Inspiration from the Ark

This story is truly inspirational to me.

You may have read about it in Vanity Fair. In the early 80s, a group of boys in Southern Mississippi decided they were going to remake Raiders of the Lost Ark shot by shot using a video camera, their friends and whatever props and locations they could scrounge together. It took them seven years to complete. Seven years is a long time to work on something as an adult, but to a 10 and 11-year-old, that’s a lifetime.

I was lucky enough to attend a screening hosted by the director a while ago. The quality of the film is as rough as you would imagine a 20-year-old video tape to be. Despite technical flaws, this movie is a powerful testament to what it means to be a creative nerd. If you have ever wondered why people get obsessed with movies or TV shows to the point of distraction, this movie has the answer. Children from divorced families getting together to create their own fantasy world every summer while people made fun of them.

Technically, the movie has every fault you would imagine. But, those faults pale in comparison to how much they got so very very right. The giant boulder is a giant boulder, the fire in the bar scene is a fire in a bar (admittedly, a bar they built in someone’s cellar) and when Indiana goes under a truck while holding onto his whip and is then dragged behind in the dust, you find yourself cheering in excitement that they pulled it off.

One of the great pleasures of the movie is watching them solve problems that don’t occur to the casual viewer. You wonder how they’ll do the boulder, what the ark will look like and how they’ll pull off the chase scene. The real interest is in the tiny moments. For instance, if you are in a small town in Mississippi, where are you going to get a monkey? When the solution appears on-screen, I found myself laughing not so much because it was funny, but because the solution is so clever.

They just used a Beagle mutt named Snickers.

When Marion is trying to get the monkey off of her shoulder, it’s just a dog trying to figure out why a girl is shaking him around. Snickers rides around on the shoulder of “the Arab” with a look of disinterest and whenever he gets put down, he immediately curls up and goes to sleep. The shot of him on the floor after eating bad dates is just him sleeping in an odd position.

The plane at the end of the first scene is replaced with a boat in a swamp. The natives that chase him there are 11-year-old boys in grass skirts. Time after time they just pull it off in an obvious but tremendously clever way.

In the question and answer after the movie, someone actually had the audacity to point out what scenes and shots were missed. For a split second, I thought the audience, all awestruck at the work and creativity on display, was going to collectively hit him in the back of the head. Chris Stromopolis, the co-director and Indiana Jones, shushed the crowd and started to explain. You see, he said, for the first few years, we could only see the movie at the theater. There were no video stores and it wasn’t on TV. They worked from memory and a Marvel Comic adaptation. It wasn’t until 84 or 85 that they actually could compare what they’d filmed to the actual movie. At one point, they went into the theater with a tape recorder taped to their chests in the hopes of being able to get something, ANYTHING, that they could use. The first time, they were caught. The second time, they got a good tape with dialog.

The most touching moment for me was Chris telling us that scene where Marion kisses Indy in the ship’s cabin is his actual first kiss from a girl and it was captured on film. Which makes me think that what started as an attempt to duplicate an action adventure movie turned, as the years passed, into an elaborate plot to get a kiss from a girl.

In the blooper reel there’s a shot of a kid that they set on fire with gasoline rolling around on the floor asking if they got the shot while someone is standing off to the side trying to quickly read the instructions on a fire extinguisher.

When they tried to make a plaster cast of the kid who played the Nazi Toht’s head for the melting scene at the end. You know, the weird-looking torture Nazi whose face melts, well in this version he’s played by a kid who looks like Ernie from My Three Sons only skinnier and nerdier. Turns out they accidentally used construction plaster instead of plain plaster, so when they put it on his head, it started to heat up to about 107 degrees. They had given him a pad of paper to write on and he wrote the word “hot.” Then, they realized that they hadn’t properly soaped his eyes and they were plastered shut. He reached for the pad again and wrote the word “hospital.” They called an ambulance, but the police got there first. The policeman looked at the plaster coated boy, shook his head and said, “What in the hell are you kids doing?”

One store owner called the police and told them that they were filming child pornography.

Chris is now trying to turn all this attention into a career of some kind. He’s been in LA for 14 years with no luck, but they might be the thing that pushes him over the edge. Their story has been sold and is going to be a movie and a documentary. Hopefully, by the grace of Lucas, this will be released on DVD so every nerd in the world can see it.

In the credits, the movie is dedicated to the memory of Snickers. He was hit by a car before the movie was complete. When an audience member asked about Snickers, Chris almost teared up and said, “Good old Snicks.”

It’s like watching someone’s home movies, but the sheer scope and magnitude of what they pulled off makes me feel like I can do anything. The biggest lesson in all of this is that if they had only half-made the movie, it wouldn’t be that interesting. Remember to finish things no matter what!

Just search for Raiders! The Story of the Greatest Fan Film Ever Made and you can watch it on Netflix.

3 responses

  1. “The Ark is a source of unspeakable power and it has to be researched!”
    “And it will be I assure you Dr. Brody, Dr. Jones.”
    Hopefully Lucas, Spielberg and Williams will allow this to get out, not keep it hidden in the figurative warehouse that is copyright entanglements…


  2. The director said that there was some hope that the movie might show up as an extra on a future special edition of Raiders. Man, I’d love that.
    Especially if you could float their version in a box while the actual movie played. Too much fun…


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