Two weeks ago, I wrote about my love for “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” describing it as a rare lightning-in-a-bottle film that has stood the test of time. Since then, I’ve seen “Raiders! The Story of the Greatest Fan Film Ever Made,” which, like the movie that inspired it, is pure magic. If you love the original Indiana Jones film, then “Raiders!” is required viewing.
“Raiders!” is a documentary that tells the story of three boys who spent their youth remaking “Raiders of the Lost Ark” in the basement of one of their homes and the surrounding Mississippi woods. By youth, I mean they were 11 years old when they started making it, and they spent seven summer vacations completing the project. And by remake, I mean they did a shot-for-shot recreation of Steven Spielberg and George Lucas’ timeless classic.
This was no small endeavor, as the documentary depicts. But by scraping together all of the bubble gum and duct tap ingenuity, free labor, and spare change they could muster, they completed every scene but one – the fight between Indy and a Nazi brute around and under an airplane. Through video shot during their venture, we see Chris Strompolos, Eric Zala, and Jayson Lamb recreating shots fans of the film will instantly recognize: Indy running from a rolling boulder, using a whip to take out a sword-wielding thug, and driving a getaway truck down a desert road.
What these boys accomplished was a miracle. So was their survival. Through recent interviews with the now adult trio, we hear stories of how they risked burning down the house in which Zala grew up to film the fight scene in the Nepal bar (a shot of someone pouring gasoline from a bucket on a burning table is especially shocking), used a truck with no engine or brakes to recreate the chase in the desert, and launched bottle rockets at each other to get the effect of lightning shooting out of Belloq’s eyes after he opens the Ark.
“Raiders!” also follows their attempt 25 years later to place their busy lives on hold to film the one scene they couldn’t as kids. Quite a bit of drama comes out of the endeavor, as well as moments that recall the dangers of their youthful attempt at remaking a stunt- and special effects-driven Hollywood action movie. Something happens toward the end of “Raiders!” that shocked the lively crowd at the Chattanooga Film Festival into silence.
If “Raiders!” were only about the making of the fan film, it would be worth watching. But it goes deeper, delving first into the split that occurred between the childhood friends and then covering their assimilation into corporate jobs as they yield to the pressures of adulthood and give up their dreams of someday making real movies. The most heartening scenes are those in which Strompolos opens up about his parents’ divorce, his part in the divide that took place between him and Zala, and his descent into drug addiction. He doesn’t appear to whitewash any detail, and his openness is one of the things that makes “Raiders!” a surprisingly human film.
So is the humor. For all of the behind-the-scenes drama, “Raiders!” contains some very funny material. Zala’s mother comes up with some of the best lines as she recalls her son making the movie, and her response to what happens during the filming of the final scene 25 years later made the audience with which I saw the movie roar. My favorite line, though, comes from Zala’s son: “Steven Spielberg needed $20 million to make ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark.’ My dad needed his allowance.”
Also, the filmmakers were wise to let the grown-up Jayson Lamb ramble as he recalled his role in the project. He’s become a very odd person indeed, and lends a lot of unique color to the doc.
At the end of the screening I attended, people stood and applauded. It was a testament to how uplifting “Raiders!” is. It captures the wild creativity of youth, and conveys the joy that can be found in revisiting those days once we’ve become responsible adults. It also, as Variety’s Peter Debruge wrote in his review, “captures the obsessive hold that movies have on young people’s imaginations.”
“Raiders!” can be viewed on demand, so check your local providers to see if it’s available in your area.
Four stars out of four. Unrated.
David Laprad is the assistant editor of the Hamilton County Herald and an award-winning columnist and photographer. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.