Dark forest, old dreams

A white horse. A white gowned maiden. Crashing waterfalls, forest murk, rain-soaked hills and a dark knight waiting in a silent glade.

I first saw director Roger Christian's Black Angel so many years ago I've never quite been sure which of those scattered memories might have been dreams.

It was a short film first shown as a prelude to The Empire Strikes Back in 1980, back in the days when it was customary to show a brief feature before the main picture. I saw it all those years ago as a young child, and though I had long forgotten its name and even the simple storyline, those fragments have stayed with me.

Extraordinary then, to have had the opportunity to see it again last night, 34 years on, at the Edinburgh Film House, a special showing including a Q&A with the director, best known perhaps for his award winning work as a set designer on Alien and Star Wars (Black Angel was funded by George Lucas in gratitude for Christian's work). The film is on a short tour of Scottish cinemas, the first time it has been shown since its initial release, the original negatives having been rediscovered only in 2011, long after they had been thought lost.

As a child I found it frightening, incomprehensible. And on second viewing, all these years later, I still didn't properly understand it, despite the narrative's profound simplicity. A knight, Sir Maddox, returns from the Crusades to find his castle destroyed, and his family gone. He sets out in search of the raiders, but shortly afterwards plunges into a lake. At the point of drowning he hears a woman's voice, which galvanises him with the mysterious strength necessary to cast off his heavy armour. Surfacing, he sees her standing at a distance from the shoreline. Learning that she is the prisoner of a nameless black knight he follows her upwards through the forested hills, eventually coming to a clearing where her captor stands waiting, an eyeless, cobwebbed 'Black Angel', who he fights to the death.

And that's it. As Roger Christian said during the Q&A, the film attempts to capture something of the elemental quality of Celtic myth. Like the dreamworlds of the Knights of the Round Table or Sir Gawain and the Green Knight it is ultimately concerned with the fate of the soul: Sir Maddox's quest is that of Everyman, the Black Angel the threshold between life and death, the maiden the promise of an eternity beyond. Perhaps.

Interpret it as you will, it's a beautiful film, the first, Christian was himself surprised to learn, to be shot on the island of Eilean Donan and the surrounding hills and woodlands. There are many beautiful widescreen shots taking full advantage of the mystical setting. The film's influence on later fantasy films such as Excalibur and Legend is clear.

So it's certainly one to see on a cinema screen if opportunity allows. But it will be possible, at least, to see it through distribution on NetFlix and iTunes a little later this year. And at the time of writing a short preview feature is available on YouTube.

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