Elstree 1976 fills an interesting niche as a documentary, one that many Star Wars fans may not have realized was missing from their engagement with the films so many have obsessed over. Following the course of oral histories presented by the actors and actresses who played less-notable roles in the original trilogy, Elstree finds the human core behind what has become a monolithic behemoth of financial enrichment for George Lucas and Disney — as well as a topic of fixation for hordes of obsessive fans. Some might find the level of attention afforded to background actors tedious at times. But, if you’re the type of fan who has ever wondered what Boba Fett really looked like under the helmet or whether or not he got along with the guys who played the X-Wing pilots, Elstree 1976 is the movie you’ve been waiting for.
Although Elstree takes its time getting started — the actors recount their personal histories for about 20 minutes before Star Wars is ever mentioned — the context it establishes provides a fascinating new layer of analysis for a series of movies that would seem to have already been examined in every way imaginable. That the film is able to contribute anything novel to the mythos surrounding this multibillion dollar series is something of an accomplishment in itself. The film’s greatest value, however, lies in the extent to which it humanizes the actors who were an essential, yet long-neglected, aspect of these films, and in the way it explains the mixed blessing the experience has proven for many of those involved.
It is this capacity to invite the audience to identify with the extras (or “supporting artists,” as one defines his involvement) that makes Elstree so compelling. It is certainly far easier to overlook the contributions that these men and women made to the history of the Star Wars saga than to consider that the Stormtrooper who bumped his head walking down the corridors of the Death Star has had to defend his identity against usurpers for the last forty years. These are the men and women selling autographs at convention tables, their careers defined not by their turns starring in Shakespearean stage adaptations but by a few days on a soundstage in a brightly colored latex mask. This is a film less concerned with the debate over whether or not Han shot first and more interested in why the smoke emanating from Greedo’s costume looked so realistic (the effects crew blew up a dummy dressed in the actor’s wardrobe and put the still smoldering remains back on him for the reverse shot).
There is an almost maudlin nostalgia to Elstree that begins to verge on the morbid as the film progresses. As David Prowse, the actor inside the Darth Vader armor, recounts his work with Stanley Kubrick on A Clockwork Orange and insists that his role as a cross-walk mascot for British children was the best of his career, it’s hard to overlook the fact that many of these performers are confronting old age and impending mortality as they recount their Star Wars legacy. Elstree opens with the actors discussing the emotional significance of the action figures that depict the characters they portrayed, and this sequence is possibly the best microcosmic representation of what this film is and why it exists. The performers highlighted in Elstree 1976 have led full and interesting lives, but their epitaphs are likely to focus primarily on a low-budget science fiction movie shot on a backlot in the ’70s.
Elstree 1976 is far more affecting than it would seem to have any right to be, and many devoted Star Wars fans will find themselves considering the films from a new perspective by the film’s end. Even those viewers with a life-long history of debating and dissecting the Star Wars movies will find these actors’ stories fill in long-overlooked blanks or provide explanatory details that almost incomprehensibly enhance the experience of a 40-year-old film. While it’s likely that young children experiencing the original Star Wars movies for the first time might not find much value in the ramblings of elderly actors, those of us who have reexamined these films from seemingly every imaginable angle will find a new viewing position facilitated by this heartfelt paean to a galaxy far, far away.