You remember this scene from 1981’s Raiders of the Lost Ark: Prof. Henry “Indiana” Jones, the two-fisted archeologist/tomb raider played by Harrison Ford, slugs it out with a bald, shirtless, mountain-sized Nazi strongman while attempting to hijack a BV-38 Flying Wing which he believes to be carrying the Ark of the Covenant. Physically outmatched, Dr. Jones survives the fight only because the Nazi fails to notice that the Wing—with its whirring props—has begun to pivot towards him.
The BV-38 is a fictitious aircraft, albeit one that Raiders production designer Norman Reynolds extrapolated from a number of real designs, most notably the Horten Ho 229, a jet wing test-flown by the Luftwaffe in 1943. Other contemporaneous wings include the Northrop N1M , which first flew in 1940, and the even stranger-looking Vought V-173, the U.S. Navy’s “Flying Pancake” first flown in 1942.
The BV-38’s memorable scene inspired a number of scale model kits, but only one full-size mockup—more than three decades after Raiders was released. Earlier this year, amateur filmmakers Eric Zala and Chris Strompolos used the $58,000 proceeds of a Kickstarter campaign to build a 78-foot replica of Reynolds’ fake airplane, and then blow it up for the final shot of a movie they’d been working on all their lives.
As boys growing up in Mississippi, Zala and Strompolos had spent the 1980s—their entire childhoods, essentially—making their own shot-by-shot Raiders remake on VHS. Through sheer pluck and persistence, they managed to recreate almost every dangerous stunt in Steven Spielberg’s $18 million blockbuster ($52 million in 2014 currency), resulting in a charming near-complete Raiders replica that by the 90s had become a cult film in its own right. (Strompolos, who plays Jones, visibly ages from scene to scene.) Because Raiders: The Adaptation would at the very least test the legal definition of Fair Use, it cannot be shown or released commercially, though Lucasfilm has allowed charity screenings to take place. When Spielberg himself saw Raiders: The Adaptation in 2003, he was moved to write letters to its creators, all of whom were by then in their thirties, praising their ingenuity and encouraging them to pursue filmmaking.
These details I learn from a marvelous L.A. Weekly cover story by Amy Nicholson (disclosure: Nicholson is a friend of mine), who visited the Mississippi set of Zala and Strompolos’ Flying Wing shoot and conveyed the entire 33-year saga of their Raiders remake in hilarious and incisive detail. She even speaks to A-list filmmakers Quentin Tarantino and Gus Van Zant, and reflects upon what it means to live in an age of cinema made by directors who grew up watching virtually any film they wanted at any time—an advantage (or is it?) that prior generations of filmmakers never had.