By Murray Dahm
It is not often when writing on films about medieval history that we get to discuss films from the Star Wars franchise. With the release of Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker in cinemas this December, however, now is a good time.
Star Wars world has several connections to some very medieval ideas: (Jedi) knights and their swords, their code of conduct, Arthurian myth with the special boy who is unaware of his ancestry (although Luke is never given the royal title, Prince Luke, unlike his sister), the Merlin-like Obi-Wan Kenobi and then Yoda (even Qui-Gon Jinn), heroic quests, kingdoms which need saving from evil, nigh on undefeatable foes, the list goes on (and on).
Outside of Arthurian myth, there are obvious medieval connections too – some stemming from the Akira Kuosawa film The Hidden Fortress (1958), itself a medieval film and an acknowledged influence on Star Wars. The biggest influence was in the telling of the story through two minor characters (Tahei and Matashichi) who became C-3PO and R2-D2 . Angela Jane Weisl in The Persistence of Medievalism commented that Star Wars and Arthurian myth parted ways in the Luke/Leia/Han triangle which only partly paralleled the Arthur/Guinevere/Lancelot story; by having Luke and Leia as siblings, their story did not have the same arc (or tragic results) of the Arthurian tale.
And yet, looking at the more recent Star Wars episodes, especially Star Wars: The Last Jedi (or, if you are so inclined, Episode VIII, (2017)), these make the medieval (and Arthurian) connections even stronger. One can even see shades of the Grail quest in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016). In The Last Jedi, Luke must fight, not his own son, as Arthur was forced to fight Mordred, but his nephew, the corrupted Kylo Ren. We learn that Luke had failed in his teaching of Kylo Ren and the latter destroyed Luke’s Jedi training academy (Camelot?).
Luke subsequently went into self-imposed exile on the planet of Ahch-To (this can be seen as an analogy for Avalon, where Arthur went when mortally wounded to return when he is needed most). When Luke is needed most, by the desperate remnants of the Resistance, he does indeed return, projecting himself (using the force) for a final battle with Kylo Ren and giving the Resistance the chance to flee. Luke is destroyed in the battle (although he achieves a kind of victory and immortality of a sort). It is also worth pointing out that he is fighting his sister’s son. The relationship of an uncle and his sister’s son was an important one in medieval history (Old English even had a specific word for it: sweorstorsunu) and there’s even such a relationship in one version of the Arthurian myth.
In the recent batch of Star Wars, Arthurian myth has been subverted in the female character of Rey but she too has Arthurian resonances – if you think about drawing swords out of stones and her summoning light sabres to her using the force, you’ll see my point. We might also see echoes of the Lancelot Guinevere story arc (or Tristan and Iseult) in the tensions between her and Kylo Ren. She also has echoes of Robin Hood. Both Arthurian myth and Robin Hood themselves have been reframed with gender reversals.
But we aren’t going to talk about any of that. Instead we’re going to look at a remarkable film actually about medieval history which was commissioned in 1979 to be screened before The Empire Strikes Back (1980) in the UK, Scandinavia and Australia: the 25-minute short film Black Angel, directed by Roger Christian. The fact it was a medieval film should have reinforced the medievalism of the The Empire Strikes Back especially, and the Star Wars saga as a whole, but the film was subsequently lost and, since it had a limited exposure, did not play its part in medieval-ising the Star Wars saga.
Christian had already worked as the set decorator on Star Wars (1977), and as art decorator on Alien (1979) and Life of Brian (1979) but secured a £25,000 grant to complete Black Angel. Christian altered his original story to make the film within budget (he had nine crew members, four actors and two horses). The film was shot in some spectacular locations in Scotland. It was then shown at the start of The Empire Strikes Back in 400 cinemas in the UK as well as those in Australia and Scandinavia which showed the Lucas film but only on its original release. Then it was never seen again – it was not copied for release in any format. The film was considered lost and its negative destroyed when Rank Laboratories were sold off. In 2011, however, a 35mm negative was found at Universal Studios and the film was shown in 2013 on Netfilx. It was then uploaded to Youtube in May 2015 with a brief introduction by director Christian.
The film was incredibly influential. John Boorman made sure his entire crew (then filming Excalibur) had seen it and the influence of Christian’s short film on Boorman’s 1981 film is very clear. Christian also claimed that George Lucas liked the way Christian had shot his combat scenes so much (Christian step-printed the scenes to slow them down) that Lucas shot one of his combat sequences in The Empire Strikes Back in the same manner.
The story of the film concerns a knight, Sir Maddox, returned from the Crusades to find his family dead and, as he rides to find the raiders responsible, he slips and falls into a river. While he is drowning, he hears a voice and learns of a maiden in need of rescue from a black knight. Despite its twenty-five minute length, the film manages to convey a cinematic sense of taking its time. The use of a variety of Scottish scenery is breathtaking and the mists and fogs highly evocative (it’s almost as if the weather did some of the job for the director). The use of ruins is justified by having the family defeated while the knights were away at war and the coming of a great sickness. Perhaps the ruins are a little too-ruined with no, rooves, hangings or limewashing but it is evocative of a sense of loss.
After falling in a river, the knight emerges from a lake (perhaps an indication that he has already drowned). He follows the vision of a maiden who is ‘bound to the Black Angel,’ and then follows an old man (perhaps a sorcerer). Sir Maddox fights the Black Angel (who consists of cobwebs and smoke) and eventually offers his life in place of the maiden before we cut back to his body falling deeper into the river. It is a remarkable short film and one that makes me wish I had seen it as a boy before The Empire Strikes Back in New Zealand in 1980.
So, as you watch the latest (and last?) Star Wars film this December, keep the medieval parallels in mind; they will only enhance your enjoyment of this modern franchise. Black Angel also stands as the earliest film in what has become an internet phenomenon of making and posting medieval films. There are at least twenty-two medieval films which have been posted on Youtube and other internet platforms in the last few years (most since 2011). More than half of these concern Vikings. They range in length from a few minutes to almost an hour and show that internet platforms are now a legitimate vehicle for medieval cinema. Several of these films are very well made and provide thought provoking examinations of the medieval world.