There have been countless documentaries on the “Star Wars” movies, most of which feature interviews with actors who will forever be associated with the famous characters they first brought to the screen many years ago in a galaxy far, far away. But with Jon Spira’s documentary, “Elstree 1976,” we finally get to meet the supporting actors who were either hiding behind a stormtrooper mask or were on the screen for only mere seconds. Regardless of how small their roles were, they got to be part of a movie phenomenon which remains as popular as ever, and this documentary allows them to tell their stories and get out of the shadows for a change.
The documentary’s title refers to Elstree Studios where “Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope” was filmed back in 1976. Spira takes his time to talk with 10 actors who were cast in various roles in the classic movie, and any fan of George Lucas’ space opera will find their conversations fascinating. Some of these actors played characters who are fan favorites, but we never got to see them with their masks off. Others played roles where, if you blinked, you will miss them, but Spira does take the time to capture their moments in a near-freeze frame to show their big moments for everyone to see.
Perhaps the best way to approach “Elstree 1976” is to not go in expecting a “Star Wars” documentary. Yes, “Star Wars” plays a big part here, but it’s not really the point. It’s about working class actors who don’t have the same name recognition as Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher or Mark Hamill, and of how they managed to carve a career for themselves in a business where only a tiny few can possibly make a living. The fact they were in a “Star Wars” movie, however, has come to define their careers in more ways than one. There are scenes from “A New Hope” here as well as ones from other movies, but John Williams’ classic music is never heard.
One of the most fascinating moments comes early on as each actor discusses how they got cast in “A New Hope” and of how none of them had any idea of what they were about to be a part of. For all they knew, they were acting in some TV film or Grade Z science fiction movie which would be lucky to get any kind of distribution. While any of us would have killed to be on the set of this movie like these actors were, their reactions are easy to understand as they had yet to see the impact this one movie would have on generations of moviegoers. David Prowse, who inhabited the costume of Darth Vader, even remarked, “Maybe it won’t be as terrible as it promised to be.”
Prowse is one of the better-known actors featured here, and we learn of how he started off his career as a bodybuilder but was told he wouldn’t win any competitions because of his “ugly feet.” He would later go on to work with filmmakers like Stanley Kubrick who cast him as a bodyguard in “A Clockwork Orange,” and he played the Black Knight in Terry Gilliam’s “Jabberwocky.” But the role he is proudest of, even more so than Darth Vader, is that of the Green Cross Code man, a character used in British road safety television commercials. At least you got to see his face in those.
If there’s anything disappointing about “Elstree 1976,” it’s that I came out of it wanting to know more about what went on during the making of “A New Hope.” Again, this is not meant to be a “Star Wars” documentary, but the fan inside of me was eager to hear more behind the scenes stories of what went on. Indeed, there are a few told here such as from one actor who didn’t realize he had just asked Lucas to get him a cup of coffee, and of how the stormtroopers kept falling over one another on the set. In terms of introducing the actors to us, their names are shown next to the action figures of the characters they played, but it is hard to keep up with who is who after a while.
The last half deals with these actors’ lives after “Star Wars” as some went on to act in other movies while others found another career path for themselves. Whatever the case, many of them have gone on the convention circuit to talk with fans who want to know every single detail about the making of one of their all-time favorite movies. Just being in any “Star Wars” movie has had a major impact on their lives, but while some fans love meeting these people, others see them as nothing more than “bit part actors” which is a bit dispiriting.
But the real strength of “Elstree 1976” comes in how Spira shows us what the life of a working-class actor is like, and it’s a nice gesture how he brings these 10 people out of the shadows to give them the recognition they have long deserved. Whether they had big scenes, small scenes or scenes which sadly got left on the cutting room floor, “Star Wars” impacted their lives and for the better in many ways. They may never get the fanfare of the bigger name actors, but they still get to put this movie on their resumes which must have made a big difference.
Coming out of “Elstree 1976,” I felt like the documentary could have gone deeper in certain areas and revealed more, but we have here is still entertaining and a must for “Star Wars” fans as they will want to know about everything connected to this cinematic universe. And this is regardless of the fact it does commit the one unforgivable sin no “Star Wars” related movie has any right to make: it shows Greedo shooting first. Damn you Lucas!
* * * out of * * * *