BYLINE: By Jim Windolf
Chris Strompolos was a rowdy, pudgy kid who craved attention. He once bit a classmate, and he had a habit of barking at his teachers, which didn't go over very well at the Episcopal schools he attended in southern Mississippi. In their efforts to get him to behave, teachers made Chris sit on his hands, copy pages from the Bible, and stay in a dark room for hours by himself. On one occasion, Chris recalls, he even got paddled in front of his classmates. More and more, he drifted into a fantasy world-the world of his favorite movie, Raiders of the Lost Ark. Ever since seeing it in the summer of 1981, he had idolized the film's hero, the swashbuckling archaeologist Indiana Jones. Chris loved Indiana Jones. He wanted to be Indiana Jones. Cracking the bullwhip. Rescuing the girl. Making wisecracks all the while. Whenever he could, Chris slipped into the swampy woods near his hometown of Gulfport, and he swung from vines and pretended to be Indy in a world of adventure far from the awful reality (whap) he had to endure (whap) as that wooden paddle smacked his behind (whap).
When he wasn't playing Indiana Jones, Chris often pored over his Raiders of the Lost Ark comic book. It was a good way to pass the time during the hour-long school-bus rides. One day on the bus, the 10-year-old Chris showed his prized comic book to a skinny older boy, a sixth-grader named Eric Zala, who was known in school as a comic-book collector and talented graphic artist. Eric, 11, seemed impressed. It turned out he was a Raiders fan, too.
During a school assembly that spring, Chris noticed Eric again: he was up on the screen, playing a Gestapo-type villain in a super-8 movie made by a group of sixth-graders under a teacher's supervision. Chris loved every minute of it-and it wasn't lost on him that Eric had modeled his character after Toht, the sadistic Nazi from Raiders of the Lost Ark.
After the school year was over, in June of 1982, Chris called Eric. He had an idea. Eric was surprised to be hearing from a kid he barely knew, but invited Chris over to his house anyway.
What ensued was halfway between a playdate and a Hollywood pitch meeting. The two boys sat in Eric's damp basement, listening to a sound-effects record and brainstorming about doing their own shot-for-shot remake of the movie they loved. Chris planned to play Indiana Jones. Eric said he would take the Toht role.
For most kids, an afternoon spent daydreaming out loud about taking on some grand project would have been enough. But for Chris and Eric, it was just the beginning. As partners, they would prove to be strangely suited to the huge task they had begun. And so their little undertaking became something that occupied them for the rest of the 1980s.
While countless American kids spent the Reagan years numbing their brains with the new adolescent crazes of cable-TV channel surfing and cramming for the S.A.T.'s, Eric and Chris were routinely pulling all-nighters to run lines of dialogue, hammer sets, and make stuff explode. Other boys asked for toys; they asked for props and supplies-a bullwhip, a leather jacket, six cans of spray paint, a VHS camcorder (which Chris got for his birthday one year). Eventually, their project would grow into something big enough to devour their teenage years, but their goal still seemed out of reach even when they had deep voices and girlfriends, with both of them burned out and practically hating each other's guts. And even 21 years past their start date, when Chris and Eric were finally and absolutely through with each other, their insane project would bring them together once again.
George Lucas had thought up Raiders of the Lost Ark in the early 70s, at about the same time he conceived the Stars Wars saga. When Star Wars was having its Los Angeles premiere in 1977, he was on a beach in Hawaii, making sandcastles with Steven Spielberg. Lucas told his friend about his new protagonist-an archaeologist with a pistol, bullwhip, and leather jacket named Indiana Jones-and Spielberg got it right away. The movie Lucas envisioned, set in 1936, would be a deluxe version of the Saturday-matinee cliff-hangers he had loved as a kid. With Spielberg aboard as director, and Harrison Ford signing on to play the adventurer who outsmarts Nazis on his worldwide hunt for the chest holding the original stone tablets with the Ten Commandments engraved on them, shooting got under way in June 1980. There followed 73 production days in England, France, Tunisia, and Hawaii-11,000 shots filling up 300,000 feet of film, with 7,000 snakes and 500 extras. It cost $20.4 million to make and became the summer blockbuster of 1981, going on to earn $242.4 million at U.S. box offices. It would also spin off two sequels, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984) and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989), both of which reached theaters before Chris and Eric had finished their movie.
On the surface the two boys were opposites: Chris, whose parents had divorced when he was three, was a class clown; Eric was a quiet, brainy kid who had never been paddled. But they shared that tendency to escape into fantasy. At age six Chris had gone everywhere-even to school one day-dressed as Superman, using a red tablecloth from his grandfather's restaurant as a cape. Eric had also worn a homemade Superman costume at that age, but that wasn't enough for him, so he put a devious plan into action. While reading aloud to his mother one day, he squinted and said he was having trouble making out the words. She took him to an ophthalmologist soon afterward, and he duly failed the eye-chart exam. Then his mom bought him the prop he'd been after all along-eyeglasses-which allowed Eric to be Clark Kent whenever Superman was off duty.
The boys acted in the same way when they began fixing their attention on Raiders of the Lost Ark. Chris needed to be Indiana Jones, even in public, while Eric had to ensure that any make-believe endeavor he took part in was realistic, down to the smallest nuance. Chris and Eric, in other words, weren't normal children. Chris (charming, hungry for attention, heavy into role-playing) was a born actor, and Eric (obsessive, visual, detail-oriented) a born director.
The two boys got started in the summer of '82 not by filming anything (they didn't have a camera) but by pretending to inhabit the world Lucas and Spielberg had brought to the screen. They were just a couple of Mississippi kids playing make-believe in what was more a youthful folie a deux than the beginning of an actual movie. But with Paramount's nationwide re-release of Raiders of the Lost Ark to 1,300 theaters on July 16, 1982, Chris and Eric found themselves suddenly able to trade in their playacting for the seriousness of pre-production. This began when Chris undertook a secret mission to the Hardy Court Cinemas in Gulfport with a tape recorder strapped to his chest-only to be tossed out by an usher who was apparently sensitive to matters of copyright. The less mischievous-looking Eric tried the same thing later on and got away with it; Eric was the Tom Sawyer to Chris's Huck Finn, better able to deceive adults.
In those days, before prompt home-video releases, the audiocassette made by Eric was crucial. The two boys committed its every line to memory, like religious scholars of old learning a sacred text, and they also trained themselves to match the actors' inflections. Using as source material the tape, the comic book, their memory of the film itself, and a novelization, Chris scribbled down descriptions of roughly 20 shots from the movie; Eric continued this tedious process in his precise handwriting until they had a list of 649 shots in all. Now their plan had the elegance of simplicity: film each of …