It is hard to imagine, but Star Wars was seen as a minor release in 1977. Matthew Sweet looks at the genius of John Mollo whose costumes helped create a universe

In the summer of 1977, 20th Century Fox thought it had a hit on its hands. A project with a largely unknown cast, but with sufficient buzz to justify a lavish promotional campaign and one of those sneaky policies that studios sometimes force on exhibitors. Any theatre that wanted to screen the film was obliged to book another, more doubtful Fox movie, sight unseen. The title of the sure-fire success? The Other Side of Midnight – a melodrama extracted from a novel by Sidney Sheldon. The name of the other film that formed the less attractive half of this twofer? You've probably guessed it already. It's hard now to recapture that moment when Star Wars (1977) was not a world-spanning cultural phenomenon, but a cranky idea in which even its director's friends had little faith. When George Lucas projected an early cut of the film to a small invited audience at his home, Brian De Palma told him: "Nobody will get it. It's just a void with stars and some silly ships moving around."

It all seems a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. Until, that is, you open the sketchbooks of John Mollo, the costume designer of Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and see, on their pristine pages, familiar characters being summoned into being. Princess Leia Organa without her Danish pastry hair. Chewbacca the Wookie in a prototypical form, a hulking neckless bipedal coypu. Han Solo with fair hair and a slight, boyish physique. Luke Skywalker when he was called Luke Starkiller. (The name survived into the first days of filming.) Most fascinatingly of all, Mollo's sketches show the dark carapace of Darth Vader, coalescing on paper from a variety of sources – samurai armour, German militaria, the control panels of 1970s transistor radios.

John Mollo was six years old when he decided on a career in the movies. The film that bit him was Clive of India (1935), starring Ronald Colman and – not insignificant, this – a large cast representing the uniformed colonial forces of Britain and France. It was the beginning of a lifetime spent examining and reproducing epaulettes, helmets, the cut of military capes and greatcoats. This enthusiastic boy, however, had to wait until his thirties to see this passion registered on the big screen. In 1967, his brother Andrew – co-director of It Happened Here (1964), a low-budget dystopian drama set in a Nazi-occupied Britain – secured him his first film gig, as historical adviser on Tony Richardson's historical anti-epic The Charge of the Light Brigade (1968). Mollo's responsibility was to make 4,000 soldiers from the Turkish army pass plausibly as the forces of both sides in the Battle of Balaclava. He took pains far beyond the call of duty.

"He was absolutely in charge of delivering the costume operation on set," says his son, Tom Mollo, who, as a boy, watched Luke Skywalker get his hand sliced off at Elstree Studios, and joined the 400,000 extras in Delhi for the funeral sequence for Gandhi (1982) – still the most populous scene in film history. "He was good at crisis I © Courtesy of the John Mollo family © United Archives / Alamy Opposite Star Wars Episode IV - A New Hope: John Mollo's Personal Sketchbook Estimate: £100,000 - 150,000 ($130,000 - 195,000) Left John Mollo directing operations on set of The Charge of the Light Brigade Below George Lucas and the cast and crew of Star Wars on location XX Bonhams management, always stayed calm, never flounced around and was almost military in his approach."

Directors liked these qualities, and the work came steadily. Franklin J. Schaffner engaged him to procure uniforms for Nicholas and Alexandra (1971), on which Mollo's family history came in useful. (His father, Eugene, was a White Russian émigré who filled the childhood home with military paraphernalia.) Stanley Kubrick, for whom Mollo would produce stacks of sketches for his ill-fated biopic, Napoleon, brought him on location for Barry Lyndon (1975) to ensure that 250 extras were dressed correctly for the Seven Years War.

In early 1976, Mollo was offered his first credit as a movie costume designer. The proposal was made by George Lucas, a young American director 14 weeks away from shooting a science-fiction script he had written after discovering that the rights to Flash Gordon were tied up elsewhere. A series of dreamy and fantastical paintings by the concept artist Ralph McQuarrie laid out the images Lucas wanted for Star Wars. Mollo was charged to materialise them: to dress the story's farmers and aristocrats and stormtroopers like figures from a world that seemed real and palpable.

John Mollo had never seen a science-fiction film. When a friend asked him to describe his new job, he replied, "It's sort of a space western, and one of the heroes is a dustbin." He never quite learned how to pronounce some of the names in the script, saying 'Vader' as if it were a term from the lexicon of Soho Polari. There's an endearing naivety to some of the terminology he coined to distinguish between various categories of alien – "space girls... martians... plutonians". But the sketchbooks show that this ignorance was an advantage. Two pages are alive with the swirling figures of samurai warriors, sketched, a note suggests, from items in the Japanese collection at Chiddingstone Castle in Kent. (One wonders if his work was inspected by their owner, Denys Bower, a Buddhist convert who believed himself the reincarnation of Bonnie Prince Charlie, and had served six years for attempting to murder a girlfriend with an antique pistol.)

Turn the pages, and you can see how these images harvested from Chiddingstone feed clearly into Mollo's work to bring the Empire's principal villain to the screen. Sketches of Darth Vader's arms and thorax display suggestively Japanese stitching. One design gives the Sith Lord a pleated samurai-like skirt. And the marginalia demonstrate that, all the while, the clock is ticking and the modest money is running out. In his precise little hand, Mollo tallies the budget, constructs urgent todo lists and makes appointments to visit the costume stores at Angels and Bermans. (On one of these visits, he tested the principles of dressing Darth Vader by putting a volunteer in a motorcycle suit, an opera cloak, a Nazi steel helmet, a gas mask and a mediaeval breastplate.)

These notes would keep a film scholar busy for years. Near a sketch of Chewbacca, Mollo has added the aidememoire "Ring SK re: monkey suits." A delicious scene presents itself: did Mollo call his friend Stanley Kubrick to seek wisdom gathered while filming those hairy hominids on the set of 2001: A Space Odyssey?

When Mollo accepted his Oscar for Star Wars, his speech was typically understated. "As you've seen," he said, "the costumes in Star Wars are really not so much costumes as a bit of plumbing and general automobile engineering." In one sense that was literally true. When he was assembling the uniforms of the X-Wing starfighter pilots, he decided that they needed more oxygen apparatus attached to their jackets, and sent an assistant to a local bathroom fittings shop for armfuls of black plastic tubing.

But perhaps he was also referring to the solid materiality that characterises his work. Ridley Scott's Alien (1979) owes much of its power to the utterly convincing nature of its deep-space working environment. Thanks to Mollo, its space suits have an almost architectural weight. In Richard Attenborough's Chaplin (1992), Robert Downey Jr seems to be dressed in exactly the attire its subject wore in life. That's because Mollo studied photographs of Chaplin at work and at play, and reproduced what he saw. The cinema audience would probably never notice that the rebel forces in The Empire Strikes Back possessed a complex and coherent system of ranks and badges, but Mollo worked one out, because he believed that a science-fictional army deserved the same level of detail as a real one.

"My mother", recalls Tom Mollo, "always said that no matter how weird the characters were, they never looked like fancy dress. They always looked believable – and that was his hallmark." That hallmark is imprinted on every page of his sketchbooks, and every frame of the films he helped to make.

Matthew Sweet is a broadcaster and film and television critic, whose books include Shepperton Babylon: The Lost Worlds of British Cinema (2005).

Sale: Designing an Empire: The John Mollo Archive
Tuesday 11 December at 4pm
Enquiries: Katherine Schofield +44 (0) 20 7393 3871
[email protected]


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