The Phantom Movie: Roger Christian on Black Angel

Black Angel has remained a fuzzy memory in the heads of those who saw it with The Empire Strikes Back in 1980. Tonight, Roger Christian presents the film at GFF14

Feature by Jamie Dunn | 27 Feb 2014
  • Black Angel

Cinema loves myths, and cinema-fans love the idea of the mythical film – the notion that great works of art are languishing in the Hollywood archives or a director’s attic, waiting to be uncovered. It’s a romantic proposition in the age where every digitised image seems available at the click of a mouse. Black Angel, a 25 minute short made in Scotland by legendary British art director Roger Christian (Alien, Star Wars), is one such piece of celluloid folklore.

The film was released in 1980 in the UK, Australia and across Scandinavia in a programme with The Empire Strikes Back. While the main feature has gone on to be remastered, rereleased and reissued ad infinitum by its producer George Lucas, Black Angel has remained a vague memory for those who saw the film on its release – it’s never been available on home video and can’t be found tucked away in a corner of the internet.

“This film has kept coming up over the years,” says Christian by phone from his adopted home of Toronto. “A lot of people have asked [about a possible rerelease], even the screenwriter of Hellboy, Peter Briggs. He and I were speaking one day and he said, ‘You’ve got to get this film out! It’s in my head, I can recite the lines to you!’”

Christian was skeptical, however. He didn’t know if this small, low budget film could live up to the fantasy epic that it seems to have been built up to be by its fans over the years. “I kept thinking, you know what, the film is 33 years old, I think it’s better not to put it out again and leave it as myth and leave it in people’s memories, because sometimes when you watch something years later you can think, ‘Is that what I remembered?’’’

“In effect, it’s the fight against death” – Roger Christian

Black Angel had initially been conceived by Christian in film school. “I really wanted to make it, but I couldn’t do it with the budget there because I wanted it to be a Kurosawa-like epic in Cinemascope.” But then, by chance, Christian bumped into Sandy Lieberson, at the time the head of Fox Europe and Fox UK, who was on the lookout for a short to accompany The Empire Strikes Back on its release. “He said ‘Can you fax it to me tonight?’ and I said, ‘sure,’” explains Christian. From there is was passed on to Lucas, who gave it the grean light. “George called [Lieberson] back and said ‘Let Roger go and make this film. No one is to touch him, no one is to do anything, just give him the short ends from Empire Strikes Back and I’m the first person to see the film – let him go and make it.’”

It’s easy to guess why the script would have appealed to Lucas: the Star Wars films and Black Angel both share the same DNA. “I really grew up with knights, the medieval world, legend and myth,” Christian says. “So I wrote and re-wrote this short story about a knight coming home from the wars, but it wasn’t historical – it was a medieval fantasy.” He describes it as a full “circle myth”, which takes the form of a knight’s death rattle. “As he’s dying, he’s drowning, he goes through a sequence where he comes out in a strange land, finds a maiden and has to fight a Black Angel and, in effect, it’s the fight against death.”

The dreamlike nature of the narrative perhaps suggests why the film has stayed so lodged in people’s memories. “I was also very interested in Tarkovsky at the time,” he says. “I loved his movies but he appealed to the subconscious, not the conscious, when the audience is watching. I always thought this was a way to deeply penetrate an audience, because [it allows the film] to go right into your soul.”

Black Angel has had a few screenings in its restored form, but tonight’s event is a real homecoming. “I chose Scotland, because I knew Scotland,” he says. “I knew Eileen Donan Castle and I knew this was the pure romantic vision, like you see in Pre-Raphaelite paintings, of a medieval castle, and I’d never seen it on film.” So although Christian admits he’s worried that Black Angel might feel old-hat to modern audiences –  he's asked early audiences of the film to “set your clocks back 33 years because this film is old. It’s a different pacing. We made it meditative on purpose” – he’s confident the visual will impress.

“Because I’d no money, I had a small crew, there was 11 or 12 of us – that was it,” he says. “So we wandered around and we could get into places that no one else could get, especially big film crews. I think when it came out, that was what staggered people and what all the letters were about: the stunning beauty of these images that they had never seen before. That’s kind of held up.”

27 Feb,GFT 1, 6.30pm