Friday, 7 October 2016

Who was the storm-trooper who bumped his head in Star Wars?

A stormtrooper bumps is head in Star Wars' most famous blooper

At least two actors thought they might have been the stormtrooper who bumps his head in Star Wars' most famous blooper. Episode Nothing considers each one’s case – and reflects on what the interest in this gaffe tells us about the film.

Michael Leader in EastEnders

When the British actor Michael Leader died recently, there were two credits that earned him a mention in the news.

The first: he had been in the British TV soap EastEnders, in the tiny recurring role of the milkman, for an amazing thirty-one years. (He started when the soap began in 1985 and delivered his first line sixteen years later.)

The second: He was believed to have played the stormtrooper who hit his head on a doorway in Star Wars.

I say "believed" to have been, because that’s the phrase some websites were careful to use. Most just ran with the story as a fact.

In fact, at least one other actor has said he might have been the concussed stormtrooper. But the fact that there would competing claims to be the extra who goofed slightly in a forty-year-old film tells us something about how Star Wars fandom has grown over those decades.

That clumsy Stormtrooper goof: Who first spotted it and how did it grow in importance?

In sequence: that stormtrooper head-bumping

On first viewing, hardly anyone would have spotted it. But these days, it would surely be hard to find a Star Wars fan who was not aware of the blunder.

Luke, Han, Leia and Chewie look set to be crushed in the Death Star’s garbage masher. Their only hope is that the C-3PO and R2-D2 may be able to do something. Back in the control room where the droids were left, a group of stormtroopers open the door and enter. As the door slides up into the ceiling and as the troopers walk in, the third one through the entrance bumps his head on the bottom of the door.

Why was the blooper left in the completed film? We know that George Lucas, Gary Kurtz and their crew were under huge pressure. It’s possible no one noticed at the time – or it’s possible that no one thought the audience would notice.

We’ll never know long it took for a viewer to spot the goof. In those pre-internet days, it was hard to share a discovery like that with fellow Star Wars fans. The first time I remember seeing it was on British television in the early 1980s, on a Saturday afternoon entertainment called The Late Late Breakfast Show, hosted by Noel Edmonds.

The way I remember it, Edmonds teased us with the promise that a viewer had discovered a blooper in Star Wars. Then he introduced a boy who had watched the film countless times on VHS, and who pointed out that head-bumping moment. But it’s impossible to know how whether the much-ballyhooed “discovery” was already old news to a lot of fans.

What is clear is that by the time George Lucas was preparing the Special Editions of his original trilogy in 1997, the gaffe was well known 
 because sound designer Ben Burtt chose to make the moment a deliberately comic one by adding in a clonking sound effect as helmet hits metal, as you can see in the video above.

Michael Leader and Laurie Goode: two clumsy Stormtroopers

When Michael Leader died in August this year, the internet was full of headlines like “The ‘Clumsy Stormtrooper’ From Star Wars Has Died”.

Some reports allowed for the possibility of doubt that Leader was not the one involved in that famous moment, but most didn’t. When anyone checks out the subject, they will run up against many pages of search results boldly declaring that it was him and no one else. Which might be frustrating for Laurie Goode, the other man who might have been the clumsy trooper.

Michael Leader’s own recollections are in the above YouTube video, in which he says:

“Many years ago I was a stormtrooper on Star Wars and made my name because I was the one who banged his head and [it] was voted the biggest movie blunder ever. But what I remember was I loved working on the film. The only trouble was that when we had the breaks we had to stand up…”

There isn’t any more detail about the goof in that interview, sadly. Viewers will also notice that Leader’s memory lets him down a bit. He refers to George Lucas and Steven Spielberg being very friendly on the set of Star Wars, when presumably he means Lucas and Gary Kurtz – but the fact that he makes a mistake with names doesn’t necessarily mean the rest of his memory is faulty.

Star Wars one of the great, great films of our time, but we didn’t think it. We just thought it was another film when we were there,” he says, expressing a pretty common view among the cast and crew.

Laurie Goode, who played three roles in Star Wars

Laurie Goode’s claim to be the stormtrooper in question is summarised in this article on the very useful site Star Wars InterviewsGoode, who appeared in the film three times, has some colourful memories of having to contend with diarrhoea while in his Stormtrooper suit. He goes on:

“I was called back to the set, placed in shot, and directed to march down one of the space ships passageways, to the left of others, towards the camera. As I was still feeling somewhat queasy, my concentration wasn’t at it’s best, and as I emerged from the tunnel, my helmet hit a section of the gantry. We all then, as directed, came to a halt. I waited for someone to shout cut, but no one did, so I assumed I was out of frame.

“Now the question is was I the stormtrooper who banged his head in shot? Well, I’ve been telling this story for years, but over recent times, I’ve been informed by various Star Wars enthusiasts that some others have claimed the incident happened to them in exactly the same way. It feels like my own story of events has boomeranged back to me.

“Still, I’m not going say it was definitely me, and I can’t see how others can undeniably claim it was them. The helmets were difficult to see out of, and people were bumping around all over the place. It would have been indisputable had George Lucas, or his assistant, giving the guilty party a rollicking, as the person would have then been identified. So, whoever was the stormtrooper who bumped his helmet, and didn’t have an angry finger wagged at him, God only knows.”

In this interview, Goode makes it clear that he thought he spotted himself int he finished film. Repeating the above story about the shooting, he goes on: "I couldn’t concentrate, I was shuffling along and I hit my head. No one said 'Cut', so I’m thinking to myself I’m not in shot and when it came out, I thought, 'That’s me!'"

What the ‘clumsy stormtrooper’ episode tells us about Star Wars fandom

That head bump in close-up

As Goode himself notes, it’s probably impossible to tell which of these actors hit his head on that door. That, in itself, is a useful reminder for anyone researching the history of Star Wars. Forty years have passed. People’s memories are not always clear about a film that occupied a few days or weeks of their time, and which they did not expect to be discussing for decades. There’s no reason to think that either actor told anything but the truth as they recalled it. 

But the whole episode reminds us just how thoroughly the film has been analysed. The character involved even gets his own Wookipedia page, as “Unidentified head-bumping Stormtrooper”, complete with a biography, as much as anyone could ascertain one.

No other film in the rich and crazy history of cinema has attracted so much analysis. There is surely no other movie where a second or two of footage has been so keenly talked about that actors could compete to take the credit for a mistake, each of them claiming: “I was that trooper.”