'Elstree 1976' Review: The Unknown Faces of Star Wars

10 fascinating people you never knew were part of 'Star Wars: A New Hope'

There have been many Star Wars documentaries. Behind-the-scenes films like Empire of Dreams and From Star Wars to Jedi are feature-length examinations of how the movies were made. Star Wars Begins is a popular and well-made behind-the-scenes doc created by fans. The People vs. George Lucas is a scathing look at how and why the Bearded One made the prequels. Plastic Galaxy explores the vast world of Star Wars toys.

Add to that list Elstree 1976, a fascinating look into the lives of ten actors and background extras from the original Star Wars, aka A New Hope. Most of their stories have never been told, and they range from the well-known, like David Prowse (Darth Vader) and Jeremy Bulloch (Boba Fett) to those that even the most hardcore fans might not recognize.

Elstree 1976 (named after the studio where Star Wars was filmed) is a crowdfunded documentary, and it's laser-sharp in its focus on these ten individuals. It never strives to dive any deeper into Star Wars lore than the parts that happen to intersect with these people's lives. As the saying goes, "everyone has a story," and it turns out that the stories of these ten folks are pretty darn interesting. The movie doesn't simply reveal these little-known actors, it completely humanizes them.

Prowse, for example, has a cantankerous reputation as a gruff man who's not afraid to speak his mind and make enemies. But here he comes across as a kind, warm man, whom we learn surprising stories from his childhood about that remind us everyone has emotional scars.

The words "Star Wars" aren't even mentioned until about 25 minutes in, after we've had some time to get to know all ten of these folks. Juggling ten people and their stories coherently isn't easy; keeping it all straight for viewers is even harder. Fortunately for filmmaker Jon Spira, all ten of his subjects have strong personalities that make telling them apart very easy.

01
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The Lineup

Greedo
A costumed Greedo from 'Elstree 1976'. Sonny Malhotra / Filmrise

There's the jovial Paul Blake, the experienced character actor who's done Shakespeare on stage, but is still best known for the 60 seconds he spent on screen behind a green mask as Greedo. Blake seems to have a good-natured story for every occasion, and quickly becomes one of the most likable on-screen figures. At the movie's premiere, he was so excited when his scene came up that he stood up in the theater and shouted, "That's me!" How can you not love that?

Major science fiction fan Angus MacInnes was the Y-Wing Gold Leader, also known as Dutch, in the attack on the Death Star. He had several lines in the film, but when Lucas was filming his close-up scenes in the cockpit, the director chose to film them out of sequence without the cues that MacInnes had memorized. The actor was eventually forced to have the script pages sitting on his legs, which he would simply read from. If you watch the movie, you can clearly see him looking down to read his lines repeatedly.

Garrick Hagon looks very little like his power-'stached character Biggs Darklighter in real life. Hagon admits he was devastated and angry when he saw the movie and realized that Biggs had been (as fans now know well) cut from the film. But today he's grateful that he never acted on that anger, and he recalls his time on set with great fondness.

Anthony Forrest was Fixer, a friend of Luke and Biggs' on Tatooine. Of course all of his scenes were cut from the movie, just as Hagon's (Biggs) were. But during filming, he was asked by Lucas on-the-fly to step in and play a Stormtrooper in Mos Eisley. He wound up being the Stormtrooper who's looking for the droids, who Obi-Wan uses his iconic "These aren't the droids you're looking for" Jedi mind trick on. Forrest has a passion for music, and often plays in subway stations.

Derek Lyons appeared as multiple background extras, none of them speaking parts, the same few seconds of screen time he's enjoyed in countless other blockbuster films. He and Mark Hamill discovered on set that they have the same date of birth. A devout Buddhist, Lyons is an expert martial artist who suffers from depression but has found "doing conventions" and meeting fans to be therapeutic.

John Chapman was an X-Wing pilot who never flew a ship. He never had lines, and is the only actor featured in Elstree 1976 to never have been made into an action figure. He appeared only in the pilots' briefing before the attack on the Death Star. Today, he's combined his two passions -- bicycles and outer space -- into a comic book character called "Jonnie Rocket," which he uses while giving educational presentations at schools.

Pam Rose, an experienced extra, portrayed an alien waitress at the Cantina named Leesub Sirln, a background role that required her to wear a large prosthetic head. Rose spent just five days on set and had no lines, but she looks back on the experience sensibly. "It was just like any other job," she said, "except you looked weird."

Then there's Laurence Goode, who was the Stormtrooper who infamously hit his head on a Death Star door. (He even wrote a song about it!) When it happened on-set, he kept waiting for someone to yell cut, but the words never came. So he assumed his flub wasn't in the shot. He was as surprised as everyone else when the shot showed up in the film! Today he works in the music industry.

It's one full hour into the film before Jeremy Bulloch is introduced. Which makes a kind of sense, since he wasn't in Star Wars; his character debuted three years later in The Empire Strikes Back. The actor behind Boba Fett is a surprisingly soft-spoken gentleman. His stories are very matter-of-fact and unassuming, and he pragmatically recognizes that his fame among the fans is due entirely to the character Boba Fett. "It has nothing to do with me," says Bulloch without a trace of self-pity.

The biggest name involved, of course, has to be David Prowse. James Earl Jones gets a great deal of credit for bringing the Dark Lord of the Sith to life, but it was Prowse who physically performed Darth Vader on set, including all of Vader's actions, movements, and yes even his lines. A brief clip even shows Vader's first scene in the movie using Prowse's on-set voice instead of Jones'. The similarity between their deliveries is striking, though it's easy to understand why Prowse's heavy accent and tenor pitch was replaced. Prowse seems to harbor no resentment for this change, though he's insistent that he still wants "people to know that it was me that did all the acting. I did all of the acting, and I did all of the dialogue."

Very late in the film, Prowse finally opens up about his contentious relationship with Lucasfilm. He says he's "eternally grateful" for getting to play Vader, but claims that when the movie came out, Lucas did everything possible to distance him from the movie and the part, allegedly thinking of him as "just another bit player." When he began signing his autographs as "David Prowse is Darth Vader," Lucasfilm asked him to change "is" to "as." He refused.

Today, Prowse is barred from doing Star Wars Celebration events or Disney's Star Wars Weekends. "Ask Mr. Lucas [why]. I've obviously upset him at some stage or other, and [Lucasfilm] feels I'm persona non grata." Maybe it was that is/as thing. (The movie never delves into the well-known story of how Prowse always expected to be revealed as the face of Darth Vader at the end of Return of the Jedi, only to be replaced with another actor by Lucas, which Prowse took as a betrayal.)

02
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Politics

David Prowse
David Prowse in 'Elstree: 1976'. Jon Spira / FilmRise

Learning about these actors' backgrounds and where their lives have taken them after Star Wars is interesting stuff. But the most delicious part is undoubtedly when the actors talk about the so-called "politics of Star Wars conventions." It quickly becomes clear that there are battle lines between those who received credits for their work, and those who did not. Why would there be contention between them?

Money, of course.

It's a well-known phenomenon that at comic book conventions, celebrities sometimes make themselves available for autographs. The vast majority of them get paid by the fans who receive that signature, and all ten of Elstree's subjects have taken part in this. I don't judge them; it's good money, and none of these people are huge celebrities. (Prowse candidly admits that conventions are his "main source of income.") Are they taking advantage of fans' goodwill? Meh. Everybody's got bills to pay, and if fans are willing to give them money for signing their name... can't say I wouldn't do it.

Or as Garrick Hagon so eloquently describes it, autographing for money is merely "an amicable exchange of courtesies."

But some of the credited actors feel very strongly that uncredited actors have no place at the autograph table. Angus MacInnes steps forward in the film as the voice of this point of view, asserting that those who were "just there" in the background are "cheating the public in a way" by selling themselves at conventions, which doesn't sit well with him. He tells the story of someone -- later strongly implied to be John Chapman -- who showed up to a convention once claiming to be a Star Wars pilot, and "everyone" was upset by it.

The voice for the other side of the debate is Derek Lyons, who claims that people who feel the way MacInnes does are "jealous that you're taking a piece of their action. It's all about money, you know."

After doing a few of them thirteen years ago, where he had bad experiences with the credited/non-credited politics, Chapman swore off doing conventions anymore. Lyons still gets flap about it sometimes, but shrugs it off and continues to attend. Others mention the awkwardness of fans who come up to them at conventions only to discover what they did in the movie, deciding that they don't want an autograph.

03
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My Score: 4 out of 5 Stars

X-Wing Pilots
X-Wing Pilots from 'Elstree 1976'. Sonny Malhotra / FilmRise

But just as this intriguing dispute is getting juicy, Elstree 1976 moves on to another topic. Which brings me to the only real problem I have with the documentary.

It's never entirely clear what Elstree wants to say. It frequently highlights the silliness of being famous for playing a tiny part in a seminal pop culture movie, but it simultaneously makes that awkwardness endearing. The ten people we meet in the documentary have strong points of view, but the film itself seems to be lacking one.

That said, Elstree 1976 is a genuinely engaging slice of Star Wars history that's filled with stories you won't get anywhere else. What it lacks in dazzle it makes up for with real charm. But its most compelling aspect may be that these ten people are grounded enough to realize that Star Wars was just one moment in time.

As Pam Rose puts it, "[Star Wars] is a part of my life. But it's not my life."

 

Elstree 1976 is screening in select theaters beginning May 6, 2016.