Released in 1958, The Hidden Fortress is a tale of buried treasure and war and prisoners and escapes and a princess and the slim reward for all that has been undertaken, presented as witnessed through the eyes of two peasants who through circumstance have been caught up in events beyond their making or control.
Directed by the legendary Akira Kurosawa and starring the equally legendary Toshiro Mifune, almost two decades later that film was a significant influence on director George Lucas as he entered production on his third feature film following 1971’s THX 1138 and 1973’s American Graffiti, an ambitious science fiction piece in which the unwitting bystanders, a protocol droid and an astromech designated C-3PO and R2-D2 are thrown into an interplanetary war.
Almost forty years later, with the backing of Kickstarter rather than 20th Century Fox, documentary director Jon Spira has taken that same approach with Elstree 1976, a montage of interviews with ten performers who were associated with either Star Wars or its immediate sequel, The Empire Strikes Back, but rather than the top billed stars who continue to work in Hollywood the focus is those whose faces were concealed behind masks, who stood to the side, whose scenes were cut, who perhaps never spoke at all, but who have nevertheless been immortalised in four inches of plastic.
Having played the festival circuit including the London Film Festival and now streaming via We Are Colony, the ambition is admirable but the execution is slipshod, with each of the subjects introduced only by their given name (Paul, Anthony, Garrick, Laurie, John, Pam, Derek, Dave and Angus, later joined by Jeremy) and an image of their associated action figure; for Dave Prowse’s iconic Darth Vader this is not a problem, nor even for Paul Blake’s singular Greedo, but for a random Stormtrooper, Rebel Officer or background alien it approaches useless.
If looking beyond the relative anonymity of these individuals is the purpose it fails if the viewer is left wondering who any of them are, and with no context given it is necessary to watch the documentary with an IMDB tab constantly open in order to be able to understand who these people are and get the most out of the experience, doubly frustrating given that the film itself is already being watched online.
With the interviews all apparently having been conducted with broadly the same set of questions the responses are presented chronologically from childhood to present giving the film little structure beyond that, and while all are personable they have not necessarily led fascinating lives and little reason is given to be interested in them beyond the tangential brush with fame which forms the middle section.
That brief glimpse does have nuggets of insight all the more charming for not having been repeated thousands of times, with Mark Hamill praised as being very friendly on set and former bodybuilder Prowse recalling lunch at a Chinese restaurant with Lucas and producer Gary Kurtz where he was introduced to one of the most respected actors in the land, Sir Alec Guinness, in order that they knew each other before rehearsals for their lightsaber duel began, but they are sparse.
With few aware of what they were signing up for in advance, Paul Blake explains that arriving on set his default presumption had been that a science fiction film would automatically be a low-budget B-movie until he asked for a coffee from what he assumed was a production assistant, actually an accommodating George Lucas, and then beheld the full scale Millennium Falcon constructed in its Mos Eisley hangar.
While Lucas is remembered as a quiet and unassuming person, the experience of those who worked on the prequels who felt he was more concerned at that point with technical detail than coaching performance is confirmed to not be a recent development by Angus MacInnes, who while filming his scenes as Gold Leader in the assault on the Death Star had memorised his dialogue and prepared his reactions based on the cue lines, yet found there was nobody available on set to deliver those cues forcing him to tape the pages to his legs.
Despite there being insufficient material of significance to fill the running time there are obvious gaps: while Derek Lyons mentions working on Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and Pam Rose touches on her lasting friendship with Christopher Reeve from working on Superman the Movie other science fiction seems off the table, with neither Jeremy Bulloch nor Garrick Hagon discussing their significant roles on Doctor Who which were within the timeframe under examination. Little more than an overblown fan project, a footnote in history writ large, Spira would have done well to maintain the perspective of Rose: “It’s a part of my life, but it’s not my life.”