“Lost media” is an intriguing phrase. Even Star Wars has its share of lost media, of course. It also has media that should be lost but isn’t. The cringe-y, kitschy Holiday Special, for instance, would not be missed if it suddenly disappeared from YouTube, but that’s another story for another time.
The 1980 short, Black Angel was lost for thirty years. It was commissioned by George Lucas to play before The Empire Strikes Back because in England shorts and extras before a feature were still a thing. Lucas hated the short Star Wars got paired with, and he had so much riding on Empire that he didn’t want to take any chances.
Enter Roger Christian, Star Wars set decorator and Oscar winner. To say that this guy is influential to the Star Wars universe is putting it mildly. Christian, among others, is responsible for the look and feel of the films. George may have been the idea man, but Christian helped make it work. Luke’s lightsaber handle? Han’s blaster? The Millenium Falcon? Roger Christian literally built all that and more. He even designed Aunt Beru’s kitchen and had her cooking bok choy in that one scene. It sounds funny now because bok choy is readily available in every grocery store, but in the late seventies it wasn’t as familiar to Western audiences and therefore otherworldly.
Whenever Christian wanted to get George Lucas’s approval of his work he’d take whatever tchotchke he designed to Lucas’s office and let him look it over.
Lucas would smile. That was how he okayed something.
Christian was used to working with almost no money and Lucas knew it. He commissioned Black Angel on a $50,000 budget. The only two provisos were that Lucas would get the final say and Christian was to have a free hand.
Lucas wasn’t wrong. Christian made good use of his tiny funding and shot his film in various locations in the Scottish highlands, including Jubilee Point at Loch Eck and Eilean Donan Castle. The production was a combination of improvisation and dumb luck, with Christian and his cinematographer Roger Pratt trying to stay ahead of the cold and rain, but on the plus side, the storms enabled them to get some really cool cloud shots.
Frugal as he was, Christian still didn’t have the money to shoot enough film for the twenty-five minutes he was contracted for, so he and his editor used a then-new technique called step-printing, giving the fight scenes a fuzzy slow motion. Lucas liked it so much he worked the method into the cave scene of Empire Strikes Back. Other fantasy films have made use of step-printing as well, including Excalibur and Legend.
The plot of Black Angel is very simple. Sir Maddox (Tony Vogel) is on his way home from a war when his friend, Anselm (James Gibb) rides up to inform him his home has been attacked by invaders. “Where are the people?” Maddox wonders.
“They’re gone,” Anselm tells him.
Maddox books it home to find his castle looking like a warzone. The only inhabitants are three sick children whom Anselm tells Maddox to stay away from.
Since there’s clearly nothing else he can do, Maddox and his horse gallop off into the forest. They meet a mysterious maiden (Patricia Christian) who saves Maddox from drowning in a lake before claiming she serves the Black Angel. Maddox calls fruitlessly after her as she wafts away into the forest. He follows her to a waterfall, where she disappears, only to be replaced by an old man (John Young) who looks like Palpatine without the Force powers and red eyes. He wants Maddox to follow him, too, which Maddox does, over hill and vale, accompanied by the guy’s echo-y disembodied voice.
Is the Black Angel about? Yes. Yes, he is. Kinda. He calls himself Death. He wears full-body black armor like the mysterious silent knight in The Silver Chair, except that he also has clouds of cobwebs wafting up from him like he’s Pigpen of the Underworld. Oh, and he wants to fight.
There are a lot of verrrrry slow pans in this film, particularly at the beginning. They look spectacular, of course, but it doesn’t matter much because there’s no story yet. It feels like Christian was trying to pad the film out. Which he was, because, again, he had more screentime to fill than money to spend.
Once things get going, though, it’s fascinating. Christian employed his extensive knowledge of Arthurian legend in Black Angel. The mysterious maiden, the lake as another character, and the knight on a quest are all familiar tropes in that world. The short is so intriguing that when it ends it feels as if it shouldn’t. Why did Maddox’s castle get destroyed? Who is the mysterious maiden? What’s the deal with the old man? And what’s with Death and the cobwebs? We’ll never know because things just stop. Black Angel is a short that needed to be a movie.
In fact, it almost was. Roger Christian got the green light to expand his short in 2015. He started filming in India with John Rhys-Davies, and then…nothing. As far as anyone knows, it’s still languishing in pre-production limbo.
Getting back to 1980, when Christian ran his film past George Lucas, he was so nervous he hid under a table while Lucas, Irvin Kershner, and a bevy of Fox executives watched it. Roger Pratt did Christian one better, throwing up in the men’s room during the screening.
Lucas did a lot of smiling, though. He even showed Black Angel to Steven Spielberg, who loved it. The film ran alongside Empire Strikes Back in Europe and Australia before being retired to various vaults. Christian remembered giving Lucas a copy for his archives, another one to Fox, and kept one for himself at the Boss Film Studio in London.
When he tried going back for the film later, though, Christian found out that Fox’s UK storage facility, Rank, had thrown out their copies of Black Angel. So had Lucasfilm and Boss Studio. Christian told the BBC that the copy he kept at his house had degraded, so he wasn’t about to show it in public. People would ask him about the short, but he thought it preferable to leave Black Angel a legend among fans.
Then in 2011 Christian learned there was a negative of Black Angel in the Universal Studios Archives, which had gotten all the film Rank chucked. Naturally, Christian had Black Angel restored, and it was shown at the 2013 Mill Valley Film Festival.
Christian wanted the film to be as accessible to as many as people as possible, so instead of trying to shoehorn Black Angel into a home media release he had it put on YouTube, where it remains the stuff of legend. Many Star Wars fans seem to stumble on it or find out about it by word of mouth, and while Christian’s intro to the film tells viewers to turn their minds back thirty-four years, Black Angel could have easily been shot yesterday.
Since Black Angel Christian continued to work with George Lucas in various capacities, even as a second-unit director on Return of the Jedi and The Phantom Menace. He’s done his share of solo projects as well, including, unfortunately, the atrocious L. Ron Hubbard film, Battlefield Earth, but Christian’s involvement with Star Wars and Black Angel are what he’s most proud of. In a 2017 interview with Lucasfilm senior content writer Dan Brooks, Christian stated:
It certainly changed my life and I personally believe, as less and less children are read to and they’re more looking at cartoons and animation and things like that, it’s really important to connect to this hero’s journey. There’s keys in there for us growing up. I’m really proud to have been part of that, in terms of what’s become the most powerful cinema-saga ever in the history of cinema. And I think it always will be.
A new Stage To Screen is coming up tomorrow. Thanks for reading, all…
Black Angel can be viewed here.
Christian, Roger. Cinema Alchemist. London: Titan Books, 2016.