Archives for posts with tag: Star Wars

elstree-1976

I saw Elstree 1976 with a friend at the film space PhilaMOCA on Friday night. They only had two showings and the very low attendance surprised me – could have been lack of promotion but Star Wars fans can usually find out about these kinds of things…

In any case, it was a pleasure to have a private screening of a very interesting film. The film gets its title from a film studio in London called Elstree where many interior scenes from Star Wars (and some from Empire) were shot. In 1976 London, casting agencies were filling bit parts and extras for “another sci-fi film” that became what we know today as Star Wars.

Elstree 1976 provides brief but very fascinating oral histories of a half dozen actors who thought they were doing just another week’s work for the casting office only later to realize that the project became Star Wars.

Some of the people who appeared in the film just wandered into a casting call by following flyers in Soho while others were career actors.

The film explores how the experience affected and continues to affect their lives – for better or worse. It also affords us a glimpse into a very different time in filmmaking and prompts us to wonder why and how Star Wars changed every aspect of not only the sci-fi genre, but movie-making in general.

In all honesty I could watch an 8-part series of one hour episodes of this kind of stuff the way director John Spira put it together.

The film uses very few copyrighted images and footage of the film shown is a handful of frames looped together like cinema quality moving gifs.

There are also very short interludes of slightly moving stills of recreated hallway shots of bored Stormtroopers but they do not seem like “dramatizations” – they simply keep the color palette consistent for the film and seem to convey the “no big deal” attitude that perhaps contributed significantly to Star Wars masterfully achieving its “lived-in” look.

The attention to detail will surprise even those who have memorized Star Wars – for example, we get to know some lady in the Cantina who looks like she wandered off the set of the Rocky Horror Picture Show. We learn that the guy who stumbled into the role of the “you don’t need to see any identification” Sandtrooper also found himself in John & Yoko’s Bed-in in the Amsterdam Hilton. The guy who played Greedo thought George Lucas was a grip or an assistant and asked him bring him a coffee when he came to audition.

gold leader

And, of course, there’s a part about a Y-wing fighter reading his lines that will forever change the way you watch that scene.

Elstree 1976 breaks Star Wars down to what it is – storytelling.

I watched the film with the hopes of being a fly on the wall in Elstree studios in 1976 – and the production stories are all very interesting don’t get me wrong about that – but after the film, my friend and I ended up talking more about the actors’ lives after Star Wars than Star Wars itself.

 

Everyone who grew up on Star Wars should watch this documentary at some point. It would be something very nice to watch on a Sunday afternoon.

The influence of Fritz Lang’s 1924 silent classic Die Nibelungen can be seen in the style and design of many Sci Fi and Fantasy films of the 80s from The Empire Strikes Back to The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. Whether unconscious borrowing or deliberate tribute, elements of this German classic helped make these films great.

The guide through the darkness

In Die Nibelungen, Alberich the dwarf leads our young hero Siegfried from a swampy setting into a dark cavern to the Nibelung treasure with a magic glowing globe to light their way. In The Empire Strikes Back, a character of dwarfish height finds Luke in a swampy setting, and, carrying a glowing object, leads Luke to Yoda – a Jedi master he seeks. Instead of a magic orb, Yoda holds Luke’s camp light.

To the primitive being Luke thinks Yoda is, the light seems a magical object. Like Siegfried, Luke is slightly reluctant to follow the short and hunched creature into the darkness. Fortunately for Luke, Yoda has no intention of hurting his guest, but In Die Nibelungen, Alberich tries twice to deceive Siegfried in an attempt to kill the young hero.

To further separate the tone of these two stories, the light serves a comedic purpose in The Empire Strikes Back, prompting Yoda’s classic toddler retort, “Mine! – or I will help you not!” It seems to almost parody the cliché of the guide holding a mysterious light because it isn’t magic at all – just a regular camp light. These references to Die Nibelungen are effective in Empire because the roles of the similar components are reversed. Fear is exchanged for humor and evil is replaced with good.

Though used for a different purpose, several identical elements of these two settings remain: the dwarf guide who appears out of nowhere, dark and swampy setting, glowing object to light the way,  and young hero who has already achieved a great thing – in Luke’s case, destroying the Death Star and in Siegfried’s case, having just slain a dragon – and requires something from his guide through the darkness to reach his next destination.

alberich leads siegfried

Alberich the dwarf leads Siegfried to the Nibelung treasure in Fritz Lang’s Die Nibelungen (1924)

yoda leading luke to his hut

Yoda leads Luke to his hut with a camp light in The Empire Strikes Back (copyright 1980 Lucasfilm)

The “guide” carrying a glowing orb is also used in The Black Cauldron, a 1985 Disney film adaptation of Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain. In this film, the young princess Eilonwy leads our young hero Taran through the dark depths of a castle in which they are both being held prisoner. Alexander incorporates the element of a glowing magical orb lighting the way in dark underground tunnels but reverses the role of his character by making the guide friendly instead of menacing.

glowing orb

Alberich’s magical glowing orb in Die Nibelungen

eilonwys' globe

Eilonwy leads Taran with a magical glowing orb in The Black Cauldron (copyright 1985 Walt Disney Company)

In addition to the motif of the stunted, odd, and sometimes grumpy guide and the light he carries to lead the way, the contrast of the darkness of a rocky passageway and the light of a luminous cavern is used in Die Nibelungen to invoke sense of wonder and the excitement that is felt from the thought of discovering hidden treasure. The light/dark contrast from dark tunnel to bright open space is also used in Jim Henson’s The Dark Crystal (1982) in a similar way as it is in Die Nibelungen. In The Dark Crystal, the cranky old hunched-over guide is Aughra. She first appears menacing, but seeing that she is good-natured, our young Gelfling hero Jen quickly trusts her. Aughra leads Jen through a dark passageway to a mysterious place. Once inside, a bright light suddenly fills the screen and the film score plays a theme that invokes wonder. It’s like entering another world – a peculiar world where science and magic seem to harmoniously meet in mechanical splendor. In Die Nibelungen, the light/dark contrast between the luminous cavern interior and the dark and swampy exterior is remarkable. To an audience in the silent film era, the sequence would have seemed as bright as the light cast upon Jen as he enters Aughra’s workshop in The Dark Crystal.

bright cavern

Alberich the dwarf leads Siegfried into a luminous cavern in Die Nibelungen

jen entering aughra's workshop

Jen is awed by Aughra’s workshop in The Dark Crystal (copyright 1982 Jim Henson Company)

Inside Aughra’s workshop there is a giant mechanized model of the heavens, a concept Jen has seen drawn in the sand many times by the mystics, but never represented with such heavy and detailed moving industry. The same thing occurs in Die Nibelungen when Alberich the dwarf leads Siegfried into the luminous cavern. The contrast between dark and light and reality and magic and mystery is just as pronounced in this shot as it is in The Dark Crystal. Just as Jen is shown scientific industry in Aughra’s workshop, Alberich shows Siegfried the magical industry of the secret cavern. A massive crown, for example is being made for an ice giant. When Siegfried tries to reach through the window to touch that “other world” it quickly turns back into the form of a rocky wall of the cavern. It is, in a way, like that for Jen as well. Jen doesn’t understand what the model does. In the way the “magic” of the model is beyond Jen’s understanding, the “magic” of the ice king’s crown is beyond Siegfried’s physical reach.

The intention behind the guides showing the young hero “magical” things in these respective stories are in sharp contrast with each other. Aughra is leading Jen to new knowledge to help him with his quest while Alberich is showing Siegfried the wondrous riches of the caverns only enough to distract his naive guest long enough to kill him. Though both Jen and Siegfried are naive, the mood in each story couldn’t be more different. In The Dark Crystal, it is wonder, and in Die Nibelungen, it is foreboding treachery. Though one creates suspense and the other does not, they both carry epic quality.

Similar shots and wardrobe

The sequence where the Nibelung treasure arrives at Gunther’s castle and is unloaded looks similar to when Baron Munchausen packs up the Sultan’s treasures and carries it away in The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988). Again, the roles are reversed. The treasure is being packed instead of unpacked in Baron Munchausen while in Die Nibelungen it is being brought to the castle instead of being taken away. In Baron Munchausen, the reference is, of course, used for comedic purpose and any allusion to epic poetry only serves to further embellish the impossible quality of the Baron’s already inflated tales of his many exploits of highly questionable validity.

Also, notice the similar arched entrances of the castle in the two shots.

unloading of Nibelung treasure

The Nibelung treasure arrives at Gunther’s castle in Die Nibelungen

baron munchausen

The Sultan’s treasure departs from the Sultan’s Palace in Terry Gilliam’s The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (copyright 1988 Columbia Pictures)

When Brunhild arrives at Gunther’s castle after Siegfried wins her for Gunther with trickery, the wide bright shot with steps and ceremonial guards looks strikingly similar to when the Atreides arrive on Arrakis in Dune (1984). By using this shot from Die Nibelungen, director David Lynch evokes something of the mood of the German story, alluding to the danger that awaits the House Atreides. Just as Brunhild walking into Gunther’s castle brings the demise of Siegfried and Burgundy, the audience watches the Atreides literally walking into the trap set for them by the Harkonnens. It is a beautiful shot and a tragic reminder that the family will soon be torn apart by betrayal.

priest coming down to meet brunhild and gunther

The priest comes down the steps to meet Brunhild in Die Nibelungen

dune

The Arteides arrive on Arrakis in David Lynch’s Dune (copyright 1984 Dino De Laurentiis)

dune 2

The Atreides arrive on Arrakis in David Lynch’s Dune (copyright 1984 Dino De Laurentiis)

The look of Brunhild’s battle garb was recreated in the 1981 film Dragonslayer. Galen, the unlikely dragonslayer, goes after the dragon Vermithrax Pejorative with a round shield and a spear, the same weapons Brunhild uses to test Gunther. Since Dragonslayer deals with the death of magic and its subsequent replacement by religion, the weaponry invokes the magic of the mythic world – and, more importantly, a mythic world with a dragon. The reference works, again, because the roles are reversed. Galen is the hero, while Brunhild is a villain.

By using the contrary sides of these borrowed elements, their usage is balanced, achieving a nearly unconscious invocation of the nearly timeless yet distinctive style, mood, and tone of epic.

brunhild with spear and shield

Brunhild prepares to challenge Gunther in a spear-throwing competition in Die Nibelungen

dragonslayer

Galen (played by Peter MacNicol) enters Vermithrax Pejorative’s lair in Dragonslayer (copyright 1981 Walt Disney Company)

Now, aside from the scenes described in the Nibelungenlied itself, what sort of design and imagery inspired Lang’s unique cinematic interpretation of the epic poem? As Journey to Perplexity points out, Lang seemed heavily inspired by the style of Klimt. In addition to design patterns, Lang also borrowed from other artists. This shot below of Gunther mourning the fading of Burgundy’s splendor in Die Nibelungen resembles both the composition and mood of Jean-Paul Lauren’s The Excommunication of Robert the Pious (1875).

gunther upset

Gunther mourns the fading of Burgundy’s splendor in Die Nibelungen

excommunication of robert the pious jean paul laurens

The Excommunication of Robert the Pious by Jean-Paul Laurens (1875) Musée d’Orsay

Today’s medieval bloodfest comes from La Chanson de Roland (Song of Roland), a 12th century epic poem written in a style the French call chanson de geste (song of heroic deeds). This style of storytelling was popular in France from about the 12th to 15th century.

Chanson de Roland was the Star Wars of its day –Roland and King Marsilla were characters as well-known in 12th century French popular culture as, say, Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader are to Americans now. Except, as we will see from the scenes below, a faithful adaptation of Chanson de Roland would be quite the medieval bloodfest and it couldn’t have possibly received the PG rating that Star Wars did from the MPAA film-rating system in 1977. The level of brutality in the scenes below simply would not be deemed suitable for a popular audience in the late 1970’s. In 1976, Martin Scorcese darkened the red blood to black at the end of Taxi Driver to avoid an X rating from the MPAA, yet something tells me that if these scenes below were reviewed just as they are for the MPAA in 1150, Chanson de Roland would receive a G rating. Oh, how les temps changent!

So, to set the scene for Today’s Medieval Bloodbath, the Saracens are planning their ambush of Roland and the French at the pass at Roncesvalles. And just like good villains from Star Wars or James Bond, they take this opportunity to fantasize about the future success of their plan with their partners in crime. Aëlroth, the nephew of King Marsilla asks the king for the honor of throwing the first blow against Roland during the ambush:

Give me a fief; that is, first crack at Roland
and I shall kill him with my sharpened spear.
provided that Mohammed will protect me,
I’ll set free every bit of land in Spain
from the Spanish passes down to Durestant.” (verses/laisses 860-870)[1]

This big talk earns him the prestigious honor of first crack at Roland.

Over-inflated with pride, Aëlroth shouts even bolder words on behalf of the Saracens when they meet the French on the battlefield:

“French villains, you shall fight with us today,
For he who should protect you has betrayed you;
The king who left you in this pass is mad.
This very day sweet France shall lose her fame,
And Charlemagne the right arm from his body.” (v. 1191-1195)[2]

This little speech motivates Roland to make Aëlroth eat his words right then and there:

He spurs his horse and lets him run all out
and goes to strike the count with all his force;
he breaks his shield and lays his hauberk open
and pierces through his chest and cracks the bones
and cuts the spine completely from the back
and with his lance casts out his mortal soul,
impales him well, and hoists the body up
and throws him dead a spear’s length from his horse.
The neck-bone has been broken into halves,
and still he does not leave, but tells him this:
“You utter coward, Charles is not a fool,
nor has he ever had a love of treason.
His act was brave, to leave us at the pass;
today sweet France is not to lose her fame.” (v. 1197-1210)[3]

For another installment of Today’s Medieval Bloodfest, click here.


[1] The Song of Roland trans. Robert Harrison, (New York, 1970), 78.

[2] The Song of Roland, 88.

[3] The Song of Roland, 88-89.

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