As kids grow up, they have an insatiable desire to live out their fantasies, and to reenact the movies, television shows, books and comics that inspire them. That desire can pervade through one’s entire childhood, but it’s rarely acted upon, and even if it is, the level of commitment often does not last long on the part of those involved. That wasn’t the case for three 11-year-olds living in Mississippi in 1982, however, who wanted to make a shot-for-shot remake of one of the most popular films of the decade, Raiders of the Lost Ark. Put to VHS and created using bargain-bin props and the lowest of low-rent special effects, the movie used the original film’s screenplay and score, and was filmed and produced over a seven-year period by teenagers Chris Strompolos, Eric Zala, and Jayson Lamb.
It’s the story of this fan-film, which went on to be a cult-hit after it made its debut at 2002’s Butt-Numb-a-Thon film festival, that is the subject of Jeremy Coon and Tim Skousen’s new documentary Raiders!: The Story of the Greatest Fan Film Ever Made. Along with covering all the trials and tribulations that occurred during the film’s seven-year production, the documentary also follows the boys (now adults with careers and families of their own) reuniting to finish their adaptation of Steven Spielberg’s masterpiece by filming the sequence that always eluded them in their youth: the air-wing fight scene.
Inter-cut with interviews and “behind-the-scenes” footage of the making of their Raiders adaptation, Raiders! does a fantastic job not only capturing the obvious struggles of making a film, but also the drama that so often occurs when not behind the camera. Yes, we see how the teenagers set fire to a basement and made multiple attempts to recreate the iconic “boulder” scene, but the documentary makes it clear that the boys’ passion to make their movie was just as much about their desire to escape into a world of ancient treasures and grand heroics as it was about creating a diversion from their normal everyday lives. In many cases, their respective childhoods feel like the setting of any coming-age-tale in the 1980s. It almost feels cliché in a way learning how the teenage filmmakers dealt with their respective parents’ divorces, endured the abuse of a violent step-parent, and squabbled over the affection of a girl, but it’s also incredibly endearing, and makes these specific parts of the movie all the more watchable as it goes along.
That’s not to say that the documentary doesn’t stumble at certain points. A little too much time is spent on celebrity interviews, and aside from an appearance from John Rhys Davies, who played Egyptian Archaeologist/Excavator Sallah in Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Last Crusade, the “interviews” are more like glowing endorsements of the film itself than anything else.
A bit of the nostalgic feeling is also lost when the film focuses on the efforts of the amateur filmmakers to shoot the coveted “air-wing” scene. Though it’s interesting seeing the daily troubles and obvious dangers of trying to recreate one of the most beloved and iconic moments in Raiders of the Lost Ark, it feels somewhat out of place. Even the completed sequence itself, which is incredibly well-done and eerily hard to distinguish at points from the original fight scene, is so far removed from the “home-made” sensibilities of the fan-film.
Despite these issues, Raiders! excels at capturing the joys and hardships of adolescence, and serves as an excellent example of the profound impact that cinema and fiction has on all of us. Even when the film focuses on Strompolos, Zala and Lamb as adults, now burdened with responsibilities and a certain degree of regret of how their friendship slowly disintegrated over the seven-years that they made their fan-adaptation, there’s a sense of relief seeing them reunited as friends to finish what they set out to do so many decades ago, and it’s made all the better watching them succeed.
Arbitrary Rating: 8 out of 10 fiberglass boulders
Raiders!: The Story of the Greatest Fan Film Ever Made is now playing in select theaters nationwide.
What about you reader? What did you think of Raiders!? Let us know in the comments below!