My review of the documentary “Elstree 1976: A Film by Jon Spira”.
Elstree 1976 is an interesting documentary focusing on some of the side characters from A New Hope. The film interviews David Prowse (Darth Vader), Pam Rose (Leesub Sirun), Derek Lyons (Temple Guard), Angus MacInnes (Gold Leader), Garrick Hagon (Biggs Darklighter), Laurie Goode (Stormtrooper), Anthony Forest (Fixer, Stormtrooper), John Chapman (X-Wing Pilot), Jeremy Bulloch (Boba Fett, and others), and Paul Blake (Greedo). The film asks these extras and background actors what it was like to work on the set of Star Wars, how they came to be a part of the film, and what they’ve been doing ever since.
At the beginning, this seems like a premise only the most die-hard fan could love. In a sense, that’s probably true. This documentary isn’t really made for the average fan of the Saga, and may not be suited for every documentary fan either. It moves slowly because it is mostly interviews, so the 1:41 run time feels longer than it really is. But the thing is, this film was right up my alley.
One of the most frequent reviews I’ve read is that it focuses too much on the mundane life of every actor. One actor remembers playing squash with Kiera Knightley’s father as another tells us about taking too much medication for a back injury. I felt that some of the stories were a tad boring, but I did not think it was the fault of the documentarians. There are plenty of other places to read about the “more exciting” stories behind the scenes, so I didn’t feel like this film owed us anything “spectacular” in that sense. If anything, I admire that the filmmakers took these average stories and recorded them. This history will quickly become lost (as we are more frequently seeing the tragic deaths of many actors from the Original Trilogy). The more of these stories that we save, the better, in my mind!
On the other hand, even if the stories were bland, I admire what the documentary was trying to do. Rather than go for the big names that we are all used to, the film decided to see what was going on around the world of Star Wars. This made for a more interesting look at the development of the film in the end. Seeing where all of the side actors came from fleshed out the making of the film in a way much different than you would expect from DVD extras. We were offered glimpses into ho people came to act in the film and were even offered glimpses into the way that George selected roles.
Another thing that I feel too many reviews unfairly point out is that some of the actors are a bit unlikeable. When one actor came up frequently, I was growing a bit annoyed, if we’re being honest. There were quite a few parts that I wasn’t a fan of – people taking an unnaturally large amount of pride in being a side character, pointing out strenuous links to big names, reading lines rather than learning them – but that’s not the fault of the documentary – that’s on the actors. Angus remembers specifically that he couldn’t learn his lines without cues, so when he flew his X-Wing he read his script off paper on his legs. Angus also remembers being frustrated when people would queue for big names and overlook his table at conventions. Though unsavory, it’s hard to remember that these are the stories of the real people, rather than the sanitized story we’d love to hear.
The documentary is broken up into mostly distinct sections. There’s life before Star Wars, life during Star Wars, conventions, and life after Star Wars. The life before Star Wars section shows us how all of these actors came together to work on the film, which was an interesting look at casting in the 70’s. Most of them had been side actors before, who showed up to find work. Some describe walking down an alleyway to the casting agency, a risk I might not have taken. Funny how that works, right?
The section detailing working on Star Wars was agonizingly short. Few had much insight on working on set, instead choosing to focus on how well they knew the big name actors. Pam Rose had an interesting take on being dressed up as an alien, which was definitely worth hearing. Maybe most interesting was hearing their views on how big they expected Star Wars to be. Most were honest and noted that they were not expecting much out of the film, much less that it would become such a major blockbuster! I love learning the history of the Saga, so hearing about a time when people didn’t expect anything from Star Wars is extremely interesting to me.
The life after Star Wars section might have been the longest, but that really should be expected. If you came to hear about their time filming, and learned most of their names for the first time here, you’ll be bored out of your mind to hear that they’re mostly retired and only do commercials now a days.
A few reflect on their time at conventions, which could be interesting to people who attend a lot of cons. They mention what it’s like to sign all day at bigger cons with big names compared to cons when there aren’t many big names available. Jeremy Bulloch reflects on his fear of ruining people’s posters with signatures all around. Angus, the one whom I grew to dislike unfortunately, noted that he thought these people would be weird. Thankfully for him, they were actually lovely. Funny. He also noted that he grew annoyed watching people line up for hours for big names while ignoring him. For ten bucks a pop, I can’t be guaranteed that I would be too excited either.
Maybe the most interesting story was that of David Prowse. He spent time discussing his work with Stanley Kubrick (and the trouble that almost landed him in!), his time as a body builder, and his current tension with Lucasfilm. The whole documentary might be worth watching for his perspective alone, really.
Another interesting aspect sprinkled throughout the documentary is how much people draw from their side parts. Derek Lyons mentions an incredible amount of pride for being in the film, noting that it massively boosted his ego. Anthony Forest notes that he thinks it was better that Fixer’s scenes were cut: this way, he lives in notoriety, whereas he might have been otherwise neglected and forgotten! If anything, these insights were an interesting look into human nature, and the meaning we pull from being a part of a wider narrative.
In all, the documentary is a rare glimpse into the more obscure parts of the making of the iconic film. I enjoyed it a lot, but also admit that it can be long for most viewers. The stories are raw and real, so they may rub you the wrong way, but be assured that you’re getting an honest history and reflection on the making of the movie. I eventually plan on buying the DVD, but for now, you can check out the documentary on Netflix.