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'Raiders!' By Alan Eisenstock: Book Review

The true story of how two "Indiana Jones" fans made "the greatest fan film ever."

This story first appeared in the Nov. 23 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Raiders! Is a Spielberg-ian story about trying to remake a Spielberg movie. In June 1982, Chris Strompolos and Eric Zala, middle schoolers from the Mississippi town of Gulfport, set out to do a shot-by-shot remake of Raiders of the Lost Ark in their backyard (later joined by third friend Jayson Lamb). It took seven years to complete, but they did it.

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Then the kids grew up, moved on and started adult lives. They forgot about their film until it was discovered 13 years later by fanboy extraordinaire Harry Knowles, who showed it at one of his celebrated supergeek viewing parties in Austin. Steven Spielberg noticed and sent the boys a fan letter. Vanity Fair's Jim Windolf recounted that basic story in a 2004 article, but now Alan Eisenstock picks up the tale in much fuller detail in his book Raiders! The Story of the Greatest Fan Film Ever Made (cribbing Knowles' assessment for the subtitle).

The ingenuity that went into the production is astounding. Zala's basement became the Nepalese bar where Indy and Marion reconnect -- his mother put a temporary halt on production when she saw footage of their re-creation of the fire that sweeps the bar -- and the family dog stood in for the pet monkey. It took multiple tries to fashion a convincing copy of the boulder in the opening sequence, but they finally nailed it with a fiberglass version made gratis by a local boatbuilder. The only scene they skipped was the aircraft fight between Jones and a burly Nazi that ends with the plane exploding. No matter how hard they tried, the boys couldn't persuade anyone to let them blow up their plane, though they did persuade the captain of a decommissioned Navy submarine to let them film the movie's final scenes on it.

But the book really shines in its emotional wallop. Eisenstock is pulling at familiar chords -- teenage bromances and romances, the innocent optimism of youth, the hard disappointments of adulthood -- but that doesn't make them any less effective. The whole book is seeped in nostalgia for the pre-personal computer art of home moviemaking, and Raiders! calls to mind 2011's Super 8, J.J. Abrams' loving Spielberg-like tribute to this era. It is easy to imagine this story making the leap to the big screen (though there's no deal for movie rights yet).

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Eisenstock's biggest problem is figuring out an ending. His attempt to frame it around the friends' efforts to rebuild Zala's home after Hurricane Katrina should be emotionally powerful but feels oddly manufactured, leaving the story dangling like Indiana Jones over a pit of rubber snakes.

What do you think?

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