In 1982 three eleven-year-old boys decided to pull some friends together and make a shot-for-shot adaptation of their favourite film Raiders of the Lost Ark. What started out as a labour of love turned into a seven-year obsession. Utilizing VHS technology and whatever resources they could get their hands on for costumes and props, the boys spent their summers making a rather elaborate home movie. After years of hard work, they finally finished the film minus the climatic airplane sequence that closes out Steven Spielberg’s iconic film.
One would think that simply being able to pull off the low-budget production, one in which the audience can see the actors age on screen since scenes where shot out of order, would be enough to justify the sacrifices that they made. After all, they had no expectations of the film being shown outside of their parents’ living rooms. The desire to film that last missing scene did not diminish over time, instead it spread like a rash they could no longer avoid scratching. Over thirty-years later the trio, now in their forties and with families and responsibilities, reunite in hopes of finally capturing the six-minutes of footage that has eluded them for so long.
Following the men on their problematic shoot, filmmakers Tim Skousen and Jeremy Coon construct an effective love letter to childhood and cinema with Raiders!: The Story of the Greatest Fan Film Ever Made. Similar to any good Indiana Jones film, the journey is far more interesting than the item that ignites it. While the film is structured in such a way that it forces the audience to ponder whether the men will indeed pull off their goal, it is the story of their youth and the directions that their lives and friendships take that is most fascinating about Raiders!.
As if taken directly out of the Amblin Entertainment films (e.g. Goonies, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial) that helped to define 80’s children cinema, the boys escaped into the world of fantasy to numb the pain of their troubled homes. Raiders of the Lost Ark not only unified the boys, but always seemed to bring them back together even when their friendship was being pulled apart by jealousy, substance abuse, and the responsibilities of adulthood. It was the film that sparked their imaginations in ways that only devoted fans could truly appreciate. While their attention to detail is to be commended, the documentary frequently reminds viewers that the boys placed themselves, and their friends, in great danger. Doing all the stunts themselves, including hanging from fast-moving vehicles and setting people on fire, it is a miracle that no one died during the production.
Although Raiders! does a wonderful job of capturing the imaginative spirit of youth, there is something jarring about watching the men attempt to finish the missing sequence. What made their home movie such an underground hit was the fact that they were kids using whatever they could find to create it. Don’t have a monkey? No problem, just use a dog. Now, as adults, they are opting to go into debt to build a plane from scratch just so they can eventually blow it up. When one of them comments that they should have just gone with miniature models the notion is treated like an afterthought. However, that idea is more in the spirit of their original filmmaking than going to such great lengths, including nearly losing their day jobs, to make a professional looking six-minutes of footage. After it was the follow your passion nature of the VHS production that fans, like Eli Roth, Harry Knowles and even Spielberg himself, fell in love with in the first place.
Providing a charming examination of adolescence and the bonding nature of cinema, Raiders!: The Greatest Story Ever Made reminds audiences that no one should ever give up on their dreams.