The Original Opening Act to “The Empire Strikes Back”

Studio 360

In 1980, American cinemas didn’t have short films before features; it was common practice in Europe and Australia. So after years of waiting for the follow-up to Star Wars — not to mention verylong lines to get into the theaters — international audiences happily sat through a 25-minute medieval fantasycalled Black Angel before R2D2 and C3PO appeared on the screen.

If Black Angel felt consistent with the Star Wars sensibility, that was no coincidence. The film’s director, Roger Christian, was the art directorfor Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope (and Ridley Scott’s Alien). George Lucas had been unhappy with the short film that accompanied Star Wars in 1977, sohe wanted to hand pick whatever preceded Empire Strikes Back.

Christian thought the film had been lost to history, until a film archivist in Hollywood unearthed an original negative. It wasn’t in great shape, so Christianneeded to digitally remove scratches and other damage. Finally a new print was screened at a Bay Area filmfestival and put on YouTube (Netflix and iTunes will follow). He opens the YouTube videowith a personalplea to viewers to slow down their film metabolisms back to an era of long takes and simpler editing. In other words, this ain’t Game of Thrones, folks.

Black Angel was well-received at the time. John Boorman cited it as a majorinspiration for his 1981 film, Excalibur. According to Christian, even Lucas was impressed with the early footage and borrowed Christian’s slow motion sword fighting technique for Luke’s confrontation with Darth Vader in the Dagobah cave.

After Black Angel, Christian directed a number of shorts and features. The most famous (or infamous) was Battlefield Earth, John Travolta’s Scientology project. That film earned Christian a Golden Raspberry for Worst Director. He seems pleased to have his reputation restored, along with this piece of film history.

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