FILM REVIEW: “Raiders!” documents the making of a fan-film classic

Three Mississippi teens spent seven years making a shot-for-shot remake of "Raiders of the Lost Ark." This is their story.

Apologies to Voltaire, but if Chris Strompolos, Eric Zala, and Jayson Lamb didn’t exist, it would be necessary for film geeks to invent them.

These three adolescent maniacs spent seven of their Mississippi summer during the 1980s making a backyard, shot-for-shot remake of “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” That part of their story is relatively familiar by now to those who share some portion of their cinematic obsessiveness. “Raiders: The Adaptation” has had sporadic big-screen appearances in Portland and elsewhere, thanks to the legal graces of Steven Spielberg.

Now, adding another layer to this pop-culture cake, comes “Raiders! The Story of the Greatest Fan Film Ever Made,” a documentary about the making of the adaptation. You might be tempted to think that this is too much of a good thing, that even this inspirational story of DIY filmmaking and naïve cinephilia isn’t worth a 90-minute expose. You’d be wrong.

Chris Strompolos as Indiana Jones in the fan film adaptation of "Raiders of the Lost Ark."

Chris Strompolos as Indiana Jones in the fan film adaptation of “Raiders of the Lost Ark.”

It turns out that Strompolos, Zala, and Lamb were able to create their own versions of every scene in “Raiders” but one: the epic action sequence set on a desert airfield and involving a full-size replica of a German “flying wing” aircraft. This gives “Raiders!” the doc its hook, as it follows the (obviously now grown) trio’s efforts to fill in this missing jigsaw piece while allowing them to revisit the joys and challenges of the original “production.”

The clips of their teenage work, and the stories behind some of them, are hilarious and harrowing. These kids re-enacted the stunt where Indiana Jones hangs from the front of a moving truck. They doused each other with gasoline for the scene in which Marion Crane’s bar burns down. They, of course, made their own giant boulder for the movie’s famous opening sequence.

There were complications, though surprisingly few of them involved parental interference. (At one point, the boys are forced to tolerate an ‘adult supervisor,’ who everyone admits just sat around, drank beer, and provided pyrotechnical advice.) As on any film, much less one with a seven-year shooting schedule, personality clashes emerge. So do romantic rivalries and, eventually, drugs.

Getting the gang back together, 25 years later, to shoot the airplane scene, is no easy matter. Old wounds still haven’t healed, and getting time off from one’s day job to spend nine days reliving childhood glory is easier said than done. Documentary directors Tim Skousen and Jeremy Coon were lucky enough to capture some fairly bad luck on the part of Strompolos and crew, and there’s real suspense as to whether they’ll manage to pull it off.

The adaptation itself and the documentary came through Portland and Vancouver on tour a couple of weeks ago, and now the making-of film opens for a regular run at the Hollywood Theatre. (Presumably the largesse of Spielberg and/or Paramount Pictures doesn’t extend to allowing extended engagements for the adaptation, though it is available for purchase and download at www.raidersguys.com.)

Other interview segments feature horror director Eli Roth, film-geek guru Harry Knowles and others discussing the discovery of the fan film, which began with a 2002 film festival screening in Austin. That story is almost as unlikely as the film’s creation, and serves as further evidence that sometimes dreams do come true, even if you end up having Eli Roth and Harry Knowles to thank for it.

(92 minutes, not rated, opens Friday, June 17, at the Hollywood Theatre.) GRADE: B+

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