The ads stated it was the Los Angeles premiere of the much-anticipated Indiana Jones movie Wednesday night at the Chinese Theatre in Hollywood. There was a lot of buzz about this one, because few in the audience had seen a frame of it. The contents were closely guarded by filmmakers intent on keeping them off the Internet. But a quick inspection of the courtyard outside the Chinese turned up the usual tourists and Marilyn Monroe impersonators. Small signs directed the crowd up a couple flights of stairs to the adjacent Chinese 6 multiplex.
Which was OK, because this wasn’t “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull,” the first Indy movie in over 19 years, but “Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Adaptation” that had actually been completed 19 years ago by a bunch of Mississippi teenagers obsessed with paying homage to their twin cinematic gods: Steven Spielberg and George Lucas.
The legend of the film is well-known in Indy circles. In 1982, three friends -- Chris Strompolos, Eric Zala and Jayson Lamb -- got together to begin a shot-for-shot re-creation of “Raiders,” a film that had been released just a year before. Their ambitions were huge -- they committed to re-creating every single effects shot, including the giant rolling boulder at the film’s beginning.
Hampered by the budget constraints of a 12-year-old’s allowance and unhappy parents who learned they were setting each other on fire, the film was shut down and restarted several times over the course of seven years. In August 1989, the now 19-year-old friends finally had their premiere screening.
The guys are in their mid-30s now, and improbably, they’ve fashioned a bit of a second career touring the world with what “Hostel” director Eli Roth described as “the Ark of the Covenant of underground tapes.” It’s been much discussed, but outside of their occasional charity screenings, it’s completely unavailable.
Fan films often range from professional-looking-yet-hollow to completely amateurish. “Raiders: The Adaptation” is certainly amateurish (the film was shot on video and hasn’t been polished at all since its final edit in 1989) but there’s a spirit of creativity in it that filmmakers would kill for no matter how large the budget. Even more so than the original “Raiders,” this adaptation makes us wonder “How did they do that?”
For the bar fight set in Nepal, it appears as if the teens completely torched some unwitting parents’ rec room. They even lit themselves on fire. And unlike professional Hollywood stunt men, these kids really used gasoline on themselves.
The famed truck chase is re-created in all its glory, including the sequence in which Indy gets dragged along behind the moving truck. No Hollywood trickery involved here - Strompolos, who played Indy, actually let himself be dragged along behind the truck. Even the famous melting face of the Nazi Toht is shown, although that’s one of the few effects that suffers when compared to the original.
The Chinese screening was for the benefit of the Festival of Children Foundation and had been set in motion by Roth, who discovered the tape years ago and brought it to the attention of movie Web geek Harry Knowles, who screened it at his annual “Butt-Numb-A-Thon” film festival in Austin, Texas.
“Harry put it on for the crowd during a lull while they set up for a special sneak preview of “The Two Towers,” Roth told the crowd. “And when he stopped it midway through the film to show “Two Towers,” the crowd started booing. They actually booed “The Two Towers.”
Strompolos and Zala answered questions afterward, and it’s obvious these guys have been screening the movie a lot in the last five years. Their delivery of the anecdotes is down to a smooth science.
Over the years, the film has picked up admirers. Besides Roth, “Ghost World” screenwriter Dan Clowes has written a script based on their story with producer Scott Rudin set to make the film at Paramount. And, yes, Spielberg has seen it. He invited Strompolos and Zala to his office to discuss the film, where he reportedly told them, “I watched it. Then took it home and watched it again. And yes, it inspired even me.”
What’s perhaps most remarkable about the film is that it doesn’t simply serve as a cheap reminder of the joys of the original. It’s a bit of solid entertainment all on its own. As one audience member told me, “During the first 20 minutes, I was thinking how much I wanted to see ‘Raiders’ again, but by the end that feeling had passed. I feel like I just watched it.”