It was a story that, in film nerd circles, gradually took on the glimmer of legend: in 1981, a group of kids in smalltown Mississippi set out to recreate, shot-for-shot, Steven Spielberg‘s “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” It would gradually consume every summer of their childhood and gain some big name appreciators in the form of horror filmmaker Eli Roth and nerdy movie blogger Harry Knowles. The recreation was something that had to be seen to be believed, a pop culture artifact as lovingly crafted as the film it so astutely mimicked. What makes “Raiders!,” a documentary by Jeremy Coon and Tim Skousen, so compelling, is that it chronicles not only the phenomenon but the attempts by the original filmmakers Eric Zala, Chris Strompolos, and Jayson Lamb, to finish the one shot that never got completed. The resulting film is exhilarating, most notably for its ability to be awesomely triumphant and deeply depressing at the same time. (Note: Chris Strompolos and 12 year-old Eric Zala were also recently profiled by Vice about their remake — watch that story here).
The documentary opens with a couple of screens of text summing up both the original intent of the movie and what they were trying to do, followed by an awkward scene of Zala (the director) and Strompolos (who stood in for Harrison Ford in the reenactment), 30-something years later, conning a rich Mississippian out of money for the sequence they intended to film. The pair come across as very enthusiastic flimflam artists, and even the investor has a hard time swallowing what they’re asking for… but he does it anyway. Little by little, through personal investments and a crowd-sourcing initiative, they pull together the cash and set about to finish something that they had left behind decades earlier: the scene where Indy fights a German tough guy while a Nazi flying wing spins behind them. It’s understandable why they didn’t attempt the sequence as 12-year-olds.
As the movie progresses, there is behind-the-scenes footage of the original production and stories from just about everybody involved about the obsession, attention to detail, and childish squabbling that nearly derailed the remake. There was a particularly fractious rift between Strompolos and Zala over a young girl that threatened their friendship for a long time. It’s fascinating to see how, decades later, that same obsession still grips each of them in their own way. There’s something unusually compelling about the drive required to accomplish something like this, and every sequence where Zala has to sheepishly call his boss and ask for more time off of work because the rain in Mississippi has not been kind, is loaded with the edge-of-your-seat tension of a first rate thriller. As a viewer you can’t help but want them to succeed, if only so they can put it behind them. And this is before a crew largely made up of amateurs starts to play with deadly explosives….
But the power of “Raiders!” comes from the fact that there is a level of sadness that is so palpable you can almost touch it. These are grown men, dressing up in old costumes and reassembling old friends (they even managed to rope in Angela Rodriguez, who originally played Marion so long ago), who have never been able to move on, who have been stuck in a powerful form of arrested development that could potentially be viewed as scary. During the course of the original filming, each member of the core team went through a divorce in their family (Strompolous tells some harrowing stories about what happened when a stepdad moved in), and each freely admit that they were hiding in their version of “Raiders of the Lost Ark” to escape the painful reality of their home life. One of their mothers even remarks that “dysfunction breeds creativity.” It’s enough to wonder if the pain of their childhood, those wounded little hearts, will finally be mended when the shoot is complete or if the compulsion is more clinical in nature, especially since a new rift between the friends opens up once this project starts up again (Lamb, the most colorful and watchable member of the group, is incensed that his idea to shoot the scene with miniatures is ignored). However, through marriages and drug addictions and petty squabbling, these three friends have remained remarkably close. Even at its most fucked up, their commitment to each other and the project is pretty admirable.
As a film, “Raiders!” feels as handmade as the boys’ production, with a liberal mixture of John Williams‘ score from Spielberg’s movie and peppy synth-y pop songs that sound like they could have been from that era but probably weren’t. It’s overlong and shaggy and you don’t get to see the sequence they newly shot until the closing credits, with so many talking head interviews that it’s almost hard to keep track. Coon and Skousen do manage to talk to John Rhys Davies — aka Indy’s good buddy Sallah — who says some insightful things, but what would have pushed “Raiders!” into the realm of documentary classic, of course, would have been words from Spielberg himself. (He did, at one point, meet with the young men and clearly gave the documentary his blessing.)
At its heart, “Raiders!” is an underdog story, and as with any underdog story, it becomes even more compelling as the stakes are continually raised against our heroes. The shoot got rough — torrential downpours, crew disputes, a nearly fatal fireball — enough to the point that their childhood exploits of setting themselves on fire and being vaguely supervised by a beer-drinking weirdo seemed downright sane in comparison. Whether or not it succeeds, it’s amazing that they attempted it at all. Anyone who has ever shot movies with their friends growing up will be able to relate to the documentary with extreme affection, but “Raiders!” is more than that. It’s a movie for anyone who has ever dreamed big, been knocked down, and dared to dream again. [A-]