In 1982, three 11 year-olds in Mississippi set out to remake their favourite film: Raiders of the Lost Ark. It took seven turbulent years that tested the limits of their friendship and nearly burned down their mother's house. By the end, they had completed every scene except one... the explosive aeroplane scene. 30 years later, they attempt to finally realise their childhood dream. This is the story behind the making of what is known as "the greatest fan film ever made."

3.5
Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

In 1981 Raiders of the Lost Ark hit theatres and became an instant success. For a generation of moviegoers it redefined the action film. If you were a kid of a certain age (me included) it was a glorious movie high built for repeat viewing.

For three boys living on the Mississippi Gulf Coast the Spielberg/Lucas mini-epic, itself a celebration of a kind of adolescent movie escapism, Raiders was more than a movie.

Based on this charming, even moving documentary from filmmakers Tim Skousen and Jeremy Coon Raiders would ultimately lead to a personal adventure for these lads, giving their messy adolescent lives relief from family strife.

The trio of boy moviemakers – Chris Strompolos, Eric Zala and Jayson Lamb – saw Raiders on first release when they were still only 11 or 12 years old.

On long bus rides to and from school they started scheming. The plan was to remake the film shot for shot. Eric, tall, serious, focused would direct (he managed to storyboard the film from memory with astonishing accuracy after one viewing.)

Funny, charming, photogenic Chris was cast to re-interpret Harrison Ford’s interpretation of Raiders'  hero, Indiana Jones. Talented and artistically inclined Jayson was in charge of special effects; he even found a way to re-create Spielberg’s Wrath of God climax with roman candles. Chris’ folks, involved in broadcast news, helped out with getting a camera.

In the end the project took seven years to complete. By the time of the hometown premiere in 1989 – seen here in home movies and looking more like a graduation than a movie night - the Raiders Guys (as they have since became known) weren’t really talking.

Like so many filmmakers before and since they found that making a movie was the perfect way to screw up a friendship. Ego, dispute over credits, and even romantic jealousy were amongst the culprits. Exhausted by the experience they lost touch (Eric and Chris spent time over the years moving in and out of the other's orbit.)

In a digital world where the fan film is omnipresent, the Raiders Guys Adaptation (as they themselves dubbed it) had become, by the early 2000s the fan film must-see. Eli Roth and Ain’t It Cool’s Harry Knowles – both featured in this film - were largely responsible for rescuing the Raiders Guys from obscurity 14 years ago.

Chris and Eric were reunited. They hosted screenings in the USA (and Australia*).

They did prime time and told funny stories about how they regularly risked life and limb to get the shot, often inflicting serious damage on person and property in the process. They even met Spielberg. The director told The Raiders Guys he loved what they had done and understood why; as a boy he’d made little movies too.

Part of the mystique of The Adaptation was that these kids who had no money but a lot of time on their hands had – through ingenuity and a lot of chutzpah – found a way to do Raiders: the rolling boulder, the snakes, the submarine, the fiery mountain bar-room shoot-out and the truck chase – its all there on jumpy, smudgy videotape. Watching The Adaptation, as the many fans of this wonderful fan film testify here, is a high form of the interactive experience, closer to a sporting event than a movie. If you know Spielberg’s film then the fun is seeing how the kids will pull off each set piece, and every time they do, the crowd roars approval. This made screenings of The Adaptation feel like you were in some kind of revival Church dedicated to the movie God.

Still, the Raiders Guys never did quite complete The Adaptation. The Flying Wing sequence was deemed too hard since it features a fist fight, a couple of big explosions and a propeller that makes a villain into a slushy.

The story of Skousen and Coon’s documentary is about how the now adult Raiders Guys come to terms with their past while raising the funds to shoot this elaborate, complex and dangerous action scene – 25 years after they wrapped The Adaptation – back home in Mississippi.

Following a successful crowdfunding campaign, the Raiders Guys set out to shoot the sequence but it becomes a nightmare of bad weather, mishap and delays. Making matters worse is Zala’s corporate boss who sees this filmmaking frolic as folly. The threat of a sacking hangs in the air.

Raiders! is long for a doco of this kind but it holds because Coon and Skousen have a feel for drama, Strompolos, Zala and co. make good company and quite frankly as a story of movie love, it’s a ripper.

Lamb appears too, but remains at this distance something of an outsider. Now an artist, he is one of the only people here disdainful of the idea that grown men and aspiring filmmakers ought to be spending effort and money on what is after all a fan film.

But the explanation as to why at least two of the Raiders Guys want to go back in time is in their desire to make a future. We find Strompolos and Zala, now in there 40s, with families and jobs, but their ‘straight’ careers, instead of being rewarding, seem empty.

Coon and Skousen using a mix of talking heads archival clips and observational technique discover something else in letting Strompolos and Zala tell their own story: now, approaching middle age, Eric and Chris need to resolve the past.

The best thing about Raiders the doco is the way it penetrates the cute feel-good story of the Guys so often re-told in news clips and magazines in order to uncover a painful story of adolescent angst, divorce, familial abuse and drug addiction.

Like Spielberg – himself a child of divorce – the Raiders Guys grabbed a camera to get control of life.

Today Strompolos and Zala have turned to filmmaking full-time (their production outfit is called Rolling Boulder Films).

* In 2005 as Program Director of Popcorn Taxi I was responsible for bringing The Adaptation to Australia. 

Watch the trailer:

 

Read more of the latest SBS Movies news and reviews

Follow us on Facebook