Anyone who has been reading this blog for a year or two will know that I like to bang on about Excaliburfrom time to time, John Boorman’s 1981 King Arthur movie having been a bit of a seminal moment for me. The first time I saw it – 5th July 1981, a day to mark with a white stone – I remember that it reminded me of a strange little movie called Black Angel, which had played as a supporting feature with The Empire Strikes Back the previous year. But Black Angel was long gone by then, and never released on video or shown on TV, so I was never able to compare and contrast the two.
A few years ago I came across a reference to this lost movie on the internet, and wrote a piece about my memories of it. It turned out to be the work of Roger Christian, better known as art director on Star Wars and Alien, who sent me a very nice e-mail after I posted my piece, in which he mentioned that he was hoping to get it restored and re-released somehow.
Well, thirty four years later, I have finally been able to watch it again. It’s a fascinating little fragment of cinema history, whose influence can be traced through ’80s fantasy films like Excalibur and Dragonslayer all the way to Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movies and HBO’s Games of Thrones.
The story is a fractured, elusive affair. A knight (Tony Vogel) returns to his homeland to find it ravaged by war and sickness. Falling into a river, he almost drowns, but his life is saved by a mysterious girl. She claims to be bound as a servant tothe Black Angel – who, when he finally appears, turns out to be a sort of personification of Death, all black armour and fraying cobwebs. The knight does battle with him…
I remember being entranced by it as a teenager (it was the first time I’d seen on screen the sort of imagery I loved in the work of artists like Brian Froud and Alan Lee), but the story never quite came into focus enough to be satisfying. I feel rather the same way about it now. It feels like a haunting fragment.
It’s really a mood piece, like many short films. The budget looks miniscule, but the photography, by Roger Pratt, is remarkably beautiful. It unfolds like a series of paintings. There are lingering shots of wintry upland landscapes, through which the knight rides on his white horse. There is a great sense of the physicality of the landscape, the mud and wind (Christian claims Kurosawa as an influence; I wonder if there’s also an echo of Terry Gilliam’s mediaeval landscapes from Jabberwocky and Monty Python and the Holy Grail?). But it’s a world of magic too; the scenes shift in a dreamlike way – the knight falls into a river, but emerges from a broad lake; figures appear and disappear; smoke drifts through the forests.
To an Excalibur fan it’s all eerily familiar, because it’s made from the exact same elements as the ‘quest for the grail’ sequences in the later movie. In interviews, Roger Christian has mentioned that John Boorman loved his film and said it had the look that he was after for Excalibur, but the parallels go beyond the visuals. The increasingly hallucinatory nature of the knight’s quest seems like a direct forerunner of Sir Perceval’s adventures in Excalibur. The music is by the same composer, Trevor Jones, and features some of the same elements – ethereal singing, odd twanging electronic sounds, and a descending synthesiser scale which is repeated almost exactly on the Excalibur soundtrack. There is some underwater footage where the floundering knight errant tears at his armour as he sinks. Even the sparse, looped-sounding dialogue is similar (‘Follow me!’ cackles the raggedy old man whom the knight meets at the waterfall, vanishing into the trees, just like the child Mordred in Excalibur.)
For me, watching Black Angel again felt like tracing something back to its source. It’s always worth remembering that works of art don’t exist in isolation; everyone has their influences; creators see stuff they like in other people’s work and import something of it into their own. As Picasso is supposed to have said, ‘good artists borrow, great artists steal’. And one of the pleasures of getting to know a work of art is working out its ancestry, and tracking all the tributaries which fed into it.
In the interview I linked to above, Roger Christian mentions vague plans of returning to the world of Black Angel and expanding it into a longer film. I have no idea where those plans stand, or whether the tenebrous atmosphere of the original could survive the process, but it would be great to see him do something of the same sort again.
I bought Black Angel on i-tunes for £1.49. It may be available in other places too – I’m still a bit vague about how you buy movies online).