Documentary Reviews: Elstree 1976 & I Am Your Father

Documentary Reviews Elstree 1976 and I Am Your Father

The making of the original Star Wars trilogy is stock full of adventure and pitfall nearly as famous as the on screen antics of Luke, Han and Leia. The telling of these behind the scenes stories is a crowded space (see for instance J.W Rinzler’s outstanding Making Of series) with newer additions sadly often treading familiar ground. It’s encouraging then to see a handful of documentary filmmakers looking for more obscure tales from those who may have been on the Star Wars set only for a day, or for a couple of weeks, but who nonetheless have carved their own little slice of history and have the scars to prove it.

I Am Your Father (Marcos Cabota & Toni Bestard, 2015) looks at the life and times of British bodybuilder Dave Prowse, who charismatically filled the suit of Darth Vader if not the voice. After being accused of leaking plot points, Prowse was controversially replaced by thespian Sebastian Shaw when his character was unmasked at the end of 1983’s Return Of The Jedi. Prior to Star Wars, Prowse was a noted bodybuilder, and had small, muscular roles in a host of movies including Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange. Most famously to British audiences, he featured as the Green Cross Code Man in a long series of child road safety TV commercials.

The shabby treatment of Prowse during Return Of The Jedi clearly irks Cabota and Bestard and gives this movie its premise: what would happen if they could track down Prowse and reshoot those iconic final scenes, only with Prowse’s face under the Vader mask and not Shaw’s? That’s an interesting enough idea to drive a documentary, and there’s a solid enough payoff to it, but the real heart of this movie is the exploration as to what actually led to that Return Of The Jedi recasting, and why Prowse subsequently became persona non grata from Lucasfilm (to this day Prowse is banned from all official Star Wars events).

The popular lore over the years has been that a loose tongued Prowse spoiled either the twist of The Empire Strikes Back or the death of his character in Return Of The Jedi to an eager press. However when the journalists (here newly interviewed) suggest Prowse’s name might have been falsely used to bolster the credibility of the spoilers in the incriminating newspaper pieces, one does wonder if Prowse has been unfairly wronged for all this time and kept at arms length from the lucrative Lucasfilm fan machine for little reason.

For all that baggage and rocky history with the franchise, Prowse is well represented in this well paced and thoughtful documentary, happy enough at the fringes of Star Wars fandom if a little wistful that he is not at the centre, proud of his central part in some truly iconic cinema moments. Prowse makes his living at smaller conventions, and has made peace with both the benefits and choking weight that the Vader suit still holds over him half a lifetime after filming.

Elstree 1976 (Jon Spira, 2015), meanwhile, is a real oddity. It focuses on ten or so actors and extras, from those who left quite a mark on the saga (Prowse, Jeremy Bullock as Boba Fett) to those with minor, but credited parts (Angus MacInnes as Gold Leader, Garrick Hagon as Biggs Darklighter), or extras whose faces are on screen for a few frames (notably the gentleman who handed the medals in the Throne Room celebration to Princess Leia to present to Luke and Han).

The first half of the film is rudimentary and drags, describing in detail how each actor found their way onto the Star Wars set through varying degrees of luck, mischief and chance. These anecdotes and their reactions to being on set are well worn and are nothing avid readers of Mynock Manor couldn’t guess verbatim; how the actors didn’t know Star Wars was going to be a big hit, how the set designs and used universe were astonishing, and how Paul Blake (Greedo) accidentally made George Lucas fix him a cup of coffee upon arrival at Elstree.

However, when the documentary pivots at the half way mark and begins to address the lasting impact that Star Wars has had on the actors’ lives it really comes into its own. What’s clear is that most of the actors are trapped between two sides of the same coin: not wanting to be entirely defined by a week or a month’s work in the summer of 1976, but also enjoying the rewards that the Star Wars convention scene can provide with its recognition, revenue and camaraderie.

This gives the film a real sense of maudlin or melancholy, as if all are somehow still coming to terms in their own way with having touched the faintest glimpse of glory, for a fleeting moment, but then having had it pass and fade over the last forty years. Prowse, as mentioned, and Jeremy Bulloch appear to be the least affected, perhaps by the ongoing iconic status of the characters they portrayed. Paul Blake attests to having only latterly made peace with the infamy that his green suit has provided, lamenting that he has played Shakespeare but his tombstone will read “here lies Greedo” (no doubt doubly so after the controversial edits to his key scene in the 1997 Star Wars Special Editions).

Whereas neither I Am Your Father nor Elstree 1976 are truly essential viewing, and both lack a little star power, they’re both interesting enough to be worthwhile additions to the library of making of materials. If anything, they both confirm something which we’ve all known to be true from day one: Star Wars is really, really special, and the people who made it can never truly escape its tractor beam, no matter how much or how little they were able to contribute to it.

You can follow Elliot on Twitter @despecialised. You can follow the website @MynockManor.

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