shore drive all the way downtown and then head up Lake Shore Drive? No way.) Most infamously, in scenes shot on Lake Shore Drive, the lake can be seen changing from side to side, at times within the same scene. Additionally, there’s a scene on one of Chicago’s famous river tourism boats, and the order of which well-known landmarks appear behind them do not match any possible order they would happen in real life with the conversation going at the speed that it is.

Still, this is a movie that shows off a lot of what’s great about Chicago in the summer. And it’s a charming enough rom-com if you need one!

14. The Fugitive

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The Fugitive, like Soul Food and Back Draft (further up this list), are films about everyday people in everyday Chicago, although in this case, Dr. Richard Kimble (Harrison Ford) is a Chicago vascular surgeon who arrives home one night to find his wife fatally stabbed by a one-armer intruder, who is still there. Kimble struggles with the killer, but the man gets away, and due to other circumstantial evidence, Kimble gets wrongly convicted of his wife’s murder.

While being transferred to a prison, some other prisoners attempt to escape — causing the bus they are in to fall down a ravine and collide with a train. Kimble manages to escape the scene of the accident and returns to Chicago, where he searches for the murderer. Note: the train scenes were actually filmed in North Carolina, but the city scenes were filmed in Chicago. There’s one particular scene that is filmed over a neighborhood, showing Chicago’s typical block layout, that is so very, very Chicago.

The Fugitive is an outstanding drama film, perhaps one of Ford’s very best.

13. While You Were Sleeping (1995)

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Sandra Bullock’s career has more recently been heavier on producing and more dramatic roles, but some of her best roles came in comedic or romantic films. In While You Were Sleeping, she plays Lucy, a lonely CTA fare token collector. She has a secret crush on a handsome commuter, Peter (Peter Gallagher) she sees nearly every day.

On Christmas, Peter gets mugged on the CTA platform and pushed onto the tracks. She rescues him from an oncoming train, but he is in a coma, and she accompanies him to the hospital. A nurse overhears Lucy talking to herself, and mistakes her for Peter’s fiancé, and from there, it becomes a Shakespearean-level comedy of errors, as Lucy wants to tell the truth, but circumstances in Peter’s family make her keep lying to protect them — at least, until Peter eventually wakes up.

This is Bullock at her charming, comedic best, paired with Bill Pullman and surrounded by a great cast and the beauty of Chicago and its neighborhoods.

12. The Untouchables (1987)

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Brian DePalmas’s The Untouchables is considered an American crime masterpiece, telling the story of Eliot Ness trying to bring crime kingpin Al Capone to justice during Prohibition.

Loaded with an all-star cast and masterful performances, The Untouchables shows how much of modern Chicago looks just like Chicago of nearly 100 years ago, filmed in the city in 1986. The film was nominated for and won a number of awards.

Eagle-eyed movie fans will recognize the stretch of LaSalle Street used later in The Dark Knight (not to mention other films set in Chicago). One of the best-remembered scenes is “the baby carriage scene” filmed in Union Station, where a runaway baby carriage gets caught in a shootout between Eliot Ness and Al Capone’s henchmen. (Spoiler: they do prevent the baby from being shot!)

11. Road to Perdition (2002)

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Another American crime drama – this one directed by Sam Mendes – and focuses on a mob enforcer and his son seeking vengeance against another mobster, who murdered his family. While centering around a storyline that focuses on the consequences of violence, the film also told a story of relationships between fathers and sons, with a few sub-stories skillfully woven together.

Based on the graphic novel of the same name, Road to Perdition received a lot of accolades for its cinematography. Tom Hanks leads an all-star cast of this award-winning film, which was shot on location in Chicago in places like the University Club of Chicago, the Pullman neighborhood, and the suburbs of Geneva and Evanston.

10. Wayne’s World (1992)

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Chicago-centric Wayne’s World was set in suburban Aurora, and many of the “neighborhood scenes” were for the most part filmed in Los Angeles, not Chicago.

I’m including it on this list for one very specific reason: during the famous “Bohemian Rhapsody” scene, when Wayne and Garth travel to Milwaukee to see Alice Cooper, they drive from Aurora via Chicago to Milwaukee, and the route they take — if you recognize the various locations seen on the drive — could at best be called convoluted. (In fact, anybody anxious to make good time between Aurora and Milwaukee would go nowhere near downtown Chicago.) (side note: did Freddie Mercury get to see a preview of the Bohemian Rhapsody scene before he died, I wonder?)

While you can still see and visit a number of the locations seen in the montage, sadly, the coolest one of them all – the cars piled on a spike – is no longer there.

9. Rookie of the Year (1993)

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Rookie of the Year focuses on the most Chicago of Chicago institutions: the Chicago Cubs.

Henry Rowengartner (Thomas Ian Nicholas) is a skill-less Little Leaguer who — like many Chicago kids — dreams of playing for the Cubs. He breaks his arm, and when the doctor removes the cast, it’s found that Henry’s tendons have healed a “little too tight” — and suddenly, he can pitch at Major League speeds.

Henry and his friends attend a Cubs game, where they get a home run ball in the bleacher seats. Encouraged by those around him to “throw it back”, since it was hit by the visiting team, not the Cubs, Henry does — and delivers a hard-driving pitch to the catcher, 435 feet away. The Cubs’ general manager, desperate to find a way to drive attendance at the games, finds Henry and signs him up for the team.

It’s a cute and fun baseball movie, ending with Henry displaying a World Series championship ring. (The Cubs would have to wait until 2016 to win the league title, however.)

8. The Dark Knight (2008)

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Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy was filmed throughout Chicago, but perhaps the most memorable and iconic of the three films is 2008’s The Dark Knight.

Widely regarded as one of the best superhero films of all time, it stars Christian Bale as Batman/Bruce Wayne, and Heath Ledger, who would win a posthumous Academy Award for his role as the Joker.

While CGI is used to turn Chicago fully into Gotham, it is still easy to recognize a variety of landmarks throughout the film, and Nolan gives a loving touch to the city throughout the trilogy: from the opening scene, filmed at the Old Post Office (here turned into a bank); to panning views across the skyline; from the truck being blown up and over like an acrobat on LaSalle; to Batman’s speed chase through Lower Wacker — you’ll find it hard to drive around the Loop in Chicago and not be reminded of scenes in this movie at nearly every turn.

7. Adventures in Babysitting (1987)

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Adventures in Babysitting was a teen comedy released in the golden years of teen movies — that is, the decade dominated by John Hughes iconic teen films! And, like most of Hughes’ films, this one is set in Chicago.

Elizabeth Shue plays Chris Parker, whose boyfriend cancels their anniversary date — and then she ends up babysitting the Thor-worshipping 8-year-old Sara Anderson instead. (This is before all the Marvel movies came out, and yes, the Thor thing is an important plot point later.) She had invited her friend, Brenda, over, but receives a panicked call from her, finding out she had run away and ended up at a downtown bus station in Chicago. She plans to pick her up alone, but is convinced by the kids she is looking after to take them with her — and from there they proceed to have a variety of misadventures.

While this film shows a lot of Chicago at night — and some parts of Chicago that most people wouldn’t be familiar with, like the lower Lower Wacker Drive, the climatic scene is set atop the unmistakable Crain Communications Building‘s (previously known as the Smurfit-Stone Building) diamond-shaped glass roof. The building had only opened three years before the movie came out, but is now perpetually linked with images from the film.

6. Kissing a Fool (1998)

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Jason Lee plays Jay, a neurotic novelist, who is trying to get over his breakup with his girlfriend, Natasha, by writing his first book about their relationship. He’s best friends with Max (David Schwimmer), an alpha-male type sports broadcaster. One day, Jay decides to set Max up his editor Samantha (Mili Avital), and is shocked when they announce they’re engaged two weeks later.

Max has always been a commitment-phobe, however, and he panics at the thought that this might be the last woman he ever sleeps with — so he tries to get Jay to seduce Samantha as a test of her loyalty to him. Jay refuses because he thinks Max is nuts to propose such a “test”, but also because he realizes that he may have made a huge mistake, as he realizes that he’s been attracted to Samantha all along.

This film shows off the best of Chicago in midsummer, as well as highlighting local neighborhoods, and even getting in an appearance by the Cubs. It’s also sweet and very funny. It also features a number of tunes by The Mighty Blue Kings, a Chicago jump blues band. (If you’re a fan of bands like the Squirrel Nut Zippers or Postmodern Jukebox, you’ll love MBK’s work. Check out their albums Meet Me In Uptown; Come One, Come All; and their breezy Christmas Album.)

5. About Last Night… (1986)

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About Last Night… is kind of the film where the “Brat Pack” (teen stars of the early/mid ’80s) grew up and had one of their first adult comedies. What happens when two people fall in love – how do their friendships change? It was made in 1986, so the main reasons it didn’t age well are clothes, big hair, and bad music. (Oh, and Jim Belushi’s character is a bit cro-magnon in his views…)

But, other than that, About Last Night… covers just about everything that local citizens love about Chicago: the bars, the summer recreational leagues, and yeah, even taking walks along the frozen winter in the middle of winter. It’s got the classic view of Streeterville as seen from North Avenue Beach, and it’s got the L and sports and all the different aspects about the big city, from high-powered jobs downtown to two Chicagoans getting their first apartment together.

4. Backdraft (1991)

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Backdraft at its core is the tale of two Chicago brothers, the older one, Stephen, a career fireman and the younger, Brian, just joining the force. Their father was a firefighter, too, and Brian witnessed him die on the job when he was a child. There’s also the fire fighters’ story line: a lot of recent fires look like the ones set by an imprisoned arsonist/pyromaniac, and there’s a lot of firemen dying on the job. When Brian can’t cut it as a fireman, he ends up helping to investigate the source of the fires.

Backdraft has gotten some criticism over its realism — the conditions that real firefighters are worse, there is so much smoke that visibility is worse — but that wouldn’t make good moviemaking. Ultimately, the movie is about the men and women who are first responders — how they put themselves in harm’s way, and the danger and the heartbreak they face, and how their families cope.

3. The Blues Brothers (1980)

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If you ask people for the name of a Chicago comedy, chances are pretty good that Blues Brothers will come up almost immediately. This classic stars Dan Akroyd and John Belushi as Jake and Elwood Blues, a role they originated on Saturday Night Live.

The Blues Brothers take up “a mission from God” to reform their old band and save the orphanage that they grew up in by paying off its outstanding $5,000 tax bill in eleven days. In addition to one of Carrie Fisher’s best-known roles outside of the Star Wars franchise, the movie is filled with appearances by well-known blues musicians like James Brown, Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, and John Lee Hooker, among others. Those with a keen eye will spot small roles by Steven Spielberg, Joe Walsh, Chaka Khan, Frank Oz, Twiggy, and John Candy.

It’s filmed around Chicago and some of its most memorable scenes include a car chase through the now-demolished Dixie Square Mall (which had closed over a year before the scene was filmed), the big musical finale at the Palace Hotel Ballroom, and the grand finale throughout the downtown area.

2. High Fidelity (2000)

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Top Five Reasons to Love High Fidelity:

5. All-around awesome casting, and beautifully acted — as late film critic Roger Ebert said about the film, “Watching High Fidelity, I had the feeling I could walk out of the theater and meet the same people on the street — and want to, which is an even higher compliment.”

4. It’s a great film about how we love music, how it shapes our lives, and how it influences us. Not to mention a fabulous salute to the Chicago music scene.

3. John Cusack as Rob Gordon, the central character, breaks the fourth wall constantly to talk to the audience. And it really, really works for this film. Rob is the grown-up version of the angst-ridden, guy-next-door characters that made him famous (like Lloyd in Say Anything and Lane in Better of Dead). Cusack has a career nearly 40 years long, and this is probably his best role.

2. Jack Black in his breakout role as Barry, stealing just about every scene he’s in.

1. While High Fidelity is based on Nick Hornby’s novel of the same name, it had some minor details changed, most notably being set in Chicago instead of London. And it works so well as a Chicago film, capturing the Chicago vibe, and showing off its neighborhoods, particularly Wicker Park. 

1. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986)

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John Hughes defined coming-of-age teen comedy in the 1980s, and his influence continues to this day. His teen films included Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club, Pretty in Pink, Some Kind of Wonderful. But he also wrote, directed, or produced a number of well-loved films such as Mr. Mom, Uncle Buck, National Lampoon’s Vacation, and Home Alone.

Most of Hughes’ films were set in or near his beloved hometown of Chicago. His teen opus of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is his self-described “love letter” to Chicago, covering everything and anything related to the city: its parades, its landmarks, its sports teams, its architecture, its lakefront. Amazingly, he wrote the script in under a week.

The film centers around Ferris Bueller (Matthew Broderick), a high school senior who decides he wants to have one more day of playing hooky before he graduates. He ropes his girlfriend, Sloane (Mia Sara), and his best friend, the hypochondriac Cameron (Alan Ruck), into taking the day off with him. The school principal is determined to catch Ferris out for lying, as is his sister, Jeannie. In the course of the day, Ferris and his friends eat at a fancy French restaurant, check out the Sears Tower (now Willis Tower), join in a parade, catch a Cubs game, and visit the Art Institute, among other things. The film is hilarious and joyful, a beautiful salute to Chicago and its spirit.

10 epic books and movies about survivors

10. Robinson Crusoe

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Most of us know what Robinson Crusoe is about, and maybe it was even part of your English classes back in high school. But if it wasn’t … have you read it?

First published in April of 1719, Daniel Defoe’s classic tale of human endurance is about the title character, a man (a bit of a spoiled Englishman) survives a shipwreck with little more than a knife, a couple of animals, and tobacco. He will end up spending 28 years of his life on the island, learning how to survive, and of course, undergoes transformations about his beliefs. Robinson Crusoe is considered to be the beginning of “realistic fiction” as a reading genre, and one of the earliest novels in the English language.

It is generally believed that Defoe got inspiration for his story from the real-life story of Scottish sailor Alexander Selkirk, who was marooned alone on Más a Tierra off the Chilean coast from 1704-1709. Selkirk had actually been serving aboard a ship called the Cinque Ports, and had had a dispute with the ship’s captain about the ship’s seaworthiness and asked to be left at the island. (Selkirk turned out to be correct, by the way.) Selkirk spent those years alone before being rescued by a privateer.

9. Too Far From Home: A Story of Life and Death in Space 

aa In February 2003, the world watched in shock as the Columbia disintegrated on its re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere, reminding us of the intense dangers of space travel and exploration.

Lost in the aftermath of the news and the indefinite suspension of the shuttle program was the fact that three astronauts – Donald Pettit (U.S.), Kenneth Bowersox (U.S.), and Nikolai Budarin (Russia) were still aboard the International Space Station for a routine mission — and now with the shuttle program on hold, how were they to get home?

In Too Far From Home, Chris Jones tells the story of the U.S. and Russian space agencies working together to find a way home — a solution that is practically straight out of the movies.

8. Gravity

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If Too Far From Home is the real-life story, then Gravity is the Oscar-winning version of a similar tale: two astronauts are on a spacewalk when disaster strikes: Russia uses a missile to destroy a defunct satellite, and it accidentally causes a chain reaction as the scattered debris strikes and destroys both their shuttle and the Hubble Telescope, which they had been servicing. They manage to make it to the International Space Station, but find out their possible escape pod is unusable. This heart-pounding adventure will have you breathless and on the edge of the seat as you follow mission specialist Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and her attempts to get home to Earth after an intense crisis in space.

7. Between a Rock and a Hard Place

aaWhat would you do to survive?

Aron Ralston had to ask himself that after he had hiked into the Utah canyonlands alone, and a falling boulder pinned his right hand and wrist against a slot canyon wall. Ralston had broken the cardinal rule of solo adventurists: always tell somebody where you’re going, and when you’ll be back. So now he was unable to free himself, nobody knew where he was, and he would likely die of dehydration before anyone found him.

So he did what few of us could imagine doing: he cut off his own forearm in order to be able to survive. His story was eventually made into the movie, 127 Hours, starring James Franco and directed by Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire).

6. Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption

aaIn May 1943, Lieutenant Louis Zamperini of the Army Air Forces and two other men survived the crash of their bomber, thousands of miles from civilization.

Zamperini was young and fit — just a couple years earlier, he’d been an Olympian — but he and his fellow two soldiers would endure machine gun strafing, starvation, dehydration, sharks, and a typhoon in their life boat — and that was only the beginning.

An extraordinary biography by the author who wrote Seabiscuit, Unbroken will keep you spellbound. The book was also the inspiration for the movies Unbroken and Unbroken: Path to Redemption.

5. Island of the Lost: An Extraordinary Story of Survival at the Edge of the World 

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What draws the line between those who are able to survive, and those who aren’t?

In Island of the Lost, Joan Druett tells the story of two ships that wreck in early 1864 on the remote Auckland Islands archipelago, 290 miles south of New Zealand — an inhospitable cluster of islands deep in the subarctic Southern Pacific Ocean.

At opposite ends of the main island, and separated by only about twenty miles but also impassable cliffs, the crews of the Grafton (wrecked January 3, 1864) and the  Invercauld (wrecked May 11, 1864) know nothing of each other’s misfortunes — but their outcomes could not be further apart. Despite Auckland Island’s miserable weather (several inches of rain per month, and temperatures ranging between the high 30s and low 60s), the Grafton crew is able to preserve discipline, build a cabin and forge, and find a way to eventually escape and rescue the remaining crew. The Invercauld crew turns upon itself, eventually leading to starvation and cannibalism — only three crew members survived to be rescued.

Two main things differentiated the two wrecks: the leadership of their respective captains, and the resources the crews were able to salvage from their ships. Island of the Lost is a solid illustration of the best and worst of man facing survival.

4. Touching the Void: The True Story of One Man’s Miraculous Survival

aaIn 1985, two men, Simon Yates and Joe Simpson, successfully attempted the previously unclimbed West Face of Peru’s Siula Grande. As they were descending back to base camp, connected by only 150 feet of line, Simpson fell and shattered his right leg. Yates did what he could to try to lower his friend to base camp, but when Simpson fell again, the exhausted Yates cut the rope, which dropped Simpson into a crevasse. Thinking his friend now dead, Yates eventually made his way back to base camp.

But Simpson wasn’t dead — although his right leg was useless. Through sheer willpower, he managed to pull himself out of the crevasse, and eventually, to survival. Touching the Void tells their story – or you can watch the 2012 movie which recreates their ordeal.

3. Alone on the Ice: The Greatest Survival Story in the History of Exploration

aaMost of us are at least vaguely familiar with the story of Ernest Shackleton’s famous expedition to the Antarctic aboard the Endurance. But much lesser known is the story of Douglas Mawson, who led the Australasian Antarctic Expedition in 1912-13, two years before Shackleton’s doomed expedition.

Mawson’s group wasn’t after South Pole glory, which is perhaps why their story has gotten lost under the shadow of the Endurance. Instead, he was leading a group making scientific observations about the continent. Mawson finds himself far from base camp, his two companions dead, his supplies minimal. Alone on the Ice tells the story of his month-long survival trek back to camp, as well as details of other Antarctic explorations of the time.

2. Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage

aaOne of the greatest tales of survival of all time: Endurance tells the saga of polar explorer Ernest Shackleton’s 1914 expedition to Antarctica. Their original plan was to cross the continent on foot; but only a day away from reaching land after sailing through pack ice, the ship became locked in the ice, and the crew lived aboard as the ship drifted with the ice pack.

The Endurance would be eventually crushed in the ice, and Shackleton and his 27 men would camp aboard an ice floe, in hopes of eventually drifting towards Paulet Island, where stores were cached, 250 miles away. Mother Nature had other plans, and Shackleton and his crew were finally able to gain land at Elephant Island, after spending nearly 500 days between the ship and crossing the ice.

From there, Shackleton and five of his men undertook a perilous journey across open seas in a modified lifeboat to reach South Georgia Island, where they would get help to rescue the rest of the crew.

1. The Martian

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Every so often, a book comes along that’s absolutely brilliant, and it gets made into a movie, and the movie is pretty spectacular. The Martian is one of the best to fall into both these categories.

Andy Weir’s meticulously researched novel is an incredible read, telling the story of astronaut Mark Watney, who gets inadvertently stranded on Mars when his fellow crew think he’s dead after an accident forces an emergency evacuation, how he survives, and how he eventually gets home. It is a fantastic story, and even if you don’t consider yourself a “fan” of science fiction, there is much more here about the strength of the human condition than the “sci-fi” part of the story.

In 2015, The Martian became a movie starring Matt Damon as the title character, and was so well-received that it received dozens of award nominations. Directed by Ridley Scott, it was filmed in the Wadi Rum desert of Jordan, which stood in for the surface of Mars.

Happy Earth Day! 14 Books to inspire you to get back to nature

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In Walden, Henry David Thoreau wrote, “We need the tonic of wildness… We can never have enough of nature.”

As most of the country is under coronavirus shelter-in-place orders, and spring unfolds outside our windows, it’s not surprising to have one’s thoughts wander to daydreams of strolling through the woods, or visiting a favorite park.

Here’s 14 books that will get you outside — without having to leave your couch.

14. The Lost Art of Reading Nature’s Signs: Use Outdoor Clues to Find Your Way, Predict the Weather, Locate Water, Track Animals—and Other Forgotten Skills

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Remember when you were a kid, and you’d spend all day out in the woods? Okay – maybe today’s kids don’t have those experiences, but growing up in the 1970s, I definitely spent hours and hours wandering around the woods in our neighborhood, and I knew some of them like the back of my hand.

Whether you have a dream of doing an epic thru-hike on any of the great trails of the world, or are just looking to find some new skills to learn with your kids (or for yourself), The Lost Art of Reading Nature’s Signs will hook you in.

You don’t have to be Bear Grylls to get useful information from  this book, either. These are the kind of simple skills that any of us could find helpful in while camping or hiking, just for fun in our neighborhood, or even in a true emergency.

13. Reclaiming the Wild Soul: How Earth’s Landscapes Restore Us to Wholeness

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In Reclaiming the Wild Soul, author Mary Thompson explores how nature can help us on a mental journey. It is part spiritual guide, and part poetic call to head out to the wilderness to find what can heal our souls.

At a time when technology surrounds us and colors nearly every moment of our days, how refreshing to think about standing under an open sky or a rich canopy of leaves, away from the pressure and noise of modern life. This book can help you decide what kind of environment might match with you the best – deserts, forests, oceans/rivers, mountains, or grasslands. And once you’ve read it, you’ll be eager to find the time to commune with nature and soothe your soul.

12. The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier, and More Creative

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Most of us feel recharged by nature – whether it’s something as epic as a thru-hike, a walk through a local park, or even simply getting to stick our bare feet into a small patch of grass.

But what makes us so happy to be out in nature? Why does it recharge us? In The Nature Fix, Florence Williams uses science and research to answer those questions and more – to figure out why nature just makes us happier. She talks about her own experiences as well as other studies, and talks about the importance of getting back to nature, and away from the bustle and noise of the modern world. Good companion reading to Reclaiming the Wild Soul.

11. Under the Stars: How America Fell in Love with Camping

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Americans love camping: whether it is truly getting away from it all, or “glamping” in more upscale accommodations.

In Under the Stars, Dan White explores why camping is so popular, and his adventures are both fascinating and hilarious. He discusses how politicians, poets, writers, artists, and outdoor enthusiasts influenced America’s parklands and camping styles.

Along the way, he also shares his own camping experiences, ranging from touching family trips to hilarious adventures. Make some s’mores and cocoa, and curl up with this book.

10. The Pants of Perspective

aaNew Zealand is a fantastic place to visit. The people are friendly, the attitude is laid back, and the countryside is gorgeous. So who wouldn’t want to see as much of it as possible?

Author Anna McNuff once represented Great Britain as a rower; these days, she is an adventurer and endurance athlete. In The Pants of Perspective, McNuff tells the story of running — that’s right, long-distance endurance running the equivalent of more miles than a marathon each day — along New Zealand’s rugged Te Araroa trail, which stretches 1,600 km across the North Island from Cape Reinga to Wellington, and then another 1,300 km along the South Island, from Ship Cove on the Cook Strait to Bluff, at the southern end of the island nation. (Think of it as the Kiwi version of the Appalachian Trail.) The book is funny and inspiring, and you just might want to lace up your own pair of sneakers and hit a trail after reading it.

9. The Most Beautiful Walk in the Wolrd: A Pedestrian in Paris

aa Yes, Paris is a city, and may seem an odd inclusion about getting out in nature. But since the focus in this book is about walking, and Paris is a city designed to favor pedestrians, I feel compelled to include it on this list.

John Baxter spent a year as a professional “literary walking tour” guide, and Paris is a city rich in artistic and literary history to be explored. James Joyce, Hemingway, Picasso, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein — Baxter’s tales in A Pedestrian in Paris help bring this historical city to life, showing what inspired some of the greatest artists and writers of all time. If you’ve ever been to Paris, this book will take you back; if you’ve never been, you will practically feel as if you’re there.

8. Where’s the Next Shelter?

aaThere are many books about walking the Appalachian Trail and the Pacific Crest Trail; I’m going to skip A Walk In The Woods (which I mentioned in my last post) and Wild (which I didn’t enjoy reading), and tell you instead about some books about these two trails that I have really enjoyed.

In Where’s the Next Shelter?, former Marine Gary Sizer takes to the trail with two others, Lemmy and Megan. This book isn’t simply about the Appalachian Trail itself; it is about the bonding, the soul-searching, and the shared experiences of walking the trail from one end to the other. This book will have you laughing out loud often, and if you’re a fan of Bryson’s Walk, you’ll love this book as well.

7. Overweight, Undertrained, and Terrified: A Camino Diary

aaIrishman Connor O’Donoghue admits he isn’t the “average” person who attempts a thru-hike; in the opening pages, he admits his struggle with obesity, and wonders at times what he’s gotten himself into.

Having read several travel memoirs of walking the Camino de Santiago, I found most of them rather dry and straightforward. Perhaps it’s because the Camino is shorter than most thru-walks, and one is never very far away from civilization. Overweight, Undertraind, and Terrified is a bit different, mostly because O’Donoghue doesn’t hesitate to poke fun at himself. Sometimes you’ll groan at the obviousness of his mistakes, and at other times, he’ll have you laughing along with him. His persistance to complete the journey is inspiring. It’s different than your usual thru-hike book.

6. Whistler’s Walk: The Appalachian Trail in 142 Days

aa The motto of thru-hikers is “walk your own walk”, and nowhere is this better illustrated than when you get to reading several memoirs of the same trail, seeing how different people experience the same miles.

William Monk, a.k.a. “Whistler”, is perhaps a bit older than the average person who attempts an Appalachian Trail thru-hike. But he’s prepared for what he’s setting out to do, and in Whistler’s Walk, he takes you the full 2,189 miles, with all its ups and downs (mentally and physically) by his side, starting with preparing for the hike, to the final summit at Mount Katahdin in Maine.

5. On Trails: An Exploration

aaCompared to other books on this list, On Trails is a bit more cerebrial. It started when author Robert Moor was doing his own thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail, and he began to wonder about paths and trails, how they are created, and why certain ones persist while others disappear.

So over the course of several years, Moor explored trails of all kinds, shapes, lengths, and varieties. This isn’t simply about building or maintaining what we think of as a path or trail through the woods; it is deeper than that. It will make you see and understand many aspects of our world on a different level.

4. Grandma Gatewood’s Walk: The Inspiring Story of the Woman Who Saved the Appalachian Trail

aaWhat do you imagine yourself attempting at age 65? Would it including walking the entire Appalachian Trail – alone – and would you walk it three times?

Emma ‘Grandma’ Gatewood became a hiking celebrity in the 1950s and ’60s, being outspoken about the conditions on the still-young trail, which had opened in 1937. In Grandma Gatewood’s Walk, you’ll find out the story of the woman who is credited with saving the AT through her own words, as well as the memories of her family and hikers she met in her journeys. This isn’t your typical AT thru-hike memoir, and it’s an important piece of history for those interested in our national trail system.

3. Thru-Hiking Will Break Your Heart: An Adventure on the Pacific Crest Trail

aaMention the Pacific Crest Trail, and most people will probably talk about Wild, which was on Oprah’s book club and was made into a movie. But for me, Carrot Quinn’s Thru-Hiking Will Break Your Heart was the much more interesting read.

It’s honest, frank, and at times emotionally raw. Her writing style grows as she does, traveling further north along the trail, trying to make the Canadian border ahead of the snow that ends most thru-hikers’ attempts. She’ll laugh and she might even make you cry.

If you want a book that is simply, “We got up, walked x miles, the trail was like this, the weather like that, I was happy to set up camp and get to my ramen noodles”, well, this isn’t that book. Break Your Heart is much more about the mental journey that a thru-hiker trakes along the thousands of miles of trail.

2. Becoming Odyssa: Adventures on the Appalachian Trail

aaFresh out of college, Jennifer Pharr Davis wasn’t sure what she wanted to do, so she decided to take a walk: or more precisely, a thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail.

She’s young, fit, and hiking solo, but she quickly discovers that attempting a thru-hike is much more difficult than she anticipated. Like every thru-hiker, she experiences a lot of growth along the way, and discovers she’s capable of much more than she originally thought.

It is also a story of “trail magic”, not only the little positive surprises that people give to thru-hikers, but the larger warmth of the trail community, and how it comes together when somebody needs help.

Pharr Davis has consequently gone on to being one of the leading female long-distance hikers, setting speed records for hiking the Appalachian Trail. She has written two follow up books, Called Again: A Story of Love and Triumph, and The Pursuit of Endurance: Harnessing the Record-Breaking Power of Strength and Resilience.

1. The Last Englishman: A 2,640 Mile Hiking Adventure on the Pacific Crest Trail

aa Englishman Keith Foskett has written four excellent, award-winning books about long-distance hiking, covering the Camino de Santiago, the Appalachian Trail, the Pacific Crest Trail, and walking across Scotland. Picking one as the ‘best’ is a bit challenging; so I’ll go with the first of his books that I read – The Last Englishman.

Foskett’s writing is funny and spirited, and you can picture yourself on the trail with him. Additionally, unlike most PCT memoirs — which seem to lose any enthusiasm for details by the time the author hits Oregon — Foskett has a lot of adventures in Oregon and Washington, and he “hikes his own hike” in order to finish his thru-hike.

If you enjoy The Last Englishman, check out his other hiking tales: Balancing on Blue: A Thru-Hiking Adventure on the Appalachian Trail; The Journey in Between: A Thru-Hiking Adventure on El Camino de Santiago; and High and Low: How I Hiked Away From Depression Across Scotland.

Travel Around the World With These 15 Travel-Inspirational Films (vol. 1)

While we’re in the midst of the current pandemic, it’s hard to think about traveling: we miss it, but since we can’t travel, the best we can do is daydream about it, or plan future adventures.

In the meantime, here are 15 of my favorite travel-inspirational films to give you something to daydream about! I’ll post more lists over the next few weeks.

Links are included in each recap to view the trailer for the films, as well as potential books or other guides to help you discover more about the subject matter.

15. The Way (2011)

15-the way Based on the book Off the Road: A Modern-Day Walk Down the Pilgrim’s Route into Spain by Jack Hitt, and adapted for the screen and directed by Emilio Estevez, The Way tells the story of a father who receives a phone call and discovers that is estranged son has died while traveling the historic El Camino de Santiago, also known as “The Way”, in Spain. Once he arrives there and receives his son’s cremains, he decides to take the pilgrimage himself.

It is not simply a film about self-discovery and growth, but a tale about the adventures that people have while taking one of these pilgrimage walks. There are no limits to the backgrounds or ages or lifestyles of the hikers, or what inspires them; they become bound together on a common quest with a shared goal. It is powerful and moving, and also shows you the beautiful northern Spanish countryside that the historic Camino wanders through.

14. Seven Years in Tibet (1997)

14-seven years in tibet Based on Heinrich Harrer’s memoir of the same name, Seven Years in Tibet tells the story of Heinrich Harrer, one of the first Europeans to ever enter Tibet. An Austrian who was also a Nazi, Harrer was in India when WWII broke out. He was jailed, and eventually escaped, traveling over the Himalayas – without permission to be in Tibet – and eventually reached the city of Lhasa.

He became friends with the young Dalai Lama, a friendship that changed his life and his world outlook; and later, when the Chinese invaded the country in 1950, they fled the country together. You’ll have to make an effort to ignore Brad Pitt’s accent in this (Empire magazine ranked it third on all-time worst movie accents) and instead focus on the beauty of the landscapes. Director Jean-Jacques Annaud snuck a film crew into Tibet, and about 20 minutes of their footage made it into the final film; the rest was filmed in Argentina.

13. Out Of Africa (1985)

13- out of africaDanish author Karen Blixen (a.k.a. Isak Dinesen, played by Meryl Streep) was 28 when she moved to British East Africa (now Kenya) in 1913 to marry Baron Bror von Blixen-Fnecke. Based on her memoir of the same name, Out Of Africa tells the tale of her marriage of convenience (and later subsequent divorce), and her love affair with big-game hunter Denys Finch-Hatton.

About 70% of the film was shot on location in Africa. Out of Africa won a number of accolades, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Cinematography. If you’ve ever dreamed of a safari to Africa, this film can help give you a taste of the majesty of the Dark Continent.

12. Score! A Hockey Musical (2011)

12-scoreYes,  the premise of Score! is downright goofy – a hockey-centered comedic musical. The story centers around Farley Gordon, a home-schooled teenager who becomes an overnight hockey sensation while he navigates the rough waters of instant fame.

Musical numbers aside, it is a cute love story between Farley and his best friend Eve, and most of all, a love letter to the city of Toronto and the sport of hockey. Loaded with hockey and celebrity cameos, if you love hockey, you’ll probably get a few laughs from the film.

You can watch the entire film for free on YouTube.

11. A Walk in the Woods (2015)

11 walk in the woodsIt really shouldn’t be a surprise that a number of great travel-inspiring films are based on personal memoirs, and here is another one: A Walk in the Woods (starring Robert Redford and Nick Nolte) is based on Bill Bryson’s 1997 hilarious tale of attempting to walk the Appalachian Trail, A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail.

Originally completed in 1937, the trail continues to evolve each year. Three million people hike stretches of the Appalachian Trail each year, with under 1,000 people per year doing a full “thru-hike”, or complete hike of the ~2,200 distance between Georgia and Maine.  The fastest completion of a thru-hike was set in 2018 (41 days, 7 hours, 39 minutes); but the average hiker takes 5-7 months.

10. Bottle Shock (2008)

10 bottle shock

In 1976, a British wine merchant living in Paris named Steven Spurrier held a blind tasting of French versus American wines at an event that came to be known as the “Judgement of Paris”. It was covered by just one reporter, named George M. Taber, who went on to write a book about the event called Judgment of Paris: California vs. France and the Historic 1976 Paris Tasting That Revolutionized Wine.

In 2008, that book was the inspiration for Bottle Shockand while the film took a few liberties with the true-life narratives, it’s a valentine for Napa Valley and the American spirit of hard work. The late Alan Rickman (who plays Spurrier) is our curmudgeonly guide between the French and American wine worlds; and Dennis Farina plays a great supporting role.

9. The Darjeeling Limited (2009)

9 darjeeling

Wes Anderson is known for his films which are filled with brightly-saturated, vibrant imagery, and dysfunctional families that are searching for a more… normal life.

The Darjeeling Limited is no exception to his style. Three brothers (played by Adrien Brody, Owen Wilson, and Jason Schwartzman) who have not seen each other in a year, since their father’s funeral, reunite on the title train in India. They eventually travel to see their mother, who they have also not seen in years, and who is now a nun at a convent in the Himalayas.

Most of the film was shot in Jodhpur, Rajasthan, and the Himalayan scenes were filmed in Udaipur. India’s amazing, colorful landscapes are perfect for Anderson’s style, and the film garnered a lot of accolades and some minor awards.

8. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013)

8 mitty

James Thurber’s 1939 short story of the same title was the inspiration for The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, telling the story of a man – Walter Mitty – who manages the photo files of Life magazine. The magazine is about to cease publication and convert to only-online presence, and Mitty feels he has the perfect picture for the cover – only he cannot find the negative for it. His pursuits take him to Iceland and the Himalayas – these lush, stunning landscapes are really spectacular on the big screen, but your TV will just have to do! – and he has many adventures along the way.

Starring and directed by Ben Stiller, this is a bit of a departure from his usual manic-comedic roles, although this film can be classified as a comedic drama. The gorgeous scenery will have you eager to leap aboard a flight to Iceland.

7. A Good Year (2006)

7 good year

In A Good Year, Russell Crowe plays Max Skinner, a high-octane British investment banker who inherits his uncle’s chateau and vineyard in Provence, a place that he spent his childhood summers. The film is loosely based on Peter Mayle’s novel of the same name.

Skinner visits the property, expecting to ready to hastily sell it so he can get on with his very busy life, and finds it is poor repair. As he hurries around the property taking pictures, he falls into the empty swimming pool, and is stranded there until Fanny (played by Marion Cotillard) is able to back-handedly rescue him — but because of his mishap, he misses an important work conference call, which causes him to be suspended from work for a week. As he spends the week trying to defend his job while simultaneously trying to ready the estate from work, he comes to understand that he has missed the idyllic Provincale lifestyle, and wonders if the high-stress London workaholic career he’s had is still what he wants out of life. A lovely ballad to Provence!

6. The Bucket List (2007)

6 bucket list

In The Bucket List, billionaire health care magnate Edward Cole (Jack Nicholson) is infamous for his cost efficiency. “I run hospitals, not health spas. Two beds to a room, no exceptions!” His philosophy kicks himself in the butt when he becomes ill, and ends up in one of his own hospitals, finding himself roommates with Carter Chambers (Morgan Freeman), a blue-collar mechanic. Both men have terminal lung cancer, and they eventually begin to find common ground together.

Carter has been writing a ‘bucket list’, but after discovering he has less than a year to live, he throws away the list. Edward finds the list, and unexpectedly proposes financing the bucket list for the both of them. The two men go on a series of adventures, facing the end of their lives with a joie de vivre, traveling around the globe. The film is a good reminder to not only appreciate every day as if it’s your last, but to also travel when you have the chance.

5. Roman Holiday (1953)

5 roman holiday

What do you do when you’re a princess (Ann, played by Audrey Hepburn) and you’re having a bit of a breakdown due to your overloaded schedule? Why, you run away and have marvelous adventures around Rome with a handsome reporter, Joe (Gregory Peck), of course, doing all the things she always wanted to do, but could never do as a proper princess.

Roman Holiday is a classic romantic film set against the beauty of 1950s Rome, shot at some of the most famous sites in the city, including the Mouth of Truth at Piazza Bocca della Verità – a scene often homaged in later films, like 1994’s charming romantic comedy Only You.

Hepburn won Best Actress for the film, and it was nominated for Best Picture. It continues to inspire travelers to Rome even now, painting an image of a lovely, joyous Italian city.

4. French Kiss (1995)

4 french kissFrench Kiss is a perfect romantic comedy starring Meg Ryan and Kevin Klein. Kate (Ryan) is an American who is in the process of completing her Canadian citizenship in order to marry her fiancee, Charlie (Timothy Hutton). Charlie has to go to Paris for work, and wants Kate to come with him – but she is terrified of flying – so he goes alone. A few days later, he drunkenly breaks up with her by phone call, saying he has found “the one” in Paris. Anguished, Kate manages to get on a plane in her determination to win Charlie back – and it is on that flight that she meets Luc (Klein), a small-time French crook who is on his way back from the States after a score. Luc uses her to smuggle his loot into France, but then struggles to keep up with her as she chases through France, trying to find Charlie.

This is one of the best romantic comedies of the 1990s, and Ryan and Klein play off each other perfectly. Travel ranges from Paris to the Côte d’Azur. Pair it up with A Good Year, Bottle Shock, and your favorite French-inspired foods and wines for a great weekend of French travel inspiration.

3. Romancing the Stone (1984)

3 romancing

There’s a scene early in Romancing the Stone that will make all travelers laugh: Jack (Michael Douglas) and Joan (Kathleen Wilder) have been hiking through the Colombian jungles. Frustrated by their progress, Jack takes out his machete and whacks the high heels off Joan’s shoes.

“Those were Italian,” Joan bemoans, picking up her beloved shoes.

“Now they’re practical,” Jack glibly replies.

This mid-1980s comedy is a romance, sure, but it’s also a solid comedy that will give you plenty of laughs. Jack clearly takes influence from Raiders of the Lost Ark‘s Indiana Jones, wearing a similar outfit and having a skill with a machete, though he’s more of a freelance opportunist to Jones adventurous researcher.

2. Midnight in Paris (2011)

2 midnight

In Midnight in Paris, Gil Pender (Owen Wilson) is a Hollywood writer on vacation in Paris with his fiancée Inez (Rachel McAdams) and her family in Paris. He is also struggling to write his first novel, and he is hoping that the city he once lived in will help give him the inspiration he needs to complete it.

The couple runs into friends in Paris, and Inez happily takes up going out and about the city with them. Gil – who is very nostalgic by nature – suddenly finds himself transported back to 1920s Paris, which he regards as the city’s golden age, where he meets Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald, among others. He can’t believe this isn’t a dream at first, but soon he is seeking out the transformation every night, making friends with the literary and artistic elite of 1920s Paris.

He then meets Adriana (Marion Cotillard), girlfriend to Pablo Picasso, and finds himself falling in love with her – and doubting his relationship with Inez. Adriana, he finds out, has a nostalgia for what she thinks is Paris’s golden age – the Belle Époque, and Gil begins to wonder if any of us are ever truly satisfied with the age that we live in. A lovely tour of modern Paris and a salute to its history as a hotbed of art, music, literature, and politics.

1. Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

10 raidersIn 1981, Steven Spielberg introduced us to one of the most beloved action figures of all time, Indiana Jones, in his film Raiders of the Lost Ark. From the jungles of South America to the frozen villages of Nepal to the deserts of Egypt, Raiders is the film that set the standard for action and comedic adventure in the forty years since, with a leading man who created the larger-than-life casting mold for leading men ever since – and probably inspired many people to have an interest in archeology.

Get your popcorn, put Raiders on, and this timeless film continues to entertain.