It was one of those scratchy tapes, duped from VCR to VCR and passed along, like the original South Park Christmas bit. But this was a true oddity, a shot-for-shot remake of Raiders of the Lost Ark, made by kids -- kids who got older and younger from wide shot to close up, kids whose voices changed from one scene to the next, kids who set themselves on fire, jumped under speeding trucks, and, somehow, ran around on the decks of a real navy gunboat. In Nazi uniforms.
A fuzzy copy ended up in the hands of Eli Roth, the co-writer and director of Cabin Fever, when he was still a student at NYU. Once Cabin Fever hit, he championed the weird Raiders wherever he could. First, he gave a copy to Ain't It Cool News guru Harry Knowles, who played it as a time filler at his Austin film festival, where it stole the show. Then he passed it along at a Dreamworks meeting, but when word came down that Spielberg wanted to write the kids a letter of support, Eli didn't know where it had come from, either. So he frantically Googled everyone in the credits, and hit on Jayson Lamb, the cinematographer and editor, who thought it was a joke. But he was in touch with the film's two main creators, and he passed along word.
Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Adaptation began with two Mississippi kids who really loved a movie. In 1982, Chris Strompolos and Eric Zala, who were just 10 and 11, decided that dressing up like Indiana Jones wasn't enough; they were going to recreate the film, every single scene. With the help of a bootleg audiocassette Zala made by strapping a recorder to his chest in the theater, they mapped out the shots and learned their lines -- Strompolos played Indy and produced, and Zala, along with directing, played Belloq, the French archaeologist.
The cast was filled out by neighborhood kids. They turned the swamps and alleys of Mississippi into deserts, jungles, whatever they needed. Their moms' basements became tombs and bars, and they tapped anyone they could con out of, say a loaner Rolls Royce, or some pet store snakes -- which, it turns out, they were very good at. One summer's project stretched to two, then three. But unlike every other kid with a great idea, seven years after starting, they actually finished.
The movie itself is amazing, in all the senses of the word. Sure, the quality is iffy; there are vertical-hold shivers and tracking lines, but you're drawn in from the opening scene. When Chris as Indy trades the Golden Idol for what looks like a Crown Royal bag full of sand, and ends up chased by chubby blonde kids in grass skirts, the fun is impossible to resist.
You're continually reminded that these are children -- when Indy tells Marcus, "You sound like my mother," you expect her to step into the rumpus room with Fluffernutters -- but time and again, they astonish. From the fire scene in Marion Ravenwood's bar to the chase scene through the Cairo souk, their ingenuity is hard to believe. Yes, they really did set Eric's mom's basement on fire, along with Eric, and yes, they did turn a Biloxi alley into a bazaar with just a few baskets, some bolts of cloth, and generous helpings of fake beard for all.
(My favorite flash of inspiration was replacing Marion's pet monkey with Snickers, Chris's dog, carried around on her shoulder. As Zala says, "There was a shortage of spider monkeys in Mississippi that year.")
They did, incidentally, shy away from one challenge: the famous scene when the propeller chews up the Nazi strongman. At the end, the plane blows up, and unlike the junker trucks they'd trashed, they couldn't beg or steal one to experiment on; maybe use a miniature? Strompolos says, "This is going to sound stupid, but we didn't want it to look fake."
The actors may be amateurs, but they're affecting. Strompolos has real charm as Indy, and Angela Rodriguez is a sharp, gutsy Marion. (It helped that she already knew how to smoke.) Of course, there are the inevitable continuity problems -- Angela's New Wave hairdo loses its frosting and grows about three inches on the way from Nepal to Cairo, for example -- but that's just a reminder of the dedication that this whole amazing, ridiculous feat took. Just imagine a troop of kids stomping around a Mississippi construction site in Nazi uniforms cannibalized from Goodwill Boy Scout gear, and the true insanity starts to sink in.
Once the film was rediscovered, a cottage industry was born. Given the obvious copyright issues, the film can't be distributed on DVD. But it can be shown to live audiences as long as any proceeds go to charity, and now Strompolos, Zala, and Lamb tour the country screening the movie they made as kids. It's a great thing to watch, and you should catch it if you can. There was a screening at Grauman's Chinese Theatre last week; even the jaded Hollywood crowd gave up a standing ovation. (There are showings coming up in Nashville, Hartford, and Pittsburgh; click here for the details.)
The story doesn't quite end there. Producer Scott Rudin (behind everything from School of Rock to No Country for Old Men) commissioned Daniel Clowes, the cartoonist and writer of Art School Confidential, to write a script about their story, and it's in Paramount's hands now. Zala and Strompolos are getting their chance too, working on their own action-adventure movie.
But whatever comes next, Raiders: The Adaptation's strange place in movie history is unassailable. All those AFI snooze fests and Oscar montages pale next to this impossibly weird film as a monument to a true love of the movies.