Back in 1980, when The Empire Strikes Back opened in theaters around the world, a 25-minute short film from Lucasfilm accompanied it. The short was called Black Angel, and it was only screened in a few International markets such as Australia and parts of Europe (specifically the U.K. and Scandinavia). It never got a chance to be screened with The Empire Strikes Back in the States, but now a lucky few will get a chance to watch this short film that was previously thought lost.
Black Angel was the directorial debut of Roger Christian, the Academy Award-winning set designer for the original Star Wars. George Lucas gave Christian the opportunity to make a short film to accompany The Empire Strikes Back as a thank you for standing by his side during the production of Star Wars. Christian would go on to direct Battlefield Earth: A Saga of the Year 3000 and Underworld, but not before reuniting with George Lucas for The Phantom Menace in 1997. Christian told arstechnica:
When I made it, George Lucas was wonderful. In a way it was a thank you to me because I stood by his side on the first Star Wars. They hated or disliked the film that went out with the first Star Wars, George felt it wasn’t connecting with the audience. It wasn’t right. He’d been searching for a short film to make with [Empire] and it was just sheer chance.
The story of Black Angel follows a knight returning from the Holy Wars. He encounters an evil knight after trying to surface from a river. Christian combined elements of Akira Kurosowa and William Golding for the short, which is to be considered the Luxo Jr. (Pixar) of Lucasfilm. Black Angel would go on to influence films such as Excalibur, Dragonslayer, and Ridley Scott’s Legend.
While the short film originally screened in 1980, it was never released on VHS or DVD. During its travels around the world, film companies lost prints of the actual film and it was thought lost entirely. The negative of Black Angel was archived at Lucasfilm, but it was also lost when ILM spin-off company Boss Films closed in 1991. Twentieth Century Fox also had prints of Black Angel, but couldn’t find them when Rank, their film storage facility in London, closed.
Roger Christian had a few elements of the film, but not the negative or a completed version of the short. But when an article in Wired about lost pop culture hit the Internet in 2011, a magical email from Universal Studio managed to make its way into Christian’s inbox.
… out of the absolute blue, I got an e-mail from the archivist at Universal in Los Angeles. He said, ‘we found this tin called Black Angel, which is a negative and elements. I’m wondering, I’ve been tracking this down and it seems to point to you. Do you think it’s yours?
So how did a film print from Twentieth Century Fox get lost in London and make its way intto a competitor’s film archive? Apparently, when Rank closed down, all of its film archives were sent to Universal. The studio’s archivist had to track down the owners of each and every film they came into possession. Luckily, Roger Christian was at the top of the list.
In early 2013, the short film received a digital restoration process and will make its re-debut at the local Mill Valley Film Festival in Marin County next month. Coincidentally, Marin County is also the home of George Lucas’s Skywalker Ranch. This will be the first time that Black Angel has screened for an audience since 1980.
At the moment, there are no plans to release Black Angel as a Blu-ray/DVD or on the Internet, but if you’re in Marin County between October 3 to 13, then check out Roger Christian’s short film at the Mill Valley Film Festival.