It’s been nearly 40 years since George Lucas first swept us to a galaxy far, far away. Since then, the rabid church of the Star Wars faithful has turned virtually every anecdote, artifact, and ancillary action figure related to the film into a holy relic on par with the bone fragments of saints that religious pilgrims once prayed to. If you’ve ever been to a Celebration convention deep in the hinterlands of New Jersey—or someplace equally dire—you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about. In addition to all of the Star Wars-related swag for sale, one of the things you quickly notice are the rows of tables filled with aging extras and bit players from the film hawking autographs. Watching the guy who played Greedo or some random X-wing pilot parlay their 15 seconds (or often much less) of 40-year-old fame into a $20 signed 8×10 glossy, it’s hard not to wonder what these people’s stories are. Jon Spira’s new documentary, Elstree 1976, answers that question with unexpected intimacy.
Elstree, of course, was the site where much of Star Wars was shot. A suburb of North London, the studio became an unlikely witness to history that none of the players (large or small) expected to become famous for, what at the time felt like a low-budget indie sci-fi film. In other words, no one expected Star Wars to become STAR WARS. Spira interviews about a dozen of the bit players on the film—folks of varying levels of training or ambition who would later become “immortalized in plastic” as action figures. There’s Anthony, who played the Stormtrooper who repeats Obi-Wan Kenobi’s famous Jedi mind trick line about C-3PO and R2-D2 not being the droids they’re looking for. He’s now a subway busker. There’s Angus, who played a member of the Rebel Guard without lines at the end of the film. He’s battled depression, made a bit of a career out of playing extras, and has now hatched a self-help martial arts regimen. There’s Laurie, another man who you’d never recognize because he spent the film under a Stormtrooper’s helmet and is now a musician. His claim to fame for eagle-eyed fans is that he’s the Stormtrooper who bumped his head going through a door—a blooper that appears in the film. There are more men and women interviewed who are on this same strata of face-in-the-crowd renown, and then there is Dave Prowse, the actor underneath Darth Vader’s uniform, an intriguing fellow who seems at turns surly and grateful for the gig.
There are some stretches of the film that are frankly a bit boring and wouldn’t be missed if they were cut—scenes that discuss which pens the interview subjects like to use to sign memorabilia at Star Wars conventions. But just when you’re starting to glaze over at these anecdotes that are of little interest to anyone but the person telling them, these men and women start to talk about the hierarchy among their lot. How bit players with lines look down on the mere extras. The level of resentment is fascinating considering how low the stakes are. But this is the moment when the documentary most comes alive in an unintentionally funny way. Elstree 1976 isn’t an essential movie for anyone but the most obsessive fanboy or girl. It’s a film about the strange hand of fate, the wages of dumb luck, and the flipside of fame—life on the D-list. As one of the actors says—the man who played Greedo, in fact—”I’ve played MacBeth, but my gravestone will read, ‘Here lies Greedo.'” And he seems just fine with that. B-