Some of the most impressive practical effects in Star Wars involved its massive cast. 20th Century Fox may have doubted George Lucas’ ability to turn a retro space opera into a blockbuster, but the studio did give him the money to build elaborate sets and models, and to pay hundreds of costumed extras to fill those spaces. Part of what gave Star Wars its throwback epic feel included the legions of stormtroopers and rebel pilots, standing in formation in cavernous rooms—like something out of a David Lean or Cecil B. DeMille picture, except with spaceships in the background.
So for hardcore devotees of Star Wars arcana, it’s not enough to know what Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher went through in making the film. They’re curious about the guy who played Greedo, and the freaky-looking aliens at the Mos Eisley cantina, and all the people moving equipment about in the backgrounds of shots. What did they see during their few days on the set? Did they understand what they were making?
It’s the Star Wars fans who are likely to be most disappointed by the documentary Elstree 1976, which promises to be one kind of movie and very quickly reveals that it’s another. Here’s the pitch: Director Jon Spira tracks down and talks to 10 actors who worked on the film, including stormtroopers and extras and folks with just a few lines in a scene or two, and asks them to give their Rosencrantz & Guildenstern perspective on what may well be the most popular motion picture ever made. But here’s what Elstree 1976 actually turns out to be: roughly 20 minutes of the actors talking about their childhoods, followed by 20 minutes of conversation about making Star Wars, followed by an hour of “what comes next.”
Once viewers adjust to Spira’s overall game plan, though, his movie’s charms become more apparent. The best stretch of Elstree 1976 is still the too-short section where the interviewees describe walking onto the massive sets for the first time, and realizing they weren’t in the silly B-movie they thought they’d been hired for. After that, the doc develops a kind of poignant melancholy, reminiscent of Good Ol’ Freda (about The Beatles’ personal secretary) or Michael Apted’s Up series. Because these people were a part of something beloved, fans assume—and some of the actors themselves wish—that they’ve had remarkable lives and careers. Instead, the reality for many of Star Wars’ bit players has been far more mundane, although at least that one key credit has allowed them to make a little extra cash and enjoy some rosy nostalgia on the convention circuit.
Aside from the making-of material, Elstree 1976’s strongest pieces involve the conventions, where a hierarchy has developed even among Star Wars’ small-timers. Actors with speaking parts resent sharing space (and appearance fees) with extras. And everyone’s annoyed that the longest lines tend to be for the people whose performances were almost imperceptible under their rubber masks and tin helmets. Even David Prowse—the man under the dark suit and helmet, and by far Spira’s biggest get—has some gripes with the way he’s been treated on the circuit, though only because he says Lucasfilm has barred him from some of the bigger events for signing his autograph, “David Prowse is Darth Vader.”
Visually, Elstree 1976 is often striking, thanks to some haunting extreme close-ups of these actors’ Star Wars action figures, as well as what appears to be a deliberate attempt to match the grain in the old movie footage with the style of the new interviews. The film looks handsome throughout, and in a way that connects the subjects’ current lives with their most famous gig. It all adds to the idea that Star Wars was both the best and the worst thing to happen to its low-level supporting cast.
Still, it’s hard not to wish that Elstree 1976 was weighted more toward “What was it like to make Star Wars?” and less toward “What’s it like to be an aging out-of-work character actor?” Plus, given how much much some of these people dispute each other’s claims to being a part of the Star Wars legacy, it’s a shame that Spira didn’t put them in the same room to argue it all out. Perhaps those scenes will come in the sequel, where all the participants gather once again to talk about the experience of being in Elstree 1976.