“Black Angel” and the DNA of Modern Fantasy
Along about 1980, old-fashioned sword-and-sorcery turned into newfangled fantasy. The masters of the old way, like Ingmar Bergman in The Seventh Seal (1957) and Ray Harryhausen with his stop-motion matinees The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958) and Jason and the Argonauts (1963), usually focused on the noble individual. They summoned supernatural villains and threw them at superhuman heroes to draw out the latter’s extraordinary strength, intellect, and character.
The new wave of fantasy from the 1980s onward retained the good-vs-evil dichotomy of the genre, but individuals got smaller as the fantasy worlds themselves grew in four dimensions. Dramatic landscapes sprawled out for leagues in every direction, while histories of kingdoms stretched back into the dark mists of time, forgotten by our heroes but in some mysterious way determinative of their fates.
Jim Henson put story on the back burner, writing it almost as an afterthought once he had developed an all-puppet world for Dark Crystal (1982). John Boorman tried to capture the spirit of Arthur’s England, a surreal and haunted place, for 1981’s Excalibur. Conan the Barbarian (1982) was a throwback, with Arnold Schwarzenegger’s title character dominating a spare environment and vanquishing bizarre enemies, but two decades later it was clear which approach to fantasy had won out: Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, like Tolkien’s novels, made Middle Earth a character equal to or greater than the plain Hobbits, fading Elves, restrained wizards, and corruptible humans who populated it.
At the turn of the tide stood Black Angel, a 25-minute fantasy film by art and set designer Roger Christian. Having cut his teeth on Monty Python’s Life of Brian (1979), Alien (1979), and Star Wars (1977), Christian wrote Black Angel because George Lucas wanted a short film to run in front of The Empire Strikes Back for its 1980 international release. Like Lucas, Christian was suffused in the work of Russian and Japanese directors: he was drawn to the vast psychological explorations of Andrei Tarkovsky and the impassive landscapes of Akira Kurosawa. But Christian’s milieu was Western, specifically the fables and lochs and mossy stones of his native United Kingdom.
The hero of Black Angel is the blond-headed, gray-bearded Sir Maddox (Tony Vogel). Like The Seventh Seal’s Sir Block (Max von Sydow), Maddox is returning home from war. His plain uprightness is revealed in his determination to reach his family home against the warning of a fearful friend, and his compunction to comfort the plague-afflicted children who now inhabit the lifeless ruins of Maddox’s former life. Afterward, Maddox unhesitatingly determines to help a young damsel apparently in distress. Her tormenter, and his, is the gaunt, cobwebbed Black Angel, stunningly inhuman despite Christian’s purposeful rejection of CGI.
But it is not Maddox or the maiden or even the Black Angel, striking as he is, who arrest our attention. They are familiar and simple types, and the outcome of their little drama is to be accepted on its face the way Maddox meets it. Christian’s background in visual design, though, ensured that Black Angel would be new in its expression. The stars of his short are the vistas, light, colors, and the natural and manmade wonders of Scotland. A forested slope captured through a zoom lens, crepuscular rays that puncture clouds and trees, lonely castles afloat on lonely lochs – these prove that fantasy is a living, physical thing, not merely a moralizing message from the past. In Black Angel fantasy is no longer a kind of story: it is a destination, a place you can visit, a place to which you escape. The people, good and evil alike, are incidental.
Boorman studied Black Angel closely while making Excalibur. Trevor Jones, who gave Christian’s movie a modernist score that speaks to viewers’ emotions rather than the characters’, went on to score Excalibur, Dark Crystal, and Time Bandits by Christian’s Python colleague Terry Gilliam. Lucas, Christian says, borrowed Black Angel’s slow-motion fight aesthetics for Return of the Jedi. Fantasy changed; not entirely, and not only because of one 25-minute short, but in a real and lasting way, with Black Angel part of its new DNA.
Ironically, Black Angel itself became a lost film. It turned up in a Universal Studios archive in 2011, then went on the festival circuit and finally hit YouTube in May 2015 with an introduction from Christian teasing a new feature-length version.
But Black Angel is special because it linked old and new fantasy at a transitional moment for the genre. A full-length remake that adds nothing new will be redundant. What interests Christian today, decades after Tarkovsky and Kurosawa entered the Western canon and a dozen years after environmental fantasy reached its apex with Return of the King’s record-setting Oscar sweep? Can Christian’s new Black Angel be new again? If not, is it really Black Angel?
Black Angel on Flickchart
- 7 users have ranked it as of the date of this post
- Ranked #25298 globally
- Wins 51% of matchups