Indiana Jones and the child prodigies

Back in 1982, three 12-year-olds decided to remake Raiders of the Lost Ark. The result, premiering tonight, has even impressed Steven Spielberg. By Geoffrey Macnab

It's 8.30am on Monday morning at the Vue Cinema in Leicester Square and the projectionist is about to start the "technical" screening for a film that arrives in Britain for a one-off showing with Steven Spielberg's blessing. "Wanted to let you know how impressed I was with your very loving and detailed tribute to our Raiders of the Lost Ark," Spielberg wrote to the film's director, Eric Zala, and its producer, Chris Strompolos, after seeing their tribute version of the first Indiana Jones feature.

Raiders of the Lost Ark: the Adaptation may be movie geek heaven, but it's a disconcerting film to watch in a near-empty cinema first thing on a Monday morning. The technical quality is patchy and fluctuates enormously. Some of the old video footage has taken on a blurred, greenish hue. Dialogue is muffled. There is a droning sound that seems to come from the camera. At first, the film's home-movie credentials are painfully evident. Slowly, however, the yarn draws you in. Whether we are in South America in 1936 and Indiana Jones is escaping bow and arrow wielding savages, or we're in a bazaar in Nepal, the action sequences are staged with plenty of youthful gusto.

Strompolos and Zala, working on a reported budget of $5000 as opposed to the $26m that Spielberg and co. had, haven't skimped on the snakes. There's a lot of fire, too, as well as plenty of fake beards and detailed Nazi uniforms.

Perhaps the piece de resistance is the recreation of the famous sequence in which the rugged-jawed Indy (played by Strompolos) gets hold of a Nazi truck with the Ark inside it. The young film-makers show him fighting for the steering wheel, hurling German soldiers on to the open road and even sliding under the truck himself, recreating a part of the famous Stagecoach-style stunt. What makes it all the more impressive is the suspicion that the film-makers were probably too young to have a driving licence at the time they shot it.

There are some very strange continuity lurches. The main characters' hairstyles and even body shapes change in the course of the movie. They began making the film as kids but were young adults by the time it was completed. Angela Rodriguez's Marion is – depending on which scene you happen to be watching – a squeaky girl on the cusp of adolescence or a mature young woman. Indiana, meanwhile, fill outs as if he has taken some growth hormone.

Even so, it seems churlish to complain about the film's rough edges and idiosyncrasies given just how much passion the young would-be Spielberg's brought to making it over so many years. You find yourself rooting for Indy all over again. Somehow, the revelation that the film almost ground to a halt because Zala and Strompolos fell out over a girl only adds to the appeal.

"Because of that, they weren't talking to each other. There was a time, five years in, when they might never have finished the film," confides Chris Tilly, entertainment editor at the gaming and entertainment outfit IGN, who are behind the British premiere.

The story of how the film was rediscovered and has made its way to Leicester Square is startling in its own right. Tilly had become friendly with horror-meister Eli Roth (of Hostel notoriety) and Roth had told him about the Raiders of the Lost Ark adaptation. Roth, it turned out, had somehow received a bootleg copy of the film and had been won over by its naive enthusiasm. "Eli is a geek at heart and he had been making films since he was a little kid with his brothers," Tilly explains. "It captured his imagination. He would have loved to have put seven years' work into an Indiana Jones remake when he was a kid."

Thanks to Roth, the film was also seen by Ain't It Cool News film critic Harry Knowles, who was similarly won over. Raiders of the Lost Ark: the Adaptation was shown in a partial version at Knowles's Butt-Numb-A-Thon, a 24-hour festival at the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema in Texas, in 2002. Like Roth, Knowles had seen the original Raiders of the Lost Ark when he was nine. Like other children, he had fantasies of being Indy. What he admired about Strompolos and co. was that they had made these fantasies a reality.

Somehow this adolescent movie homage became a full-blown cult phenomenon. Spielberg liked it so much that he watched it twice, sent the film-makers a letter expressing his approval and invited them to meet him. Quentin Tarantino was likewise enthusiastic.

Now the film has finally reached Britain. "We decided to put our resources together, have a red carpet premiere and fly the guys over," Tilly explains. Special guests have been invited to the screening, including Paul Freeman, who played the dastardly villain René Belloq in the original Raiders of the Lost Ark. Spectators will also have the chance to sample some special Indy food fare – sheep's eyeball soup, a platter of snakes, chilled monkey brains and the like.

The enthusiasm of heavyweight directors like Spielberg for the Mississippi schoolkids' mischievous remake of the movie comes with one important caveat – the film is not allowed to be distributed commercially. Nobody can make money from it. That is why it has never been released on DVD and why the London premiere is for charity.

Still, Zala and Strompolos might become movie heroes in their own right. In 2004, heavyweight Hollywood producer Scott Rudin and Paramount Pictures bought the rights to the life stories of Zala, Strompolos and their cinematographer, Jayson Lamb, with a view to making a Son of Rambow-style film about their Indiana Jones obsession.

Whether or not this biopic ever makes it into production, the Mississippi kids who spent their adolescence on their very own Raiders of the Lost Ark already have legions of admirers. After all, whatever its formal deficiencies, this is one of the most lovingly crafted "fan" movies ever made.

'Raiders of the Lost Ark: the Adaptation' screens tonight at the Vue West End, Leicester Square ( )