No matter what mood I happen to be in, if the film “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” is brought up in conversation, or I catch a portion of it on television, a part of me can’t help but feel a certain amount of happiness. I don’t believe that I am in the minority by counting the movie amongst my favorite films of all time. I have a strong feeling that it always will be. With that being said, while I have seen the movie countless times, originally on VHS tape, and thanks to my parents, who purchased for me as a birthday gift, the DVD box set which contains all of the Indiana Jones movies, that is the extent of my involvement with the film. As I soon learned, after I began to watch the documentary, “Raiders!: The Story of the Greatest Fan Film Ever Made,” directed by Jeremy Coon (Napoleon Dynamite) and Tim Skousen (The Sasquatch Gang), the extraordinary lengths to which some people’s fandom extends.
“Raiders of the Lost Ark” was directed by Oscar winner, Steven Spielberg (Saving Private Ryan). It was written for the screen by Oscar nominee Lawrence Kasdan (The Accidental Tourist), and Star Wars creator – and the recipient of the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award – George Lucas, who conceived the story for the film with BAFTA winner, Philip Kaufman (The Unbearable Lightness of Being). From the beginning, the film, which premiered on June 12, 1981 in America, captivated not only the American movie going public, but went on to become a global box-office success. In the summer of 1982, two Mississippi youths, Chris Strompolos (Rewind This) and Eric Zala (Backyard Blockbusters), staunch admirers of the movie, decided to make a shot for shot remake of “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” Their efforts would extend well beyond the one summer. In fact, their remarkable zeal and dedication to complete what they began would continue for the next seven years, and they would come close to finishing their undertaking, minus one scene. The scene they were missing was the airplane scene, in which Indiana Jones fights the muscular, bald headed, Nazi. After the fight comes to a gory end, Jones is victorious, in large part, thanks to the aid of one of the plane’s propellers, but there is also an explosion due to leaked gasoline that has spilled onto the ground. (As an aside, instead of asking, for example, a new bike or video game system for a birthday or holiday present, Strompolos and Zala would ask their parents for props they needed for the film, such as, a leather jacket that resembled the one Indiana Jones wore in Raiders. If they received money, they would use it to buy equipment to help build sets or costumes. Zala recalls one trip where he went to the Salvation Army store to purchase Boy Scout uniforms which were then turned into Nazi uniforms).
The documentary begins with an introduction by Emmy nominee, John Rhys-Davies (The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King), he will appear several times during the movie. He portrayed Indiana Jones’ friend Sallah, in both “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” and “Indian Jones and the Last Crusade.” Next, viewers are introduced to Strompolos and Zala, who are attempting to raise money to complete their long dormant adaptation. Their plan is to shoot the airplane scene, and insert it into the existing footage. The film already had inconsistencies, due to it having been shot over such a lengthy duration of time, but none will be as obvious as the scene they need to shoot, especially considering that Strompolos, who played the role of Indiana Jones as a teenager, is now in his early forties. (As an aside, in addition to directing the adaptation, as well as numerous others tasks performed by Zala during the production, he also played the role of Belloq, which was portrayed in “Raider of the Lost Ark” by British character actor Paul Freeman).
The documentary alternates back and forth between 2014, and archival footage that features clips and outtakes from the adaptation. Additionally, there are interviews with Strompolos’ and Zala’s friends and families, many of whom contributed to turning the two friend’s dream into a reality. Further commentary is provided by Jayson Lamb, who worked as the cinematographer, editor, and special effects supervisor on the adaptation. The three friends had a falling out, during the original filming, over creative differences. In the documentary, Lamb is given ample time to discuss his take on what transpired.
On August 12, 1989, the teenagers staged a screening of their completed adaptation (minus the aforementioned scene) for friends and family at a factory in Gulfport, Mississippi. The screening was modeled after a Hollywood premiere, replete with limousines and a cocktail hour. Those who attended dressed in formal evening wear; and while a show such as Entertainment Tonight didn’t cover the event, the screening was featured on the local evening news. As time passed, Zala got a respectable job, and eventually married, and fathered two children with his current wife; the life of Chris Strompolos, however, took a different turn. He became addicted to crystal meth, and began associating with some very dangerous people. He has since turned his life around, and is married. His wife provides commentary during the documentary.
The film faded into obscurity, until writer and director Eli Roth (Cabin Fever), who had received a VHS copy, was enamored with what he saw. In 2002, Roth asked film critic Harry Knowles (Ain’t It Cool News) if he would show the adaptation at Knowles Butt-Numb-A-Thon film festival, which takes place annually, in December, in Austin, Texas. Knowles informed Roth that the lineup, which features both vintage as well as premiere films, had already been scheduled for that year. The only time he could screen it was during a forty-five minute lunch break, which took place before an advanced screening of “The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers.” One couple, that was interviewed, recalled that they wanted the festival to delay the screening of Oscar winner, Peter Jackson’s blockbuster, in order to watch the rest of the adaptation, and they were not alone in that sentiment. When the festival was over, Roth went in search of the filmmakers, and that was the catalyst which sparked the interest in the long forgotten movie. In June of 2003, thanks to the efforts by Roth, the adaptation had its official premiere at the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema in Austin, Texas. Word of mouth soon spread, and the adaptation began to be shown at film festivals across America.
After a warm reception on the festival circuit, Strompolos and Zala decide to finish the project. The friends, return to their hometown of Ocean Springs, Mississippi to pick up where they left off. Surprisingly, many of the film’s original participants, including Angela Rodriguez, who portrayed Marion Ravenwood, in the adaptation agree to once again participate. Filming as adults, however, still proved to be a difficult endeavor. The $5,000 that had been raised from donations, and a Kickstarter campaign, only went so far. Furthermore, continuous days of rainy weather hampered the scene from being shot, thereby extending the amount of time that Zala needed to take off from work. In fact, his employer was on the verge of firing Zala before relenting, and giving him two additional days, with the proviso, that Zala would receive no more time off for the remainder of the year.
Will Strompolos and Zala realize their dreams? Does a lack of finances or real life responsibilites put an end to their quest to complete the adaptation? If they are successful in finishing the production, what is the next step? Those questions, along with numerous other entertaining stories that are told throughout the documentary, which I haven’t written about in this review, will be answered by the conclusion.
If you’re a fan of “Raider’s of the Lost Ark,” you will more than likely find this an entertaining and inspirational viewing experience. I for one, loved the fact that these guys had a vision in their youth – stuck with their dream as long as they could – put their best efforts into the production, with, for what was for all intents and purposes, limited resources, but their driving ambition kept moving them forward. The documentary serves as a testament to all those who have a dream, no matter how ridiculous, or a waste of time it might seem to others, to keep striving to achieve it, no matter how long it might take.“Raiders!: The Story of the Greatest Fan Film Ever Made” is currently streaming on Netflix.