Black Angel (Roger Christian, 1980)

The Criterion Collection, a continuing series of important classic and contemporary films presents Black Angel.

criterion logoOriginally commissioned by George Lucas to accompany The Empire Strikes Back and believed lost until rediscovered in 2011, Roger Christian’s mythological short film follows an honorable knight who returns from far away wars to find his family dead, his land destroyed, and a terrible sickness plaguing his people.  He is saved from drowning by a young maiden bound to the Black Angel, a fearsome and deathly warrior, and the knight vows to free the maiden from her captor.  Shot amid the stunning landscapes of Scotland and featuring an early score by Trevor Jones and electronic sound effects by Paddy Kingsland, Black Angel is a highly influential work of fantasy filmmaking and a long-sought-after mini-masterpiece.

Disc Features:

  • New, restored 4K digital transfer, supervised by filmmaker Roger Christian and Bay Area Visual Effects Society members Brice Parker and David Tanaka, with 2.0 surround DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack on the Blu-ray
  • The Tale of Sir Maddox, a new interview with Christian on the origin, loss, and recovery of Black Angel.
  • New interviews with George Lucas, Terry Gilliam, cinematographer Roger Pratt, and producer Sandy Lieberson
  • Restoration demonstration with Parker and Tanaka
  • PLUS: A booklet featuring a new essay by film and medieval studies scholar Kevin Harty

Brit, Aussie, and Scandinavian moviegoers who saw The Empire Strikes Back (Irvin Kershner, 1980) during its original theatrical release have since struggled with the hazy memory of a short film that preceded the feature, a highly atmospheric and beautifully rendered, 25-minute tale of medieval chivalry.  That film was Roger Christian’s Black Angel (1980).  In the short, Sir Maddox (Tony Vogel) returns from the Crusades to discover his family lost, his castle in ruins, and his land ravaged by a terrible sickness.  Distraught and angered, the knight begins a mad search for those responsible but slips into a lake where his heavy armor drags him under.  Sir Maddox saves himself and resurfaces having heard the call of a young maiden who awaits him by the lakeside.  The maiden (Patricia Christian) tells the knight she “is bound to the Black Angel,” and Maddox vows to free her from her bondage.  An old man (John Young) leads him to the Black Angel, a terrifying, supernatural knight garbed in decaying armour.  The two battle over the fate of the maiden, but Maddox’s quest is ultimately revealed in its resolution as something more darkly personal and final.

Roger Christian has the notorious distinction of being the Academy Award-winning set designer of Star Wars (George Lucas, 1977) and the director of mega-flop Battlefield Earth (2000).  By 1979, he had finished working on Alien (Ridley Scott, 1979) and Life of Brian (Terry Jones, 1979) and had returned to film school with the aim of directing.  After discussing with Fox Studios head Sandy Lieberson his idea for a medieval fantasy that he had conceived while nearly dying in a Mexican hospital from paratyphoid (and inspired by a poster of Scotland on the hospital’s wall), the script was forwarded to George Lucas who immediately commissioned it as a short film to screen ahead of The Empire Strikes Back.  Funded primarily by a British film grant of £25,000 (which was largely spent on the film’s horses), Christian took his small cast and crew into the western Highlands of Scotland for 7 days of shooting.  The results were spectacular, featuring unseen landscapes and the beautiful Eilean Donan castle.  Christian took his inspiration from the films of Akira Kurosawa, but Black Angel itself became a highly influential work on the sword and sorcery films that became popular throughout the 1980s.  John Boorman screened Black Angel with his crew on Excalibur (1981), instructing them to emulate the look and style of the short and obtaining Christian’s consent to explicitly crib off his underwater sequence, and Lucas was inspired to employ step-printing in Luke’s battle with Darth Vader on Dagobah after seeing Black Angel (a technique Christian employed as a means to draw out the battle scene between Sir Maddox and the Black Angel in order to meet the required 25-minute run-time).  The film emulates the same universal hero’s quest discussed by Joseph Campbell and portrayed in the Star Wars films by Lucas, despite Christian having no familiarity with the famed mythologist or The Hero with a Thousand Faces.

Black Angel was promptly lost by various film studios once the theatrical run of The Empire Strikes Back ended, leaving many film fans with only vague recollections of the short and even wondering if their memories were mistaken.  Christian was naturally crestfallen, as any copies he tracked down among colleagues were either incomplete or too damaged to restore.  More than 30 years after its initial release, Christian was contacted in 2011 by an archivist at Universal who had found an intact film negative in the studio’s library.  The film was returned to Christian who then had the good fortune of having Brice Parker of Athena Studios and David Tanaka of Pixar, both members of the Visual Effects Society and each having long relationships with ILM and Lucasfilm, offer to fully restore Black Angel to a 2K version and a 4K back-up.  Christian’s film has since made its way to a few film festivals, as well as to iTunes and Netflix, but no hard media edition has yet been announced.

Black Angel Mark RaatsWe’re big fans of when the Criterion Collection offers a stand-alone edition of a short film.  It’s a bold act that celebrates a film form otherwise left to play second fiddle to its domineering, feature-length sibling.  Black Angel seemingly has everything cinephiles would want – beautiful craftsmanship, big screen spectacle, an identifiable cinematic influence and legacy, a connection to a popular film franchise, the notoriety of being once thought of as lost – and thereby offers a bevy of opportunities for special features involving some big names in the film industry.  And with Christian apparently still holding the rights to the film, a deal with the Collection could be a reasonable possibility.  Mark Raats’s original poster art would make for a fantastic cover treatment, needing just some updated title text before it could hit shelves.

Credits:  Please note that the YouTube video provided above of the complete Black Angel with introduction by Roger Christian has been made available by the filmmaker free to the public for just the month of May.  Enjoy it while you can!  At the end of the month, the video will come down and Christian will make a further announcement on the future of Black Angel.  Interviews with the director talk about a feature-length concept and a graphic novel, but we’ll have to stay tuned to find out what’s exactly in store!

The story of Black Angel has been recounted in various articles and interviews, but a complete account by Christian through an extended interview seems an absolute necessity for any special edition of the film.  For those looking for more on the filmmaker and the film, we recommend Martin Anderson’s interview with Christian at Shadowlocked, Nathan Mattise’s article for Ars Technica, Christian’s interview for The Skinny, and his discussion for the 2014 Glasgow Film Festival.  Lucas, Gilliam, Pratt, and Lieberson were all present at Black Angel‘s first screening, so we’ve included interviews with them as well.  Criterion likes their restoration demonstrations and we suspect Parker and Tanaka would have some interesting comments given their very personal feelings about the film and all things Star Wars.  Kevin Harty is a professor at La Salle University specializing in medieval and Arthurian-themed films, making him an ideal essay contributor to this proposed edition.

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One thought on “Black Angel (Roger Christian, 1980)

  1. jameshaseltine May 14, 2015 / 8:43 pm

    Interesting read, I’ll have to take advantage of this before the end of the month

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