“Black Angel”: Roger Christian’s re-discovered sword and scorcery saga from 1980

By on May 20, 2015

Black Angel is a the debut short film by Star Wars art director Roger Christian, released in 1980 — it was screened before The Empire Strikes Back in 400 selected theaters in the UK, Australia and Scandinavia — and it was lost for decades but has been restored in the last few years and is now making the rounds on the internet.

BLACK ANGEL 3

The plot follows the epic fantasy adventure of a knight Sir Maddox (played by Tony Vogel) who returns home to his village from the Crusades, only to find his family have left and the rest of the village is devastated by disease. Sir Maddox roams the forest searching for them, until he finds a mysterious maiden princess in a lake who asks him to kill a sinister black knight.

BLACK ANGEL 8

Christian introduces the film in the Youtube clip, telling us that the film’s negative was thought to have been lost for many decades. Five years ago, in 2010, Christian told an interviewer that he had a single 35mm copy of the film and that George Lucas apparently also had a 35mm copy of the film at Skywalker Ranch, but Lucas’s archivists had not been able to find it despite repeated searches. Then, an art director friend of Christian’s, Les Dilley, told the director that he had also a copy (which Christian had given him), so now three prints were available for screenings, but the two that Christian was able to screen were not in great condition.

BLACK ANGEL 5

Then, in December of 2011, the film’s negative was found by an archivist working at Universal Studios, where prints had ended up after the collapse of the UK’s Rank Laboratories, which had stored the prints along with other film negatives in World War II bunkers. Christian was notified that the negative was discovered, and he was understandably elated. His short film — only 25-minutes long —  was then restored, frame by frame, by a visual effects company, and it then had its first theatrical re-premiere screening as the closing film at the Mill Valley Fall Arts Festival, in Marin County, California, in October of 2013, where it was well-received. It then it made its UK re-premiere at the 2014 Glasgow Film Festival. Christian then made the film available for download from iTunes (where it was ranked as their ‘#1 short film’) and Netflix last year, but Christian has recently decided to make the film available for all to see on Youtube. For free!

BLACK ANGEL 9

Black Angel — written, directed and produced by Christian — was shot on a limited budget of £25,000 (slightly more than $30,000), which was given to Christian by an Eady Scheme fund from the UK government. Other sources claim that George Lucas actually helped finance its completion, in gratitude for Christian’s extraordinary contribution to Star Wars.

Christian — who won an Academy Award for his set decoration work on Star Wars, and nominated for his work on Alien —had lensed the film in the autumn of 1979. He’d packed up two cars and a VW camper wagon with just eleven people, four actors and nine crew members, including cinematographer Derek Pratt, who used a single Arriflex camera, shooting in 2.35 widescreen, to capture the beautiful setting at Eilean Donan, which Christian referred to during a 201o interview as “the ultimate romantic castle.” The castle is located on a small tidal island in the western highlands of Scotland.

BLACK ANGEL 7

Christian and his crew shot much of the film during the morning mist for natural image softening. Christian says he was influenced at the time by director Andrei Tarkovsky, saying in this introduction that he liked the way that the Russian filmmaker made films that “connected with the subconscious,” and that he “attempted to do the same with Black Angel because that is the power of myth… and it is a myth.”

BLACK ANGEL 6

During the editing, Christian slowed and elongated the action scenes with a technique called step-printing. He has said that he did the process in his film because he didn’t have enough footage shot to fill the 25-minute runtime, and Alan Strachan, the film’s editor, recommended step-printing the scene three times, which slowed the film down considerably. The process requires shooting strategic scenes at a slower film speed so action is sped up, then frames are printed at a slower speed onto the finished film. The action becomes very fluid, the images blurring together for a look that Christian loved. George Lucas then used it for a lightsaber battle in his film Empire.

BLACK ANGEL 1

Filmmaker Steven Spielberg called Black Angel “one of the most enigmatic films I’ve ever seen.” Even though Black Angel had not been seen widely since its initial release with Empire, it is said to have influenced several mythic Arthurian feature films that followed it to the big screen, including John Boorman’s Excalibur (Christian claims that Boorman showed his film to his entire Excalibur crew), Dragonslayer and Ridley Scott’s Legend.

BLACK ANGEL 10

Christian continued to direct, and his filmography is quite varied. His second film, The Dollar Bottom, was nominated for an Academy Award for best Live Action Short and it was also nominated for a BAFTA Film Award for Best Short Film. He made his feature-length film debut in 1982 with The Sender, which Quentin Tarantino has said was his favorite horror film that year (apparently Tarantino re-cut the film and rented-out his version when he worked as a video-store clerk).

Speaking of Tarantino, he was the first choice of producer/actor John Travolta and his manager Jonathan Kane to direct Battlefield Earth, the dystopian sci-fi action film based on the first part of L. Ron Hubbard’s 1982 novel of the same name. When Tarantino declined, Roger Christian was approached, on the advice of George Lucas (praising Christian’s recent work as the second-unit director on his 1999 film Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace). The film did not do well at the box office, unfortunately, but Christian has managed to continue to find directing work. His last film was 2014’s Prisoners Of The Sun.

UPDATE: On June 2nd, Roger Christian announced that he was seeking $100,000 to expand Black Angel into a feature-length film, and we’re happy to announce that they’ve met their goals, and still have some time before their crowdfunding term ends:

BLACK ANGEL 2

About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.