Not long ago, I gave myself the singular mission of sitting down to watch every Spielberg-directed film in chronological order from 1971’s Duel right up through the 2015 Cold War thriller Bridge of Spies. It was a month-long project that, aside from watching the evolution of one of the greatest American filmmakers, was a chance to tap into the great Spielbergian magic that had so enraptured my generation. Because of this – or perhaps inspired by it – my generation was the first to really dive head-first into the trough of full-bore fanaticism (the advent of the internet helped), and we have Steven Spielberg and George Lucas to thank for that.
I thought that my mission to see all of Spielberg’s movies was a bit overly-fanatical, and then I saw the documentary Raiders! The Story of the Greatest Fan Film Ever Made, a grand confirmation that a certifiable obsession with the movies is not only widespread, it’s a cultural norm. It is a relief to see this at a moment when Hollywood seems hell-bent on reconstructing past successes (seriously look at the major releases coming out this year). I say that, and then I must turn around and confess that this is exactly what Raiders! is all about.
In 1982, a full decade and a half before Gus Van Sant recombobulated Hitchcock’s Psycho into a shot-by-shot chunk of cinematic hedonism, three kids from Ocean Springs, Mississippi – Chris Strompolos, Eric Zala, and Jayson Lamb – were so captivated by Raiders of the Lost Ark that they decided to remake it themselves, shot by shot. Beginning in ’82, their modest production was, to say the least, low budget and was given the even more modest title of Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Adaptation.
The project took seven years to complete and was stalled by one scene they wouldn’t attempt until they got it absolutely right. In the meantime they started two fires, one at their house and another to their otherwise inseparable friendship. The project was abandoned in 1989. Their incomplete opus languished on the shelf for many years until 2003 when a VHS was uncovered by Harry Knowles of “Ain’t It Cool News!” and director Eli Roth, who began shopping it around film festivals. Even Spielberg himself gave acknowledgment of their work.
Raiders! is not simply a talking-head documentary. It’s about the full-blown obsession that drives people to tap the greatness of the cinema. It moves back and forth between first-hand accounts of the making of the film and Zala and Strompolos’s recent attempts to put up the money to finish their missing scene – the airfield scene that includes a large explosion, a fistfight and the gory fate of a brutish mechanic who gets a little too close to the plane’s propeller. This, of course, brings about continuity issues that don’t go unnoticed by potential investors. Since the project was begun in ’82 and filmed over several years, the ages of the actors varies back and forth. Obviously a film populated by teenaged actors would be a jolt if they suddenly seemed to be in their mid-40s.
What’s interesting about this movie is the way in which it deals, quietly, with the adamant of time. In the midst of their current mission to complete the final scene, we get inside the story of what happened along the way. As the years went on Zala, who directed and played Belloq, and Strompolos who played Indy, drift apart. Life gets in the way. Childhood rapture gives way to teenage indifference. They choose other paths in life and the project that once bound them together begins collecting dust. The best commentary comes from Chris’ mother who watched the trio omnisciently and had a ringside seat as the Eric, Chris and Jayson came apart and notes the way that Jayson somehow got pushed further and further out of the project and their lives. The movie then provides a bit of suspense as to whether or not Jayson will regroup with the trio once again.
Here is where I must make an admission. I’ve never seen Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Adaptation except in bits and pieces of what I found on the internet over the years. For hardcore movies fans, this adaptation is something of a legend. Everyone initially has the same question: Why is it so important for these guys to finish making this movie? It’s not like the public was missing anything. Why watch a rickety shot-for-shot remake when the original is readily available? It’s a valid question, but it is not really the point. Raiders! is ultimately about the push and pull of our obsession with movies; finding the line between the magic of the movies and the things that pull us back into the cold light of day. More than that, it is a love letter to movies and to fandom, of the need to create and the need to show our love for those things that meant the most to us when we were young, before we grew up and became men . . . top men.