Black Angel

Anyone who has been reading this blog for a year or two will know that I like to bang on about Excalibur from 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 to the 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).

There is a great interview with John Boorman here, in advance of his new film, Queen and Country.


Hansen said...

I'm afraid I haven't seen either Black Angel or Excalibur yet (the actor with beard in the pictures actually looks a bit like Peter Jackson), but I read how much Excalibur meant for you once. And I though; how in the world can he be that excited about such a dull movie?
I said I haven't seen Excalibur yet, but I rented a movie from 1985 on video years ago called Arthur the King, also starring Liam Neeson, and for some reason I just assumed it was the same movie you were talking about. Glad to see it wasn't so. Just hope I don't insult any who actually enjoyed Arthur the King.

I'm not one of those fanatics why screams every time I see a CGI effect, but it is something special about seeing those 80s movies, such as Krull (which I did see), without any of the modern virtual effects. Maybe it's just nostalgia speaking.

When I see the pictures from Black Angel, it almost looks like an old black and white silent movie someone has added colors to. Especially the one with the woman.

And coincidentally, a movie in this tradition is about to be released in Norway a couple of days from now (with Ewen Bremner from Trainspotting in a guest role):

Philip Reeve said...

Thanks Tim! I can't promise 'Excalibur' would work for a modern audience, though I don't think you'd find it dull - just a bit mad, perhaps. (A lot of people thought so when it came out.) One of its pleasures is the simplicity of its special effects, most of which use techniques that were around in the 1920s. 'Black Angel' is probably of interest mainly as a curio, I wouldn't urge you to rush off and buy it unless you're fantasy film history.

I do notice how old-fashioned the movies of my youth now look. The arrival of CGI marked a huge change; before that, special effects were difficult and expensive, and you kind can of sense the film-makers rationing them; even in a spectacular like Star Wars there aren't that many big set pieces. Whereas nowadays you get films which are almost entirely special effects . It must make the old stuff seem slow to modern eyes.

'Skumringslandet' definitely looks to be cut from the same cloth, though it may be too violent for me - one odd side effect of middle age is that my tolerance for cinematic gore has dropped to almost zero!

JiminyQuippet said...

Philip Reeve said...

Thanks Jiminy! I'm sorry, blogger comments can't seem to handle links. But I have noticed the crowd funding campaign for the new version of BA. I must say, it doesn't look at if it will have much in common with the original, but it will be interesting to see what happens.

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