Jonathan Rich writes for BleedingCool.com
Like many of you reading this, I was obsessed with the original Star Wars films as I was growing up. However I took my devotion to a galaxy far, far, away beyond collecting the comic books, action figures, vehicles and playsets, and wrote letters to the Official Star Wars Fan Club in search of establishing a more direct connection with the adventurers I saw onscreen.
In response to my pre-teen scribblings, I was fortunate enough to receive mass-produced black and white autographed headshots from Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford and Peter Mayhew, but what always stood out was the the photo I received with a personalized response which read “To Jonathan—David Prowse IS Darth Vader.”
Now, almost four decades later as a result of watching the documentary Elstree 1976, I know why the stage actor who embodied the greatest screen villain in any galaxy wrote what he did.
Although there are a plethora of films focusing on the magic and myth of making the original Star Wars trilogy, this documentary puts the spotlight not on the special effects in the saga but on some special people who showed up to film minor roles in one of the most watched and dissected films of all time.
Instead of unearthing lost interviews with the marque actors, Elstree 1976 explores the significance the first Star Wars (and to a lesser degree, The Empire Strikes Back) had on ten actors who were part of the picture but rarely spoke on screen.
Some like Prowse did actually deliver their lines on set only to have them overdubbed in post-production, while others served solely as intergalactic set dressing for the saga. Interviews with some of the more minor players in the first film — including two actors who filmed much larger parts in Episode IV only to have their performances end up almost entirely excised to the cutting room floor — let the audience know how special these films are to those who had even the briefest amount of screen time and how it changed their lives.
Most Star Wars aficionados are aware of the larger part the character Biggs Darklighter was to have had in the original film and the actor who brought that shortened supporting role to the screen is interviewed about his previous and subsequent roles. The film also delves into the experiences of the Stormtrooper who hit his head on a door of the original Death Star and one of the X-Wing pilots who was so nervous during filming he had to write his few lines of dialogue down and read them off his knees while filming his epic trench run.
Even more interesting is how one member of the Rebel Alliance who spoke no actual lines in the movie was somewhat shunned decades later by his colleagues who did recite a few lines in the finished film and were selling autographs at science fiction conventions in the UK.
To the average Star Wars fan, the real treats are the interviews with David Prowse detailing his time as Darth Vader and briefly alluding to the subsequent difficulties he has had with Lucasfilm and Disney over the years, as well as the humble insights actor Jeremy Bulloch provides regarding his tenure as enigmatic bounty hunter Boba Fett.
However, some viewers may tire of the ample screen time given to interviewing actors about their pre-Star Wars days and what they have been up to since. Director Jon Spira wants the audience to appreciate these actors for their body of work, but at times he forgets the initial draw of his documentary is that we want to hear these people talk more about the films we already know so well rather than get to know them as people beyond their work on a British sound stage forty years ago.
If you love the minutia of acting more than your memories of Star Wars, Elstree 1976 will be a lot of fun. But if you just want to hear people talk Star Wars, you may not find this holds your interest the entire time. That is not a reflection on those who took on these smaller roles, but rather an indication for how deep you care to learn about the people behind the silver screen who had a role in making the magic happen.
Directed by Jon Spira
Starring David Prowse, Jeremy Bulloch, Derek Lyons, and Angus MacInnes
130 minutes, Grade: B-; The force is strong in this film, but may be too focused for all to feel it.
Available now on iTunes, YouTube, Amazon and other streaming platforms.
Jonathan Rich is a freelance journalist, high school educator, and self-professed comic book nerd working in the Blue Ridge Mountains of western North Carolina. He writes about entertainment and pop culture for various print and web publications, including bleedingcool.com.